Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Tories to deregulate health and safety?

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This week’s Risks newsletter, edited for the TUC by Rory O’Neill of Hazards magazine, contains an item on ‘Regulation in the post-bureaucratic age’, a recently published Tory policy document on the regulation of health and safety.

Essentially, what is being offered employers is a system of self-regulation under which ‘well run’ employers with certain checks in place, including the employment of professionally qualified experts in health and safety, could refuse to allow HSE inspectors on to their premises except in cases of emergency. External health and safety audits would also be arranged independently of government inspectors.

This forms part of a series of Tory initiatives on regulation – if not quite a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ then a ‘taming of the regulators’ – which has resonance for its likely approaches to other areas of regulation.

The problems with this particular initiative are legion. The document itself draws analogies with the system of controls and audits of corporate financial information which, as Risks correctly points out, brought us Enron and other financial scandals. These scandals taught us – or ought to have done – that information which is intended to be made public is not necessarily reliable and internal appointed experts are not always – whistle blowers apart – able to exercise the appropriate degree of independence which provides the reliable safeguards being sought. Hindsight is a powerful weapon of learning for other analogous circumstances – we ought to use it.

Secondly, where is the evidence that health and safety inspectors cause onerous burdens to business? We all know the triggers that health and safety provides readers of a certain newspaper but, in reality, the health and safety inspectorate is woefully under-resourced as it is (see facts and figures from the Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee in April 2008) and instances of HSE inspectors landing on premises to carry out spot checks are rare. Perhaps this really is policy making for – and by – newspaper readers…

Thirdly, we ought not – but clearly we do – need to be reminded that, even under the current regime, accidents happen at work. Nine people died in the devastating ICL Plastics gas explosion – commonly referred to as Stockline – in 2004, while 33 others were injured. The independent audit concluded that the explosion was an ‘avoidable disaster’ based on ‘serious weaknesses’ not only in the way the companies ran the plant but also, crucially, in the health and safety legislation. Not only did the company management ‘lack knowledge and understanding’ of the underground piping which was the cause of the explosion, the HSE itself was guilty of a ‘stiffly bureaucratic’ response (quotes from here). This provides no reason to seek further cuts in the bureaucracy: an unbending of the bureaucracy is likely to require rather more, not rather fewer, inspectors – yet this is surely likely to be the outcome of proposals such as these. Rightly, trade unions including Prospect, which represents HSE staff and with which Connect is recommending merger in a ballot of our membership now taking place, have strongly criticised them.

In the area of health and safety at work, ‘light touch’ regulation does not work – and workers should not need to pay with their lives for that lesson to be continually re-learned.


Written by Calvin

26/10/2009 at 12:48 pm

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