David Cameron: Reducing the burden and impact of health and safety
“Three weeks ago at the Young Lecture I said that the ultimate ambition of a future Conservative Government was to create the big society…
…a thick, intricate web of mutual obligation in which we fulfil our responsibilities to ourselves and each other.
I argued that achieving this vision requires government to empower individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives and exercise responsibility.
In almost every area, the Conservative Party aims to remove the obstacles that prevent people from making their own decisions.
That’s why we plan a radical redistribution of power, giving control over education, housing and policing to local people.
In the coming weeks, I will be discussing a vital part of this empowerment agenda.
After 12 years of a Government that has been obsessed by legislation and regulation as the answer to every problem…
…there is a growing sense that too many areas of our life are governed by petty rules, regulations and tick box bureaucracy that flies in the face of common sense, undermines discretion and prevents us from getting on with our lives.
We see it in our police force, with almost half an officers’ time taken up with paperwork, red tape and other duties away from patrolling the streets.
We see it in our prisons, which have to meet thirty-three different performance indicators.
We see it in our schools, which are sent nearly 4,000 pages of emailed guidance each year.
And just this weekend we saw it in our hospitals, where the inspection regime is more interested in meeting specific tick box targets than in patients and their health.
I am going to address these in turn setting out how a Conservative government would be different, behave differently and above all make a difference…
…by pulling down these walls of bureaucracy and at every opportunity bringing back common sense, discretion and personal responsibility.
Today, I want to start with one aspect of it.
It’s probably the most infuriating.
It certainly stifles judgement and discretion…
…is a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility…
…and is a big barrier to the creation of the big society.
I want to set out a future Conservative government’s approach to the great knot of rules, regulations, expectations and fears that I would call the over-the-top health and safety culture.
HISTORY OF HEALTH AND SAFETY LEGISLATION
I want to start by recognising that health and safety legislation in Britain has a long, and at times very noble, history.
Its roots lie in the social reforms of the nineteenth century, when successive Factory Acts helped protect the poor and vulnerable from exploitation at work.
And this continued in the twentieth century, when the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act replaced all existing rules, and applied wherever there was employment.
As well as covering workers, health and safety legislation also evolved over this time to protect people outside the workplace, from threats as diverse as air pollution, food poisoning, overcrowding at stadiums, nuclear fall out and road accidents.
We will never know exactly how many lives have been saved or illnesses have been prevented by these developments…
…but we do know that Britain has one of the lowest workplace fatality figures in the EU – and close to the lowest for non-fatal accidents.
THE HEALTH AND SAFETY CULTURE
But I think we’d all concede that something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade.
When children are made to wear goggles by their headteacher to play conkers…
…when trainee hairdressers are not allowed scissors in the classroom…
…when office workers are banned from moving a chair without expert supervision…
…when staff at a railway station don’t help a young mum carry her baby son’s buggy because they are not insured…
…when village fetes are cancelled because residents can’t face jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops…
…it is clear that what began as a noble intention to protect people from harm has mutated into a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country…
…covering the actions of millions of individuals as they go about their daily lives.
We’ve got to ask: how has this been allowed to happen?
How has this over-the-top health and safety culture become embedded in our national way of life?
CAUSES OF CULTURE
There are many factors that feed into and compound each other.
There is the volume of bureaucratic rules that have been imported from Brussels and which we seem to gold plate.
And of course there is this Labour Government that has passed law after law, rule after rule, in an endless attempt to micromanage and control people’s lives.
The Health and Safety Executive enforces 202 statutory instruments – or regulations: two thirds of these were passed in the ninety-nine years before Labour came to power…
…a third of them in the twelve years since.
But the biggest cause of this excessive health and safety culture is the way these rules have been interpreted and used.
The term ‘compensation culture’ is a toxic in one in our country – and it is not entirely fair.
Personal injury claims have actually remained largely static since the turn of the century.
What is more the problem is the perception we have allowed to develop that in Britain today, behind every accident there is someone who is personally culpable…
…someone who must pay.
We see it in those adverts on television, which say that if you’ve suffered some fall or mishap you can take legal action without much cost.
We see it in the commercialising of lawyers’ incentives to generate litigation, through the system of enhanced success fees and referral fees which has led to a growth in ‘ambulance chasing’.
We see it in the rising premiums and concerns of the insurance industry.
And we see it in high-profile claims and pay-outs.
In one case, parents who put up a bouncy castle for a children’s party were successfully sued when a boy was injured after colliding with another child.
Eventually it was overturned by the Court of Appeal, but what message does this send parents about allowing their children to play with others?
This has all helped to create a legal hypersensitivity to risk, accident and injury.
And this has had a direct knock-on effect on the health and safety culture.
Each prominent claim and pay-out feeds into the public perception that the threat of litigation is never far away.
Businesses, organisations and individuals operate under the shadow of the worst case scenario.
The more vulnerable they feel, the more cautiously they act – and the more stringent their health and safety processes become.
The thicker the handbooks, the longer and more tedious the training days, the sillier the rules.
So it is not just the regulations from Brussels, or even the distrustful, interfering government that has created this culture, or the insurance industry, …
…it is that everyone’s so worried about being sued that they invent lots of their own rules on top of the regulations that already exist.
The impact of this national neurosis should not be underestimated.
This is not some superficial irritant that’s good for a few laughs or a good rant.
The risk averse culture has damaged our economy, our politics and our society.
Consider the economic cost.
It goes without saying that a rise in rules and regulations brings with it an associated cost – in enforcing those rules, in abiding by them and, when things go wrong, in compensating victims.
The Health and Safety Executive and local authorities together spend hundreds of millions of pounds a year on enforcement.
When it comes to abiding by these rules, a recent report suggested the UK has spent over £35 billion complying with EU employment, health and safety law.
And the Government itself has admitted that small businesses “waste millions” on insurers, consultants and lawyers because of confusion surrounding what they do and do not have to do.
Of course, when things do go wrong there is the threat of legal action.
And because of the potential costs of litigation, there are powerful incentives to settle even relatively undeserving cases out of court – encouraging others to come forward and bring claims.
The growth of the excessive health and safety culture has also had a significant impact on our politics, by eroding accountability in our democracy.
That’s because many of these decisions about new rules are taken by remote, unelected bodies, which feel little pressure to answer for their actions.
A tedious regulation is passed. An absurd decision is made. The minister passes the buck and points you to a quango. You are sent from pillar to post. No one takes responsibility. And, as a result, nothing actually changes.
I’m sure the rise of this over-the-top health and safety culture is one of the reasons why people feel so angry and frustrated with politics in our country today.
But perhaps the most damaging consequences of this excessive health and safety culture have occurred in our society.
What makes a society strong is a sense of responsibility – and a willingness to act on that sense.
But the health and safety culture actively undermines responsibility.
It treats adults like children, encouraging them to think that others have considered the risks for them, are taking responsibility for them, so they don’t have to think or take responsibility for themselves.
What’s more, the fear of transgressing all these rules causes people to stand aside when others need help.
This was most tragically illustrated in Wigan two years ago, when a ten year old drowned in a pond, having rescued his young sister, because officers were told not to intervene as they hadn’t undertaken their ‘water rescue’ health and safety training.
This assault on good sense is having a direct impact on our most important social institutions too.
Nine tenths of Scout Leaders think that the compensation culture is reducing the activities they can offer our children.
And the Central Council for Physical Recreation reports that the compensation culture is the single biggest problem stopping adults from getting involved as volunteers.
Together, the rules culture, and the fear of punishment for breaking these rules, form a massive barrier to the creation of the big society we need so badly.
I believe consideration of all this evidence can only lead us to one conclusion: for the good of our society, we need to sort out the nonsense of this over-the-top culture of health and safety and compensation.
But we’ve got to do it in a way that is responsible, and which recognises that there are circumstances when an individual has a right to protection and a right to due process when that protection has not been offered.
So it would be simplistic to say simply that a Conservative government would tear down health and safety laws and end this compensation madness.
Instead, what we need is a grown-up approach that identifies the causes of this culture and establishes appropriate solutions.
So let me make it clear: yes, the Conservatives will reduce the burden and impact of health and safety legislation in our country and bring some common sense back into compensation.
But we will do that responsibly, fairly and soberly.
In developing that approach, we will do two things.
First, establish clear and specific principles about when health and safety legislation is appropriate, and when it is not, so we can evaluate whether existing or future legislation is necessary.
Second, we will propose practical changes in the law to both help bring an end to the culture of excessive litigation while at the same time giving legal safeguards to those who need them most.
Let me take each in turn.
HEALTH AND SAFETY CHANGES
First, the principles we bring to health and safety.
Our starting presumption is this: there is no such thing as a risk-free environment and efforts to eliminate all risk will end by eliminating enterprise, creativity, achievement and innovation.
Next, we should presume that a properly-informed adult will act responsibly in his or her best interest.
But it would be wrong to think that we shouldn’t try to avoid some risks…
…and naïve to think that every person will always act responsibly.
That’s why there will always be times when it will be necessary to protect people from risks to their safety.
And I believe there are three particular scenarios where this is the case.
LACK OF INFORMATION
The first is when consumers have a lack of information, or are unable to understand technical information, about a product or a service they are purchasing.
In these circumstances, the public need assurance that the right checks have taken place to ensure their health and safety.
For example, it is simply not possible for parents to inspect their children’s toys for safety while they’re still in the box in the shop.
So it is right we demand toy manufacturers comply with certain standards.
ABUSE OF POWER
The second situation in which official action on health and safety is appropriate is where there is an imbalance of power.
This imbalance of power is found, most typically, in the relationship between an employer and employee.
Of course, trade unions remain a bulwark against most abuse happening.
But it remains the case that losing employment is a huge financial and emotional blow…
…so employees may feel pressured to do work they have not been properly trained for…
…or for which they do not have the correct equipment or supervision.
That’s why it is right to place reasonable rules on employers so they maintain a duty of care for those that work for them.
But it does not follow that employees can never be exposed to risk.
It would be impossible for firemen to tackle fires or the police to chase criminals without a degree of risk.
That’s why employers should be required to be clear about the attendant risks of the job – so when people sign up they know precisely what the work entails.
The third situation in which there is a case for health and safety oversight is when someone might have a clear motive – normally profit – to put someone else in danger.
That’s because keeping people safe is often more expensive than exposing them to risk.
In these circumstances, employees and wider society need assurance that their safety remains of paramount importance.
That’s why, for example, construction sites have strict rules about the protective equipment employees must wear.
And it’s also why those industries which deal with chemical substances must take proper steps to ensure no fallout damages local environments and communities.
IMPLICATIONS FOR HEALTH AND SAFETY LEGISLATION
So I believe the circumstances when some form of health and safety protection is necessary are: when there is a lack of information, when there is a potential abuse of power or when there is a profit motive that could lead to people cutting corners.
This of course could have clear implications for the health and safety regulations that exist today on the statute books.
Some should stay as they are.
Others, I believe, should stay in principle – but in practice we can lighten the burden of this regulation by drawing on the mechanisms of what I have described as the post-bureaucratic age.
By that I mean going with the grain of human nature rather than using the blunt tools of regulation.
For example, in 1998 Los Angeles County began publishing openly the results of restaurant food safety inspections.
This act of transparency led to a huge improvement in restaurant hygiene.
But because of the criteria we have set out, some regulations will go.
We have already said where this will start.
At the moment, staffing needs in the NHS are being undermined by European regulations that dictate the number of hours that junior doctors are allowed to work.
That’s why we want to negotiate the restoration of Britain’s control over EU social and employment legislation, in particular the aspects of the Working Time Directive which are causing the most problems in our public services.
And the heroism that has traditionally defined our police has been challenged by a culture that puts the safety of individual officers above that safety of the public…
…a tragic example of which is the shooting in Highmoor Cross, where two young sisters died in a house while the police did not send officers to the scene because it was ‘not safe’.
That’s why we have said we will amend the application of Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act to the police, to ensure that when they are at work…
….exercising their role as constables…
…the risk to the public is prioritised above the risk to individual officers.
And when we test the rest of health and safety legislation against these principles, I believe that many more may be removed.
But, of course, changing this health and safety culture means more than simply changing rules.
We need to bring some common sense in the way these rules are applied.
That’s why we need to combine our ambitions to reduce the burden of health and safety regulation in this country with something equally important…
…changing the legal framework so we tackle excessive litigation.
We should begin this process by recognising this: seeking compensation for injuries or harm is a civil and legal right.
Where an individual has suffered injuries through the deliberate actions of others, they should be able to recover damages – whatever their wealth or salary.
And because legal aid for compensation claims was severely restricted in 2000, I do not believe it would be right to automatically end ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements.
Such a decision would hurt those with lower incomes and could make the right to compensation a preserve of the better off, unless alternative funding mechanisms could be found to replace it.
Dominic Grieve and the Shadow Justice team are currently looking at this and other aspects of access to justice.
But other aspects of the legal framework around compensation must be re-examined too.
In 2006, Parliament enacted The Compensation Act.
This allows a court to have ‘regard’ in determining negligence, as to whether such a finding would “prevent a desirable activity being undertaken at all, to a particular extent or in a particular way.”
What this means is that in coming to a judgement on negligence, the court can take into account the nature of the activity involved, how socially beneficial it is, and what the consequences of their judgement could be on both the activity’s take-up and supervision.
This is a start.
But I believe we should consider whether further protection should be provided in cases involving adventure training and other outdoor activity by schools.
Those activities allow our children to develop character, show leadership and work as a team – and it’s a tragedy that they are being denied these possibilities because teachers and organisers fear the consequences if something goes wrong.
Quite apart from action on negligence, teachers can also be prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work Act for not taking all ‘reasonably practical’ steps to remove risks if an accident occurs.
This requires teachers to balance the level of risk against the sacrifice – whether in money, time or trouble – needed to avert that risk.
This may be appropriate in the workplace, but sits less easily with adventure training – where part of the purpose is to expose young people to some risk.
And I do believe the Health and Safety at Work Act should reflect this.
By providing them with greater assurance, I believe we can provide our children with greater opportunity.
And I also want the law to be quite clear that there is no obligation on activity organisers or public authorities to warn of an obvious risk.
It is time that we rid our country of those ludicrous warning notices stating the completely obvious.
The changes I have spoken about today…
…in how we evaluate what health and safety legislation should stay and what should go…
…and in the legal framework that applies it…
… are I believe the beginnings of a sensible plan to reverse the damaging culture compensation and excessive regulation that has grown in our country.
But I know it’s just a beginning.
There is still plenty more work to be done.
That’s why I have asked Lord Young to lead an extensive review on this subject for the Conservative Party.
He has a track record of deregulation and cutting bureaucracy.
He also has experience in the legal profession and will judge these issues with the care and attention they deserve.
And he will look at everything from the working of the Health and Safety Executive, to the nature of our health and safety laws, litigation and the insurance industry.
There are some specific questions I have asked David Young to investigate urgently.
PROTECTION FOR GOOD SAMARITANS
The first question is: how can we best protect what are effectively ‘Good Samaritans’?
In Australia, concern about the effect of increasing payouts for medical negligence led to a full review of civil liability.
Its final report concluded that when an individual is acting in good faith – as a Good Samaritan – and takes reasonable actions to help someone, then they should not be found negligent.
This, of course, is the direction we have already taken with our plans to stand by those who intervene in a crime.
We have said we will amend the police and Crown Prosecution Service Codes of Practice so that if a person acts in good faith to prevent a crime or detain a criminal, this would be a factor weighing against any decision to prosecute them.
I want to see if we can extend this sort of legal protection for all people acting in good faith – especially public service professionals.
SMALL, LOCAL AND VOLUNTARY GROUPS
Second, can we help alleviate some of health and safety oversight that currently burdens small, local and voluntary organisations?
To my mind, there is good reason for this.
If, for instance, four or five people come together to clean their local park, they do not as a group fall under health and safety law at all.
But they may do if the work benefits the local council running the park, as it then becomes their employer.
Yet, there is no lack of information because it is clear for all to see precisely what they are doing.
There is no power imbalance because there they have all entered into that endeavour voluntarily.
And there is no profit motive – on the contrary, their only motive is to do good.
So I have asked David Young to investigate what could be done to exempt them from regulatory burdens.
CIVIL LIABILITY ACT
Third, do we need a Civil Liability Act?
By that, I mean do we need to define civil liability for negligence in statute?
At the moment there is no one single Act of Parliament that ties all this work together, showing where the liability for negligence lies.
So I have asked David Young whether such an Act would be necessary and effective in reducing our excessive health and safety culture.
I know the over-the-top health and safety culture that has grown in our country in recent years provokes a lot of understandable anger.
But anger itself is not solution.
Instead we need a forensic examination of what has gone wrong and the steps we need to take to put it right.
We know what has gone wrong.
Excessive rules have given the impression that we have a right to a risk-free life…
…and that impression has been exacerbated by prominent claims and pay-outs.
The consequence has been spiralling costs and a slow death of discretion, judgement and social responsibility.
And what I have described today is the beginnings of putting it right.
For every piece of health and safety legislation, we need to ask whether it fulfils a useful purpose – and if not, it must go.
And we must bring some common sense to the laws surrounding compensation.
I want people to know that with the Conservatives, government will let you get on with your life without unnecessary rules and regulations.
I want everyone to know that with the Conservatives, if you do good, get involved and make a contribution, the system will back you.
And I want people to know that with the Conservatives, the legal system will be there protecting those who need it most.
That’s the change I believe people want – and that is the change we offer.”
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