We all know that good headlines sell newspapers. They don’t necessarily need to be entirely factual, just attention grabbing. I dare say that everyone in the H&S profession is all too familiar with the usual Daily Mail spin on health and safety that makes us out to be responsible for everything from the Black Death to the demise of conkers in our schools; sort of a cross between the Grinch and Attila the Hun. However I would have expected better from a Government Department.
Yesterday the Lofstedt report was published, another in the series of Government sponsored reviews of H&S following the less than impressive Young Report published during the summer. We were hoping for better things this time as Professor Lofstedt (unlike Lord Young) actually has a background in Risk Management and thus knows what he is talking about.
In fact I think the report was well-written and in the main, positive for the profession. I’ll discuss this further in my next article. However today I want to talk about the “spin” from the Department of Work and Pensions that accompanied the report and how it has already distorted peoples’ impressions and fuelled unrealistic expectations.
Before the report was actually published, the DWP press release, which was picked up by the BBC among others, had two main talking points.
- There would be a major cut-back of “health and safety red tape” starting in January. 50% of Regulations would be removed over the next few years.
- There would be a new “Challenge Panel” formed on 1 January, which would “allow businesses to get the decisions of health and safety inspectors overturned immediately if they have got it wrong.”
This fits in nicely with what’s been said by the Minister Chris Grayling in the past. It uses the buzz words “red tape” and “challenge panel” and it all sounds like it will reduce the H&S burden that we keep being told is ruining small business in this country by – um, well 50% – right?
Wrong. The report doesn’t actually say either of these things. Let’s examine them in turn.
First the cutting of all that pesky red tape. Actually, Lofstedt recommends revoking just FIVE pieces of legislation and taking a look at the mis-use and over-complicated enforcement of 5 others. He does go on to recommend a programme of streamlining and simplification of legislation and in his speech to launch the report he suggested that “6 petroleum regulations could be reduced to 1 and the 40 mining regulations could be reduced to 1 or 2.” So we get rid of 38 sets of mining regulations and the impact of that on most small business will be what exactly? In the same speech, the Professor says that he expects the total number of regulations to be reduced by 35%.
So “50% of Regulations will be removed in the next 3 years” becomes
“35% of Regulations will be removed in the next 3 years, mostly in specific minority sectors that have no effect on the majority of businesses in this country”
Doesn’t have quite the same impact does it?
Now let’s look at the Challenge Panel. Oddly enough this isn’t to be found anywhere in the main six recommendations of the report. In fact I had some trouble finding it in the report at all until it was pointed out to me. Hidden away on page 92 the Professor is discussing the perpetuation of myths about H&S and while recommending ways of improving the understanding of risk in the wider community he says “I would like to go further by proposing that the Government looks at introducing a challenge mechanism that allows for cases of incorrect, over-application of health and safety legislation to be addressed.”
However in the recommendations at the bottom of this section he makes no mention of a “challenge panel” as trumpeted in the DWP press release. Instead he recommends The House of Lords be asked to set up a Select Committee on risk and that the Chief Scientific Advisor be asked to convene an expert group to study the matter further.
This is certainly confusing. Some light is shed by an article in the Safety & Health Practitioner who actually rang up the DWP Press Office and asked them where they’d got this “Challenge Panel” idea from. The DWP admitted it was their interpretation of the recommendation rather than actually what the report says. Worrying when they say it will be implemented from 1 January!
So “Challenge Panel to allow businesses to have inspectors’ decision over-turned” becomes“House of Lords Select Committee and Scientific expert group to study how we can inform the wider community about risk” or “DWP totally misinterprets what Professor Lofstedt said and makes a completely over-the-top recommendation to grab headlines” (depending on how cynical you are!)
So in summary while I am actually quite favourably impressed by content of the Lofstedt report, it’s already clear that the Government will as usually cherry pick the bits they like, ignore the bits they don’t like and go on spinning it until it fits their perception of health and safety as an obstruction to business not an enabler. Sad really but not all that surprising.