Yesterday in Parliament – DWP continues to spin things their way

The Government has done a lot of talking about Health & Safety in the last few months since the Lofstedt report and their response to it were published.  David Cameron’s New Year resolution is apparently to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and in a speech earlier this month to small business leaders he referred to the “health and safety monster” and the “albatross around the neck of British business”.  It’s all juicy soundbite stuff but look beneath the rhetoric and spin and it’s perilously short on substance.

Yesterday afternoon in DWP questions in Parliament, the Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling was the latest spinner of numbers.

The question asked of the Minister by 3 different members was “What steps he has taken to reduce the level of health and safety regulation affecting business”.  Answering the question and subsequent follow-ups, the Minister constantly quoted the recent Löfstedt report to back up many of his answers.  However there were some slightly worrying, off key and misleading items in his answer, which once again tended towards the interpretation from the DWP’s response to Löfstedt rather than the actual recommendations from the good Professor.

As usual he concentrated on the number of regulations to be reduced “we aim to reduce the total number of health and safety regulations by 50% by 2014.”  However this was picked up in a follow-on question by an MP who actually sat on the Löfstedt panel and who then asked him this rather interesting question “Will the Minister confirm that the review actually recommends consolidating lots of statutory instruments? It would not remove health and safety regulations and, more importantly, it is not a short, quick fix, but a very long-term systematic study that is needed.”

The Minister rather side-stepped the question stating that the programme of scrapping unnecessary Regulations had already begun but agreeing that what is needed is a “streamlined and simple system that businesses can understand quickly, easily and cost effectively.”  The Regulations to be scrapped are part of a consultation process just started by HSE, which includes such gems as “Regulations for use of locomotives and waggons on lines and sidings in or used in connection with premises under the Factory and Workshop Act 1901 (1906)” which must be well past its use-by date judging by the spelling of “waggons”! However despite the fact that removing this and 6 other similarly useless bits of legislation will have little or no effect on today’s business this won’t prevent the Government from including it in their much-trumpeted 50% reduction figure!

Another MP then picked up the point that Löfstedt doesn’t actually say that H&S Regulation is unnecessary or excessive, a point that Professor Löfstedt himself was keen to make last week at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum, which also included speakers from IOSH and HSE,  when he said that he had not called for significant changes in legal policy and was “concerned” that his review could be mis-used for political purposes.  This MP asked a further tricky question for the Minister “Given that the Löfstedt report does not say that our health and safety legislation is either excessive or wrong, will the Minister also say that and stop peddling the myths on health and safety legislation—the Löfstedt report says that they are myths—that some of his colleagues keep peddling?”

The Minister neatly side-stepped the question (again) by saying that she had  “misunderstood the challenge” and then went on to accuse “local authority inspectors” and “middle managers” of being responsible for this “peddling of myths”.

Other Ministerial sound bites from the debate “The Löfstedt report, which we published in November, recommends significant changes to our regulatory regime”.  Really?  I thought Löfstedt said “in general, there is no case for radically altering current health and safety legislation”.

The Minister also mentioned the Government’s new “Challenge Panel”  which was established recently (and very quietly) despite the fact that Löfstedt didn’t recommend that either!

There were however some good points made on the “daft” interpretation of H&S law.  One MP described the development of “a culture of hesitancy, leading to paranoia”, which saw H&S used to justify “bizarre decision making” such as “council office light bulbs being replaced only by those who had completed the “how to use a six-foot ladder” course”.  The Minister agreed with this and encouraged people to challenge such “daft” decisions, going on to say “There is almost certainly no basis for them in health and safety law.”

In response to a question on cost compliance for business, the Minister returned to what has become one of the most quoted and frankly most misunderstood parts of Löfstedt’s recommendations by saying “One of the Löfstedt review’s key recommendations was that we should exclude altogether from health and safety rules self-employed people who do not endanger the lives of others in the course of their activities. We have accepted that recommendation and will introduce it shortly.”

What Löfstedt actually recommended was the exemption of “those self-employed whose work activities pose no potential risk of harm to others” and he further qualified this last week by saying that while (for example) novelists or computer programmers need not fill in assessment forms, the likes of construction and agriculture workers “should not and never will be” subject to more lenient health and safety rules.  I realise that what the Minister said is similar but the words he used make it sound as though this exemption will apply much more widely than it actually is intended to.  After all not many self-employed people will admit to “endangering the lives of others” will they?  This impression is not helped by David Cameron’s comment in his “health & safety monster” speech that “self-employed people would be exempt from whole areas of health and safety rules”, with no qualification given about low risk on this occasion!

All in all while this short Parliamentary question session made some good points, it also re-inforced the Government’s tiresome emphasis on actual numbers of regulations rather than the intent behind them and continued to cherry-pick the bits from the Löfstedt report – or the DWPs’ interpretation of it – that make for good soundbites.  Only time will tell if the common sense ideas set out in the original report will ever see the light of day, or if they will be buried beneath a sea of spin.

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