· 3 min read · Features

Health and safety issues continue to divide the political parties


In recent obituaries the former Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, was praised for his role in ensuring that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) made it on to the statute book. At the time it was considered to be a bold and far-reaching piece of legislation and has been followed over the past 36 years with many other rules and regulations relating to health and safety in the workplace.

There is no doubt that there has been a substantial reduction in work-related injury rates in this country since 1974.  For instance, between 1974 and 2009 the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 81%. Some of that reduction may be attributable to a shift in employment away from manufacturing and heavy industries to lower-risk service industries.  Of course, the current enforcement of health and safety legislation must also have played a part. 

However, there is an ongoing debate as to whether health and safety regulation has gone too far.  This is one of the issues, which is likely to be debated prior to the General Election, and may even feature on the live TV debates involving the main political parties.

So what are the views of our senior politicians? The Conservative Party has been the most vocal so far in relation to the issue.  Last year Kenneth Clarke MP, the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, set out the Conservatives' view of regulation in the post-bureaucratic age and introduced the concept of ‘One-In-One-Out' for all new laws. In essence, the suggestion is for a system of regulatory budgets where any new regulation must include cuts in old laws, which produce a net 5% reduction in the regulatory burden. Clarke also put forward a proposal to create a process for reviewing and, if necessary, modernising the 30 worst failures in regulations and red tape each year.  They would include the 10 ‘most hated' regulations nominated by the public. 

Clarke's theme was continued in David Cameron MP's comments on reducing the burden and impact of health and safety, which he delivered in December 2009.  He indicated that the Conservatives would bring what he called ‘common sense' back into compensation.  It is his view that under a Conservative Government you will be able to get on with your life without unnecessary rules and regulations. 

In January 2010 a Conservative MP, Julian Brazier, took the argument one step further. He argued that concerns about being sued or prosecuted are the primary obstacle to encouraging volunteers to help organise adventure activities.  This "reduces opportunities for young people and adults to experience structured risk-taking, damaging the development of self-reliance, leadership and teamwork and perversely encouraging the growth of gangs".

So what of the other parties?  In a speech in February 2010 Vince Cable, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer for the Liberal Democrats, indicated that we are a society obsessed with trying to eliminate risk, but trying to eliminate all risk is often counter-productive.  He states that in some key respects, health and safety regulations are necessary, and the problems often lie not in the regulations but in compensation claims.  He stated: "I believe that the control freakery of the state, the culture of blame and claim and the futile pursuit of zero risk have gone all together too far."

In January 2010 Frank Doran, the Labour MP for Aberdeen North, introduced a Private Member's Bill entitled Health and Safety (Company Director Liability) Bill.  Although little detail of the bill is available, it is understood to be aimed at increasing the personal liability of directors by amending the HSWA. While a Private Member's Bill is not necessarily indicative of the views of a particular party, this bill does suggest that at least some labour MPs have not lost their appetite for further regulation in this area.

The unions are broadly happy with the current health and safety regime that has been encouraged under the Labour leadership, and have little time for the Conservatives' health and safety plans.  The Communication Workers Union has expressed the view that the Conservatives' policy is "disastrous", that it would lead to cuts in those regulators that enforce health and safety standards in this country, and would see a return to what they call the old attitude of "accidents will happen".

Whatever your attitude to our current health and safety regime, you are likely to hear opposing views expressed by various MPs and their supporters over the next few weeks.  It is undoubtedly the case that the past four decades have seen improvements in safety in the workplace.  Do the majority feel that the legislation has gone too far?  Perhaps voters will have their say on that subject at last.  Rather than concentrate on either an increase or a decrease in legislation, perhaps encouraging more transparency and consistency of enforcement may be a better approach, whichever party wins the Election.

Alison Gray is a partner in the Environment & Safety team at national law firm Dickinson Dees.