David Cameron’s widely-reported comments about bringing the health and safety culture to an end – originally made in an article in the London Evening Standard – are a mixture of myth-making (the shade of Teresa May’s cat hangs heavily over Ministerial articles continaing unreferenced examples of things going wrong) and misunderstanding. Leaving aside the obvious points about what such statements tell us about Cameron’s view of working people, three points need to be made in response.
First, it cannot be said strongly enough that where health and safety issues appear to be intruding on common-sense, it is almost always an exercise in back-minding prompted by concerns about insurance and litigation. Health and safety regulation, like much other regulation, provides a degree of certainty. It provides a legislative framework supported by guidelines, to be interpreted on the basis of what is reasonable. Businesses and other undertakings are given clarity and guidance (which, in my experience as a civil servant, was what business always wanted from Government). The alternative – a culture which is governed by private insurance and the threat of litigation – is far more likely to promote a culture of back-minding, because, faced with the risks and uncertainties of court rulings and the caprice of insurers, businesses will take the most cautious route. What Cameron and his speechwriters don’t get is that regulation makes it clear what undertakings can do. Relying on a culture of insurance and litigation is actually far more expensive and more restrictive than a properly-managed system of public regulation, especially one where all those involved know their rights and obligations (something that is the cornerstone of health and safety legislation). A Government which has an ideological disdain for the public sector has no stomach for the truth that health and safety culture – to the extent that it exists – is really a private sector problem, and that here, as in so much else, collective public regulation is the more efficient path.
Second, what does health and safety legislation actually require firms to do? It requires planning, training, awareness and diligent documentation. Cameron has never worked in a productive environment, so he doesn’t understand that this is what successful and innovative organisations, in both public and private sectors, do. Good health and safety practice will usually go in hand with good business practices and culture. Cameron’s line is better suited to bucket-shops and companies obsessed with the short-term bottom line. It’s symptomatic of a race to the bottom which equates economic success with becoming Europe’s offshore sweatshop. The statement that “health and safety are holding back business” implies any number of wholly ideological assumptions about what constitutes efficiency, productiveness and success.
One of the ironies is that Cameron rails against the need for businesses to carry out risk assessments. Not only does he fail to realise that assessing risk is right at the heart of all project management disciplines – whether in the public or private sector – but that rolling back regulation is actually a massive transfer of risk to individuals and – especially through healthcare – the state. In effect, this is potentially a massive subsidy to bad employers. Is that what Cameron really wants?
Third, nowhere does the piece mention Europe. Much Health and Safety legislation derives from the EU. How is Cameron planning to deal with this? True, the tenor of debate in Europe has moved to the right since much of this legislation was put in place. But even so, Cameron’s adolescent posturing in Europe – more interested, it seems, in playing to the Eurosceptic lower fourth than securing Britain’s negotiating position – does not put the UK in a good position in future negotiations. And what is he going to do about existing regulation? Ignore it, and face huge fines as a result?
Cameron’s posturing seems to me to point to one of the salient feaures of this Government – that it’s not actually interested in governing. It’s more interested in ill-informed populist grandstanding than dealing with the serious business of government. And these particular statements are grounded in an ideological and ignorant misconception of how enterprises actually work, and show a disdain for evidence (and, one might add, a basic economic illiteracy) that is one of the hallmarks of the Coalition’s policy-making.