UK unions condemn move to exempt many firms from safety inspections

Tue, Sep 11, 2012, 01:00

HUNDREDS OF thousands of British firms are to be exempted from health and safety rules under a plan by the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition to boost economic growth.

Under the plan, due to come into force next April, businesses will be inspected only if they have had an accident, have a poor record, or operate in dangerous industries such as construction.

Dubbed “elf and safety” laws in Britain, the rules are criticised by Conservative MPs who are ever more loudly seeking deregulation and arguing that employers would be more likely to hire if rules and red tape were cut.

However, the Trades Union Congress, meeting for its annual gathering in Brighton, was scathing about the move, saying that “contrary to myths peddled by ministers, Britain does not have an epidemic of false or exaggerated work accidents”.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said, “Over 20,000 people die every year as a result of a disease they got through their work and a further 1.9 million are living with an illness caused by their work.”

Legislation will be introduced next month to ensure firms will have to pay lower civil, rather than criminal, damages for accidents where they are shown to be at fault.

Meanwhile, workers will no longer be able to sue businesses for accidents where the company cannot be shown to have been negligent, as happens now.

The department of business, innovations and skills said the “anti-red tape” crusade would get rid of 3,000 burdensome regulations and “set businesses free”.

“It will save British companies millions of pounds in wasted time and money, and help spur economic growth and innovation across the UK.”

Conservative Michael Fallon, installed as a minister of state in the department in recent days, said: “We’re getting out of the way by bringing common sense back to health and safety.”

Reflecting employers’ pleasure at the moves, the Institute of Directors said they “are good news if they are the beginning, not the end, of the deregulation story”.

“Removing the headache of health and safety inspections for low-risk businesses is a step change,” said the institute’s Alexander Ehmann, who praised “such bold and decisive action”.

Figures released by the British Health and Safety Executive in June recorded 175 work accident deaths in 2011, along with 200,000 accidents that put staff out of commission for more than three days. Nearly 30 million working days were lost because of work injuries, while injuries and ill-health sustained at work – apart from cancer – cost British society £14 billion in 2009-10 alone.

Employers may be left in some doubt about the impact of the changes, since most employment rights flow from European Union directives accepted by all EU member states.

“This means that where rules are abolished from the UK’s statute book, there could easily be circumstances that still warrant a hearing before European courts,” said Management Today.

Separately, Mr Cable rejected Conservative pressure to let employers sack poorly performing workers without declaring a reason, believing that this would simply increase workers’ fears about the future.

Meanwhile, the British government’s effort to give local authorities greater powers – the so-called “localism” agenda – has already demonstrated the dangers of unintended consequence.

The numbers of local authority or housing co-operative houses that began construction from March to May fell by 41 per cent, partly because residents in wealthier areas are getting better at blocking plans. Such residents, said Labour councillor Mike Harris, are exploiting rules designed to block unsuitable development: “By unsuitable, they mean social housing, or anything tall,” he said.