News & Views

Government to ease health & safety burden on small business?

BY Thomas Elliott
Health & Safety
BG Orange

Prime Minister David Cameron has started the New Year by promising that the coalition government will ease the health & safety burden on small businesses.

Addressing an SME conference in Maidenhead on 5 January, Cameron unveiled measures to tackle what he referred to as “compensation culture”, and release SMEs from the "stranglehold" of heath and safety red tape:  

He said his government was determined: “… to kill off the health and safety culture for good. I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy … once and for all.”  

Cameron told his audience of SME owners and entrepreneurs that:  

His government would tackle the compensation culture and address the fear from businesses of being sued for trivial or excessive claims – “… we will extend the current scheme [in England and Wales] that caps the amount that lawyers can earn from small value personal injury claims, and reduce overall costs in cases funded by 'no win no fee' deals. This will help bring down the cost of many cases and deter the speculative health and safety claims made against good businesses that would appear not to have done anything wrong.  

“…the health and safety law on strict liability for civil claims will be changed so that businesses are no longer automatically at fault if something goes wrong.  

“… we will investigate the demands made by insurance companies on businesses to ensure that levels of compliance do not force businesses to go far beyond what is actually required by the law to secure their insurance cover.  

“… we will write to the chief executives of all major insurance companies, asking them to set out what they will do to deal with this problem - and they will be invited to a meeting at Downing Street next month to set out their plans.”  

While it’s arguable that the UK has developed an unhealthy interest in compensation which would benefit from being reined in, the prime minister’s sweeping condemnation of health & safety law and the role of the courts in enforcing it is ill-advised, and badly-timed. Health & safety culture does not need ‘killing off’: the law is designed to protect us and our loved ones while they are at work, paying taxes and contributing to the economy.  

The problem isn’t health and safety laws; it’s the misguided interpretation of them that is championed by some and jumped on by the media as a soft target. Most health and safety professionals advise SMEs on practical steps to reduce risks to acceptable levels. The focus is on ensuring sensible risk management solutions without generating useless paperwork mountains.  

A positive health and safety culture saves time and money and, reduces risks and accidents. Competency, raising awareness and education are among the tools needed to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and avoid accidents at work.  

It’s important to note that Cameron’s commitments are fairly general, and, if implemented, will not impact to the same extent on employers of more than five or ten employees (the cut-off point has yet to be decided). There’s no doubt that the government are on course to streamline health & safety law, but, as ever, the devil will lie in the detail.  

Small businesses in high risk areas, such as explosives, offshore contracting, and small quarrying are not expected to see any change whatsoever. Small, low-risk, office-based organisations will benefit from a relaxation of the legal requirements. We will keep readers up to date with the development and implementation of the government’s plans.

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