David Cameron has asked former Cabinet minister Lord Young to undertake a review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the ‘compensation culture’. Lord Young is expected to report to the prime minister in the summer and will investigate concerns over the application of, and people’s perceptions of, health and safety legislation.
A new piece of health and safety legislation, the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008, was introduced only last year and made substantial amendments to the landscape of health and safety law by increasing fines for most offences from £5,000 to £20,000 in the Magistrate’s Courts (unlimited in the Crown Court).
The aim of the Act was to penalise breaches of health and safety legislation more severely and persuade companies (and individuals) to take their health and safety responsibilities seriously, or face a substantial punishment.
This Act, as well as the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which came into force in April 2008, clearly raised the stakes. This therefore raises the question as to whether a review into health and safety law is necessary now and whether any changes will in fact result.
There are certainly concerns among businesses that the increase in health and safety rules has resulted in more bureaucracy and less common sense. The British Chamber of Commerce would like to see a reduction in the number of health and safety processes and costs businesses have to face. There is also a concern among smaller businesses that health and safety laws should be appropriate for smaller employers.
However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) annual figures for 2008-09 illustrate that health and safety does need to be a priority in the workplace to prevent injuries. For example, in 2008-09, 180 workers were killed at work, 246,000 reportable injuries to workers occurred, and 29.3 million days were lost overall due to work-related ill health and workplace injury.
There is the suggestion by some organisations – for example, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) – that the problem is with the application of legislation, not the legislation itself. Certainly, there needs to be a balance between the risk of accidents and the cost to businesses of precautions. RoSPA concludes the problem of getting safety right is one that needs to be solved through education rather than more legislation.
One remaining question is whether, following the review, anything will change? Lord Young hopes his review will reintroduce “common sense” and refocus legislation where it is most needed. However, health and safety law has been reviewed in the past and remained mainly the same, and the most recent legislation has increased penalties for health and safety breaches.
It will be difficult to tackle the current attitude to health and safety laws. There is undoubtedly a compensation culture in the UK, although to what extent is more contentious. It is clear employees are now more willing to take legal action against their employers. With the frequent advertising of ‘no-win, no-fee’ conditional fee agreements, employees are seemingly encouraged to bring claims with the mentality they have nothing to lose.
Employers are therefore now more concerned by the need to avoid the risk of their employees bringing claims and this can mean a common-sense approach to applying the law is lost. Any review of the law will arguably be restricted in its impact as changing the legislation will not necessarily affect how it is perceived and applied.
Vanessa Hempstead, solicitor, Thomas Eggar
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