Cameron’s policy-lite approach to health and safety

David Cameron played to the gallery today with a speech on health and safety. It was light on detail and perpetuated existing myths.

David Cameron played to the gallery today with a speech on health and safety that was light on detail, perpetuated existing myths, and commissioned a policy review from a man who once praised European Commission health and safety laws.

In a speech heavily trailed in the right wing press and blogosphere, Cameron attacked the “over-the-top health and safety culture” but conceded that:

“Britain has one of the lowest workplace fatality figures in the EU – and close to the lowest for non-fatal accidents.”

Cameron, typically light on policy detail, provided only one specific example* of a regulatory change and instead outlined that he has asked Lord (David) Young to “lead an extensive review on this subject” including the problem of “the volume of bureaucratic rules that have been imported from Brussels and which we seem to gold plate.”

But in February 1989, a Guardian article by Christopher Huhne and Larry Elliot reported that:

“[Lord Young] welcomed Commission proposals to develop measures to combat unemployment, improve training and impose proper standards in health and safety.”

Cameron went on to reiterate his commitment to “negotiate the restoration of Britain’s control over EU social and employment legislation” without addressing the many problems associated with this commitment.

In another passage of the speech, Mr Cameron made the classic mistake of citing costs but not benefits. He said that, “a recent report suggested the UK has spent over £35 billion complying with EU employment, health and safety law.” A Government report published in October outlined that the ratio of benefits to costs of new regulations introduced in 2008-09 was 1.85.

Cameron also perpetuated the story of “When children are made to wear goggles by their headteacher to play conkers” But the Health and Safety Executive have been rebutting that “myth” for more than two years. A poster available on their website states:

“Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that’s a discipline issue, not health and safety.”

Cameron also appeared to reiterate existing Government policy when he stated, “there is no such thing as a risk-free environment and efforts to eliminate all risk will end by eliminating enterprise, creativity, achievement and innovation.” The Better Regulation Executive in Peter Mandelson’s super-ministry states that one of their aims is to “work with regulators (including local authorities) and departments to change attitudes and approaches to regulation to become more risk-based.”

* amending the application of Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act to the police

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