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New statutory code to underpin inspection cuts

From April next year, low-risk businesses such as shops and offices will no longer be subject to proactive health and safety inspections unless a genuine employee complaint or notification of an actual incident is made to the HSE.

Exempting low-risk businesses from proactive inspections has been part of Government policy since March 2011, when former safety minister Chris Grayling launched the DWP framework, Good health and safety, Good for everyone.

While that document outlined plans to withdraw inspections from several “lower-risk” industries ““ including shops, offices, pubs and clubs ““ the Government is now intent on underpinning this policy with a new, binding statutory Code. Expected to be introduced in April 2013, the new Code will see the HSE direct all Local-Authority inspections, ruling out proactive inspections of low-risk businesses, while the Executive itself will be bound by the same principles.

The Government has stressed that businesses in high-risk areas, such as mining, construction, explosives, gas fitting and installation, diving, agricultural activities, offshore activities, chemical industries and nuclear installations will still be subject to proactive inspections. However, there has been controversy over the classification of certain sectors ““ in particular, the docks industry.

In a further measure to free businesses from the fear of a “compensation culture”, the Government will also introduce legislation next month to ensure that businesses will only be held liable for civil damages in health and safety cases if they can be shown to have acted negligently. The change to the “˜strict-liability principle’, which was first suggested by Professor Löfstedt last year, will end the current situation where businesses can automatically be liable for damages even if they are not found negligent in a court of law.

As a result of Professor Löfstedt’s findings, as well as last year’s Red Tape Challenge, the Government, in this year’s Budget, pledged to scrap or improve 85 per cent of health and safety regulations; change the law to help tackle the “compensation culture”; and free from health and safety law around 1 million self-employed people whose work poses no harm to others.

In further measures to boost the economy and encourage innovation, the Government has today announced that it will abolish, simplify, or reduce the burden of at least 3000 business regulations. It promises to have identified the regulations to be scrapped or overhauled by December next year.

Following the announcement, Business secretary Vince Cable said: “Removing unnecessary red tape and putting common sense back into areas like health and safety will reduce fears and costs for businesses. We want to help give British business the confidence it needs to create more jobs and support the wider economy to grow.”

The changes were backed by a number of business groups, including the Institute of Directors (IoD) and EEF. Alexander Ehmann, head of regulatory policy at the IoD, said: “Today’s announcements are good news if they are the beginning, not the end, of the deregulation story. Excessive regulation costs time and money, both of which businesses would rather spend on developing new products, hiring staff and building up British business both here and abroad.”

Stephen Radley, director of policy at EEF, added: “Burdensome health and safety rules are a drag on business. Cutting back on them is vital. We welcome the Government’s firm commitment to limit the liabilities of companies acting responsibly. It is now critical these reforms are delivered.”

Union bodies were apoplectic at the announcement, and the entire union movement took the opportunity at this week’s TUC Congress to back a UCATT-led motion condemning the cuts forced on the HSE.

“Contrary to myths peddled by ministers, the UK is facing an occupational-health epidemic,” said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. “Some of the “˜low-risk’ workplaces identified by the Government, such as shops, actually experience high levels of workplace injuries. This will only get worse if employers find it easier to ignore safety risks.”

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) expressed its concern at the way the Government is turning “common-sense discussions and debates into a series of media-grabbing “˜sound bites'”.

Graham Jukes, the group’s chief executive, clarified that the HSE has been focusing inspections on high-risk premises and operations for a number of years now. “While, currently, it is possible for low-risk businesses to face proactive health and safety inspection visits, either by local-authority or HSE inspectors, they are rare, or done in conjunction with other regulatory compliance checks in high-risk premises,” he pointed out.

IOSH also warned that there is not a lot that is “˜new’ in the announcement, but reiterated its concern that the cuts could result in a drop in standards.

Said its head of policy and public affairs, Richard Jones: “Cuts to inspections are concerning ““ HSE already take a risk-based approach, which we support. We also support the need for consistent and high-quality enforcement. However, we are concerned that businesses that currently benefit from proactive inspections and getting expert advice from “˜the horse’s mouth’ will lose out under this new regime. The end result is that standards may drop and more people are killed or injured.”

A consultation on the statutory Code for inspections will launch later this month.

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