On behalf of members in the Health and Safety Executive, Prospect negotiator Mike Macdonald said: ”Plans to side-step HSE inspectors amount to plans to side-step safety. Not only will this increase the risk to UK workers but far from reducing the regulatory burden on business, it will increase it.”
Prospect’s HSE branch chair, Neil Hope-Collins, added: “These proposals will open the flood gates for an army of private consultants, trained at public expense, to be unleashed without ministerial accountability on British industry.
“They will be free to charge business a fortune for advice that would constitute an inferior service to that currently provided for free by HSE. My members struggle to see how this reduces the burden on business or saves public money in any way whatsoever.”
The union’s reaction follows comments in an interview in Construction News by Shadow Business Minister John Penrose, in which he stated that the Tories plan to give ‘low risk’ businesses immunity from HSE inspections if they pay for independent audits.
The proposal is a key plank of the party's policy paper Regulation in the Post-Bureaucratic Age, which it has said it is determined to put into effect if elected.
But Macdonald said: “Occupational health and safety law is not black and white. The experience of our members shows that someone without statutory responsibility is more inclined to err on the side of greater controls just to make sure.
"This is because they are trying to second-guess an inspectors’ judgement of legal compliance and therefore are likely to impose a greater burden on the business.
“Even then, as courts and HSE inspectors are the only legal avenues for making a judgement on compliance with the law, an independently audited business would still have no guarantee it has complied.”
Macdonald also questioned the need to restrict HSE’s actions saying: “Given that the average time between visits is about 15 years, you have to ask how much of a burden on business HSE inspections really are?”
Prospect will be writing to Shadow Business Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to raise the issues and highlight additional flaws in the policy including:
- • that despite productive discussions with shadow spokespeople, they have not consulted Prospect on this issue
- • the need to ensure that health and safety improvements in construction, designed to reverse the worst safety record in the economy and backed by both employers and unions, are not obstructed by a political wish to change for change’s sake
- • that because the calibre of any independent consultants will be crucial they will most likely be recruited from the existing inspectorate, thereby denuding HSE of its expertise, trained at the public expense
- • the lack of any mechanism for accountability, when HSE inspectors are accountable to parliament through both a nominated junior minister and scrutiny from the departmental select committee.