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Simon Walker: An Inspector Calls: The Health and Safety regime forces businesses to undertake unnecessary activity

WalkerSimon Walker became Director General of the Institute of Directors in October 2011. Previously he held senior executive posts at Reuters, British Airways and served as Communications Secretary to HM The Queen.

Ronald Reagan once said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I'm from the Government and I'm here to help.” Although not his original target, this witticism seems perfectly fitting for Health and Safety inspectors.

Let us take the example of an IoD member in the motor vehicle repair trade; his business was inspected for fire safety once and then inspected again, despite being sited in a brand new industrial unit. No breaches were found, but he could still face a further inspection at any time.

For too long we have tolerated irrational regulation in this country. A case in point is the IoD member who owns a retail business employing three people. The business has to provide training on how to use ‘hazardous chemicals’, such as bleach and toilet cleaners. The fact that all the staff use the very same products in their own homes is somehow not seen as relevant.

For another example, consider the IoD member whose business, with fewer than 25 staff in the office, spends over £3,500 per annum on a health and safety consultant to advise on chair ‘ergonomics’. 

The Health and Safety regime forces businesses to undertake unnecessary activity. Take the annual testing of electrical appliances and plugs that goes on in many businesses. It seems bizarre that this needs to happen when the very same appliances are safely in use in millions of homes across the country.

On top of the time-wasting compliance and the threat of inspection, businesses have to endure the bullying tactics of bogus Health and Safety advisors. Some businesses receive as many as 30 cold calls a week from organisations offering to come in and check electricity, windows, gas, chemical storage, ladder safety, and so on, often with veiled threats about what will happen if they do not take up the services. 

It is in this environment that the Health and Safety Executive recently consulted on recovering costs from companies who are found to be in material breach of the regulations. These firms will be fined for the breaches, but is it reasonable to demand costs as well? After all, when no breaches are found, businesses are not allowed to claim for their wasted time.

We are worried this will create the perverse incentive for inspectors to be creative when identifying breaches. For an organisation facing significant budget cuts in 2014/15 the pressure to use cost recovery to finance itself may be too great. 

I have written this morning to Chris Grayling, the employment minister, warning him of these dangers. The Government has been asking business to identify the regulation which is holding back growth through its ‘red-tape challenge’. If ministers are serious about deregulation they need consign this proposal to the dustbin as a matter of urgency.


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