The End of 'Elf and Safety'

The country is still reeling from the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review on 20th October which will cut public spending by £billions over the next few years. Whilst we can all identify cherished areas of expenditure (the recently announced cuts in child benefit is an example) that we prefer untouched by the ‘era of austerity’, it seems likely that, with the necessity of some degree of belt-tightening accepted by all the leading political parties, the many voices that will be raised in protest over the coming months and years will be raised in vain.

The care industry doesn’t expect to be any less impacted than any other by the Government’s policies and even the NHS, which is supposedly ‘ring-fenced’, will doubtless feel the draught. The Press Association reports warnings of ‘devastating’ cuts at a London PCT; the BBC report that the number of adult social care staff in one council is to be reduced by over a half; whilst another is reducing expenditure on home care to the elderly by £1.6 million. And all these stories published within a day or so of each other.

Since the General Election of May 2010, the coalition Government, as part of its cost cutting, has also abolished over 100 so-called Quangos (officially ‘non-departmental public bodies’) with many more still under consideration. Quangos have a bad reputation in the UK (although each must have had a specific and worthy reason for being established) and abolishing a so many may seem a popular and prudent move.

The Health and Safety Executive is one such Quango. Established in 1975 following the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act, 1974, the Executive has a range of powers including assisting and encouraging with matters related to the 1974 Act., arranging and encouraging research and publication, training and information in the field of health and safety, and providing information and an advisory service to Government, employers and employees. As yet it has not been identified as a potential victim of the Government’s cull.

But in June, Prime Minister David Cameron engaged retired Tory politician Lord Young ‘To investigate and report back... on the rise of the compensation culture over the last decade coupled with the current low standing that health and safety legislation now enjoys and to suggest solutions. Following the agreement of the report, to work with appropriate departments across government to bring the proposals into effect.’

To anyone in the health and safety field, Lord Young’s speech at the Conservative Party conference made interesting viewing. Whilst Young accepted that the UK has ‘one of the best records in Europe for accidents and deaths in the workplace,’ he also went on to deride “’elf and safety” as it is described in some corners of the media.

There is no doubt that the ‘No-win, no-fee’ compensation culture, singled out by Lord Young for particular criticism and popularly portrayed as preying on innocent business, has put the fear of God into many private and public bodies and that this in turn can lead to over-cautious responses to every day risks - although if innocent organisations are found to be at fault it is perhaps the courts rather than solicitors who have got it wrong – and this has a tendency to bring Health & Safety itself into disrepute.

In fact the Health & Safety Executive feature their own ‘Myth of the Month’ on their website (visit and attempt to neutralize the  media slurs which often discredit the organisation and the work it does seeking to prevent death and injury in the workplace.

In short, there seems every chance that a Government wishing to reduce its costs by unprecedented amounts and with a stated antipathy towards the ‘unnecessary restrictions [and] the red tape that harms enterprise and protects no-one’ may be tempted to take action that, whilst removing burdens from business may equally set back the great strides that have been taken by ‘health & safety culture’ in the last 35 years. The Government must be aware that throwing the baby out with the bathwater is neither healthy nor safe.

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