One of the main planks of Lord Young’s review is qualification and competence of those advising on health and safety. He wants to ensure that companies get competent advice that avoids going over the top with excessive bureaucracy or risk aversion. There is the potential for this to have a positive impact, but also for it to backfire, dramatically increasing costs to business. It all depends on how the issue is tackled and unfortunately early signs were not positive.
I would agree that over-interpretation of the law is the main, but certainly not only, cause of excessive risk aversion and paperwork. In my previous life as a civil servant I coordinated the Health and Safety Executive’s Sensible Risk Campaign. I would come in each morning to a new media story – and from time to time message from the minister’s office – about health and safety banning x, y, z or all three. And most of the time someone had convinced the organisation concerned to over-interpret the law.
Many such instances are prompted by rumour – famously a head teacher required kids to wear goggles when playing conkers. He wasn’t serious, just trying to make a point about bureaucracy, but the rumour spread and pretty soon other schools were following suit. But a significant number of them do involve health and safety ‘professionals’ going over the top. So the issue needs tackling as part of a raft of measures: businesses need good quality, sensible advice. My concern is with some of the solutions being promoted.
Early on Lord Young was favouring the statutory accreditation of consultants and in-house advisers; he proposed that they should have a degree level qualification and maintain continual professional development. As he told me – I’m a lawyer and I have to be a member of the law society to practice. Why should health and safety professionals be any different? I would argue for three main reasons.
Firstly – and I know I’ll probably have my hard hats taken away and trampled for this – I don’t believe that having qualifications and completing ongoing development activities necessarily prevents excess. In my view some of the worst offenders are the best qualified and attend every meeting they can. But they become so immersed in the subject that they lose their sense of perspective. They are very definitely the minority, most professional advisors manage to see the wood from the trees pretty well, but let’s stop kidding ourselves – the zealots do exist and they would sail through accreditation. A statutory system is not a universal panacea.
Secondly is cost to business. If there is a legally-binding register, companies will inevitably end up paying more. Some of that increase may be justified as they go from poor to acceptable levels of skill. But not all businesses require degree level qualifications – a NEBOSH certificate in an office-based business would appear quite reasonable. Even if in-house advisers were excluded, the statutory requirement on consultants would have the effect on the interpretation of ‘competent’ by the courts, raising the bar excessively high for some in-house advisers.
Thirdly, for a government intent on reducing regulation, regulating as a first resort seems a bit paradoxical. Shouldn’t the alternatives be explored first?
So what are the alternatives to regulation? My view is that there are two areas in which we can improve. Firstly the professional bodies need to revise their codes of conduct. At present they are aimed at ensuring advice is safe; what they don’t do is tackle excessive decisions or deluging businesses with paperwork. Both bring the profession into disrepute. Secondly HSE needs to explicitly recognise these accreditations. At present a visit to HSE’s consultancy web pages reveals some good advice, but no mention of considering membership of IOSH, CIEH, IIRSM or others.
I hope that sense will prevail and we will get some significant non-regulatory improvements. After all, if my meeting with Lord Young convinced me of one thing it was that he is as sharp as ever he was.