Tuesday, October 19, 2004

We’ve been there before

Identify the source of the following:

"The first and perhaps most fundamental defect of the statutory system is simply that there is too much law… the sheer mass of law, far from advancing the cause of safety and health, may have reached the point where it becomes counter-productive"

The second main defect is that there is not only too much law, but too much of the existing law in intrinsically unsatisfactory. The legislation is badly structured, and the attempt to cover contingency after contingency has resulted in a degree of elaboration, detail and complexity that deters even the most determined reader. It is written in a language and style that renders it largely unintelligible to those whose actions it is intended to influence".
Believe it or not, these extracts are not from a contemporary report, but from one written in 1972, by a committee chaired by Lord Robens on Safety and Health at Work.

Two years later, we got the ground-breaking Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, the thirty-year anniversary of which was celebrated by The Telegraph yesterday with an article headed: "Health and safety: Red tape threatens to undo the good work"

It notes the Health and Safety Act introduced "the first unified structure for dealing with this centrally important issue for employers and employees," which has transformed the attitude to safety in Britain's workplaces and dramatically cut the number of deaths and injuries connected with work.

Central to the spirit of the Act was that it was non-prescriptive. Rather than telling employers exactly what they could and could not do, it was based on goal-setting. Being non-prescriptive, the Act allowed the government to introduce regulations, supported by codes of practice, which give employers practical guidance on how to comply.

But, ever since it was introduced, the EU has undermined it, adding layer upon layer of complex, prescriptive regulation, of the very nature that Robens railed against. As a result, the Act has grown from a single statute into a mass of regulations that many in industry believe presents a serious challenge to the competitiveness of British business.

Cited by The Telegraph, Gary Booton, health, safety and environment director at the Engineering Employers' Federation, said that European directives were going way beyond realistic barriers and turning health and safety legislation into a burden likely to drive employers out of Britain.

Regulation had gone too far. "The main problem here is misdirection. There are real health and safety issues in our industries, about electrical safety, welding fumes, manual handling, moving about big structures - things that can really hurt and even kill people. But the Health & Safety Executive, when it enforces these directives as it has to, is going to be telling employers they should be spending their time and resources protecting workers from something that does them no harm.

"In terms of world performance, we are at the top of the health and safety league, but if you're an employer and you come under these ridiculous pressures, you're going to think about relocation."

Thus, Lord Robens’ work has gone to waste, undermined by the mindless bureaucrats of Brussels, but never fear, Mr Tony Blair is going to tackle EU "red-tape". That, at least, is what he told the CBI in Birmingham yesterday, also promising that he would require civil servants to take a more flexible approach to regulation.

"For decades, civil servants and politicians have prided themselves in dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" when legislating administrative rules," he said. "We need to change that approach to end gold-plating of European regulations, and rather than assuming everyone is a criminal who needs to be inspected to see if they are breaking the law, adopt a flexible approach to ensure we achieve our targets."

And thus did he pledge that he would make "better regulation" a centrepiece of the British presidency of the EU next year. But hang on a minute. Isn’t that exactly what the Dutch presidency offered in its own presidency statement?

It too identified "better regulation" as one of its priorities, noting that "European companies are overburdened by national and European legislation."

And guess what – the problem was to be tackled in Brussels "by means of the Action Plan for Simplifying and Improving the Regulatory Environment", which is meant to have been implemented by the end of 2004. If that is the case, what is the point of Blair making it one of his priorities and, if as we suspect, this latest "Action Plan" has absolutely no effect, what makes him think he can do any better?

In fact, against the regulatory ethos of the EU commission, Blair is but a babe in arms. He will have no more effect than the Dutch presidency, and the serried ranks of politicians before him, all of which have pledged to deal with red tape. What they should do, of course, is re-read Lord Robens’ report, but then his dictum was "less law", better law – something that the commission would never tolerate.

Forgive me, therefore, if I am entirely unimpressed by Mr Blair and his pledge. We’ve been there before.

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