The Conservative Party plans to allow medium to large construction businesses to procure independent health and safety audits. If a firm passed an audit, it could bar the HSE from entering the audited site. Is this genius or folly?
How would the audited system work?
Shadow Business Minister, John Penrose said that construction businesses would have the choice of using the new audited system or continuing under the present health and safety regime. A business that chose to adopt the audited system would prepare its own safety reports, which would then be assessed by an independent external auditor. If the business passed the audit, HSE inspectors would only be allowed to enter the audited site to inspect an “emergency” (such as a fatal accident or an allegation from a whistleblower).
The Conservatives claim that initial feedback on their proposals has been favourable. However, industry reaction has been divided along predictably traditional lines.
The UK Contractors Group (UKCG) has welcomed the proposal, stating that:
“UKCG raised the idea with the current government but has had very little joy. We look forward to resurrecting this idea with shadow business secretary Ken Clarke.”
In contrast, unions have reacted angrily. Alan Ritchie, general secretary of UCATT said:
“These are the politics of a madhouse. There is no way this will lead to anything other than a cut in safety standards, which are already far too low in construction… The Conservatives need to remember that self-regulation in safety kills workers.”
Why change the current system?
The Conservatives’ main stated reason for proposing a change is their desire to reduce red-tape and bureaucracy. However, it remains to be seen how much paperwork would be required to pass an external audit. John Penrose himself said that “businesses would have to demonstrate very, very strong-run internal controls.”
Even if there is scope for reducing red tape, we should consider whether the new proposals will improve health and safety. Health and safety in the construction industry is improving gradually and that trend seems set to continue under the current system. This was highlighted in Constructing Excellence’s recent report, Never waste a good crisis: a review of progress since Rethinking Construction and thoughts for the future and Berwin Leighton Paisner’s blog post, The construction industry: a dangerous place to work?. Is now the right time for a major change?
Self-regulation could transfer, from the Government to the construction industry, some of the cost involved in overseeing health and safety. Given the state of public finances (and the workload often carried by HSE inspectors), that benefit should not be overlooked, although the construction industry itself is ill-placed to bear the additional financial burden.
Would the plans improve health and safety?
Perhaps a radical change of construction health and safety would lead to a radical improvement. If that happened, with less bureaucracy and Government financial savings as by-product, everyone would rejoice. However, this proposal focuses on red tape and cost reduction, with improved health and safety as a possible by-product. As such, commentators may view it with scepticism until more details emerge.