On wednesday I sat through a select committee evidence session on the work of the Health and Safety Executive. No I’m not a sadomasochist. And actually it was quite interesting.
In attendance was the mandarin’s mandarin, Geoffrey Podger, the chief executive of the HSE (formerly of the Food Standards Agency). Also in attendance was the head of the Health and Safety Commission (which oversees the work of the HSE) Bill Callaghan.
One particular line of questioning stood out. MPs asked the pair about the falling rate of safety inspections, prosecutions and prohibition notices. Since 2002/03 inspections have fallen by a quarter. Prosecutions have fallen from 960 in 2003/04 to 712 in 2004/05. Convictions from 887 to 673 and prohibition notices from 11,295 to 8,445 in the same period.
Some say this is all part of the HSE turning into a corporate lapdog. The editor of the excellent Hazard’s
magazine, Rory O’Neill, has believes it is well on its way. He wrote recently that the HSE is:
The dramatic fall in official safety inspections is the latest piece of evidence revealing how far HSE has moved from its role as the UK’s official health and safety enforcer. Firms are now less likely to be inspected, less likely to be prosecuted, less likely to be convicted and less likely to receive an HSE notice requiring safety improvements.
Anyway Podger and Callaghan didn’t challenge the figures but claimed they didn’t grasp all the other things the HSE does like offering informal advice to employers and securing minor safety improvement. Podger said:
It isn’t the purpose of HSE to create a legal bureaucracy. It’s actually the purpose of the HSE to get improvements done which will benefit workers safety. Our object in life is not to have more recourse to the law than we need.
Underpinning his answer is an assumption that companies need persuasion and advice rather than enforcement action. He thinks that gentle words go further than the threat of prosecution.
Imagine if the poor old Home Office adopted this approach… cut police numbers, reduce patrols and prosecutions. And instead offer advice to career criminals about the folly of their ways.