By Kevin Ovenden
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Conspiracy against safety

This article is over 18 years, 7 months old
A BARELY noticed campaign by right wing papers and business lobbyists to turn Britain's workplace safety watchdog into a toothless poodle has caught the ear of New Labour.
Issue 1884

A BARELY noticed campaign by right wing papers and business lobbyists to turn Britain’s workplace safety watchdog into a toothless poodle has caught the ear of New Labour.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was established 30 years ago under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. With the backing of the unions, it survived Margaret Thatcher’s onslaught on rights at work. Now it is falling victim to Tony Blair’s neo-liberal drive to rip up regulations on business.

Former HSE manager Alan Osborne, who has been championed by right wing commentators, laid into the organisation at a committee of MPs last week. The government has slashed the HSE’s budget by 10 percent and is to review its future. That comes after months of unprecedented attacks on safety inspectors in anti-union parts of the media.

Leading the pack is Tory commentator Simon Jenkins. He became Sir Simon in Blair’s New Year’s honours list. Last week Sir Simon wrote that HSE inspectors plan to force us all to install complex safety systems on taps at home-a claim that is entirely untrue. Such propaganda, along with pressure from rail bosses, is designed to get the government to cull safety standards.

Crucially the free marketeers want to replace the railway inspectorate with a tame body that is in the pocket of the people who brought us the Potters Bar, Ladbroke Grove and Southall crashes.

Tony Blair has already chaired a meeting which looked at HSE inspectors investigating workers’ immigration status at the expense of enforcing safety standards.

THE RESIGNATION of Alan Osborne from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last November was a gift to businessmen and right wing journalists who want to see a bonfire of safety regulations.

Osborne had been at the HSE as director of rail safety for only 11 months. Before that he worked in the private sector. He slammed the HSE as “dysfunctional”, “resistant to change” and obsessed with overregulation.

Amongst others, Sir Alastair Morton, former chief of the government’s Strategic Rail Authority, then rushed to attack the safety inspectorate.

Osborne ramped up his attacks in an interview with Rail magazine before Christmas. In it he said, “Just look at one recent example-HSE called for the fines to be increased to the same levels allowed by financial regulators.”

He claimed this was “not about justice for those who are injured, but about propping up HSE’s funding problems. It keeps any money ‘earned’ from prosecutions.”

A quick call to the HSE reveals it does no such thing. As with every other fine levied by courts, penalties go to the Treasury. They are not handed back to the safety inspectorate, which faces cuts and a freeze on recruitment.

The fact that someone who had occupied so senior a position could get this wrong should have set off alarm bells. But he continued to receive praise from the likes of Rail magazine and gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee on transport last week.

The substance of his allegations at that hearing turned out to be pitifully thin. His key example of “bureaucratism” was the fact that he wasn’t allowed to hire a secretary without clearing it with the board which runs HSE.

His testimony was full of Blairite terminology-the problem of “one size fits all” policies and overregulation leading to “risk aversion”, which supposedly prevents entrepreneurs from making profits.

He was pressed four times to come up with specific instances where “overregulation” had driven up the costs of the rail industry. He eventually said that Railtrack were “unhappy” that HSE inspectors had called for replacing the kind of points responsible for the Potters Bar crash with a superior model. But he then admitted that such an upgrade would have to be done.

Osborne also claimed the HSE had prevented him from implementing changes called for in the Cullen inquiry three years ago into the Ladbroke Grove crash.

But many of Cullen’s recommendations were the opposite of what Osborne wanted to do. Cullen said regulating rail safety should remain a function of the HSE, as inspection “should be independent of the industry and be clearly seen to be independent of it”.

Osborne and many rail bosses call for responsibility for rail to be stripped from the HSE and handed to a new body which will also focus on cutting costs and raising profits.

Those calls are part of a wider attack on the HSE. Right wing commentator Simon Jenkins seized on a case last year brought by the HSE against the Metropolitan Police.

Here was an example, he claimed, of the HSE ridiculously trying to prevent police chiefs allowing “policemen to chase burglars”. The case against the Met resulted from the death of PC Kulwant Sidhu, who fell through a warehouse roof when he was ordered up there by a superior in 1999.

He was not, as Jenkins claimed, “chasing burglars”. His sergeant admitted in court that there was no reason why Sidhu had to be on the roof.

A hung jury over lesser charges meant that the two most serious charges were dropped by the HSE last June as it came under ferocious press assault.

The decision a few weeks later to charge six rail bosses over the Potters Bar crash brought further media attacks. Far from launching a robust defence of the HSE, the government cut its funding and ministers suggested it should focus more on advice to companies and less on inspections and prosecutions.

Meanwhile the most recent figures show the average fine levied on companies for killing or maiming their workers is falling. There are so few HSE inspectors that employers can expect a visit only once every 10 to 15 years. The inspectors’ Prospect union fears the HSE will be scaled back further.

The HSE was formed in 1974 because as Labour’s Secretary of State for Employment, Michael Foot, said at the time, the separate inspectorates which then covered different industries were too close to management.

Thirty years on it is another Labour government that is moving back in that direction.


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