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The Government has urged schools and local councils to adopt a more common sense, proportionate, approach to health and safety. The following examples have been offered of nanny state restiction on individual liberty which are not justified by legislation:
1. A school in Gloucester banned girls from wearing frilly socks for fear of them tripping over, all in the name of health and safety.
2. A 6 year old pupil in Hampshire couldn’t bring a baby chick to school for his presentation apparently due to health and safety and the risk of catching bird flu.
3. A borough council in Derbyshire ordered the small wooden canes protecting daffodil bulbs to be removed in case someone tripped and fell in the flowerbed.
4. A borough council in Greater Manchester refused to clear dog mess from a childrens’ playground because of the health risk it posed to their workers.
5. A town council near Manchester adopted a policy to stop people putting loose flowers and pots on graves because of misguided health and safety concerns.
6. Despite being applauded by the council for their flower display, a group of residents in Whitley Bay were subsequently asked to remove it on health and safety grounds.
7. A local council banned dog classes, training sessions and dog shows from being held in their community halls on the grounds of health and safety.
8. A man in the Wirral was told he couldn’t film a public meeting with a handheld camera because there was no health and safety agreement in place.
DWP Minister Mike Penning, who has responsibility for health and safety, says:
Enough is enough. Health and safety has long been used as a smoke screen by jobsworths who have little knowledge of the law and who want to fob people off with an easy excuse.
I want all councils and schools to take advantage of this advice from the HSE to make sure we get the right balance in the future.
Good for Mr Penning. But I’m afraid there is a bit more to it than that.
The difficulty is that it is not just about “myths” or ignorance about legislation. Some of the disproprotionate, or perverse, health and safety rules reflect legislative reality.
My colleague Peter Franklin recently noted that the law in New Zealand is rather different. Some of the cotton wool faction might wince at adopting that approach. But let’s not pretend that the nannying in the mother country is purely down to “myths” – there are legal differences.
There is plenty of gold plating of EU regulations – about health and safety amongst a lot more besides. Often we will be told when these restrictions are publicisd that they are “Euro Myths”. The Conservatuve MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has a a party trick. When Mr Rees-Mogg comes across a Europhile he denounces the EU ban on curved bananas. Invariably the Europhile will claim there is no such ban. Then Jacob will triumphantly produce from his wallet a piece of paper detailing EU regulation 2257/94 stating that bananas must be “free of abnormal curvature” and should be at least 5.5 inches long.
Similarly it is not much use encouraging a couple to apply to adopt children and reassuring them not to worry about the various “myths” they may have heard about political correctness – if they then come up against a stony faced social worker who tells them to go away because they are white, or middle aged or middle class.
As with EU “myths” and adoption “myths” some of the health and safety “myths” are not actually myths but are all too real.
By all means let Mr Penning challenge councils on bad practice. But the real villains are the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE charge £124 an hour to businesses for “advice” on conforming to all the regulations – offering the HSE an incentive to ensure the regulations are as complex and numerous as possible.By jove how the money rolls in.
Health and safety – for all the high profile examples pusillanimous councils – would be better if it was localised. Then there would be some accountability for the priorities given for enforcement. Who elected Judith Hackett, “Chair” of the HSE?
Reducing some of the burden of red tape in licensing and other areas would reduce costs for councils as well as small businesses.
So the Government is right to challenge the culture in this area. But it is not true to say that it is all some great misunderstanding.