There is a clash of competing philosophies going on between health and safety on one side and cutting business bureaucracy on the other. The first side of the argument includes health and safety experts, organisations concerned with the protection of workers (like unions), and others who say health and safety regulation is essential. On the other side are businesses who say they are drowning in a sea of red tape.
The fact these arguments are taking place is nothing new. Recent events have amplified the debate, however. That said, there is still no clear direction of travel let alone an understanding of where the debate is likely to end up. One thing is for certain, however – the health and safety regulation / business bureaucracy landscape will look very different in five years compared to now.
Fault Lines Exposed
Three significant recent events have a continuing impact on this debate:
- The election of Donald Trump as US president
- The Grenfell Tower tragedy
Let’s look at each to see how these separate events are influencing the debate.
Trump’s Red Tape Slashing Agenda
One of Trump’s key election promises was to cut the red tape that businesses face. Unlike many of his other campaign promises, this is one he has been able to implement quickly. Almost as soon as he was sworn in as president he signed an executive order instructing US government departments to cut red tape.
This led to the dropping or delaying of about 800 regulations in just over eight months. In addition, the creation of new regulations is not allowed.
Scientists, health and safety professionals, and others have criticised the policy because it ignores science and puts lives at risk. This doesn’t stop the Trump administration heralding its war on red tape as a success while also pushing it further.
Of course, the principles behind the Trump red tape policy are not in themselves bad. When businesses say they are drowning in red tape, it is imperative that legislators and other stakeholders listen. Health and safety must be a priority but we must also do everything we can to ensure businesses can operate with as much flexibility as possible. In addition, it is better for everyone when businesses can invest in growth rather than spending money on regulatory compliance.
Successive UK Governments have recognised this. The coalition Government, for example, implemented a one-in, two-out policy in 2013. This policy applied to all new regulations – for every £1 that a new regulation cost business, policymakers had to find £2 in savings. They did that by scrapping or changing existing regulations.
In 2016, the Government went further by changing the one-in, two-out policy to a one-in, three-out policy. It claimed this would cut £10 billion of red tape, a significant saving to UK businesses.
Then there was the Grenfell Tower disaster in summer 2017.
This prompted massive health and safety and regulatory questions as individuals, governments, businesses, and organisations grappled with how such a disaster could have happened in London.
Many people came to the same conclusion – the red tape-cutting agenda had gone too far.
The UK After Brexit
This leads us to the third significant event in the debate over health and safety regulation and the burden of red tape on businesses: Brexit.
Much of how the UK will look after Brexit will depend on the outcome of the negotiations. That said, one of the main reasons why people voted for Brexit was to bring sovereignty of UK laws and regulations from Brussels back to Westminster.
In other words, once Brexit happens, it is likely the UK Government will be solely responsible for implementing health and safety regulations and legislation. This will be a significant change as the EU played a crucial role in shaping the UK’s current legislative and regulatory framework. For example, it was EU pressure that led to the introduction of asbestos regulations in 2012.
Of course, there is no way of knowing what this and future Governments will do with health and safety in a post-Brexit UK. After all, Grenfell Tower demonstrated how attitudes and collective thinking can change overnight.
One thing we do know, however, is that all the events described above will have an impact.
What About a Future UK-US Trade Deal?
One example of a way the above events may impact health and safety and business bureaucracy is in a future UK-US trade deal. Since the Brexit vote, there has been much talk about the prospect of such a deal.
When the UK can decide on a trade deal without the burden of other EU states, will it compromise on health and safety to fall closer into line with Trump’s agenda? Will real lessons be learned about the Grenfell Tower tragedy or will those who fear a whitewash be proven right? Will the Government’s rethink on cutting red tape lead to a change in policy whatever the impact this has on a potential UK-US trade deal?
These are impossible questions to answer now but there needs to be an overall change in direction. In the first sentence of this article, the debate between cutting red tape and maintaining strong health and safety regulations is described as a clash. This is the root cause of the problem.
Are we not capable as a society of doing both: improving the health and safety of workers and others while also making it easier and less costly for businesses to operate? Can we stop viewing it as a philosophical clash where there are winners and losers and instead come up with solutions that deliver both objectives? Time will tell.