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Speech to National Safety Symposium, The Oxford Belfry, Oxfordshire, 5 September 2011

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

'Cutting costs, not corners' - The future of HSE and health and safety in the UK against the backdrop of current changes and challenges.

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak at the start of your conference. I was particularly pleased to read that this event is being aimed across the whole of the public services, and also to see that the overwhelming need to cut costs and not corners is being addressed head on as the conference theme.

This is the reality we all face, and we all need to demonstrate realism in how we respond to it. I have some strongly held views on the subject - which you may have seen reported in the press over recent month - but which are also influenced by the many years I have spent in the private sector. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

I want to concentrate primarily on the things we need to take into consideration as we respond to the current environment. Times are tough and the challenges are great but whilst we alter our approaches to cope with the pressures being felt on all resources, especially in the public sector, it is vital that we all remain committed to sustaining the strong health and safety performance we have worked so hard to deliver in Great Britain. This means using the opportunity that these changes offer to consider as individuals, organisations and cross-sectoral groups how health and safety can help to enable things to be done more efficiently and effectively.

I know that sometimes it is difficult to be able to say how much is cloud and how much is silver lining when you are close to the events. But it is important that we all try to see beyond the cloud in order to identify the opportunities which the current situation presents to take a fresh look at what works best and who is best placed to do what.

I don’t say this to dismiss the very real and practical problems we may all be facing in our day jobs, especially where staffing levels and even the existence of whole teams, are being reviewed. But I want to recognise that the recalibration of systems and norms can be a very healthy exercise. Presuming that we’ve got everything right at the moment and defending the status quo can both fuel complacency and stand in the way of progress.

Let’s first set out the issues for HSE:

There are changes and challenges ahead of us all, and there are three aspects that I’m going to remark upon today. These are:

Following that, I will round things off with some action points for us all that build further on the important joint work of the various IOSH Public Services Groups.

It’s important that you use the next two days to discuss how you respond to the issues you face, but I do think it’s crucial that we set the events of the last year-and-a-half into context to ensure the truest of perspectives about the situation we’re in, and I will do that by focussing on what it has meant for HSE.

We are continuing to implement the recommendations that fall to us which came out of Lord Young’s Common Sense; Common Safety review launched in October last year.

The Ministerial statement Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone published in March this year announced some key elements of how HSE will be changing its approach in the light of the Comprehensive Spending Review, including important plans to reduce the number of proactive inspections HSE carries out and focussing more on those areas that pose a higher risk of death or injury.

As was announced at the time of the publication of the CSR and has been widely reported, especially in the health and safety press, we will see a net funding reduction in our Government funding over the next four years. But much of HSE’s work in the major hazards area is already fully cost recovered and represents approximately one third of HSE’s total budget. Although we will be looking at ways to further modernise and streamline our ways of working across the whole of HSE, the funding reduction of 35 per cent applies most significantly to those areas where we historically have not cost recovered and of course that includes Public Services.

A significant proportion of the reduction we need to achieve in our budget has and will continue to be met through efficiency gains in ways of working, back office services and estates, in order to maintain front-line activities, but there will be some impact on our proactive frontline activities.

I want to make it absolutely clear that our reactive work in response to incidents and complaints received will not change at all. Reactive work - including taking enforcement action wherever it’s warranted - will continue unaffected, based on our well established incident selection criteria and complaints system. It is vital that we continue to respond to incidents and concerns when they are notified to us or where we identify particular risks.

But, the size of the savings we need to make are such that inevitably there will be some impact on our frontline activities. We intend to take an even more focussed approach to proactive work, devoting a greater proportion of our effort on those activities where risks are highest and where we can have the greatest impact. We will use evidence and intelligence to identify high risk hot-spots in generally lower risk sectors and we will maintain effective engagement with those sectors where we stimulate and assist sector-led improvements through engagement and partnership, rather than inspection.

Much of this is not new of course. In recent years we have focused heavily on higher risk waste and recycling activities whilst doing relatively few or no proactive inspections of Local Authorities other activities. Our work on occupational health and safety standards through POSHH [Partnership for occupational safety and health in healthcare] is always going to have greater national gearing than single inspections to individual hospital sites, for example.

To complete the HSE picture I want to touch briefly on the topic of Fee for Intervention and HSE’s proposals to implement this, as well as referring to the independent reviews that are currently on-going.

We are currently consulting on a proposal to recover our costs from those who do not manage effectively the risks that they create. The intention is that those who are found not to be compliant with the law during an inspection should be charged for the work that HSE has to do to ensure action is taken to address the material fault. We believe that this approach is fair and equitable. The vast majority of businesses who already do the right thing will not be impacted by this in any way but those who take short cuts and avoid taking action until we intervene, will incur a fee. This is a way of recognising those who do the right things whilst at the same time HSE getting tougher with those non-compliant businesses - those who in your terminology cut corners.

The public consultation process started in July and will close in October. Depending on the comments the consultation attracts we expect a pilot period to start in October to test the process in practice. If everything goes according to plan by April 2012 we expect to be in a position to formally introduce the regime.

Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone, also announced the Government’s decision to set up an independent review of health and safety legislation. This is being carried out by a panel of independent advisors, chaired by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt.

The review is considering the opportunities for reducing health and safety legislation. It is focused specifically on statutory instruments - about 200 exist - that HSE and our LA partners enforce rather than on the HSWA itself. It is expected that the report will be completed and published around October. In parallel to this the government is also carrying out what is being called the ‘Red Tape Challenge’. This is a government initiative designed to give the public and businesses an opportunity to provide their views on all regulations. Health and Safety’s major turn in the spotlight was earlier in the summer. Over 1,200 comments have been received but given the cross-cutting nature of health and safety, we should expect further comments throughout the challenge initiative. As well as informing the review being carried out by Professor Löfstedt, the comments will also feed into specific proposals for regulatory reform that will be reviewed by a Ministerial ‘Star Chamber’ of key departments later. HSE welcomes the opportunities which such independent reviews provide for an objective assessment of how we are currently delivering and to hear views on what may need to change. It is a means to ensure that regulation which has evolved over many years continues to be relevant, common sense, proportionate to the risk and easy to navigate.

I’ve spoken about the changes and challenges that we are facing in HSE and how some of this may impact upon you. I now want to move onto a slightly different area which is very much part of the national agenda and which also very much relates to health and safety. I now want to talk about getting the balance right - between risk and benefit. This is about doing what is sensible and reasonable, not hiding behind petty rules and bureaucracy as excuses or reasons for not doing things - even things which involve very minor or trivial risks. It’s also about recognising that “health and safety” was never meant to and shouldn’t get in the way of any organisation doing what it is there to do and delivering the benefit of the products or services that they provide. Reasonable practicability continues to be our guiding principle - and in many organisations where risks are low that amounts to application of common sense.

Paperwork and bureaucracy never saved anyone’s life even though it may protect quite a lot of bottoms! You are experts in risk management, so I'd like to hear more instances of health and safety professionals in the public services saying: "that risk isn't unreasonable", or "this isn't a health and safety issue" when insurance matters are the actual concern, and saying "let's find a way to make this happen" - rather than "you can't do that".

The current climate makes it even more important for us all to focus on real risks and proportionate action, not overdoing things for little or no benefit. If you want to see an example of HSE leading the way I’d recommend you read the High Level Statement we published in School Trips in July. We didn’t sit on the fence, we have encouraged schools and their staff to feel empowered and I know you’ll be seeing more of that kind of approach in HSE guidance in future. We are taking forward a substantial piece of work at the moment to review all of our guidance to ensure it offers a practical, proportionate approach for organisations to help them comply with health and safety law. This work is giving special attention to guidance used in sectors where SMEs predominate - Health and Safety made Simple which we published last Spring being an early example of this approach. I also believe that guidance is an area where companies, trade associations, public sector bodies, Trades Unions and others, including all of you, can come together, wherever it’s appropriate to produce industry or sector specific guidance that might be better suited to organisations needs, but which is also sensible and proportionate.

Numerous commentators continue to state that health and safety is increasingly about specialists producing ever increasing very safe, tidy and 'proper' requirements in isolation; away from operational realities, which have left operational managers with bureaucratic systems that are not fit for purpose. I'm not suggesting that this is the norm but equally we know it does happen. As we all face these very real financial pressures it is right that we should examine to what extent any of us may have generated systems or procedures which have contributed to this continued negative perception of health and safety and what it's really about.

Instructions as to how to do jobs safely and efficiently will always work best, rather than the addition of safety procedures as a 'bolt-on'. I do encourage you to take this integration challenge to heart. Because, health and safety works better in practice when it is designed as an integral part of the process to make the job easier, not get in the way.

HSE's strategy and much of the work we have done has been focussed not just on improving the health and safety system but in also helping to draw the important distinction between real health and safety risks and risk-averse behaviour. The former is key; the latter devalues the brand and diverts scarce resources away from where they are really needed. Many of us have been aware for some time of the damage that this nonsense was doing to the real agenda. It is therefore very welcome to have strong Government support for this more robust approach and the need to extend the debate beyond workplace health and safety regulation into other areas such as insurance and litigation.

Let us remember that we all continue to share a common purpose in preventing death, serious injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. Leadership, involvement, partnership and sharing of good practice have been, and will continue to be, part of how we all achieve our shared mission.

So, in summary, there is a good deal of change going on in the world of health and safety, but the focus remains the same. Times are tough and tough decisions have to be made, but this is an opportunity to build on the important role that others, such as yourselves and the various IOSH Public Sector Groups have to play in leading health and safety, and in being part of the solution.

Cost reduction is a challenge for us all, but it is also an opportunity to look for new and innovative ways of maintaining and where possible improving on outcomes - especially in health and safety.

(Check against delivery).

Updated 2011-11-28