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Local Government Strategy Workshop, 10 March 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at your workshop. I very much welcome this opportunity to talk about the "new" Strategy for Health and Safety of Great Britain in the 21st Century, and why I believe that local authorities have a pivotal role to play in making it all happen.

I want to talk about the important roles local authorities can play in delivering the Strategy for Great Britain:

I also want to talk about the hugely important role local authorities play in setting the tone for a common sense and proportionate approach to risk with the public.

Workshops such as this provide a great opportunity to bring people together to explore how to accelerate the process and move things forward. I know that there are elected members and senior managers here today and I want to speak directly to you about how local authorities can lead by example and demonstrate a commitment to real health and safety matters within your authority. If you are a health and safety professional, you will already be very committed to delivering on this agenda.

But for you to lead in embedding such a culture you have to believe it yourself, and you have to be credible in your actions as well as your words. But I will return to that later. First I am keen for you to identify your priorities and demonstrate how you can show leadership within the sector.

The progress that has been made in Great Britain in health and safety could not have been achieved without the commitment of the whole community of stakeholders including local authorities. But we want to improve further and given the challenge that we continue to face in further reducing deaths, injuries and debilitating illnesses caused by work, it's hard to comprehend how we have arrived at a place where health and safety has acquired such negative connotations in some quarters.

But the fact of the matter is that "elf n safety" has become a very popular and easy to hide behind excuse for every form of risk aversion, laziness and jobsworths. Banning pancake races, seasonal decorations and lights and children's outings on grounds of elf n safety is doing enormous damage to the really important - literally life saving work - which lies at the heart of the real health and safety agenda.

It was against this background of needing to accelerate our rate of progress in further reducing this real toll of suffering to Great Britain's workforce that the Board of HSE decided in early 2008 to develop the new Strategy, which as you will be aware was launched in June last year. As we move to the real challenge of implementation and delivery, we are encouraging all sectors to take a fresh look at the health and safety issues facing them. With a total of 2.2 million people employed in local authorities and the pressure on the public purse which we are all acutely aware of, there are significant business reasons for local authorities as employers to take forward a renewed interest in health and safety. You will hear more about HSE's current project on local authority accident statistics later this morning.

I know that many of you here today are familiar with the content of the Strategy and we were greatly encouraged by the strong support we received for this.

Many people said how pleased they were that the Strategy covered the whole health and safety system, not just the role of the regulator. And I am delighted to say that our call for organisations to join us and others to become part of the solution has met with an amazing response - over 1000 organisations want to become part of the solution by signing the Health and Safety pledge. I am delighted that the Local Government Association, Welsh Local Government Association and LG Regulation (formerly LACORS) have signed up to the pledge.   

Strong leadership, engagement and a common sense approach are key to effective health and safety and are key elements of the new Strategy. Leadership is fundamental - it sets the tone for whether health and safety happens - or not, and how it happens. The type of health and safety culture that exists in organisations will be decided by your approach as leaders and managers. Embedding it as good business sense will lead to openness and involvement and will demonstrate your commitment to the people you employ and manage. If, on the other hand the leaders see health and safety as being about bureaucracy, paperwork and procedures, then health and safety will be seen as a chore, a burden and therefore not properly and appropriately addressed.

The Strategy also recognises that building on people's knowledge and competence applies to everyone in the system. We need people who lead the organisation, who are confident and competent to exercise judgment and common sense. This is true of all organisations - they, in turn need good, reliable and fit for purpose advice and guidance from professionals. Competence has to be measured in a sensible and proportionate approach to tackling real risks with a minimum of paperwork. We haven't arrived at the position where we lead the world in health and safety performance by generating paperwork. We do it by managing risks sensibly and proportionately.

I want us to accelerate progress by working with local authorities as employers and major service commissioners to demonstrate to the very broad stakeholder community with which you interact, what good practice in health and safety looks like.

In the present climate of cost control and budget constraint, good health and safety - done properly - will increase efficiency and reduce, not add, cost to your organisation.

In the case of your supply chains, your role is somewhat different. It is certainly your role to lead but also to set standards and expectations in terms of health and safety. You can do this by reviewing the performance in health and safety as part of your selection criteria at the bidding stage and at contract renewal; and you can do it by working in partnership with your contractors, not just outsourcing the activity in its entirety.

There are some very good examples of where this is happening up and down the country - we need to identify and share examples of good practice. There is plenty of evidence to show that good health and safety is a sign of a good company - so it makes sense for it to be part of your selection and performance criteria.

Already in 2010 we have taken steps to further engage local authorities in thinking about their leadership role in commissioning of services - with a series of workshops throughout Great Britain covering the local authorities' important role in relation to Waste Management and Recycling. This is an industry sector which is growing rapidly as we all endeavour to recycle more but which is dogged by a poor track-record of serious injuries and fatalities.

Contracting out the service is no excuse. Waste and Recycling is a service provided and funded by relevant local authorities for the communities and you have a responsibility to ensure that it is done safely as well as cost effectively, and efficiently.

I would also like to flag up a possible opportunity for establishing closer links between local government and the HSE Board through the Local Government Panel established in 2006. This Panel was set up for Local Government's Regulatory role, but the plan is for its remit to be extended to deal with wider health and safety issues. I'd like you to consider the use of this Panel or an alternative approach for Local Government to engage with HSE centrally. The benefits of doing this include using existing mechanisms for high-level engagement with local authority CEOs and Councillors.

Delivery of health and safety is not something that belongs solely with HSE and local authorities as regulators. Put simply, it has been everyone's shared efforts in the past that have helped deliver our current safety performance. So, obviously it will be our collective performance in the future that will help deliver the new strategy and increase our performance further.

It's about HSE and its Local Authority co-regulators leading the system as a whole but ensuring that duty-holders do what they must do. So we need a mature and productive relationship - locally, regionally and nationally with a common set of goals and standards and to be committed to using our limited resources and focusing them on agreed health and safety priorities.

I want to re-emphasise that the Strategy and health and safety is all about common sense, personal responsibility and integrity. It is not about over bureaucratising or trying to eliminate all risk but it's about exercising judgment - as individual leaders - and creating organisational cultures where everyone is competent and encouraged to exercise judgment within their areas of responsibility.

Last year I attended the launch of an important new piece of guidance produced by the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety entitled "Think about Health and Safety - what elected members of local authorities need to know".  The booklet offers some practical and pertinent examples of ways for elected members to engage in health and safety. It's relevant to the session today as it provides advice to local authorities as regulator, employers and purchasers of services - emphasising that wide impact that your local authorities have.

The final point I want to make this morning brings us back to the need for common sense and proportionality to be at the heart of health and safety. I know that I am urging you to do what may seem onerous. But this agenda is not about elimination of all risk it is about doing what is reasonable and practical and proportionate - in short, applying a common sense approach.

One of the most powerful ways in which local authorities can make a difference in regaining the value of the real health and safety brand is by encouraging that approach in relation to public safety issues.

The media has a seemingly insatiable appetite for ridiculous "elf and safety" stories and there is a good deal of hype and exaggeration - HSE's own myth of the month programme has made a big hit by setting the record straight on many of the stories, such as banning conkers in schools and hanging baskets in our high streets - the list is endless. But most of these myths have their origins in isolated events which start at a small local level.

This is an area where applying a common sense approach is essential. If such a decision has been taken it is easy to defend and set the record straight. If an over zealous risk averse decision has been taken even on the most trivial of issues, the damage can be enormous - not only the immediate and escalating media attention, but it provides continuous reinforcement to those cynics who we must win over if we are to achieve our mission on the real health and safety agenda - preventing death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work.

Your role in making all of this happen is vital. You are leaders; you are decision-makers, facilitators and agents of change. I am delighted that you are here today to signal your commitment to the challenge ahead.

I hope I have helped to describe what we need to work on together and to make the case for why this is so vitally important - it makes business sense, it delivers health, well being and motivation in your workforces, it delivers better services for all.

Thank you.

Updated 2012-01-30