HSE boss slams 'daft' use of rules

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The Independent Online

Misguided "jobsworths" are robbing children of educational experiences and fun by over-zealous application of safety laws, the head of the Health and Safety Executive said today.

HSE chairman Judith Hackitt accused employers of cynically using health and safety rules as a "convenient excuse" for avoiding activities that might cost money or expose them to being sued for personal injury.

Warning that "the gloves are off", Ms Hackitt warned that her organisation is ready to take on the bureaucrats who use health and safety rules as a scapegoat when they make "daft decisions" to ban innocuous activities.

Health and safety rules were wrongly blamed for decisions to make children wear goggles when playing conkers, to ban running at a pancake race and to stop tennis fans watching the Wimbledon action on big screens from Murray Mount, she said.

Ms Hackitt told the Daily Telegraph that health and safety had become "shorthand for someone, somewhere, stopping someone from doing something they want to".

She sent out a message to anyone using it as an excuse: "Don't use health and safety law as a convenient scapegoat or we will challenge you."

Excessive and unnecessary application of restrictions on unfounded health and safety grounds threatens to spoil children's experience of growing up, said Ms Hackitt.

"The creeping culture of risk-aversion and fear of litigation... puts at risk our children's education and preparation for adult life," she said.

"Children today are denied - often on spurious health and safety grounds - many of the formative experiences that shaped my generation.

"Playgrounds have become joyless, for fear of a few cuts and bruises. Science in the classroom is becoming sterile and uninspiring."

In many cases, the people behind unreasonable rulings were "well-meaning but misguided jobsworths" who have the public interest at heart but go too far, she said.

But she added: "A trend of far more concern to me is the use of health and safety as a convenient excuse by employers and other organisations cynically looking for a way to disguise their real motives."

Ms Hackitt said that to a large degree, organisations imposed health and safety restrictions less from a concern for people's safety, but from fear of no-win no-fee lawsuits for personal injury.

Ms Hackitt's comments came as Education Secretary Michael Gove joined the HSE in announcing they were tearing up much of the red tape required for children to go on school trips.

Schools and local authorities have been told by the HSE to ditch "unnecessary paperwork", in a move which the organisation hopes will dispel "myths about legal action".

The Department for Education, which has also updated its advice, says complex guidance that teachers previously needed to grapple with has been slashed from 150 pages to just eight.

Mr Gove said: "Children should be able to go on exciting school trips that broaden their horizons.

"That is why we are cutting unnecessary red tape in schools and putting teachers back in charge.

"This new, slimmer advice means a more common sense approach to health and safety. It will make it easier for schools to make lessons more inspiring and fun."

The DfE said its revised guidance:

* Summarises the legal duties of head teachers, governing bodies and local authorities on health and safety, and covers activities that take place on and off school premises;

* Makes clear that a written risk assessment does not need to be carried out every time a school takes pupils on a regular, routine local visit, for example to a swimming pool or museum;

* Tackles myths and teachers' fears about being prosecuted by making the law clearer;

* Clarifies that parental consent is not necessary for pupils to take part in the majority of off-site activities organised by a school, as most of these activities take place during school hours and are a normal part of a child's education.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling said: "Memories of our school trips stay with us. Learning outside the classroom brings the curriculum to life and is essential to our children's development.

"We cannot let confusion over health and safety requirements deprive them of the opportunities we had."

Paul Tombs, head of education at insurers Zurich Municipal, said: "Practical lessons, school trips, field research and even playground games are important aspects of education and, while schools should be safe and mindful of potential risks, should be encouraged.

"As the leading insurer of schools in the UK, our claims experience tells us that just 3 per cent of local authority personal injury claims relate to educational activities, inside and outside the classroom.

"We therefore consider that any public perception and fear over a lack of available insurance cover, or a perceived rise in premiums for these activities, is unfounded.

"We encourage schools and LEAs to adhere to current Department for Education guidance on out-of-school activities, and our practical emphasis is always on the need for effective risk assessments to be carried out by those organising these activities."