Heseltine to scrap safety laws: Shake-up aims to cut costs to industry

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The Independent Online
A RAFT of safety legislation will be scrapped in a Bill that the Government is to announce this week in the name of minimising costs to commerce and industry. It will be the biggest shake-up of health and safety law in 20 years.

Ministers will argue that safety rules impose an unacceptable burden on small businesses, but Labour and the unions are already saying the Bill will give employers a licence to kill.

Details of the reforms contained in the Deregulation Bill to be announced in the Queen's Speech to Parliament have emerged in a Department of Trade and Industry document leaked to the Independent on Sunday. The Bill will cover a huge area, ranging from a proposal to remove the obligation on employers to provide toilet rolls and soap in workplace lavatories to the partial ending of controls over industrial hazards. The release of 'non-persistent and non-accumulative substances' could in future be ignored.

One element will be the abandonment of the long- standing assumption that safety legislation can only be repealed if it is replaced by regulations just as tough.

Except in cases of particular danger, legal safeguards enacted over the years will be replaced by a 'more general, goal-based 'duty of care' guidance' to employers, suggesting that they provide 'suitable conditions' for workers.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, also wants to revoke European regulations safeguarding millions of people who work with computer screens. He plans to play down the risk of repetitive strain injury and abolish the requirement on employers to provide eye tests, and glasses if they are needed.

John Prescott, the Shadow Employment Secretary, last night furiously rejected the Bill. 'The Government is introducing new killing fields into industry. Having put so many people out of work, they now want to put those still in work into a dangerous situation where the commercial judgement of management can overrule safety practice,' he said.

A second leaked document, from the Health and Safety Executive, shows that the Government plans to revoke, in whole or part, 41 sets of regulations, and repeal all, or sections of, 13 Acts, said to have outlived their usefulness, 'as soon as possible in 1994'.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, which will launch a campaign against the proposals immediately after the Queen's Speech on Thursday, said: 'The tragedy is that the Government is determined to weaken laws intended to protect working people from death, disease and injury. The result is that ignorant and unscrupulous employers will be given the freedom to kill.'

The leaked DTI paper, which is the joint report of the seven business task forces set up by Mr Heseltine to draw up proposals for the repeal of regulations governing safety in industry. Their recommendations include:

Making temporary workers buy their own hard hats, steel- capped footwear and other protective clothing.

Removal where possible of 'over-prescriptive requirements' such as those affecting lavatories and workplace temperatures.

Telling workers it is considered safe to lift loads manually 'so long as proper care and attention is taken'.

Replacing intervention by professional independent experts with reliance on 'competent' in-house managers.

Changing the basis of consultation with workplace safety representatives.

Reassessment of European safety regulations only just coming into force.

Limiting the need for arrangements for health and safety in the workplace to 'significant activities'.

Providing the minimum of facilities, such as windows or smoke-free zones, required by EC directives.

The DTI argues that the plethora of health and safety acts stretching back over a century 'makes it impossible to understand which laws apply, what they require, what has been established by case law. This puts businessmen in an impossible position. '

The task forces insist that overlapping, conflicting, obsolete legislation is 'a very serious burden to managers - and small businessmen in particular'.

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