Heseltine sharpens axe for safety laws

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THE Government is pressing ahead with plans to abolish safety laws that have steadily brought down the rate of accidents at work over the past two decades.

A draft of the Deregulation Bill, leaked to The Independent on Sunday, makes it clear that key provisions of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act will be repealed.

The Bill, to be published in January by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, will give him powers to annul safety regulations simply by introducing a statutory instrument in the Commons.

This measure ends the long-standing legal requirement that safety law can only be repealed if something tougher or just as stringent is enacted in its place.

The reform is strongly opposed by some senior officials of the Health and Safety Executive, whose pounds 77,000-a-year chief executive, John Rimington, is said to be at the centre of a row between his sponsoring ministry, the Department of Employment, and Mr Heseltine's Department of Trade and Industry, which is spearheading the drive for deregulation.

Health and Safety officials privately argue that pounds 450,000 allocated for a massive consultation exercise with industry and commerce early next year is a waste of money, because the draft Bill clearly shows that the Government has already made up its mind to go for abolition of the key safeguard.

John Prescott, shadow employment secretary, said: 'This proposal tears the heart out of the 1974 Act. It will be paid for in greater loss of life and accidents, and it will be bitterly opposed. The quietest voice in all this has been the Health and Saftey Executive. I want to know if HSE is just complying with the Government's wishes - or opposing.'

Labour MPs are incensed at the leaked version of the Deregulation Bill. They argue that DTI ministers will use the Government's majority to railroad through statutory instruments, which are often brought to Parliament late at night and approved virtually without debate.

The Deregulation Bill could also bring Britain into conflict with the EC over safety. Most recent steps in this area have been taken as a result of European Directives, including regulations covering millions of workers who use VDU screens. The DTI wants these provisions watered down or scrapped.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB union, which is campaigning against the reforms, said: 'This is headlamps on, full beam, foot down, head-on for a legal collision with Europe.'

The DTI, the Employment Department and the HSE would not comment last night. However, the Employment Minister, Michael Forsyth, has condemned Opposition talk of 'killing fields' in industry as 'poppycock'. He insists: 'There is no plan to sacrifice the high standards of health and safety already in place. The aim is to improve them by judicious pruning.'