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Plans to dilute industrial safety laws abandoned

GOVERNMENT plans for sweeping 'deregulation' of health and safety laws at work have been abandoned.

A White Paper on competitiveness, to be published on Tuesday, will show that ministers have given up most of their proposals to water down existing safety legislation.

Instead, the document will reveal the Government's intention to 'tidy up' the law so that about 100 regulations referring to long extinct industries and processes are repealed.

The drive by Michael Forsyth, the Thatcherite employment minister, to remove what he regarded as 'red tape' has been thwarted by a combination of European legislation and a stout defence of the existing system by the Health and Safety Commission.

The Health and Safety Executive, which operates on behalf of the commission, would have faced a considerable reduction in its role.

Objections to health and safety laws from some employers and safety consultants, on the grounds that they restrained business competitiveness, were seen to have little foundation. Many large companies saw no reason for major surgery to an existing statute which contains 400 sets of regulations.

One informed source said there had been a 'lot of bluff and bluster' by ministers about deregulation of health and safety, but changes to the law suggested by the commission in a review were minimal and that had been accepted by the Government.

Senior factory inspectors say that the Health and Safety Executive had performed an 'exceptional job' in defending the service, and the White Paper would reflect that.

Arguments by ministers that the self-employed in particular were 'over-burdened' with rules have borne little fruit. A proposal that small firms should regulate themselves has been abandoned.

The executive argued in its review paper that there were a range of potential business benefits from existing legislation such as reduction in lost production, less absence through sickness, fewer compensation claims, lower insurance premiums and improvements in quality.

One remaining area of concern for factory inspectors however is that the Government might eventually seek to water down statutory 'codes of practice' which are seen to be almost as regulatory as law itself. That was a 'real danger' according to one source.

The review of the work of the executive began a year ago and involved seven task groups made up of nominees from the CBI and trade unions, and one representative of small business.

They tested each piece of legislation against three criteria: whether the law was relevant and necessary; an assessment of the burdens on business; and whether the potential benefits justified the regulations.