Row as Cameron backs health and safety shake-up

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A fierce row over health and safety was raging tonight after the Government pledged to tackle the UK's "damaging" compensation culture to the delight of business leaders but sparking anger from unions.

The Prime Minister said he accepted a series of far-reaching recommendations from former Tory Cabinet minister Lord Young, who complained that despite the success of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, the standing of health and safety in the eyes of the public had never been lower.

David Cameron said he hoped the report, Common Sense, Common Safety, would prove to be a "turning point", with a new system being introduced to replace "unnecessary bureaucracy".

The Prime Minister pledged to curtail the promotional activities of claims and management companies he said had helped fuel the compensation culture, adding that some of the proposals could require regulation.

He said the changes proposed to the litigation process would "help stop the creep of unnecessary health and safety culture" in the UK.

Business groups lined up to welcome the changes as "long overdue", but the TUC complained that the report did not contain a single proposal which will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness, while one union leader described it as a "hatchet job".

Lord Young said there was a "growing fear" among business owners of having to pay out for even the most unreasonable claims, adding: "Press articles recounting stories where health and safety rules have been applied in the most absurd manner, or disproportionate compensation claims have been awarded for trivial reasons, are a daily feature of our newspapers.

"Businesses now operate their health and safety policies in a climate of fear. The advent of no win, no fee claims and the all-pervasive advertising by claims management companies have significantly added to the belief that there is a nationwide compensation culture.

"The no win, no fee system gives rise to the perception that there is no financial risk to starting litigation. Indeed, some individuals are given financial enticements to make claims by claims management companies who are in turn paid ever-increasing fees by solicitors.

"Ultimately, all these costs are met by insurance companies who then increase premiums."

Recommendations included:

* Introduce a simplified claims procedure for personal injury claims, similar to that for road traffic accidents, under £10,000 on a fixed-costs basis.

* Clarify, through legislation if necessary, that people will not be held liable for any consequences due to well-intentioned voluntary acts.

* Simplify the risk assessment procedure for low-hazard workplaces such as offices, classrooms and shops.

* Stop insurance companies requiring businesses operating in low-hazard environments to employ health and safety consultants to carry out full health and safety risk assessments.

* Ensure that where health and safety consultants are employed to carry out full assessments, only qualified consultants who are included on the web-based directory should be used.

* Simplify the process that schools and similar organisations undertake before taking children on trips.

* Introduce a single consent form that covers all activities a child may undertake during his or her time at school.

* Introduce a simplified risk assessment for classrooms.

* Shift from a system of risk assessment to a system of risk-benefit assessment and consider reviewing the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to separate out play and leisure from workplace contexts.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Instead of looking for ways of preventing people being killed and injured, the report uncritically accepts the myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety, and focuses on dealing with a compensation culture which the Government accepts does not exist.

"This report is a missed opportunity to improve the UK's workplace safety record and by failing to challenge the myths around health and safety it could actually make things much worse."

Dr Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "Lord Young's recommendations are both sensible and long overdue. Businesses have long said that health and safety rules cannot be applied to hazardous environments and offices in the same way - and that there are too many burdens involved in allowing employees to work from home."

John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said: "Lord Young is right. We need a can-do, not a can-sue culture. This report rightly criticises the tick-box approach to health and safety for drowning people in red tape."

Linda Lee, president of the Law Society, said claims of a compensation culture were not justified by the facts, adding: "Solicitors weed out unjustified claims at an early stage."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "It will be Lord Young's proposals, not the current health and safety rules, that will discourage school trips. It is just not true to say risk assessments prevent trips taking place.

"To say that teachers shouldn't consider risks before taking children and young people out on trips just seems absurd."

Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport union said the report was a "hatchet job", adding: "There are already so few inspectors out there that a workplace can expect to be visited only once in four decades."