By Claire West
Entrepreneurs want a Government review of health and safety laws to focus on removing the excessive bureaucracy stifling their businesses and threatening economic growth, according to the Forum of Private Business.
The Forum’s latest research shows that almost one in five businesses are sceptical that the probe will deliver what they want — freedom from the bureaucratic barriers and a more ‘common sense’ approach.
Ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) on 20 October, the Forum is arguing that reducing regulatory waste could help the Government cut the budget deficit and remove some of the annual £12 billion per year that costs small businesses to comply with the law.
At the Conservative Party Conference this week Prime Minister David Cameron insisted “slashing red tape” will be central to freeing the UK’s small business “wealth creators”.
His comments followed the Conservative Peer Lord Young’s announcement of a review of the UK’s health and safety culture — addressing a range of issues including local councils banning events out of health and safety fears — but some have criticised the review for appearing to focus on specific, well-publicised incidents of ‘health and safety gone mad’ rather than real concerns.
In all, 59% of respondents to the Forum’s Health and Safety Member Panel survey are confident such a review will be beneficial — but almost one in five (18%) are sceptical that it will have any positive impact on reducing the burden of red tape. The remainder are unsure.
The same number are not confident that their businesses are complying with current health and safety legislation, reflecting concerns about the legislation rather than their own internal procedures. Just 4% of Forum members are not sure their staff understand the firm’s health and safety procedures.
“We welcome any commitment to remove the barriers created by excessive health and safety laws, many of which appear to have little practical purpose and seem to be directed at large companies but tie up small firms in the process,” said the Forum’s Research Manager Tom Parry. “But many of details of where the Government will focus its efforts have yet to be fully outlined. Having seen similar initiatives in the past, some small businesses we represent are understandably sceptical.
“But in the Comprehensive Spending Review we have a genuine opportunity. Forget all the scare stories, our members have identified the real problems of health and safety they find most burdensome and we are suggesting positive ways of redressing the balance by removing red tape for the sake of efficiency and in order to free up entrepreneurship.”
Excessive Health and Safety
Business owners consider health and safety insurance to be the most burdensome area of health and safety law, with 28% believing the requirements expected of them are excessive.
Many are concerned that requirements in this area have been devised solely with big businesses in mind and others reported that restrictive bureaucratic standards are often considered higher than ‘industry norms’.
Some business owners feel that the cost of insurance is also prohibitive and that some organisations (particularly in the public sector) demand excessive insurance levels. Others feel that ‘insurance’ is often used as an excuse to avoid carrying out work.
Fire regulations are deemed to be excessive by just over one in five members surveyed (21%) and those relating to ‘other workplace hazards’, ranging from working with Visual Display Units (VDUs) to manual handling and varying by industry sector, by 19% of respondents. In all, 17% consider electrical safety laws to be excessive, with cost and regularity of checks major concerns.
A total of 56% of respondents are concerned that public sector cuts, for example any affecting public procurement or emergency services, could hinder their ability to comply with health and safety. However, more than one in five (22%) feel that cuts could be useful if they result in less complicated law, more stability in the culture of regulation and less duplication between agencies.
On potential solutions to the problem of excessive red tape, in the area of government policy 34% of respondents said fewer regulatory bodies would help small businesses and a quarter (25%) called for a moratorium of some kind on new regulations. In addition, one in five Forum members (20%) feel computerised risk assessments are beneficial.
Of possible legislative reforms, most popular would be those leading to greater support over risk assessments and on other areas of legal compliance, which found favour with 63% of Forum members. Just 3% believe this would have a negative impact.
Reducing the level of form filling and other written administration for businesses with fewer than 20 is viewed as a positive proposal by half of all members surveyed (50%), but just under a third (31%) disagree.
Further, 44% of respondents would welcome tougher penalties for health and safety prosecutions proven to be motivated by malice (just 6% disagree), a third (33%) feel an accreditation scheme for health and safety consultants would be beneficial, while 7% think would not be, and 23% agree that better marketing of accreditation systems to reward SMEs for best practice would help (7% feel it would not).
While 27% of respondents welcome removing health and safety legislation office environments, and also making health and safety laws more industry-specific, more (33%) disagree. On the subject of separating the advice and enforcement roles of the Health and Safety Executive, members are split with 24% believing this to be a good idea and 25% a bad idea. The reminder feel such a separation would have no impact.
In September, the Government launched a new ‘one-in, one-out’ system of regulation, which is welcome providing complying with the incoming laws does no prove to be even more onerous than outgoing legislation and that the newly-strengthened Regulatory Policy Committee’ is able to enforce a real culture of ‘regulation as a last resort’.
The Forum is submitting its CSR proposals on red tape via the organisation’s Communications Director business support solution. In addition to streamlining the tax system to make tax compliance easier and more cost effective, the Forum is calling on the Government to:
Work to limit further EU social regulation, particularly legislation which has a debilitating impact on small firms' abilities to trade profitably, treat their employees equally and compete in a global market.
Give the mediation body Acas powers to throw out unreasonable claims by employees against employers before they reach the tribunal stage.
Clarify what small businesses are required to do on a practical level so that all businesses undertake similar workplace processes.
Rebalance the rights of employers and individual employees.
According to the Forum’s ‘cost of compliance’ research, which was carried out in 2009, complying with red tape costs the UK’s small employers £12 billion per year.
Employment law is the costliest bureaucratic burden at £2.4 billion per year, health and safety administration costs £2.1 billion and tax £1.8 billion per year. Overall, small business employers devote an average of 37 hours each month to complying with regulations.
Business owners taking part in the latest member panel research recognised the benefits of putting in place good health and safety policies and procedures. In all, 86% cited ‘reduced risks’, 74% ‘fewer accidents’, 70% ‘reduced threat of legal action’, 34% ‘improved standing among competitors and suppliers’ and 34% ‘better reputation of corporate responsibility’.
In addition, 29% said ‘lower employee absence’, 17% ‘increased productivity and staff motivation’ and 14% ‘higher employee retention rates’.