By Daniel Hunter

From today (Monday) small businesses found in ‘material breach’ of health and safety regulations will have to cover the cost of their own inspections under the Government’s new ‘fee for intervention’ rules — a move the Forum of Private Business believes could lead to heavy-handed and inconsistent treatment.

The Forum’s Senior Policy Adviser, Alex Jackman, called on the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to clarify what constitutes a breach — warning that the present uncertainty might produce very different interpretations by individual inspectors on a business-to-business basis.

“Of course we need effective laws governing health and safety in the workplace — and for these laws to be policed — but a situation where breaches are being diagnosed in anything other than a standardised way is not acceptable,” said Mr Jackman.

“The danger is that this move will simply fuel the HSE’s cost recovery drive and it could lead to wildly different interpretations among inspectors as to what constitutes a breach in the first place. We need clarification without delay.

“Further, given the importance of restoring trust between regulators and small businesses, threatening them with yet more non-compliance fines is entirely the wrong approach — they need information, support and guidance.

“We want every government department to understand the significant financial demands on business at present. There needs to be greater understanding shown by enforcement officers that firms face a number of inspections from multiple agencies across all aspects of their business.”

Responding to a consultation into the move, the Forum submitted evidence showing that business owners have serious doubts about the proposed system of charges. They are also calling for significant measures to ease health and safety red tape.

In May 2012, just 3% of the Forum’s Health and Safety Panel members argued that businesses should pay the full cost of the Fee for Intervention operation. A total of 62% felt that recovery costs should be scaled according to the size of a business and more than 90% that either the size of the business or the seriousness of the breach should have an impact on the level of costs.

The panel was also asked to comment on the Government’s Löfstedt review of health and safety regulation. In all, 87% of panel members agreed with the review’s strategic aims, with the focus on common sense and streamlining laws particularly welcomed.

Business benefits of good health and safety

The Forum’s Health and Safety Panel members felt that the business benefits of good health and safety practices and policies were greatest locally, notably amongst caterers, garages and manufacturers, with 48% stating they believe a good health and safety policy gave them a competitive advantage in their local area.

In all, 42% of businesses felt that the HSE should be given authority over local enforcement activity as this would potentially lead to greater consistency, citing its expertise and existing geographical inconsistencies in enforcement.

However, 57% of respondents disagreed and there were real concerns that the HSE’s approach would be too heavy handed — despite recognition of the benefits of putting in place good health and safety procedures.

Respondents said the advantages include that it gives the perception that the company is better organised than its rivals, strengthens local reputation and allows them to compete more effectively for tenders.

Good health and safety was also seen by panellists as useful in terms of reducing staff absences so that work can be completed in a timely and effective manner.

In terms of support wanted by businesses, many believed the HSE should issue more free advice leaflets — 89% of members surveyed found the Forum's Health and Safety Guide to be a useful tool.

Contained within the Forum’s practical health and safety package, and complete with sample health and safety policy templates, the step-by-step guide gives business owners the peace of mind that they are legally compliant and helps them provide a safe working environment for their employees and customers.

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