Victorian era workers’ rights scrapped by Coalition

01 May 2013 The Coalition is to "review" health and safety enforcement and make injured workers fight for their rights.

1 May 2013| News

01 May 2013

The Coalition is to “review” health and safety enforcement and make injured workers fight for their rights.

The Coalition’s bizarre battle against the laws which protect employees in the workplace has been proven redundant again and again, yet the Tory-led government keeps stepping up its attack on health and safety regulations.

Last week, on the 25th April 2013, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill was granted royal assent, bringing into law the government’s widely unpopular proposals to scrap employers’ 114-year-old liability for their staff’s health and safety in the workplace.

This means that the burden of proof now falls on the employee to show that the employer had been negligent in their duties towards them, rather than the employer being asked to prove they were following regulations correctly, as has been the case since the Victorian era. This is likely to result in injured workers, and the families of the deceased, being unable to claim compensation for their losses due to accidents at the workplace, seeing as the evidence needed to prove negligence is held by the employer rather than the employee – and employers guilty of negligence are unlikely to willingly hand over the proof.

Despite strong opposition in the House of the Lords – which initially rejected the proposals – the new legislation was voted into Clause 61 of the ERR Bill early last week. Right until the end of the debate, peers repeatedly highlighted that the government was unable to provide adequate justification for abolishing workers’ rights in this way. Previously in debate, the Coalition’s reasoning that its plans would chip away at the UK’s “compensation culture” was proven nonsensical when the government’s own impact assessment admitted that there is no evidence the so-called “compensation culture” actually exists. Instead, it seems employers perceive there to be a greater risk of vexatious legal action than there actually is, and many misunderstand what health and safety regulations require them to do. For these reasons, overcompliance with health and safety laws is relatively common. In fact, Professor Ragnar Löfstedt highlighted this in his Reclaiming Health and Safety For All review in 2011. He argued that “the problem lies less with the regulations themselves and more with the way they are interpreted and applied”. He also recommended that UK health and safety legislation is not in need of the severe cuts the government has proposed and gradually been implementing.

The proposals were rushed into the ERR Bill at the eleventh hour, prompting Keith Patten of Thompsons Solicitors to warn that action was needed to raise awareness of this drastic change to the law so it could not “slip in under the radar as a ‘technical amendment'”.

In addition, the Coalition has shocked health and safety campaigners by apparently considering the abolition of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which currently inspects workplaces and enforces the law, as well as providing guidance to both employers and employees.

On April 25th 2013, Minister for Employment Mark Hoban announced the HSE would be reviewed. “The first stage of the review will identify and examine the key functions of HSE. The review will assess how the functions contribute to the core business of HSE and DWP, and whether these functions are still needed,” a government statement read.

“If the conclusion is that the functions are still required, the review will then examine whether HSE as currently constituted remains the best way to perform those functions, or if another delivery method might be more appropriate,” it was explained.

The HSE has already seen swingeing cuts to its funding which have contributed to a sharp decline in workplace inspections.

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