Slippery when wet: is health and safety a left-right issue?

Sunday 31 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Henry Moore Gallery Breakfast Banter

‘elf-&-safety-gone-mad stories have long been a staple of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. There seems to be no end of crazy examples of toddlers made to wear crash helmets at nursery or policemen told not to chase criminals in case they fall over. Health & Safety is often regarded as a cousin of Political Correctness: both seemingly abandon common sense in the name of a worthy cause, tying people up in burdensome regulations and procedures in order to prevent the slightest mishap or offence. But as with PC, people of a more left-wing sensibility are often uneasy with the apparently right-wing tone taken by critics of Health & Safety. Some dismiss their concerns as so much Daily Mail bluster about the ‘Nanny State’, and insist that strong regulations are necessary to protect children, workers and the general public. It sometimes appears this is a good old-fashioned left-right issue, and some ‘righties’ hope that with the Conservatives back in government, and Lord Young charged with restoring common sense to such regulations, we can expect an end to the excesses of Elf & Safety. Or if the ‘left’ is right, should Accident & Emergency departments be bracing themselves?

Health & Safety regulations first emerged because of very real concerns about safety in the workplace, and were often campaigned for by trades unions seeking to protect their members. For many on the left, the issue remains one of protecting workers from unscrupulous bosses seeking every penny of profit even if it means risking their employees’ lives. But there is surely a difference between ensuring there are adequate safety guards on dangerous machinery and insisting on boring and time-consuming safety courses for office workers. So has Health & Safety simply gone too far? Others suggest newer dynamic is at work, less about protecting workers than absolving employers and public bodies of responsibility. Some blame a litigious ‘compensation culture’ for the apparent explosion of safety rules, guidelines and handbooks. Others believe a more general collapse of confidence among professionals and the general public is causing people to defer to rules and regulations rather than taking responsibilty and making sensible judgements about what is and isn’t safe. After all, a similar ‘cotton wool’ sensibility seems to afflict parenting and childcare.

What is behind the rise of Elf & Safety, and will a new, ‘commonsense’ government make a difference? Where do we draw the line between sensible precautions and nutty regulations? Is it possible to unban conkers from school playgrounds and let office workers pick up the odd box of copier paper, without seeing builders hurtle from scaffoldings and motorists impale themselves on their gearsticks as a result?

Listen to session audio:


Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

John Torode
freelance political and diplomatic journalist and travel writer; formerly political commentator, leader writer and political ghostwriter, Daily Mail

Paul Thomas
civil servant; qualified FE teacher; organiser, Leeds Salon

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Recommended readings
The Case for Health and Safety

In recent years there has been a growing belief that the workplace is a much safer place than it was, most workers are at little risk, and that as a result much of the regulation that we have is unnecessary.

TUC, September 2010

Health and safety laws are costing jobs

Britain's onerous health and safety laws are stifling enterprise and may have pushed up unemployment, the peer appointed to review the legislation warned last night.

Daily Telegraph, 28 August 2010

Dispelling the myths around health and safety

The head of the Health and Safety Executive tells Jane Dudman why workplace wellbeing is non-negotiable

Jane Durman, Guardian, 1 July 2010

Gone mad: Tories on health and safety

Tory talk is of a rise of compensation claims over the last ten years yet successive reports illustrate there is no such thing and that claims have, in fact, been falling over the past decade.

Hannah Blythyn, Progress, 17 June 2010

David Cameron declares war on the nonsense of the over-the-top health and safety culture

Whilst most health and safety regulations over the last couple of centuries have been noble and welcome, he will say that

Jonathan Isaby, ConservativeHome, 1 December 2009

Cameron peddling half-truths and myths about health and safety – TUC

Brendan Barber urges Tory leader not to undermine cross-party consensus on safety legislation

Andrew Sparrow, Guardian, 1 December 2009

Attention Please

Attention Please is a photobook of unnecessary, absurd and patronising safety warnings in public space, submitted to us by members of the public over 2008-9.

Manifesto Club, 2 July 2009

Session partners