Regulation is the backbone of a civilised society. However, it’s not just about legislation or rules.
They are a key part of establishing expectations, but regulation goes beyond this to include; establishing understanding of requirements, responsibilities and accountabilities; guidance to support compliance; establishing and operating a process of enforcement for compliance, and having a sanctioning regime to address non-compliance.
Effective and proportionate regulation is a positive thing. It creates a level playing field, ensures ethical conduct and protects people, property and assets. However, if any part of the regulatory framework breaks down, then the consequences can be significant.
For example, in preparation for the hurricane Irma US Police explained that they would not be patrolling or answering emergency calls once the winds reached a specified level, encouraging people to evacuate the area in order to ensure their own safety.
Subsequent news reports identified instances of burglary and looting which had occurred in the height of the storm. Despite the most extreme of weather conditions some individuals had taken advantage of the absence of policing to commit crimes against people who had complied with instructions to evacuate.
Closer to home, it is likely that shortcomings in the regulatory process played a part in the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. There are suggestions that the legal framework for building and fire safety has become over complicated; that there is confusion over responsibilities; and that enforcement is patchy and variable.
In the weeks following the disaster, the British Safety Council co-signed a letter to the prime minister, expressing the view that the government’s deregulation agenda must not be allowed to compromise the safety of workers or the public. This was followed up with a debate in the House of Lords, and last month we met with key government officials to discuss our concerns in detail.
There are a number of investigations and inquiries ongoing following the fire at Grenfell Tower. Most notably, a public inquiry will examine the circumstances leading up to and following the fire; and a detailed review of building and fire regulations led by Judith Hackitt, former chair of the HSE, began last month and has just issued a call for evidence.
These investigations must proceed swiftly so that conclusions can be reached and action taken in order to mitigate the risk of another tragedy on this scale. Experts are recommending significant changes to the regulatory regime for fire safety and for building standards, and there is a determination that action should be taken retrospectively, rather than just being applied to new projects.
Of course, nothing can mitigate the impact that the fire has had on those involved, but I hope that survivors and rescuers will take some comfort in knowing that lessons have been learned and action is being taken to reduce the chances of a recurrence.
The enforcement framework for occupational health and safety in the UK is widely acknowledged to be highly effective. But could there be threats on the horizon?
Austerity and government budget cuts have definitely reduced the resources available to regulators, particularly in the sectors regulated by Local Authorities, significantly hit by funding reductions. Many people feel that the relationship between HSE and dutyholders has suffered from the introduction of the fee for intervention charging system.
There is concern that some ACoPS (approved codes of practice) have been withdrawn, and that guidance material is being sourced through industry bodies rather than developed by the regulator themselves. The Brexit process is also happening. As negotiations proceed, it will be important to ensure that standards are maintained in legal framework for health, safety, fire precautions, product standards, chemical safety and environmental protection.
It is important that every regulatory framework is kept under review in order to ensure that it remains efficient and fit for purpose, and we should take every opportunity to remove obsolete requirements and optimise the framework. However, there is a balance to be found between efficiency and effectiveness, and the British Safety Council is working with IOSH, RoSPA and other industry groups to help ensure that this balance is maintained.
Louise Ward is director of policy, communications and standards at the British Safety Council
By Charles Pitt, British Safety Council on 14 July 2020
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