Are the rules simply there to be broken?

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Do we value regulations enough, or are we better off without them? Most of the time, many of us never pause to think about the rules that govern us, so embedded are they in our daily life.

Our sandwich is chilled at the right temperature, so it does not make us sick. A car stops at a zebra crossing when we wait to cross it. The sprinkler system in a large office block successfully puts out a fire before it does much damage or any harm to life.

None of these are news headlines, but all could be if the reverse were true. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we cannot escape the often invisible limits and boundaries designed to keep us safe.

There are times when the need for regulations is all too obvious. The past two years is a case in point, when rules and laws were introduced to protect us all from a new life-threatening, highly contagious disease. We did some things we’d never dreamed or heard of, like mask wearing and social distancing.

Now these regulations are being relaxed, and it is down to us to make our own judgements, it remains to be seen whether they will be needed again.

Indeed, self-regulation has been a successful hallmark of the British regulatory system, especially when coupled with high levels of scrutiny by the media. This includes the British Lion Quality Mark, put on eggs by manufacturers to increase confidence following the salmonella outbreak.

One area of regulation where the UK can rightly be seen as a world leader, is our health and safety regulatory regime.

In the decades since the landmark Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was passed, the UK has led the way in bringing down rates of deaths, accidents, and injuries at work. Indeed, 40 years on and fatal injuries to employees had fallen by 87 per cent while reported non-fatal injuries had gone down by over 70 per cent.

In the coming months, in these pages and elsewhere, we will mark 50 years since the Robens Report on Safety and Health at Work was published. This paved the way for that major piece of legislation as well as the creation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). We will be asking what’s changed since then and looking at what lies ahead for health and safety.

It seems to me, by and large, most people like rules that keep them safe and ensure they are not ripped off, injured or killed. Other laws can seem positively archaic or frankly ridiculous. You are not, for example, permitted to carry a plank of wood on a pavement in London, unless you are unloading it from a vehicle. The same goes for casks, tubs, hoops, wheels, ladders, poles and placards.

Is this the ‘nanny state gone mad’? Or maybe just unenforceable nonsense we can all quite safely do without? It’s a judgement the UK government is making on many major areas of our law now that we have left the European Union.

On the one hand, the government is increasing its powers. The new Online Safety Bill, the Building Safety Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are all examples where we will see greater controls being introduced.

On the other hand, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency wrote to Sun newspaper readers asking for ideas for where the government can abolish regulations that ‘make life harder for small businesses… shut out competition, or simply increase the cost of operating’.

The callous way P&O Ferries went about cutting its own operating costs last month should give us all pause to reflect. It raised serious questions about not just the legality of its actions but also the safety of its operations going forward, should it not train its new, cheaper crew members to the same high standards. There are some instances where having strong rules in place is in everyone’s interests, as this once great UK company may yet discover.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council


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