David Cameron’s speech on health and safety at Policy Exchange was on the whole rather refreshing and worthy perhaps of a modicum of praise. The central message was right: that the health and safety bureaucracy “treats adults like children, encouraging them to think that others have considered the risks for them, are taking responsibility for them, so they don’t have to think or take responsibility for themselves".
As such, Cameron has asked Lord Young to lead an extensive review to determine the clear principles of any health and safety legislation and to look into curbing the compensation culture built around it. As both are at route the fault of government, it is well within Cameron’s power to effect change if elected.
Despite this praise, the falsities in Cameron’s speech should not go unnoticed. Though critical of health and safety legislation, he argues there are three reasons why people still need protecting. These being a lack of information, the abuse of power by employers and market failures.
In a free market economy a lack of information is not a problem. The reputation of companies rises and falls upon the health and safety of what they are offering, through the feedback mechanisms of purchases and publicity. So customer is king and reputation and branding become everything. This best explains why Coca Cola is not poisoning its customers.
The power dissymmetry and market failure arguments are also unconvincing. The reason workers are better protected than in the past is the result and luxury of economic growth. Health and safety regulations that are in force do one of three things: all are bad. Firstly and most benignly, they are a waste of resources to administer standards that the market would otherwise provide. Secondly, they are a distraction from safety measures that are not regulated, but could otherwise be attended to if it wasn’t for the costs of administering unnecessary regulations. And finally and most perniciously, regulations can stop economic activity that would otherwise take place between two consenting parties. As Cameron stated in his speech “Excessive rules have given the impression that we have a right to a risk-free life… The consequence has been spiralling costs and a slow death of discretion, judgement and social responsibility".
I'll conclude with the words of John Blundell: "Socialism survives, by transmuting itself into new forms. State-run enterprises are now frowned upon, but the ever-expanding volume of regulation-financial, environmental, health and safety-serves to empower the state by other means". It is time to turn the tide.