Why David Cameron is wrong on health and safety

A few years ago, David Cameron was saying things like “Let sunshine win the day” (Winner of the RoundSpericalsRUs prize for the most fatuous statement by a politician in the history of mankind), that he is a “liberal Conservative” and going on about the quality of life.

Well, have a read of his speech on health and safety this week, if you haven’t already done so. It marks a complete full circle which has been navigated by Cameron over the last four years. Welcome back the David Cameron – in my view as near to the real David Cameron as we’ll ever get – that wrote the 2005 Tory manifesto, called the most right-wing document ever presented to the British public.

The speech is astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. Everyone should read it.

Simon Hoggart described it well as the sort of speech a cabbie would deliver (that’s an insult to cabbies, actually), and said Cameron was aiming to be the “thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson”.

The speech is based on claptrap. Absolute claptrap. Worse than that. It is laughable. It is virtually beyond parody. It is a self-parody without knowing it. Zoe Williams in the Guardian has beautifully deconstructed it.

Cameron spooled out a whole series of ‘facts’ which are in fact myths which are so mythical that several of them are actually listed as “Myths of the month” by the Health and Safety Executive website. Indeed, the HSE has actually produced cartoon posters of at least three of them!

Take the one which has got several headlines: “When children are made to wear goggles by their headteacher to play conkers…”

This is priceless. As far back as September 2007, the Health and Safety Exceutive website made this “Myth of the month”, announcing:

Myth: Kids must wear goggles to play conkers….

The reality: This is one of the oldest chestnuts around, a truly classic myth. A well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently some schools appear to have banned conkers on ‘health & safety’ grounds or made children wear goggles, or even padded gloves!

Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that’s a discipline issue, not health and safety.

So one of the ‘facts’ underlying Cameron’s major speech is not only a myth, it’s a “truly classic myth” according to the Health and Safety Executive. No half measures with Cameron.

Have a look at the website. Several pieces of Cameron’s utter codswallop are there as a myth – school fetes being cancelled because of red tape, too many warning notices etc.

But the real danger of Cameron’s speech is that, tucked away in it, he’s proposing some really regressive steps. For example:

At the moment, staffing needs in the NHS are being undermined by European regulations that dictate the number of hours that junior doctors are allowed to work.

That’s why we want to negotiate the restoration of Britain’s control over EU social and employment legislation, in particular the aspects of the Working Time Directive which are causing the most problems in our public services.

Let’s be clear here. Cameron is saying that junior doctors should “be allowed” (some might say “compelled” or at least “obliged”) to work more than 48 hours per week. 48 hours per week. That’s six full days’ work for most people or five days working 9.6 hours.

Simple question: Why? Why should people doing a highly skilled job, often meeting symptoms for the first time be expected to work more than six full days’ work a week, any more than we would expect a lorry driver to work more hours than is safe. Do we want to go back to the days of junior doctors being obliged to work for such long hours that they start to make more mistakes than when they are reasonably fresh?

Smuggled in amongst the laughable sanctimonious, oleaginous, patronising, disingenuous nonsense of Cameron’s health and safety speech there is real danger of regression for this country.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “Simple question: Why?”

    Why should they be stopped from doing so if they want to? In my previous job I sometimes had to work more than 48 hours, it was necessary to get the job done.

  • Paul Griffiths 5th Dec '09 - 4:18pm

    “In my previous job I sometimes had to work more than 48 hours, it was necessary to get the job done.”

    48 hours is the average over 17 weeks, so “sometimes” having to work more is allowed.

    It’s important not to conflate two issues: (1) Should the state regulate how many hours people work? (2) Is this something that should be decided at the EU level?

  • Paul Griffiths 5th Dec '09 - 5:01pm

    AIUI, opt-out isn’t available to trainee doctors. I don’t think lorry drivers can opt-out either. There may be others.

  • Good article Paul. I think that Cameron had to move swiftly away from the ‘obvious’ Euro-bashing after the referendum debacle, so is now out to get the next easy target. For my sins, part of my job involves health and safety and yes, all the quotes are myth of the month. however, many accidents at work are due to individual errors (to put it politely) who are able to sue, purely because there wasn’t an effective risk assessment. I know of an example where a person decided to try and sort out the light bulb on their desk with a chair with wheels, it ended in tears. As ever, there is a balance somewhere but as ever, this doesn’t make the headlines. So its from bendy bananas to health and safety gone mad. hopefully it will keep the blue rinse brigade happy.

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