Adrian Beecroft’s report on suggested changes to employment law in the UK has generated a great deal of controversy, from a very public swapping of insults with business secretary Vince Cable to becoming a rallying cry for those who see reducing red tape as key to generating economic recovery.

The context for this report and reactions to it is, of course, the recession and its handling by the coalition government. According to the Office of National Statistics, the UK economy shrank by 0.3% in the first three months of 2012, following a 0.3% fall in the fourth quarter of 2011. When the global financial crisis hit, the unemployment rate was a little over 5% or 1.6 million; it now stands at almost 2.7 million (over 8%), its highest level for 17 years.

Given the challenge, the government is looking for ideas to get growth back into the economy and one broad area they have settled on is ‘cutting red-tape’. The argument is that reducing the scope and application of laws such as employment (and health and safety) law will remove direct or administrative costs and encourage businesses to take the risk to hire new staff.
Two specific proposals, both of which have generated considerable opposition, have implications, if implemented, that go way beyond employment rights and for reasons set out later could have a major impact on the health and wellbeing of the workforce or particular sections of the workforce. The first proposal is to extend the qualifying period for making a claim of unfair dismissal from one to two years.

The second and most controversial proposal is the so-called compensated no-fault dismissal, applicable to those businesses employing ten or fewer members of staff. This means, in effect, if you work for a small business you can be dismissed at any time and you will not be able to take your case to an employment tribunal to determine the outcome of the dispute.
Adrian Beecroft’s report does seem to have pressed a nerve in the body politic. There is a concern being voiced in some quarters that the government’s political narrative of deficit reduction, necessary pain and the call that ‘we are all in this together’, is not quite working out. To some interest groups, including but not exclusively the trade unions and those representing employment relations practitioners, the Beecroft proposals will result in the erosion of employment protection with workers having to bear more than their fair share of pain.

The question of a worker’s employment protection is a subject that interests us all in health and safety. Employment law and industrial relations that encourage safety cultures is an important part of the jigsaw that ensures workers stay healthy and safe. For example, although the Health and Safety at Work Act is untouched by these proposals, it does give effect to obligations that need broader regulatory support to flourish, such as Section 2 which calls upon employers and employees to co-operate effectively. Or, for example, it is unclear what impact the changes to employment tribunals will have on anyone claiming unfair dismissal or ‘detrimental’ treatment due to a disclosure (or ‘whistleblowing’) under protections given by the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998.

Apart from any suspicion for the government’s narrative, there is another underlying attitude that these proposals express which anyone interested in health and safety must face. That is the trade-off between short-term cost and long-term reward. The report seems to come down on the side of addressing short-term costs as a way to address questions of long-term competitiveness.
It is a lesson we are still not learning. Embracing short-term costs for long-term benefits is also at the heart of the business case for good health and safety. Workers who are trained, engaged and well led will tend to be more productive, with fewer costs from sickness absence, injury or ill health. There are long-term rewards to be gained from this investment in the here and now, irrespective of the moral case to do so.

We also know that good health and safety is not solely about regulations and the law. That is why many of us work hard to raise awareness on health and safety; provide freely available information and guidance; communicate the importance of proactive leadership and engagement of staff and form part of a system of third parties who deliver competent advice and provide training. We cannot pretend that Beecroft’s proposals, if fully implemented, would be the end of the great strides we have made to reduce injury and ill-health.

The British Safety Council’s own research (and HSE’s) shows the importance of people speaking up if they feel unsafe. Articulating such concerns by workers is a vital part of the good health and safety jigsaw. Good employers actively promote it. But changes suggested by Beecroft may undermine the confidence workers need to have in the systems available to protect them or represent their interests. With a loss of confidence, workers may say nothing if they feel unsafe, keep quiet if they see something that may hurt another worker of member of the public, pretend that they know how to operate a machine or ignore their rights when it comes to training.

Encouraging workers to take on responsibility for their own and others health and safety is a basic element of a safe and healthy workplace. But being responsible and taking action needs a positive culture. On positive note, the great attention given to this debate around employment law, at a time of so much significant news, does give us hope that there is a general public view – deeply held and built up over many years – that in a period of low growth and high and unemployment, cutting costs should not mean reducing conditions affecting people’s security and welfare.