The Tories will move ahead with plans to allow “low risk” companies to secure immunity from Health and Safety Executive inspections if they topple the Government at the upcoming general election.
The Conservative Party - which has been consulting on the controversial plans, revealed in Construction News last October - said it had received an “overwhelmingly positive” response for the proposal, which it has decided to introduce if elected.
“We are waiting for the election but, if a Conservative Government is elected, then we will take these plans forward,” shadow business minister John Penrose confirmed to CN in an exclusive interview this week.
Under the plan, companies approved as low risk would be able to arrange their own independent audits and thereby refuse entry to official HSE inspectors, outside any exceptional circumstances.
Mr Penrose said the HSE would be tasked with deciding how to define a low risk company. He refused to comment, however, on whether companies with recent fatalities would be eligible to use the proposed new system.
He was also unable to say whether the current RIDDOR system would survive or whether firms that had secured immunity from inspections would have to still report their injuries to the HSE.
“That is not for politicians to decide,” Mr Penrose said.
He added: “I am pretty sure if we went and looked at a construction site 10 years from now, best practice will be very different from the way it is now - just like it is different now from what it was 10 years ago.
“But we will need the profession and HSE to decide what that best practice is.”
The concept is loosely based on the system used for financial reporting, with a Companies House-style register established to publicly post each company’s audit papers.
Mr Penrose had said the system would allow contractors “to be the masters of their own destiny”. HSE inspectors would, however, retain powers to inspect all “emergencies”.
“It is very important that inspectors can use the equivalent of a search warrant to enter a site,” Mr Penrose said.
The Tories have met various industries - including construction, food safety and environmental health - in recent
months to discuss their proposal.
The plan was welcomed by the UK Contractors Group, which said major firms with stringent safety procedures should be spared the rigour of random inspections by the safety regulator.
Mr Penrose said the Tories would consult further with industry on the plan if elected.
“If we get to take this forward, then there will be a whole wealth of information the industry and unions can contribute,” he said.
“We will want them to be there to help us put the flesh on the bones.”
In particular, he said he was keen to sit down with the unions, which have been highly critical of the proposal.
When it was announced last year as part of package of measures to cut red tape, Ucatt claimed the move would be “disastrous” for the construction sector.
But Mr Penrose said he was keen to persuade unions of the benefits of the proposed system.
“I want to make sure I have a chance to speak with the people who were most critical, to reassure them that we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it would improve standards,” he said.
“Under this plan, the inspectors who are out there will be able to focus on the most risky companies,
and I hope that will be a pretty powerful argument.”
Critics raised concerns that auditors would only be able to inspect a sample of sites, and therefore a large company could be authorised as low risk with a significant percentage of its projects not having been assessed.
“I agree that is an issue,” Mr Penrose said. “But I don’t believe it is any more of an issue for the new proposed approach than it is for the current system. It is a problem that HSE inspectors already face today.”
It is hoped the new system would give “well-run companies” an advantage when trying to attract clients. But Mr Penrose reiterated that the system would be voluntary only.
He said: “For some small companies that have good relationships with HSE inspectors - who act a bit like consultants for them as well - then our proposals may not be necessary, and we don’t want to rock the boat.”
Some legislative changes may be needed before the system can be introduced, and “they will have to get in the queue”, Mr Penrose said.
However, he said he was keen to move quickly on areas that did not require new laws, such as ensuring
there are enough qualified auditors to sustain the scheme. “We will need to make sure we have enough highly qualified external auditors, and to ensure they are of the right standard,” he said.
“What we will need to do is decide what qualifications you have got to have to be approved, and ensure they are suitable to do this kind of work. If it doesn’t add up then we will need to make sure more people are trained.”