Black Rod strikes the door of the Commons prior to the 2013 Queen's Speech. Photo Parliamentary copyright/Catherine Bebbington
New Bill wakens the dead
The new session of parliament which was opened today with the Queen’s speech has been called the “Zombie Parliament” because MPs have complained that there is a feel of the un-dead about it with the Government having run out of ideas.
Well, judging by one of the Bill’s in the Queen’s speech, they are even bringing up legislation from the dead. They have brought forward a proposed Bill to “provide that where a person acts heroically, responsibly or for the benefit of others, this will be taken into account by the courts.”
According to the Government this has come about after Lord Young’s review of health and safety law noted concern about this issue and called for greater clarity. Now the Young Review was famous for being riddled with anecdotes and homilies and very little came of it apart from an unhelpful change to the RIDDOR reporting regulations. It is therefore pretty surprising that the Government is now raising that report from the dead.
So what is the problem that needs fixed?
Well earlier this week the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, wrote an article which announced that the Bill was going to be introduced. In his piece he talked a lot about health and safety with a claim the Bill would “finally slay much of the ‘elf and safety’ and jobsworth culture.”
The examples he used were:
“Take the responsible employer who puts in place proper training for staff, who has sensible safety procedures, and tries to do the right thing. And then someone injures themselves doing something stupid or something that no reasonable person would ever have expected to be a risk. Common sense says that the law should not simply penalise the employer for what has gone wrong. Or the member of our emergency services who feels that they can’t come to the rescue of someone in difficulty because of the fear that they will end up in trouble for breaching health and safety rules.”
On the basis of the article by Grayling I wrote a blog expressing my concerns.
Well we now have the outline of the Bill itself and I am not sure how it actually covers the two situations he mentioned. In fact, reading the main elements of the Bill it is not about health and safety rules at all. It is about compensation for negligence claims and will allow courts to take into account whether someone was acting for the benefit of society or protecting others.
Those with long memories may remember that the last Government introduced almost exactly the same legislation in 2006 in the Compensation Act, where they said “the court may consider whether such steps, had they been performed, would prevent some desirable activity”. At the time the TUC said that this was unnecessary as the principle was already there in common law and there was no evidence it was an issue.
The same is true today. What is the problem they are trying to fix?
Is the suggestion that police, fire and ambulance workers are standing back from saving people for fear of being sued? I think the numbers of injuries, and occasional tragic deaths amongst emergency workers shows that is not the case. Nor am I aware of any member of the public being successfully sued for trying to save someone. There is absolutely no evidence that current compensation laws prevent anyone from acting heroically when someone’s life is threatened.
Basically this is just grandstanding of the worst kind. In desperation, they are concocting Bills with no purpose apart from to appeal to the tabloid mentality. They have even given the Bill a nice cuddly name SARAH (Social Action, responsibility and Heroism Bill).
Yet, despite this it may be dangerous. While it’s not clear at the moment exactly what the government is proposing as we have not seen the text, there is concern that the Bill may let employers whose workers have been put in a dangerous situation off the hook, or at the very least will muddy the waters. Any attempt to lessen employer responsibility for workplace safety could put employees at risk and make it harder for them to claim compensation if they are injured at work and where workers are being put into dangerous situations, they must be protected.
The so-called “heroism Bill” is one dead idea that should have stayed buried.