Thursday, 2 June 2011

Bribery Act Panic (2) A consultants' feeding frenzy

Like the 'Bribery Act' the 'Health and Safety at Work etc Act' was broadly a good idea. Data from the Health and Safety Executive illustrates how injuries in the workplace have declined over the years and it is important to remember that many of these injuries were not just minor burns, cuts or bruised knees but will affect entire lives. So achieving significant success in reducing this suffering is neither trivial nor is it justly described as 'bureaucracy gone mad'.

However, there are some other consequences of a Health and Safety approach that are not quite so desirable. Search for 'shop accidents' on the web and see how many firms of lawyers are touting for business from customers injured whilst shopping. This is a case, almost literally, of 'ambulance chasing', yet the sheer number of adverts raises the suspicion that the promise of compensation may itself give rise to some of those injuries in supermarkets. Search also for H&S consultants and see how many people make a good living from giving advice in this area. The legislation does not demand the use of external consultants - you can write your own risk assessment and your own policies - yet it has become the default position for most organisations. It is now generally assumed that you need to employ an external consultant or you are pushed into it by your insurers (who may also provide the consultancy). This amounts to a huge extra 'tax' on employers. A relatively small retail organisation I know of is spending around 7% of annual profits on a consultant, in addition to the sums charged by their insurers for a consultancy programme.

The Bribery Act already seems destined to travel down a similar path. The lawyers and consultancy firms are running courses and offering their services in conducting risk assessments, devising policies, installing computerised systems, sending questionnaire's to staff and suppliers. As pointed out in my previous posting, we don't yet know how the law will be interpreted and enforced: the government has promised a commonsense approach to prosecutions. So, much of the panic and much of the consultancy is premature. Yet, as with Health and Safety, we are likely to find ourselves encumbered with superfluous costs and bureaucracy even though the basic objectives of the legislation are worthwhile.

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