The House of Commons has voted in favour of a clause that will amend the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to remove strict liability in cases where there has been a breach of a statutory duty. The proposed change to civil liability is found in the Enterprises and Regulatory Reform Bill, which has just passed the Commons third reading stage.  It will now proceed to the House of Lords for consideration.

The amended clause will remove the right for certain civil claims to be brought for breach of a statutory duty contained in health and safety legislation. The proposal is in line with the recommendation made by Professor Löfstedt in his independent health and safety review. In his 2011 report he noted that there are cases where employees have been awarded compensatory damages for injury, even where the employer has done everything that is reasonably practicably and foreseeable to avoid that injury. The reason for this is due to the strict liability on employers found in certain regulations, which makes them legally responsible for damage caused by their acts or omissions, regardless of whether they were negligent or failed to do all that was reasonably practicable. He recommended that regulatory provisions that impose strict liability be reviewed by June 2013 and amended.

The intended effect of the amendment is that employers who have taken all reasonable precautions will not be liable to be sued for a technical breach of a statutory duty. The Government hopes that it will reduce the ‘regulatory burden’ on employers, and coincides with a number of other current ongoing initiatives on the removal of ‘red tape’.

There was a clear division in the Commons at the vote, with 295 voting in favour of the proposal, and 215 voting against.

Opposition MPs have spoken out against the change, stating that the Government has made the amendment without proper consultation, research or impact assessments. They have raised fears that the proposal will create a new perception in the workplace that employers do not need to take health and safety as seriously. Labour MP Julie Hiling stated that she believed the Bill would both reverse years of improvement in workplace health and safety, and also make things worse for the future in terms of long term health conditions.

The Government has sought to defend the amendment by focusing on the negative impact of over-compliance and an overly restrictive approach. Conservative MPs have argued that the result of burdensome regulations is a cost to the economy, leading to a lack of access to the workplace for individuals through long-term unemployment.

Current Parliamentary progress of the Enterprises and Regulatory Reform Bill can be accessed here.