We go inside Downing Street to see how the peer reacted to being grilled over his compensation culture report
It’s not every day that Insurance Times gets an invitation to 10 Downing Street, but it happened last Friday – and the occasion was the publication of Lord Young’s long-awaited report on health and safety.
The dark and surprisingly small wood-lined reception of the UK’s best-known address leads through to a staircase lined with portraits of prime ministers, from Robert Walpole onwards.
But the lack of windows – a result of the many additions the building has had since it was erected in the 18th century – lends the interior a slightly musty air.
Then it’s through to another wood-panelled room, where Lord Young is due to present his report entitled ‘Common Sense, Common Safety’.
The man behind the plan
The 78-year-old peer first made waves in the mid-80s when he was appointed as minister without portfolio by prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She famously commented that she liked the businessman - who had never held a political post before his elevation to the Cabinet - because he was a man who “brings me solutions not problems”. He went on to serve as secretary of state for employment and then trade and industry before retiring from the government in 1989 to resume his business career.
David Cameron has not made a habit of rehabilitating grandees from his party’s past, but made an exception for Lord Young who was already a minister when the prime minister was a student at Oxford University. At the beginning of the year, Cameron appointed Lord Young to carry out a review of health and safety.
But if Lord Young was expecting rounds of applause when he turned up to present his findings at a press conference last week, he didn’t get it. While waiting, the man from the Telegraph grumbled to the woman from the Sun that the report had been the most widely briefed document he had ever covered. Just over a week previously, Lord Young had appeared on the main stage at the Conservative party conference to outline some of his report’s key recommendations.
Compensation hysteria is 'misplaced'
Since it has appeared, the report has received a decidedly mixed reception. Insurers have given it a warm welcome, including Zurich chief executive Stephen Lewis.
But Tony Buss, managing director of legal expenses specialist ARAG, reflected the concerns many in the legal community have about the impact of the report’s recommendations when he said of the report: “While Lord Young rightly identifies the issues of absurd media stories and incompetent, risk-averse health and safety advisers, these issues should be addressed properly and should not be confused with the right of citizens to pursue their legal rights.”
“The fact is, workplace claims are reducing; very few claims reach the courts, the Claims Standards Council has been a success and the MoJ reforms on RTA claims are working. Advertising has not increased the volume of claims, but redirects them, like most advertising, to those who take the promotional risk.
“The widespread hysteria about compensation culture is misplaced. We need solid research based on empirical data that enables a robust impact analysis to be undertaken before decisions are made too hastily. As Lord Young reminds us in his first paragraph, we currently have the lowest number of non-fatal accidents and the second lowest number of fatal accidents at work in Europe. Let’s hope, for all our sakes that this remains the case.”
'Health and safety taken to extreme'
Other critics complained that the report contains little that is new or has not been said already in the Jackson Review on civil litigation costs.
Lord Young acknowledged that the volume of compensation claims had only risen over the last two to three years, but insisted that the public perception of the problem was running far ahead of actual statistics.
He said: “The perception is such that health and safety is being taken to an extreme.” This very perception was likely to fuel the propensity to make claims, he warned, clearly irritated by the criticism.
Lord Young insisted that he was not anti-protection at work per se, describing the 1974 Health and Safety Act as a rare example of a piece of legislation that has stood the test of time.
Advertising bad guys
Rather, his concerns centred on the practices that have grown up around health and safety. As a former lawyer, he said he was “ashamed” of the advertising produced by personal injury solicitors’ firms and referral agencies, such as those offering cash incentives to make claims. “I feel that it [the advertising] should not be an inducement to litigate.”
“There’s an inevitable suspicion that somebody could imagine that their grievance is greater than it is and walk away with a £500 cheque.”
If the advertising and solicitors' regulators are unable to clean up their act, ministers may legislate, he warned.
In addition, he told the briefing that the MoJ has agreed to extend with his recommendation that the scope of its fixed-cost scheme for handling low-value road traffic accident claims should be extended to other types of personal injuries.
Friends in high places
The venue of last week’s briefing was significant – very few government initiatives are launched in No 10 itself.
Lord Young is understood to have desk space in Downing Street, lending added clout to his efforts to push the report’s recommendations through the government machine.
And Cameron’s foreword to the report makes plain that he fully expects the report’s recommendations to be implemented.
“I am delighted that Lord Young has agreed to remain as my adviser on these important issues; to work with departments and all those with an interest in seeing his recommendations put into effect,” the foreword read.
All about timing
The Young Review enables Cameron to offer a bit of deregulatory red meat to the Tory right wing, which is still sore from the compromises it has been forced to strike with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron rammed the point home by appearing alongside Lord Young at the meeting, also at Downing Street, to present the report to stakeholders.
For the insurance industry, the political momentum provided by Cameron’s backing has clear implications. If Labour had been in power, the Jackson Review looked unlikely to be implemented quickly, given how unpalatable its recommendations were to the party’s union backers.
But now Young’s report means that Jackson’s reforms have a powerful advocate positioned at the very heart of government, who will put pressure on the MoJ to carry out reforms. In politics, choreography is everything.