Minister for work Nick Brown took charge of government health and safety policy seven short weeks ago.
Andrew Mylius found out how he is getting to grips with the brief.
Nick Brown, minister of state for work, is eyeing the clock. He is under the whip to vote in the controversial Children & Adoption Bill which will give gay and unmarried couples parenting rights, and to which the Tories have pledged staunch opposition. He is expecting a bell summoning him to the House of Commons to ring at 3.30pm, giving him five brief minutes to shift his bulky, besuited form up Whitehall, across Parliament Square and into the chamber. 'They want me for my body, not my mind, ' he quips as our interview starts.
Seven weeks ago Brown, who achieved notoriety for his management of the foot and mouth crisis, took on ministerial responsibility for health and safety when the portfolio was shifted from the Department of Trade & Industry to the Department of Work & Pensions.
A week ago he had not yet actually seen anyone from the construction industry to discuss health and safety issues, and still seemed to be getting to grips with his brief. Not surprisingly, he is keen as can be to improve the construction industry's lamentably poor accident and sickness records.
Initially it sounds as if Brown looks on health and safety in construction as an industry problem, requiring industry solutions. 'The existence of a sponsoring minister or the HSE/HSC [Health & Safety Executive/Health & Safety Commission] don't by themselves make things safe. They certainly help make things safer but the responsibility must be with those who are running the job, the clients who are commissioning the work, and of course the people who are working on the sites, ' he says.
Brown likes the idea of having integrated teams for construction projects because 'a joint approach helps people explain what they are about and where their difficulties are. You've got a better chance of getting a positive outcome, and also addressing what are sometimes overarching issues, like health and safety. The fact that it's everyone's responsibility doesn't mean that it's no one's responsibility.'
The HSE's site inspection blitz earlier this year, in which safety breaches led to half the jobs swooped on being stopped, emphasised just how shoddy the industry's performance is.
Future blitzes are on the cards, Brown says.
Regulations and the resources to enforce them are already in place, he says - and although a review is under way of how HSE's resources are allocated, he says the organisation should not count on any extra funding to help it police the industry.
He says clients, contractors, designers and workers must stop passing the buck for safety by relying on the HSE to enforce the law. He says it is their and not the HSE's responsibility to eliminate accidents and ill health.
But improving safety will not just be down to the industry's collective conscience.
Home Office led interdepartmental discussions on increasing individuals' liability for accidents are under way.
The charge of corporate manslaughter - where directors of companies can be charged for severe safety breaches - already exists in legal principle, says Brown. But 'there is a case to answer' for increasing powers to punish those responsible for extreme health and safety breaches.
Discussions are also afoot over raising the level of fines handed out by magistrates' courts. 'I'm not announcing any new policies. However, there is a view in government that the powers of magistrates' courts and the ceilings on the fines they can give are too low.'
The government is also looking at the case for allowing National Health Service trusts to recoup the cost of treating injuries sustained at work from employers' insurers. There is a 'strong moral case' for this, and a precedent has been set.
The NHS already charges the insurers of negligent drivers for treatment of injuries they or third parties sustain. Firms are legally obliged to insure against their liabilities. Providing cover against treatment of work-related injuries would be an extension of their liabilities.
The government is talking to the Trades Union Congress, Confederation of British Industry and the Association of British Insurers about how the insurance scheme would work - and on how the insurance industry can be encouraged to offer policies. But accidentrelated insurance would provide the construction industry with a sharp financial incentive to tighten up safety from design through fabrication to maintenance.
Brown is dismissive of construction industry fears that the financial burden of paying for insurance will drive some reputable firms into bankruptcy, and disreputable firms into the 'invisible' economy of tax and national insurance-dodging. 'It's the law that everyone has to have cover. It's an operating cost.' And as such it is a cost that will need to be passed on to construction clients.
Failing to pay for insurance 'is an offence and should be prosecuted. The number of prosecutions now is actually quite low. That might change, ' Brown says, hinting at a crackdown.
'It's unfair that companies that have gone to the expense of getting insurance find themselves in competition with others, either directly or through subcontractors, who are trying to evade their legal responsibilities. That's a situation that simply cannot be allowed to continue.'