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Health & Safety for government employees overseas

Comment 2nd July 2010

I work in a British Embassy overseas (not saying which one for fear of identification!).  Since I arrived here, I've been AMAZED at the health and safety rules applied to staff housing.  In one of the biggest cities in the world, only four apartment blocks are deemed "safe" for staff to live in.  I have asked to live in a number of different apartments, but they have been turned down because (I quote) "the internal glazing is too thin" or "balustrades do not meet UK safety standards".  I believe that if you are asking employees to be responsible for UK foreign policy, they can probably also be responsible for watching out for the balustrades in their apartments.  This is taken to absolutely ridiculous lengths – for instance, mattresses have been shipped out from the UK to the other side of the world for all staff flats, as locally bought IKEA mattresses are deemed unsafe (although they meet EU safety standards).  This is all justified as part of an employers "duty of care" stemming from Health & Safety legislation.

Not only is this unnecessary control of people's personal lives (who wants to live in the same apartment block as their boss and colleagues….?), it's also a massive waste of tax-payers money.  Unsurprisingly, all the "safe" apartment blocks are the most expensive in town.  Every other apartment I have tried to move to has been much cheaper and would have been a saving to the public purse.  There is also a whole team of people employed in the Embassy responsible for enforcing these ridiculous rules.

In direct comparison, none of the other Embassies or multi-national companies in the city have any health & safety restrictions on staff housing.  This means people choose what is best for them and their families, are happier, more productive and the employers save money. 

My idea is very simple: The government should interpret "duty of care" legislation in a proportionate way.  Where the security situation allows, UK government employees overseas should be allowed to choose their own housing without health and safety restrictions.  If there is a real potential safety issue (e.g. electrical problems), staff should be asked if they want to accept the risk themselves (sign a disclaimer).

Why does this matter?

It kills two birds with one stone – saves public money at a time when it's needed more than ever, and puts freedom and responsibility into the hands of individuals.

UK diplomats and other employees overseas should be representing the best of British values, not the petty risk averse, health and safety values that have developed recently.

This would also send an important signal.  The way that the government interprets legislation for its own employees gives a good indication of the way it would like others to interpret the law.  If the government is over protective and paranoid in its internal interpretation of health and safety legislation, it can set the tone for others to follow suit.

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