Interview: Former Health and Safety Executive chair Dame Judith Hackitt on apprenticeships, Brexit and ’elf ‘n’ safety myths

Written by Sam Macrory on 26 May 2016 in Interview

Dame Judith Hackitt, the new head of the manufacturers’ organisation EEF, spent nine years overseeing the Health & Safety Executive before returning to her roots in industry. Sam Macrory meets her

A 10 day holiday should really be a relaxing experience. But if you’ve spent nearly a decade training your eye to spot any hint of risk and danger, it’s not so easy to unwind.

Dame Judith Hackitt, who was officially unemployed for just 24 hours between ending her nine year stint chairing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and taking on her new role as chairman of Britain’s main manufacturing organisation the EEF, had certainly earned herself some time off. 

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“I sat by the pool, watching the painters doing up some of the villas in the resort we were staying in and was horrified to see people climbing ladders and walking on roofs… because that’s the way they do it,” Hackitt, 61, recalls of her break from the office.

She’s talking to CSW in the danger-free surroundings of a meeting room at EEF’s St James’ offices. The biggest threat to personal safety here is a mini-cafetière and some biscuits served on a trendy wooden chopping board, but the sight of those roof-walking painters had Hackitt on red alert. “It goes through your mind. I can’t switch that off. Of course not. It’s part of my make-up.”

She can be forgiven; you suspect anyone would need a holiday after running the HSE.

Few public sector appointments offer such a guaranteed promise of abuse from the media and complaints from the public, with “’elf ‘n’ safety gone mad” a mantra for our times. It’s a gift that keeps on giving for headline writers: schools that ban children from playing conkers, a postman who refuses to cross the road to deliver mail, a Butlins ban on dodgem cars bumping into each other.

"You can’t blame the media for picking up ridiculous health and safety stories and running with them – it sells newspapers"

And then there are the politicians. Shortly before the 2010 general election David Cameron complained that a “national neurosis” over health and safety had gripped the UK, and in the last five years alone the HSE – which has the Department of Work and Pensions as its sponsoring department – has been subjected to four reviews and substantial budget cuts.

It sounds like a pretty gruelling experience but Hackitt, who is tall, power-suited and no-nonsense in her manner, looks to have emerged without a scratch.

“I knew exactly where the prime minister was coming from when he said that,” is her take on Cameron’s analysis. “He was right, in so far as we had reached a point where… People had got themselves into a lather, largely about civil liability and the fact they would be held to account if they did things and which they were using health and safety as a front for [not doing].”

And even the media wins Hackitt’s forgiveness as “you can’t blame the media for picking up ridiculous stories and running with them – it sells newspapers.”

With “so, so many” to choose from, Hackitt struggles to pick the worst case of health and safety going mad. She then settles on coffee shops that won’t provide hot water for parents to heat up their children’s drinks. “There is no health and safety reason for any of that. It’s a simple case of ‘because we can’t charge you for it we don’t want to go the extra mile,’” she complains.

Passionate about safety but determined to tackle over-protection against risk, especially in schools, Hackitt led a myth-busting exercise at the HSE to demonstrate that “it was very rarely the case that what the law said was over the top.”

Her own initiative ran parallel to the reviews and spending cuts – the HSE’s annual budget falls to £123.4m in 2019/20 compared to £231m in 2009/1 – that were forced upon her.

She insists that the cuts “have not been damaging because it has been an exercise in prioritisation, in improving efficiency,” though when asked about the reviews a passing smile suggests her patience was tested.

“It certainly made it challenging… but not all in a negative sense. They all caused us to think long and hard about what we could do better, do differently. HSE has adopted a more business-like process, in terms of prioritising where it goes and what it does.”

She’s proud of the changes she made, and thinks other regulators should follow HSE’s approach to reform and modernisation, arguing: “The next tranche of improvement in that space can come from those regulators getting together and sharing good practice. It shouldn't be the case that because all those regulators work for different sponsoring departments that they all plough their own furrows. We need to share that learning across government.”

However, when asked if that process is already underway, Hackitt replies. “There is some, but by no means enough.”

It’s a rare criticism of Whitehall working practice. Throughout the rest of our interview, Hackitt appears to be both looking back fondly on her time in the civil service, and excited by the opportunity that joining the EEF, formerly the Engineering Employers' Federation, represents.

The reason? This is a career move which, she explains, is largely “about coming back to my roots.”  

Judith Hackitt studied chemical engineering at Imperial College London – where she met her husband – before spending 15 years with Exxon at the their Fawley petrochemical plant. A stint at the UK chemicals company Harrions and Cornfield followed, before she moved to the Chemical Industries Association and rose to the position of director general. Hackitt then spent time in Brussels with the European Chemical Industry Association, before being appointed to chair the HSE in 2007.

It’s an impressive CV, all the more so because she chose a career in which women were very much the minority. “I have always worked in an environment that is predominantly a male culture,” agrees Hackitt, who was made a dame in the last round of New Year’s Honours – in part for being a role model for women. But she’s not the type to emphasise any gender struggles, instead arguing that all organisations should value diversity.

Her new role sees Hackitt champion and assist the EEF’s 5,000 member companies – around 40 per cent of the sector – but she says health and safety remains central to the remit. “I’m an engineer by training. My whole career has been spent in the manufacturing industry, so this was a lot about… my passion for industry… but also recognising what I’ve learnt from my time in HSE, about how safety and all that can be integral to successful business. If we improve the way in which workplace health is handled, people will not only be off work sick less of the time, they will also be more productive when they are there, and that in turn generates and drives economic growth and productivity. The two things go hand in hand.” 

However, Hackitt joins the EEF at time when the outlook for British manufacturing looks worrying, with a fall of 1.9% in manufacturing output in the first quarter of 2016 compared to last year marking the biggest drop since May 2013.

She insists the falling output “underplays the importance of the industry”, but, I ask, whatever happened to a “Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”? The rhetoric of George Osborne’s 2011 Budget hardly seems to have become reality.

“Where we are on that journey, on what scale, is a good question,” Hackitt cautiously replies, before adding: “I don’t think it’s a revolution but I think it is evolving. I think that confidence over the long term, and people’s belief that we can be a strong manufacturing nation, is growing.” 

The manufacturing industry, she argues, has “a very exciting future given the right climate and the right framework for it to develop in” – with “framework”, roughly translated, meaning what decisions are taken by the government. But there is also a decision which is out of the government’s hands: the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. 

With the manufacturing sector unsure of the outcome of the vote or what Brexit might mean, nervous jitters have replaced more productive activity. Agreeing that the referendum “puts quite a lot of things on hold”, Hackitt issues a call for clarity. 

“Some of the uncertainties of the referendum will be temporary, but equally, depending on the outcome on 23 June, that will only be replaced by a different level of uncertainty if the vote is to come out. Because it will be very obvious to me that at that point much of industry is going be saying ‘Now what happens while we go through to the next phase of uncertainty about what coming out actually means,’” Hackitt complains.

With 60% of EEF members wanting to remain in the EU and less than 10% wanting to leave, Hackitt says the remainder “typify that level of uncertainty around ‘we’re not sure what this means.’” 

The sunny, post-Brexit visions painted by some on the Leave side seem to leave her unconvinced. “I think it’s very hard for people in industry to get their minds around what this will actually mean in practice if we come out, because some of the arguments around ‘we will set up trade agreements very quickly’… [seem], to people who have been around in industry for a long time and seen how long trade agreements tend to take – it feels like that would take much longer than those on the side of Brexit would suggest.” 

While the referendum currently dominates, Hackitt’s framework for a healthy manufacturing sector means she deals with departments across Whitehall, on policy ranging from energy to taxation. “There are policies that will come out of every department that we would like to think we can have a role in influencing for the better” she explains, with the government’s planned apprenticeship levy perhaps the most pressing concern.

Proudly talking up the £11m EEF will have invested in its Apprentice Technology Centre in Birmingham by the end of 2016 to fund the training of 400 apprentices each year, Hackitt is quick to make clear that the manufacturing industry is “very much wedded to the idea of apprenticeships”. But on the levy – funded, from next April, by a 0.5% payroll tax on companies with a pay bill of £3m or more – she is unconvinced. And just 1% of 156 EEF members surveyed support a scheme which Hackitt describes as “a good idea in principle, but [one that] needs careful thought to make it successful, because if we rush headlong into this too quickly we risk driving the wrong behaviours rather than the right ones.”

"The length of time taken over decisions about infrastructure is always going to be a frustration for people in industry"

If government decision-making can be frustrating for the manufacturing sector, so too can non-decision-making.

“Uncertainty is never good for industry in general,” Hackitt says, when asked whether the time it takes government to make a decision on big infrastructure projects frustrates her. “The length of time taken over decisions about infrastructure is always going to be a frustration for people in industry because we need to know, businesses need to know, so they can then plan their futures.”

Such as the endlessly delayed decision on where to build a new runway?

“Yes… I think it’s too late to talk about a quick decision on runways, but an early resolution on that would be helpful,” Hackitt replies. “It’s hard to understand why we keep putting it off. Let’s make the decision and move on.”

As Hackitt herself moves out of the civil service, does she feel she has joined a more nimble organisation? 

She pauses before coming up with, appropriately, a safety-first answer. “In some respects that’s true. There are certain elements of process within the public sector which are over and above what you have to do in the private sector and leaving some of that behind is a relief but there are some good practices and disciplines that I would hope to hang on to. The level of thought that comes with process within the civil service is good, but what you have to be is more nimble with delivery, which is clearly what the private sector has to do and is much better at.”

Armed with private sector know-how and public sector sensibilities, Dame Judith Hackitt has experience of literally pulling the manufacturing levers of power while also gaining first-hand experience of Whitehall’s metaphorical levers of power. It’s clear her EEF appointment came entirely without the need for a risk assessment.

Before I go, there’s still the question about how Hackitt unwinds. It turns out that she’s the owner of an F-Type Jaguar – a sign of her support for British manufacturing, she says – but also a big music fan. “Rock, not classical,” she stresses, and reveals that having recently taken in an Adele concert she’s off to see Coldplay soon. Let’s just hope she can enjoy the music without worrying whether anyone is about to fall off the stage.

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Sam Macrory
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