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Minister's blunder over health and safety after Keane school tragedy

CAMPAIGNERS have criticised a UK Government minister for launching an "insensitive" attack on the misuse of health and safety laws in schools days after the funeral of Keane Wallis-Bennett, who was killed by a collapsing school gym wall.

A mourner holds the order of service at the funeral of 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett, which took place on Thursday. She died on April 1 at Liberton High School in EdinburghPhotograph: Stewart Attwood
A mourner holds the order of service at the funeral of 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett, which took place on Thursday. She died on April 1 at Liberton High School in EdinburghPhotograph: Stewart Attwood

Westminster Minister for Health and Safety Mike Penning yesterday said legislation had been used for too long as a "smokescreen for jobsworths who have little knowledge of the law and who want to fob people off with an easy excuse".

A series of "bizarre" misinterpretations of health and safety law listed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) included a local council in Scotland banning dog shows from being held in community halls on the grounds of health and safety, and a school in Gloucester banning girls from wearing frilly socks for fear of them tripping over.

Other examples included a school in Hampshire refusing to allow a pupil to bring a baby chick in for his presentation due to concerns about spreading bird flu.

Penning said he has written personally to councils and schools in England urging them to educate their staff to prevent misuse of health and safety laws.

But pressure group Families Against Corporate Killers, which campaigns on behalf of families bereaved by workplace deaths, said the reaction was "absurdly out of proportion".

A spokeswoman said: "Concentrating on these trivial issues but not on making schools safe in the weeks after a child's death is not just insensitive, it is insane.

"Banning frilly socks or bringing a chick into school on health and safety grounds is of course wrong, irritating and extremely silly.

"But none of these will kill, maim or give anyone cancer."

She added: "The problem is not misuse of laws but a failure to implement and enforce health and safety to keep pupils and staff safe."

The funeral of 12-year-old Keane took place last Thursday. She was killed on April 1 when a free-standing modesty wall in the gym of Liberton High School, Edinburgh, fell on her. Police are still investigating the incident.

Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University, who specialises in health and safety issues, said it was "crass" to focus on trivial incidents rather than on serious issues in the wake of the tragedy.

He said: "There are lots of issues about health and safety in schools and there have been incidents involving fingers and limbs lost, people falling down lift shafts and exposure to asbestos.

"One wouldn't want to get it out of perspective, but there certainly are a whole series of events which indicate we should be taking it seriously and not trying to trivialise it."

The DWP said nearly 300 people have contacted a Health and Safety Executive "myth busters" panel since it was set up two years ago to report misinterpretations of the law.

Penning said: "Enough is enough. Let's be clear, health and safety legislation saves lives.

"But it has for too long been used as a smoke-screen by jobsworths who have little knowledge of the law and who want to fob people off with an easy excuse."

A spokesman for the DWP declined to comment on the criticism of the minister's comments.

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