On 10 April, the Sun newspaper carried (under an ‘exclusive’ banner) a news story entitled ‘Hair Hitlers: EU rules to ban hairdressers from wearing rings and heels’. Under a photo of a clearly disgruntled hairdresser wearing lots of rings and very high heels, the Sun‘s political editor, no less, revealed that ‘barmy new Brussels rules’ are set to ban hairdressers from wearing ‘high heels, jewellery and even watches’. And, according to the National Hairdressing Federation, this ‘potty move’ will cost the industry £3 million a year (how DO employer bodies calculate such figures?).
The same day – somewhat surprisingly, given the Sun‘s ‘exclusive’ – the Daily Mail carried an almost identical – and identically hysterical – story, wittily entitled ‘High heels to be cut down to size under new EU rules’. According to the Mail, ‘a health and safety directive [sic] orders stylists to wear “non-slip soles” when they are cutting hair, and bans wedding rings and watches as unhygienic’.
However, both newspapers were able to reassure their worried readers that the DWP employment minister, Chris Grayling MP, is already on the case. ‘This kind of stupidity has to stop,’ he growled. ‘These stupid rules just cost jobs and right now we should be creating jobs, not killing them. It makes no sense and I will do everything I can to stop it.’ Phew! Hurrah for Chris Grayling!
Except that, as you’ve probably guessed, there is no such EU Directive, and no new EU rules, now or in the pipeline. All that’s happened is that there’s been some discussion between employers and workers in the hairdressing industry, at a European level, about improving occupational health in the industry, and in particular preventing skin disorders and muscoloskeletal diseases. Nothing has gone near any EU institution, and indeed no one is even thinking of new EU rules, legislation or ‘red tape’. And no one has mentioned high heels.
So, just some employer representatives talking to worker representatives, about improving working conditions in and the reputation of their industry, for the mutual benefit of all. You’d have thought that was just the kind of thing the DWP employment minister should be encouraging, even facilitating.
But no. One week later, Mr Grayling’s advisers and officials seemingly having failed to identify the Sun and Mail stories as yet another ‘elf and safety’ myth – the minister used a major speech to a policy think tank to announce:
‘It baffles me that at a time when we face a huge jobs challenge across Europe, that someone thinks it is sensible for the EU to be spending time legislating to ban high heeled shoes in a hairdressers. Don’t they understand that more and more red tape drives more jobs to emerging countries, and away from Europe?’
Well, call me old fashioned; but it baffles me that at a time when the UK economy faces a huge jobs challenge, the DWP employment minister thinks it is sensible for him to be spending his time peddling myths and untruths from the pages of the Sun.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.