Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS North) (HSE 08)

  This submission is made by the IPMS North Office on behalf of IPMS members working in the Health and Safety Executive

  The IPMS is the Trade Union that represents all of the specialist staff who work for the Health and Safety Executive. This includes all of the Inspectorates as well as scientific, technological and medical staff.

  We set out below the main issues that are causing concern to our members at the present:

1.  THE FUTURE OF THE HEALTH AND SAFETY LABORATORY

  The HSL is based on two sites (Sheffield & Buxton) and conducts research for both HSE and for outside bodies, including industry, into health and safety issues. It is widely regarded as the premier health and safety laboratory not just in Europe but worldwide. It is unique in that it operates as an Executive Agency of HSE.

  The two sites provide a different range of research options. The site at Buxton, which has a considerable area, is used for experiments in flame and explosion. The size of the site has grown over the years, as experiments have required more space to be safely conducted.

  At Sheffield the research concerns matters such as occupational health risk assessment, personal protective equipment, human factors, engineering, and microbiology, etc.

  The Sheffield site is in two parts, a seven year old, state of the art purpose built laboratory, called the Robens Building, and an older (1960's) laboratory which is in need of refurbishment. As the cost of this is considerable, it became entangled in the Private Finance Initiative process. However, the position was considerably confused when the management of HSL decided that it wanted to rebuild the complete establishment on the Buxton site. This would, of course, involve the closure of the Sheffield site and the relocation of all the facilities and staff from Sheffield to Buxton. The IPMS believes that this initiative creates a whole series of difficulties for the fuutre viability of HSL.

  The first of these difficulties concerns the staff at Sheffield. There are very few Sheffield based staff who wish to transfer to Buxton and we anticipate that, as the rebuild at Buxton would take some three years, over this period of time staff would look for, and obtain, different jobs outside of HSL. Figures held by HSE indicate that annual turnover amongst HSL's scientists is already running at around 17 per cent and that recruitment of replacment staff is proving difficult. As the skills and experience of the staff have been built up over the years it is very likely that if, as we expect, considerable numbers of staff do leave, that HSL will be unable to maintain its intellectual and scientific input to HSE, for research and scientific developments. It should also be noted that Sheffield is in a Objective One Status Area.

  The second difficulty concerns the costs of the rebuild on the Buxton site. Currently HSL pays some£2 million per year for its accommodation on the two sites. We believe that the planned new accommodation is likely to cost closer to £5 million per year. As HSL is required, by being an Executive Agency, to recover its costs through charges, either the charges upon HSE and other bodies for research work will rise dramatically, or HSL will have a gap in its finances that HSE will have to fill to maintain this strategic resource. This could only be done by increasing the sums of money paid to HSL via Grant in Aid. In addition the costs of moving the laboratory and staff from Sheffield to Buxton are likely to be around £1million, spread over the first two years of the move. Either way the extra cost to the public purse of this move will be in excess of £4 million per year for the next 30 years.

  The third difficulty concerns the natural environment. HSL management and the High Peak Local Authority, which covers Buxton, are both underestimating the environmental aspects of the proposed move. HSL's Green Transport Plan has correctly identified that the only possible way to travel from Sheffield to Buxton on a daily basis is by car. As there are some 250 staff to relocate from Sheffield to Buxton, there will be around 200 additional journeys each day through the Peak District, which stands between Sheffield and Buxton by whichever route is taken. This number will not reduce if the HSL staff actually move to Buxton, because the journeys of HSL staff will be substituted by those of their partners travelling back to jobs in the Sheffield area. Both jobs and housing in Buxton are scarce and local schools and health services are already stretched. The Government has granted Buxton additional funding to expand housing and health services to cope with existing demand. We believe that the prospect of getting an additional 250 high quality jobs in Buxton has clouded the judgement of the High Peak Authority. It should be noted that the vast majority of these transferred jobs will not be filled by local people. HSE's required range of scientific skills means that almost all posts are filled by people who have moved into the Sheffield area. Currently the Sheffield Universities provide a natural feeder route for HSL staff. This will not be the case in Buxton.

  These difficulties, taken together, will cause major problems for HSL and its staff if the move goes ahead. It is the view of the IPMS that the most cost-effective and environmentally responsible option would be to refurbish the half of the existing Sheffield site that needs it. This option is not being considered and we cannot understand why.

2.  CHARGING

  The additional money provided by the present government, partially to restore the cuts made by the previous administration, is conditional upon the effective operation of a charging regime. Some areas of HSE have operated successful charging regimes in specific areas for some years, but the charging regimes now being developed are for new areas and activities, principally in connection with premises covered by the Control of Major Accident Hazard legislation. (COMAH)

  A funding gap has arisen through delays in getting the COMAH regime and charging plans started. There are potential conflicts between the need to charge, and the need to target inspection at the greatest risks. Although it is too early to make any firm judgements, our present information is that low hazard/low risk activities are being inspected in order to raise income.

  If true there are three consequences of this. The first is that the non-COMAH higher hazard/risk sites are not being inspected. The second is for companies subject to charging, that non-chargeable incident investigations and enforcement could be less likely to take place, since these are time consuming and do not generate income. The third is that any funding shortfall will have to be met from other parts of the HSE's budget, the research budget being most at risk as it is both sizeable and easily raided without clear short term consequences (although the long term consequences may be considerable).

3.  RESEARCH

  The previous government introduced a process known as "survey control" into spending on research. Survey control means that there is high level scrutiny by both the Executive and the Commission before any application to spend money on research is allowed. However, this is not the end of the process as the application is then passed to the Minister for consideration. Survey control was introduced by the previous administration to prevent research into health and safety areas that were considered to be a "burden on business". As an example, research into stress was vetoed by ministers.

  It is the view of the IPMS that this process enables unnecessary control of health and safety research by ministers and allows political judgements to supplant the needs for research. The process as far as the HSC provides for peer-review by HSE experts and the tripartite Commission for its necessity and cost. The authority for survey control needs to be remitted to the Commission.

4.  THE LOCAL OFFICE NETWORK

  Since it was set up in 1974 the HSE has seen the number of its local offices reduced significantly, with around 20 per cent having been closed in this period. There is currently an HSE-wide review of the whole of its local office network, which being cost driven, will inevitably result in further office closures. Currently HSE proposes to close offices in Liverpool and in Hull.

  The IPMS considers that the location of offices should not be solely driven by costs, but that account should be taken of the location of premises and of the industrial base of an area. HSE needs to keep a local face. Contact with local health and safety and community groups is greatly reduced when offices close, a gap which is never restored. If the Hull Office, for example, is closed then Hull will be the only major UK city without an HSE office within 60 miles. This, we believe sends entirely the wrong message to local communities about the accessibility of the HSE.

5.  ACCESS TO INFORMATION

  The IPMS believes that access to health and safety information should be without costs. It may be that a small charge, to recover costs, could be made for paper copies, electronic copy via the Internet should be free. The research that led to the publication was completed at public expense and for the public benefit. The public should therefore have access to the work that it has already paid for. The residual costs of maintaining HSE's information resources, products HSE' wide-ranging and world respected publications will need to be met through additional funds. In 1987-99 for example, publication costs of £3.8 million, generated, for the Treasury, some £5.1 million.

Phil Carpenter

September 1999


 
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