Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (HSE 21)

  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a central role in enacting and enforcing the Government's policies on health and safety. It is also responsible for enforcing health and safety law. We welcome the Sub-Committee's interest in its work.


  The HSE was established, together with the Health and Safety Commission (HSC), under the Health & Safety at Work Etc Act 1974. The Act defines the principal functions of the HSC and HSE. In essence, the HSC provides advice to Ministers on health and safety issues, issues Approved Codes of Practice and provides Ministers with drafts of appropriate Regulations. The HSE is the executive arm of the Commission and undertakes research and formulates advice and guidance on behalf of the Commission. The HSE, working in conjunction with local authorities, is also the enforcement body, ensuring that health and safety legislation is complied with.

  Both the HSC and HSE are crown Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs), operating at arm's length from Government. Ministers appoint the Commissioners, but the Executive (which statutorily consists of only three persons) is appointed by the HSC. The HSC also sets the work programme for the HSE, which is agreed by Ministers and who also have statutory powers of direction (though these have never been exercised). Although HSE earn revenue through charging for some of the services it provides, Ministers also pay grant-in-aid. They also lay health and safety regulations, consent to HSC Approved Codes of Practice, to charging regimes, and exercise certain financial controls via a Financial Memorandum.

  DETR is HSE's sponsor, though there are links to other Departments, eg the Department of Trade & Industry which is responsible for nuclear safety at licensed sites. Responsibility for health and safety has not been devolved to either the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales and therefore the work of the HSE covers the whole of Great Britain.

  HSE has close links with the Environment Agency in England and Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), not only because of the potential environmental implications of health and safety failures in work places that handle particularly hazardous or dangerous substances (eg chemicals), but more recently through the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 1999. Under these Regulations, the HSE, Environment Agency and SEPA are jointly designated as the Competent Authority for authorising and inspecting safety arrangements at establishments covered by the COMAH Regulations.

  Similarly, HSE has close links with local authorities as the latter have responsibility for the enforcement of health and safety legislation in shops, offices, distribution outlets, hotels, restaurants, residential care homes and leisure centres. The formal mechanism for this is the HSE/Local Authority Enforcement Liaison Committee (HELA), though much informal contact is at inspector level on a day-to-day basis. HSE provides guidance to local authorities on their enforcement functions.


  Much has been achieved since the 1974 Act. In 1998-99 the lowest ever number of deaths from direct workplace accidents was recorded—257. Injury rates continue to fall, although certain sectors, such as agriculture and forestry, have not demonstrated the marked reductions that other sectors have.

  Over the last two years, Ministers have sought to forge stronger links with the HSC and HSE. There is now more regular contact (both formal and informal) between Ministers, the Commissioners and the Executive. Health and safety has been incorporated into the Government's social justice, competitiveness and fairness at work agendas. Ministers have personally raised the profile of health and safety, and have helped to spread the message that "good health is good business" and increases the competitiveness of UK firms.

  All appointments to the HSC are now made in accordance with guidance from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Ministers are pleased that the HSC is well on its way to meeting the Government's targets for the representation of women and ethnic minorities. The appointment of the new HSC Chairman (from 1 October 1999), Bill Callaghan, was announced following extensive advertising, formal selection and interviewing of a number of candidates who met the criteria which appeared in the advertisement. The process was overseen by an independent assessor, who participated fully in selection and interviewing.

  Under the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), additional grant-in-aid of £20.3 million over the CSR period (1999-2000 to 2001-2002) has been made available for the HSC/E. In addition, the Department has agreed with Treasury that the anticipated additional revenue of up to £43 million from the extension of its charging regime to the gas transportation, offshore and railway industries can be retained by HSE. This enabled, as a first step, an additional 70 inspectors to be recruited increasing HSE's enforcement capabilities.


Revitalising Health and Safety

  The Government is concerned that, although much progress has been made since the 1974 Act, fatal injury rates have become stuck on a plateau since the mid-1990s. The Deputy Prime Minister decided to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1974 Act by commissioning a Strategic Appraisal, with the aim of injecting new impetus into the health and safety agenda.

  While the Government believes that the basic framework of the 1974 Act has stood the test of time, this initiative aims to identify new approaches, capable of delivering results in the changing world of work with ever increasing numbers of small firms: for example, by communicating more effectively the message that good health and safety is good for business, competitiveness and national prosperity. A Consultation Document—Revitalising Health and Safety—was launched, jointly with the Health and Safety Commission, on 1 July. The consultation closes on 24 September.

  A major theme of the initiative is to maximise the potential benefits from closer linkages between occupational health and safety and other Government programmes, such as education and public health, in order to achieve sustainable development. Raising occupational health and safety standards also has an important role to play in protecting the environment, by controlling emissions and the use of dangerous substances in the workplace; and in promoting competitiveness, by reducing the annual cost to the national economy of occupational health and safety failures estimated at £11-16 billion. Consideration is also being given to how the interfaces between policy-making at central, regional and local level might be enhanced (local authorities have responsibility for the enforcement of health and safety legislation in 1.2 million premises in Great Britain). This work is guided by the objectives of the Modernising Government White Paper on better joined-up strategic policy-making.

  The positioning of health and safety within the wider agenda on sustainable development may warrant particular consideration by the Committee. The contribution of health and safety to the social demension of a sustainable economy, by safeguarding minimum standards at work, was highlighted in the sixth chapter of the Sustainable Development Strategy White Paper A better quality of life published in May 1999.

Public perception and expectations of the HSE

  The Government is concerned that criminal penalties for breaches of health and safety law do not always seem to match the severity of the offence. It welcomes the recent judgement of the Court of Appeal (R v F Howe & Son (Engineering) Ltd). The Government is considering whether the maximum penalties should be revised.

  The Strategic Appraisal, together with the appointment of a new HSC Chairman, provides an ideal opportunity to consider the public's perception and expectations of the HSE. Historically, the HSE has been seen as the custodian of health and safety legislation: undertaking routine inspections to determine compliance; investigating high profile incidents (eg Flixborough, Kings Cross, Southall); and prosecuting those who flout health and safety law. This "policing" role, combined with resource constraints, has arguably inhibited the development of a more customer-friendly and responsive aspect to the work of HSE. Restrictions, under section 28 of the 1974 Act, on the disclosure of information have been a handicap. Ministers are seeking to ensure that the Freedom of Information Bill will result in useful changes which will allow HSC/E to be more open and responsive to public expectations. Ministers fully support the tough stance taken by inspectors in enforcing health and safety law when undertaking visits. But they acknowledge the need to raise public awareness of the advisory role of HSE and also, when appropriate, for inspectors to adopt a "how can I help you" attitude. A particular issue is how HSE can reach out and engage small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in health and safety issues. Ministers and Commissioners are aware of the logistical difficulties of regularly inspecting the existing 3.7 million SMEs and are considering how best to raise awareness of health and safety in this particular sector.

Health and Safety Laboratory Estate Rationalisation

  The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), an Agency of the HSE, is seeking to rationalise its estate and collocate to a single site. HSL and its tenants (420 staff in total, 260 in Sheffield and 160 at Buxton) occupy about 100 buildings and structures in Sheffield and Buxton, most of which were constructed between 1926 and 1980, and which costs some £3 million per annum to manage, maintain and operate.

  Accommodation-related costs are too high for HSL to sustain in a competitive market: some of HSL's income is derived from undertaking research for the private sector in competition with other research establishments. Too much space is available and inflexible (current assessment is that accommodation could be reduced by more than 50 per cent in modern, purpose-built, flexible buildings on one site), and many buildings and much of the infrastructure are life-expired. The nature of some of the research facilities at the Buxton site (eg explosives testing, impact testing, testing of temporary structures) would make it difficult and expensive to vacate this particular site.

  HSL is looking to meet its future accommodation needs via a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) project. Initial PFI bids were received in October 1997 and were evalulated. Bidders were invited in early 1998 to submit Revised Bids, and have been evaluated. Best and Final Offers were received in July 1998 and a preferred bidder was announced in November 1998.

  The preferred bidder (Investors in the Community (Buxton) Ltd—ICB) is a joint venture between Rotch Property Group and J Henry Schroder Ltd. P S Turner (Constructions) Ltd and Symonds Facilities Management are also involved as constructor and operator respectively. ICB propose to build, manage and operate a new state-of-the-art laboratory on the Buxton site and redevelop the vacated Sheffield site.

  HSL is negotiating with ICB the terms of the Concession Agreement and the detailed development and accommodation requirements. Negotiations with the TU are underway on a relocation package for staff who will have to move from Sheffield. The Final Business Case will be prepared later this year and a Ministerial decision on the project will be sought early in 2000. If Ministers decide that the project should proceed, it is anticipated that HSL would occupy the new laboratory by mid 2002.

White Asbestos

  The Government and DETR Ministers pushed hard to outlaw the importation, supply and use of white absestos and are delighted that HSC endeavours have concluded with a nation-wide ban. HSC played a leading role in ensuring sound science on the relative safety of alternatives to white asbestos was central to the recent EU Directive.

  The Government has acted swiftly to implement the Directive. The ban will take effect in Britain in November 1999, five years ahead of the deadline set by the EU Directive.

September 1999

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Prepared 26 October 1999