Select Committee on Work and Pensions Fourth Report


  229.  Employers are obliged to consult their employees on health and safety matters. This means providing the workforce with information and taking account of their views before making decisions on health and safety. Under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations 1977, a trade union has a right to appoint a safety representative. The rights and functions of such safety representatives include: a legal right to represent employees in discussions with employers on H&S issues; to investigate hazards, dangerous occurrences and complaints, to carry out inspections of the workplace, and to inspect relevant documents.[389] Employers' legal duties include consulting safety representatives on arrangements for co-operating on health and safety measures, making information available and providing facilities and assistance. Where the 1977 regulations do not apply (for example, in non-unionised workplaces) employers can consult employees directly or can arrange for employees to elect a 'Representative of Employee Safety'.

  230.  The HSC has recently produced a 'Collective Declaration on Worker Involvement', endorsed by the TUC, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and employer representatives such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation for Small Businesses and The Institute of Directors. [390] This states that there is evidence of the positive impact trade unions have on health and safety performance and that trade union safety representatives, through their empowered role in consultation, show the strongest relationship with safety compliance. There is, however, less evidence of successful methods of involvement and consultation in small businesses where trade unions are not recognised.'

  231.  The Collective Declaration notes that there has been a significant decline in trade union membership in recent years. 7.5 million members of the workforce are now trade union members and 17.5 million are not.[391] The declaration states that changes in the way Great Britain works mean that there are now not enough employers who properly involve and consult workers on health and safety and not enough workers who feel able to come forward and take on health and safety responsibilities:

    "With changes to work patterns there is now a danger of significant reductions in consultation with workers by employers on health and safety. It is our belief that this reduction will eventually undermine work to improve health and safety and stop us from achieving our targets."

  232.  Trade unions giving evidence to the Committee regarded safety representatives as an important and under-used resource, there to help business to achieve its goals.[392] A number of changes were felt to be needed, including a strengthening of safety operatives' rights, an increased emphasis on enforcing the regulations where an employer fails to consult, more contact with safety representatives during HSE inspections and improvements in the information available.

  233.  Regarding the rights of safety representatives, the TUC argued that they should be given rights to inspect all premises where safety reps have members. It also wished to see a duty on employers to respond to issues raised by safety representatives and greater clarity and enforcement of the rights to training and information.[393] A further suggestion was that safety representatives should be able to issue a Provisional Improvement Notice [394] (as is done in Australia and Sweden). This would allow a safety representative to require an employer to stop a potentially dangerous activity pending a visit by an HSE inspector.


  234.  Failure to enforce the 1977 Safety Representatives and Safety Committee regulations was a 'major concern' for trade unions giving evidence to the Committee.[395] The GMB told us that as of January 2000, 'HSE inspectors had served just one improvement notice under the 1977 regulations - that's one in 22 years.'[396] HSC told us that, since April 2001, there have been 24 enforcement notices issued under the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 and 3 under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1997. There were no prosecutions. (These figures compare to 13,263 enforcement notices issued and between 1,688 'informations laid' by HSE in 2002/03).[397] Mr Graeme Henderson of Prospect told us that[398]:

    "HSE's line on that is essentially that it is an industrial relations issue, and the instructions given to inspectors since 1977 are basically to steer well clear of them."

  235.  If HSE does not have the resources to enforce the safety representative regulations itself, one option is to enable trade unions to do so. Private prosecution could be used, for example, as a tool by unions to enforce the rights of safety representatives. Currently, there is a requirement to seek the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions for a private prosecution to proceed. We believe this requirement should be abolished, although Mr Gareth Williams of the Department for Work and Pensions questioned whether this might change the nature of the relationship between employer and safety representative.[399] Another option, considered in a HSC discussion document on worker involvement issued in 2000, would be to give Employment Tribunals powers to hear cases in which safety representatives or workers claim that employers have demonstrated a sustained failure to consult.[400]


  236.  There is particular concern at the apparent lack of consultation with employees in non-unionised workplaces. In such workplaces, employers can choose to consult directly with the workforce and there is no requirement that there should be a safety representative. An option under consideration, in order to strengthen the position of workers in such workplaces, was to harmonise two sets of regulations on consultation with employees.[401] This was identified as a beneficial move by HSC in 2000.[402] One of the effects of this would have been to have had the effect of giving employees in non-unionised workplaces the right to elect a safety representative. Mr Hugh Robertson of the TUC told us that the proposed regulations would have been an important step forward.[403] Unfortunately, the HSC was unable to reach a consensus on the regulations.[404] The Committee is concerned that the lack of such concensus has become a block on this reform.

  237.  Alternative steps currently being taken by HSC to improve consultation with employees include the development of a Workers' Safety Adviser Challenge Fund to help promote involvement in workplaces with no employee representation. HSE has also placed on its website some information about the role of safety representatives and the importance of employee involvement and wishes to do some more work promoting that in summer 2004.[405]

  238.  The Challenge Fund is designed to increase worker involvement and consultation, through the intervention of a Worker's Safety Adviser (WSA).[406] £3 million has been made available over a period of three years from July 2004. Applications are particularly welcomed from the construction, hospitality, retail and voluntary sectors. It is focused on small firms, of between 1 and 250 employees. There are just under 1,218,000 firms of this size in the UK.[407] A pilot scheme which ran for nine months in 2002-03 showed some benefits. Over three quarters of the 88 employers involved, reported having made changes to health and safety (and over half of these considered these to have resulted from involvement in the pilot). Over two thirds of employees reported having seen increased discussion on health and safety issues.

  239.  While the experience of the pilot gives reason to believe that the Challenge Fund will help to deliver some benefits in terms of health and safety improvements, the Committee has two areas of concern. Firstly, the level of funding suggests it is only likely to be able to reach a very small proportion of small businesses in the UK. There will be 28 WSAs in the first year.[408] If each WSA can expect to have an average caseload of 100 enterprises (as in the evaluation), this would cover approximately 2,800 enterprises, less than 3% of the target group.

  240.  Secondly, the Challenge Fund seems unlikely to reach those enterprises where health and safety improvements are most needed. The evaluation of the pilot concluded that if the intention is 'to bring in line the worst behaving enterprises, a voluntary scheme is not likely to have significant impact.' Success would depend to a 'significant extent on the ability to secure the agreement of employers to participate.' This had been a significant issue in the pilot.

  241.  The Committee recommends that, by 1 October 2005, HSC publishes proposals to develop improved rights to consultation for employees, particularly in non-unionised workplaces, including rights of enforcement through its Employment Tribunal and private prosecution routes.

389 Back

390   HSC (2004) A Collective Declaration on Worker Involvement; Back

391   HSC (2004) A Collective Declaration on Worker Involvement; Back

392   Volume II (Ev30, Q93) Back

393   Volume II (Ev 30, Q93) Back

394   Volume II (Ev30, Q92), Volume III (No. 26) Back

395   See, for example, Volume III (Nos. 35 and 26) Back

396   Volume III (No. 26) Back

397   HSE, Health and Safety Offences and Penalties 2002/03, Back

398   Volume II (Ev31, Q102) Back

399   Volume II (Ev 152, Q591) Back

400   HSC discussion document. Employee Consultation and Involvement in Health and Safety. 2000. Back

401   HSC discussion document. Employee Consultation and Involvement in Health and Safety. 2000. The regulations referred to are the Safety Representative and Safety Committee Regulations 1977 and the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 Back

402   HSC/03/83 Back

403   Volume II (Ev 31, Q94) Back

404   Volume II(Ev 132Q515) Back

405   Volume II (Ev 132, Q515) Back

406   HSC/E, The Workers' Safety Adviser Challenge Fund. Information Pack. 8 March 2004. Back

407   Small Business Service,UK Whole Economy, Table 1, Back

408   HSC Press Release (30 June 2004), Grant scheme to drive improvements in health and safety Back

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