Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC)

  The TUC is the representative body for 70 trade unions representing over 6.5 million workers.

  The TUC is hugely supportive of the work that the HSE, and its staff do, and believe strongly it the ethos that underpins it. The trade unions, and the members these unions represent, would want the TUC to place on record our enormous regard for the organisation.


  The HSWA generally is still fit for purpose. The TUC believes that the HSWA, in itself, requires only limited review to ensure that it reflects the reality of working life in the 21st century. The main issue is its enforcement, which is dealt with later in this submission.

  There has been a trend in recent years to be apologetic about health and safety in general, and particularly regulation and enforcement. Regulation is seen as a "burden of business" rather than the hallmark of a civilised society.

  We are concerned on pressure from some parts of Government to move away from the regulatory framework towards a "voluntary" approach. The experience in all other areas, including seat belts, smoking restrictions and crash helmets is that the voluntary approach does not work and that only a statutory duty, backed up by enforcement where necessary will ensure compliance. Where voluntarism has been attempted in the health and safety field, such as Ireland and the USA, the experience has not been positive. We do however welcome and support the work done by the HSE to simplify regulations and administrative requirements as these make for better, more effective regulation where the level of protection is not reduced.


  The TUC believes that the HSE/C provide an excellent service and its staff are of an extremely high standard. The TUC sees most of the difficulties of the organisation as stemming from restrictions in the resources available rather than organic failures.

  The proposed merger between the Commission and Executive is broadly supported by the TUC, who believe that, so long as the tri-partite structure is maintained this will allow the Commission to have a more strategic overview of the work of the Executive and also provide a structure more in keeping with the 21st century.

  The TUC welcomes the fact that the Commission and Executive has now taken a more active role in occupational health issues, including issues around stress and sickness absence, but believes that this work is now at risk if the proposed cuts in the HSE budget go ahead.


  In recent years the demands on the HSE have increased in a number of important areas. These include: Occupational health issues like stress and MSDs which make up over 70% of sickness absence; construction, where the house building boom and the London Olympics have lead to increased activity rates in the industry together with incidents like crane collapses; the chemical industry, in the light of the incidents at Buncefield and Texas City; in the workforce generally with the increases in the number of migrant workers and contractorisation; public safety, where there is more demand for the HSE to get more involved in issues such as gas safety and hospital-acquired infections; off-shore oil rigs where the increased price of oil has meant that aging rigs that were due to be scrapped are now having their working lives extended; nuclear regulation if nuclear new build proceeds.

  The Department for Work and Pensions is proposing that the HSE should receive a 5% real terms cut in its budget each year from 2008-09 to 2010-11. This is on top of considerable staffing reductions in recent years. Since 1997 the HSE's workforce has shrunk from over 4,000 to its current number of under 3,500. Further cuts of 5% a year in real terms for the next 3 years would mean that the HSE would have to make reductions in either accident or ill-health investigations or the proactive work that helps to maintain them at their current levels. If they go ahead with the proposed cuts then we will see more injuries, more illness, and more being spent on medical treatment, sick pay, benefits and compensation.

  The TUC is concerned that, as a result of the cuts, changes are being proposed that could have a major effect on the service that the HSE provides. We are particularly concerned that the proposals to reduce the number of offices and transfer the vast majority of staff currently in London to Bootle will have a devastating effect on the ability of the HSE to operate. It is clear that any move to close the London head office will lead to around 80% of Rose Court staff leaving the organisation rather than move. Many of these staff are experienced staff with a skills and knowledge base that the organisation needs to retain.

  The TUC is also concerned about the effect the resource issue is having on HSE research which was, in the past, of a world class standard, especially given the general fall in research into occupational health more widely. In addition the decision to place all material freely on the web may now be at risk because of the funding problems.

  The business case for increasing resources to the HSE is obvious. By preventing people becoming ill or injured through work we can save billions of pounds through sickness absence, medical costs and compensation.


  The level of enforcement of health and safety is both low and inconsistent. There are more traffic wardens in London than there are inspectors in the whole of HSE's Field Operations Directorate for the whole of Great Britain. This means that the possibility of a visit by an inspector is considerably low. Although Lord Robens envisaged annual inspections, the current FOD inspected employer is likely to get a visit, on average once every 10.8 years. In fact the number of inspections has fallen from 116,652 in 1996-97 to 55,195 in 2004-05. At the same time the number of locations inspected by FOD have gone up by over 20%

  The TUC also has concern over the levels of enforcement activity instigated by the HSE. The number of prosecutions has fallen from 1986 in 2001-02 to 1012 in 2005-06. The number of improvement notices and prohibition notices has also fallen dramatically. Given the limited resources available to the HSE we believe that more use should be made of "blitzes" and targeted prosecutions.

  We also believe that the HSE should be prosecuting in more cases where an employer is breaching health and safety law, even is cases where no injury has been sustained. This is particularly the case where bad practices can lead to an occupational illness in the future.

  The TUC is also concerned over the type and levels of penalties available. For most offences only a fine is possible. For some offences there is the possibility of imprisonment but this is rarely used and is only available for individuals while most defendants are corporations. While we welcome the recent Corporate Manslaughter Act we do feel that much more needs to be done to increase the penalties available.

  The average fine for a health and safety offence is similar to that for "fly-tipping". Last year the average fine was £27,997, but if the 13 convictions of over £100,000 are removed the average is £6,219. This shows that the norm is well under £10,000. The Government committed itself in 2002 to increase penalties for health and safety offences but has yet to do so. We also want to see more imaginative penalties such as corporate probation and "naming and shaming" orders available, as well as more use of disqualification for directors. At present there is no legal duty on directors to ensure that their organisation does not put the health and safety of their workforce at risk. This is a major omission.


  Research has shown that in those workplaces where trade unions and employers have a joint approach to health & safety there is a better safety culture than in those without trade unions. In particular workplaces with union safety representatives and consultation had half the serious injuries as those without. After listening to evidence from the trade unions, the 2004 Work and Pensions Select Committee called on the HSC to revisit their proposals for new rights of consultation for employees, including non-unionised workplaces, which had been shelved in 2003. Despite a further consultation on the issue, which resulted in overwhelming support for changes to the regulations, the HSC has still not revised the regulations.


  The TUC hopes that the Select Committee will recognise the major contribution the HSE/C make and call upon the Government to give it the resources it needs to perform its tasks properly.

November 2007

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