Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the University and College Union


    —    UCU supports the TUC evidence already provided to the select committee.

    —    We would like to see more effort to enforce the legislative support for safety representatives' functions.

    —    UCU believes the HSE to be hugely under-resourced.

    —    Due to resource limitations we believe it is difficult if not impossible for the HSE to provide an adequate level of support to our representatives or to take enforcement action against breaches.

    —    Positive project initiatives in the tertiary education sector, which UCU supports, are threatened by resource limitations.

    —    UCU believes an opportunity to "level the playing field" between small and large organisations in relation to corporate manslaughter has been missed.

    —    Migrant workers need some special protection and access to language education.

    —    The HSE should shift its emphasis towards a closer working relationship with workers and their representatives.


  1.1  UCU is aware of the memorandum of evidence submitted to the select committee by the Trades Union Congress on behalf of all its affiliates, and unconditionally endorses and supports that evidence. The UCU will not respond to all the points on which the select committee has called for evidence, but wishes to make a limited number of comments and observations to support the TUC's contribution, with special reference to the occupational sector in which we recruit, and of which we have extensive experience.

  1.2  UCU regards the health, safety and welfare of its members as a priority area for improvement. To that end, its policy is to increase the number of workplace safety representatives; develop support and resource mechanisms for local organisation; improve training opportunities for our safety representatives and work more closely with employers and the HSE to achieve this.

  1.3  The University and College Union (UCU) was formed in 2006 by a merger between the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE). UCU recruits into membership academic and academic-related staff in the tertiary education sector. It covers the whole of the UK, with the exception of further education staff in Scotland, currently recruited by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS). UCU has approximately 120,000 members.


  2.1  As a general point, UCU believes that the legislative framework needs consistent enforcement to be effective. We still have reservations about the relative weight and balance currently given between advice and guidance to employers on the one hand and to direct enforcement on the other.

  2.2  We find it regrettable that, no doubt in part due to under-resourcing, the HSE appears to have been reluctant to adopt the same "blitz" approach to the enforcement of safety representatives' statutory functions and employer duties that facilitate and enable safety representatives operation, as it has in other areas where non-compliance was widespread. The experience of many of our local safety representatives is that too many employers still remain reluctant to provide information, restrict time-off, and fail to consult effectively, fail to provide assistance and facilities when requested and prevaricate over taking corrective action when problems are reported to them.

  2.3  On corporate manslaughter, we are disappointed that individual duties and responsibilities of directors and decision-makers were not included in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act. The difficulties of identifying a "controlling mind" who could be held responsible for breaches of the duty of care, or statutory duties in anything other than a very small organisation are well known.

  So despite a legislative opportunity to redress this imbalance, there remains the iniquitous situation whereby a small employer can be prosecuted for manslaughter when a worker is negligently killed, but in larger organisations, it remains highly unlikely that any individual would be held responsible. Our view is that, no matter how good they are, (and we think the recent guidance published by the HSE and badged by the IoD is good) voluntary codes and guidance are usually ineffective in achieving the necessary levels of compliance with legislative standards.


  3.1  In common with the TUC, UCU believes that the HSC/E generally is hugely under-resourced and need additional investment, even before the cuts to their budget currently being proposed are implemented. This demonstrates itself quite starkly for some of our representatives and branches, who are faced with employers whose commitment to adopting a positive approach to collaborative working with our representatives is too often less than wholehearted. Some examples follow.

  3.2  Practical support to workers. Following a request for advice from one of our college branches, the UCU health & safety advisor recommended that, in the circumstances at the college (a blank refusal by the employer to address a number of serious health & safety problems over a four year period) that the UCU branch should speak to the HSE and request some advice and a visit. Following exchanges of a number of e-mails, the HSE response was that the inspectors already had a full work programme and were unable to make a visit. It took a more protracted correspondence between the HSE office and our health & safety advisor to finally persuade the HSE that they should give our representative some assistance. We appreciate that this probably took that inspector away from some other duties.

  3.3  More generally, a number of our branches have reported that they find it very difficult to make contact with HSE inspectors, and that inspectors are often out of contact for weeks on end, due to workload. Others report, when asked, that they have never seen an inspector on the premises, or have no idea when the last HSE visit took place. This also indicates to us that there are insufficient inspectors in post, and our experience adds weight to the TUC's submission in this respect.

  3.4  Reducing stress-related absence project. An initial project, colloquially known as "The Willing One Hundred" begun early in 2006 involved eight tertiary institutions in a commitment to take action to improve conditions in their colleges and universities.   

  Reports from our local organisations have been pessimistic; one case study published on the HSE website bore no resemblance to events at the university. Following representations from a UCU national officer, it was withdrawn; the management of the university that had submitted the report apologised unreservedly to the UCU Branch. Others report little progress, and little involvement of local trade union representatives in the process.

  3.5  A second project on the other hand, established in mid 2006 is a highly positive initiative, given that stress-related illness and absence in the sector runs at about twice the national average. The project's initial series of workshops were on the theme of managing and reducing sickness absence. We believe this was influenced by current government policy to reduce the number of people absent from work due to sickness, rather than a clear focus on the employers' duty of care and statutory duties to provide a safe workplace that does not damage health, thus ameliorating the harm that poor working environments and conditions cause. To focus on the economic implications of sickness absence is to ignore the human being who has been damaged by a negligent and uncaring employer. In the workplace-based follow-up to the workshops it is also our view that the necessary action and support at workplace level by inspectors is falling far short of what is needed, notwithstanding the excellent work by HSE staff. For example, in the Northern Region, the Gateshead office of the HSE has a good programme of project-related visits but which involve only one third of the tertiary institutions in the area. We are concerned that positive initiatives are thus only being implemented at the margins due to resource limitations, rather than across the whole of the sector. We are also concerned that both the current project and future project possibilities will be under threat due to insufficient resources.

  3.6  Information resources. The HSE gave a commitment in 2006 that they would be making their publications available, free-of-charge, via Internet access. This would be a substantial benefit not only to our representatives, but also to employers, particularly those in the further education sector, where funding cuts, reductions and government policy shifts refocusing the work of the sector have created an almost continuous resource crisis over the past 15 years. As taxpayers, our members have already funded the research, writing and production of this material—we believe it is iniquitous to then require us to pay for it again. A lack of resources has now, regrettably, put this at serious risk.


  4.1  We have insufficient information available to enable us to comment on whether or not migrant workers are more at risk of injury or ill-health than other workers as a result of work. Neither can we say if the HSE does enough to protect them. But UCU does have some comment to make in the more general area of language education, a necessary pre-condition for ensuring workers understand workplace health & safety.

  4.2  Our members teach English to students whose first language is not English. Many migrant workers come from countries where workplace health & safety standards are much lower than in the UK, and where there is much less of a tradition of regulation of those standards.

  There is a clear need to ensure migrant workers can be given instruction and information that is understandable, and they can follow safe working practices, read notices, give and understand warnings and so on. If they are unable to do this, we think that this would be one factor in them having an increased risk of injury

  4.3  UCU believes that open access to language courses free at the point of delivery is an essential pre-requisite to give migrant workers the language skills they need to this end. UCU conducted a sustained campaign when the Government cut access for free ESOL courses recently, emphasising the health & safety implications as part of that. While we appreciate that this is not directly an issue for the HSE, we would hope that they, and the Commission, would be making this point to Government, and thus reinforcing the case for the widest possible of free ESOL courses for a potentially vulnerable section of the workforce.


  5.1  It is invariably the case that those responsible for health & safety injuries and incidents are employers—they have a duty of care and bear the statutory duties. The HSE itself has published an analysis stating that in more than 70% of cases employers are responsible for major and fatal injuries.

  5.2  It is workers who become the victims when employers breach their duty of care and the regulatory standards. The statutory standards and regulatory framework are there to protect workers from the actual and potential hazards related to their occupation; to ensure their employers exercise a duty of care and do not expose their employees to danger and risk. In that sense, workers are the potential victims of crime.

  5.3  HSE Inspectors are law enforcers who hold the Queen's warrant. UCU invites the select committee to consider whether the HSE should make a philosophical shift in emphasis from the view that "stakeholders" are all of equivalent standing, towards an understanding that the HSE should work more closely with workers and their safety representatives, and adopt a more positive enforcement stance towards employers. When Parliament proposes to amend the law related to burglary, it doesn't undertake consultation exercises with burglars, or conduct an impact assessment on what effect the proposals will have on burglars. Occupational health and safety is regulated by the criminal law. When breaches are prosecuted cases are heard in magistrates or crown courts as they are criminal offences.

  5.4  Of course UCU at institutional and national level seeks to work in partnership with employers on health and safety issues wherever possible and we have some excellent examples where this happens. This is far from the case in all employers, unfortunately. We would invite the select committee to consider whether it is now appropriate that the equal status stakeholder concept should continue to apply to what are, after all, criminal activities.

  5.5  We believe that HSE Inspectors need to make much closer contacts and liaison arrangements with safety representatives, and with representatives of employee safety in non-union workplaces, so that they are clearly seen as being there to enforce the law that protects workers from employer carelessness, negligence or deliberate failure to comply.

  That in turn places a responsibility on trade unions such as UCU to ensure we also prioritise health and safety and have in place networks of competent, properly supported, trained and resourced health and safety representatives. We are working hard to do that.


January 2008

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