Parliamentary committee calls for changes to workplace health and safety regulation

A report by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, published in July 2004, sets out a number of criticisms of the system of health and safety regulation in the UK. Its recommendations include more resources for enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive and new rights for worker representatives.

In July 2004, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (WPC) published a report on the work of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) and Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It makes a number of criticisms of the current regulatory system for health and safety and puts forward a series of recommendations for reform. The report follows the publication of a new health and safety strategy by the HSC in February 2004.

The WPC report

The WPC notes with concern the 'limited progress' made towards reaching the targets and indicators for reducing incident rates and working days lost set by the HSC/E in the June 2000 strategy statement Revitalising health and safety. In particular, the rate of improvement in fatal injuries fell to a plateau during the 1990s, and occupational ill-health remains 'a huge problem', accounting for 33 million working days lost out of 40 million in 2001-2. The committee concludes that this 'must, inevitably, raise questions about the present system’s capacity to secure significant future improvements in standards', particularly with growing risks associated with changes in the structure and organisation of work (eg the growth of temporary and subcontracted employment and a rising incidence of stress and musculoskeletal disorders).

The WPC criticises the current strategy of the HSC which 'involves a downplaying of further regulatory solutions'. It also says that the 'relative [governmental] inactivity' in the areas of possible legislation indicated in the Revitalising health and safety document is 'regrettable and demonstrates a worrying lack of commitment'. Amongst the committee's main recommendations are the following:

  • the government should introduce legislation on 'corporate killing', to which it has been committed for several years (UK0306108F), lift crown immunity and establish new directors’ duties over health and safety;
  • resources for proactive inspections and for incident investigations should be increased. The number of field inspectors should be doubled, since 'it is inspection, backed by enforcement, that is most effective in motivating duty holders to comply with their responsibilities under health and safety law'. The HSE should also not proceed with proposals to shift resources from inspection and enforcement to fund an increase in education, information and advice;
  • safety representatives should be granted greater powers to enforce health and safety law in the workplace. This includes the right to bring private prosecutions, presently subject to the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and should extend to improvement and prohibition notices. Maximum penalties, which apply in the magistrates courts where most prosecutions are heard, should also be increased;
  • the HSC needs to publish proposals to improve rights for the consultation of employees, particularly in non-unionised workplaces;
  • the HSE 'should undertake and publish by 1 October 2005 a thorough audit of the performance of local authorities', which enforce health and safety law in shops and offices, given concerns over limited resources and inconsistency of treatment; and
  • greater resources should be given to the HSE to develop its activities over occupational health support.

HSC strategy

The HSC strategy document, published a few months earlier, set out a number of priorities for the HSE. These include:

  • recognition of local authorities as key strategic partners, and development of partnerships with other interested parties over occupational health;
  • promoting the business case for health and safety, winning 'hearts and minds' through effective communication and demonstration of best practice, though retaining enforcement which 'is an important motivator for some employers';
  • targeting limited resources to where they can have greatest impact, such as focusing on key sectors and incident type;
  • promoting greater worker involvement, including in small businesses, for example through the Department for Work and Pensions’ 'challenge fund', set up to promote the role of 'workers’ safety adviser'.

A Collective declaration on worker involvement, endorsed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Federation of Small Businesses and Institute of Directors, was also published in March 2004. This stressed the important role played by trade unions in the area of health and safety and the need to develop appropriate structures where unions were not present.

Social partner views

The CBI entered a number of concerns and reservations in its evidence to the WPC. For example, it is concerned that the current principle of 'so far as is reasonably practicable' is under threat from the European Commission’s current review of health and safety regulation. There should also be a clearer role for 'leading' indicators such as access to training, not just 'lagging' indicators, such as accidents and prosecutions. More specifically, though the CBI supported the idea of a director specifically responsible for health and safety, it was concerned that this person should not become a named target or scapegoat concerning enforcement. The manufacturers’ organisation EEF also expressed the view that increased enforcement action risked creating a negative view amongst employers of the activities of inspectors. It said that 'encouraging good practice is in our view a fundamental part of HSC/E’s responsibilities', though it also argued that field inspectors should have greater support.

In its written evidence to the WPC, the TUC said that:

  • the work of the HSC/E had been 'considerably curtailed by a lack of funding';
  • levels of inspection are 'unacceptably low and inconsistent';
  • the HSC/E should exercise 'greater control over the quality and quantity of enforcement activity by local authorities'; and
  • the HSC/E 'needs to put worker involvement and trade unions at the heart of its work'. Specifically, for example, safety representatives should have the right to inspect all premises where they have members, with employers having a duty to respond to their concerns.

The GMB general union also suggested a levy on employers to raise funds.

Commentary

The system of health and safety regulation in the UK has long been framed by the balance between inspection and enforcement on the one hand, and advice and prevention on the other. Both form key components of the arrangements originally established by the landmark Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (UK9909127F). Arguably, however, the 'proactive' or 'support' role has come to dominate debate, reflecting three major changes. First, in the 1980s, Conservative Party governments under Margaret Thatcher cut back on the resources available to the HSE and promoted an ideology based on the market, with the health and safety authorities consequently placing greater emphasis on the 'business case' for improvement. The contemporaneous decline of workplace trade unionism also helped in this regard. Second, in the 1990s, the implementation of the EU framework health and safety Directive (89/391/EEC) brought some differences of emphasis to the traditional UK model, notably concerning prevention services as well as representative worker participation. Third has been the rise of problems associated with occupational health, such as work-related stress and passive smoking, which might lend themselves more readily to a preventative approach.

The WPC report may thus be interpreted, in this context, as a reminder of the importance of inspection and enforcement at a time when progress has slowed in tackling major problems and when HSC/E funding could be threatened under the Chancellor’s spending review (UK0407105F). With seven of the 10 members of the committee coming from the Labour Party, which retains strong trade union links at national and constituency levels, it might also signal some broader unease within the parliamentary Labour Party at the implications of the latest announced cutbacks in the civil service. In contrast, the HSC’s own strategy report has a different emphasis on prevention and advice, echoed by ministerial evidence to the WPC, though it does not preclude further regulation in areas such as corporate manslaughter and lifting crown immunities. It also acknowledges a need for higher fines for offenders. In any case, it seems clear that further improvements in the health and safety record of the UK requires greater resources for the regulatory authorities, whether for enforcement, education or, ideally, both. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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