What future for the HSE?
The HSE have recently launched a new strategy called “Helping Great Britain work well”. It has six themes – Acting together; tackling ill health; managing risk well; supporting small employers; keeping pace with change and sharing our success. There is nothing there that many people will disagree with and some of it, such as tackling ill-health and keeping track with change, are things that the TUC has been arguing that the HSE should be doing more of for many years.
But how is the HSE going to achieve these things? It is OK saying that we have to “act together”, but the HSE has a unique role. It advises on regulation, it develops policy and it (along with local authorities), enforces.
In recent years there has been a massive fall in all of these functions. The most noticeable one has been in inspections where numbers have fallen, although the biggest fall has been in the local authority sector (over 95% in five years). But the decline in new regulation to keep up to date with the world of work is also pretty worrying. There have been no improvements in the VDU regulations to take into account the massive technological changes in the past 20 years, nothing on stress, and nothing on manual handling. The same is the case with guidance, where the HSE has withdrawn a huge swath of guidance or turned it over to industry rather than update it. Often because they simply do not have the resources to deal with these issues in-house.
The HSE’s Business Plan for 2016/17 gives some insight into why. In 2009/10, before the coalition government came to power, the HSE received £231 million from the Government. In 2019/20 it will receive £123 million. A reduction of 46% in ten years.
When dealing with enforcement, the business plan states: “In responding to this financial challenge, the HSE will seek to maintain current levels of its core regulatory activities including permissioning, inspection, investigation and enforcement.” The document has a relatively good section on enforcement, but there is nothing about how they are going to achieve it with the current number of inspectors, and the almost complete lack of any inspections in the local authority sector.
On regulation, the paper is clear. There are no proposals for any new regulations in the areas responsible for 70% of work-related sickness absence (stress and MSDs), or on anything else for that matter. Instead they simply want to simplify regulations such as the chemicals regulations, harbours, and gas safety.
There is no doubt that the cuts in the HSE budget are already having an effect. The reduction of fatalities and illnesses that we have seen over the past 40 years have not only stopped but appear to have reversed in some areas. Union representatives in a range of sectors are finding it harder to engage with their employer on health and safety, despite the legal requirement, and the HSE seem unwilling to help. Many also report seeing their employers reduce what they are doing on prevention, such as the management of stress, or cutting essential measures such as health and safety training.
It is not enough for the HSE to say that it is the responsibility of the employers to do these things. If no-one is going to enforce the law then the law becomes useless.
However, given the 46% cut in the budget, it is wrong to put the blame on the HSE. The deregulatory agenda comes from the government. The HSE are trying to use their resources as effectively as possible, although they could be a lot more effective if they would involve the unions and safety representatives a bit more.
It is the Government that is forcing them to reduce the scale of what they do and also to reduce regulation. The problem is that, with the current European regulatory framework, there is very little the HSE or Government can do to reduce legal protection any further so long as we are in the EU. As a result, what the strategy is proposing on regulation is little more than fiddling with the edges. However, even if no regulations are to be repealed or watered down it will not stop the level of protection in the workplace from continuing to fall. And that is the real reason behind the cuts in the HSE (and many other regulators). It is deregulation by the back door. The less the HSE can do the less enforcement the more employers will be able to get away with breaking the law, and breaking their workers.