Health and Safety: New Labour, New Danger

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Serious injuries such as scalpings, fractures and burns have been removed from the Health and Safety Executive's 'mandatory investigation' criteria in a pilot study in the north west of England.

Investigations into workplace accidents were reduced by 60 percent, while the number of inspectors was cut. The government wants to extend this scheme across the country - in order to free up resources to provide 'advice' to employers.

Already desperately coping with the Blairite deregulatory agenda, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is now being hit by massive budget cuts. HSE management is still waiting for the detail of chancellor Gordon Brown's spending review cuts, but it is now actively planning for 20 percent job cuts.

This is in sharp contrast to July's Department of Work and Pensions select committee report, which backed TUC demands for doubling the number of HSE inspectors. The select committee also demanded the introduction of corporate killing legislation by December, and expressed deep concern at the low levels of investigations and inspections - none of which can happen without a massive increase in resources and a U-turn from Gordon Brown.

If anything the deregulatory threats are worse. A new Health and Safety Commission strategy 'to 2010 and beyond' seeks to 'rebalance' resources away from inspection and enforcement towards advice and awareness raising, enabling business to regulate itself rather than fear legal enforcement.

The new EU services directive, strongly backed by the Department of Trade and Industry, seeks to exempt foreign EU-based companies from the Health and Safety at Work Act if they are active in Britain for less than six months. This opens up the prospect of contractors in a host of hazardous activities being theoretically regulated by their own national inspectorates, but in reality not being regulated at all. How long before British firms set up abroad and bypass hard-won safety protection through a 'company of convenience'?

Hospitals, schools and emergency services are among the public sector employers explicitly 'protected' from proactive inspections by the 2004-05 HSE Field Operating Plan.

Meanwhile Alastair Darling's rail review, which returned the Railway Inspectorate from the HSE to the Department for Transport, undermined the notion that safety should be maintained independently from financial management. This is in direct contradiction to recommendations made by the Cullen inquiry report into the Ladbroke Grove train crash.

Behind all this hovers the Brown-inspired Hampton review into the regulation of British industry. The HSE, the Food Standards Agency and the Environment Agency, as well as financial, employment and legal regulators, are all under the microscope, with the aim of 'lifting the burdens' on British industry.

There were three serious attempts by the Tories to wind up the HSE. They failed partly because big business needs to ensure that there is a level playing field and that cowboy operators do not undercut them. But the HSE also has enormous support inside the trade union movement, despite its many manifest weaknesses. Arguably it is a legal high-water mark of the huge workers' rebellion that shook Britain in the early 1970s. Michael Foot describes the Health and Safety at Work Act and the HSE as the best achievements of the 1974-79 Labour government. They are now under serious threat from New Labour. It is timely that trade unionists are beginning to organise in their defence.

Simon Hester
Prospect union rep
HSE branch