The Health and Safety Executive has told local authorities that they must protect the public after raising alarm at the falling number of council health and safety inspections.
HSE is urging local authorities to sign up to a ‘statement of commitment’ (SoC) pledging to work with others to target and prioritise regulatory resources to meet their legal duties.
The watchdog said failures in the management of occupational health and safety in local authority-enforced sectors have resulted in more than 100,000 new cases of ill health, 5,000 major injuries and the deaths of 10 workers each year.
HSE said the SoC is endorsed by the Local Government Association (LGA), the Welsh Local Government Association and the Society of Chief Officers of Environmental Health in Scotland.
The LGA said it welcomed suggestions to improve health and safety standards through collaborative and targeted working but warned that there was a limit to what this could achieve in the face of stringent funding cuts.
LGA safer and stronger communities board chair Simon Blackburn said: “Although it is ultimately the responsibility of businesses to manage their health and safety responsibilities and ensure that premises, equipment and processes are safe for the public and their staff, councils are working hard to maintain and improve standards.
“However, as HSE recognises, the significant reduction in funding councils receive from government makes it much harder to maintain previous levels of activity in this area.
“The LGA supports the statement of commitment to work with the sector to improve health and safety standards, and encourages councils to look at how they can offset the impact of funding cuts, for example through collaboration and targeting their interventions.
“But ultimately, with local government facing an £8 billion funding gap by 2025, health and safety, along with other areas of regulation, need a sustainable long term funding model, which government needs to address in the Spending Review.”
National Hazards Campaign acting chair Hilda Palmer said: “It’s getting out a statement that this is a legal requirement, so in that sense it could be seen as supportive of EH officers who are trying to do a good job. But there’s no money in local authorities.
“There’s a great deal of commitment by some EH officers who really want to do a good job, and are doing the best they can. And they want this to be made clear about what’s going on [falling numbers of inspections], and what’s going wrong. But ultimately everyone is doing the best they can with extremely inadequate resources.
“It’s meaningless next to the cuts to local authority health and safety enforcement since 2010, which are getting worse to the extent that some local authorities don’t do anything at all.”
The all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health reviewed local authority health and safety work in a report in July 2018. It highlighted the decline in enforcement activity. In 2010-11 there were 6,780 enforcement notices issued by local authorities but by 2016-17 there were just 2,420.
The group also noted full-time equivalent health and safety inspectors almost halved to 543 in 2017 compared with 1,020 in 2010. It found that while there has been an increase in ill-health statistics since 2010, this couldn’t be directly liked to falls in inspections.
However, it said, this did mean that falls in inspections couldn’t be justified on the basis of falls in risk. Instead, it recommended that the fee for intervention regime be extended to local authority enforcement. It argued the decision not to extend it to local authorities was ‘a major inconsistency and [its introduction] could prove to be an incentive to local councils to improve their levels of enforcement activity’.
The group also rejected calls to hand over all enforcement to HSE, as local authorities have local knowledge and there are benefits from wider inspection responsibilities.
• Read a legal expert's take on the Statement of Commitment in the July/August issue of EHN (login required).