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Health and safety and the role of local councils

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Here's what you need to know

When people talk about health and safety inspection and enforcement they usually have the Health and Safety Executive in mind, yet half of all British workers have the health and safety in their workplaces enforced not by the HSE but by their local council.

That’s why a recent report on local authority enforcement published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health is probably going to be of interest to a lot of people in the health and safety world.

The report starts by countering the argument that the local authority enforced sector is “low risk”, saying that, while it may have lower injury levels, it often has higher rates of occupational diseases such as back pain or work-related stress.

It also gives a stark account of how much inspection and enforcement activity has fallen in the past decade with proactive inspections falling by 97% and the overall number of inspections by 65%.

While that is partly a result in local government spending cuts, much of the fall has been because councils have been told not to inspect except under certain strict circumstances.

The report also proves that the idea that enforcement is now done more intelligently is just not true. The number of inspections fell by 65% and the amount of enforcement activity fell by almost the same amount – 64%.

The “Primary Authority” scheme, where big businesses have an agreement with a single local council also comes in for criticism with the report saying that it limits the ability of local authorities to act locally.

But it's the recommendations the report makes that are most interesting, as well as what its doesn't recommend.

The all-party group is not suggesting that enforcement is taken away from local councils, saying that the current arrangements probably work quite well in many respects. Many local councils are performing well, despite the difficulties.

Instead it recommends that the priorities for local authorities on inspections should have greater emphasis on health issues rather than just safety, and calls for changes to the was the “primary authority” scheme operates to ensure greater scrutiny and consistency.

It seeks an end to the duplication of enforcement between local councils and the HSE that exists in some workplaces and suggests that all new premises should be visited as soon as possible after they open.

These are simple clear and sensible recommendations, but of course we also need the government to provide funding for inspection and enforcement activity and, equally important, we need to change the mind-set that sees inspection activity as being something that is negative. Instead, government should view health and safety inspections as a positive way of ensuring that employers know about their legal duties and are complying with them.

You can see the press release from Jo Stevens MP, chair of the all-party group here .

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