As part of cuts being imposed for 2003-04, HSE has been told to make 5% savings across all departments this year. The impact will hit frontline health and safety staff in the Field Operations Division (FOD) the hardest, with the lost of at least 50 inspectors this year.
Already seriously understaffed, FOD also needs to recoup an additional £1.3m it was encouraged to spend over baseline last year in order to recruit and retain inspectors and specialist staff. FOD now needs to make substantial savings to reduce its expenditure from £60m to £57m by October this year.
To cut costs, management proposes to pilot changes in the north-west division, in an experiment to try and operate FOD with fewer staff. Inspectors will be removed from the books by, for example, working in other divisions while frontline inspection work is rolled out to other staff grades.
Stephen Kay, chair of Prospect’s HSE branch, said: "While we have been pushing for ways of reducing the bureaucracy to release FOD inspectors from the office for years, we are worried these proposals will see untrained and unqualified staff having a quasi-inspection role when what is needed is a person trained and qualified to exercise their judgement.
"Experience tells us that the easiest visit can turn into a complex situation when, for example, asbestos contamination is discovered, or there is a serious fire risk. We owe it to working people to ensure visiting officers can spot and deal effectively with any hazardous situation they may come across, not to start playing Russian roulette with their safety."
Prospect members in HSE also point to the experiences of other enforcement bodies, in particular the Metropolitan Police. In a recent statement announcing moves to increase the force over the next three years, Met commissioner Sir John Stevens agreed that withdrawing constables from foot patrol in the early 1990s was a mistake that underestimated the importance of reassuring the public.
HSE’s cuts also come at a time when government targets set under its Revitalising Health and Safety strategy look unlikely to be met which Prospect says amount to a failure of joined-up government.
Richard Hardy, Prospect negotiator said: "The government set ambitious targets for HSE to tackle serious problems, but didn’t provide the resources for the executive to carry them out. HSE already has serious staff shortages.
"These latest cuts hit at the heart of an already overstretched division which faces continuing public and political pressure to investigate more serious accidents and undertake more preventative work, not less."
The union will be raising the issues facing HSE in meetings with ministers in the near future.
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