HSE: how do you solve a problem like £14 million?

Neil Hope-Collins, Geoff Fletcher · 19 August 2020

Our members in HSE have been working non-stop during the COVID-19 pandemic, as always with the vital aim of keeping people safe. But they – and the people they’re trying to keep save – have been let down by a chronic lack of resources.

HSE staff check supplies of PPE, support government and industry, and influence workplace COVID-19 guidance.

They did not stop regulating workplaces. Initially working remotely (including via video calls) and then through in-person site visits. But there are only 390 full-time equivalent band 3 (main grade) inspectors for the whole of mainland UK. That is just not enough.

Lack of capacity

HSE has reacted to local ‘hotspots’ and lockdowns as best it can. Our members have been re-directed away from existing work in other towns, to focus HSE’s efforts in these areas.

HSE just doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil public and political expectations in these high-profile areas and maintain meaningful activity in other places. There just aren’t enough suitably qualified and experienced staff, and it takes at least five years to train an Inspector. This capacity isn’t a tap the country can just turn on overnight.

The £14 million

Back in May, the Prime Minister announced that HSE would be carrying out spot inspections. He said that HSE would get an additional £14 million to help.  Unfortunately recruiting and training enough new Inspectors inside a year is simply not possible, however much money you throw at HSE. It’s just as well that the money was explicitly not to be used to permanently increase Inspector numbers. It is not a replacement for years of budget cuts. It is only for one year and only available for temporary COVID initiatives.

So, what have HSE managed to do with the money? As of 2 July, they had only accessed £4 million. That had been to buy additional call centre capacity from a private contractor.

They have now approached Inspectors who left in the last three years (often because of the lack of pay ) offering pay equivalent to the top of the pay range for fixed-term contract work just carrying out COVID inspections. They wanted around 20, they managed just six full-time equivalents.

They have told staff they are looking to recruit people to collect information from sites on how COVID risks are being managed.  These people will be on fixed-term contracts and will not carry warrants. They will, in effect, be carrying out tick-box surveys of workplaces. HSE have not disclosed how much these people will be paid.

What Prospect is doing

In response to pressure from Prospect, HSE have agreed to consult us about how they might consider allowing existing staff to work additional hours or overtime. They haven’t told staff this yet.

Prospect supports and sympathises with HSE. COVID has lifted the curtain. It is now clear for all to see that years of underfunding has left HSE without the capacity to fulfil public or politicians’ expectations.

No one should turn away funding when it is offered but £14 million this year only for fixed-term contracts does not fix chronic under-investment. We’ll continue to campaign for the resources so that HSE can do its job effectively, which is in the interests of everyone in the UK.

Neil Hope-Collins and Geoff Fletcher are Prospect members and HSE staff.