Health and safety is no monster- it is essential

16 September 2020

The following blog is based on a speech given by Mike Clancy, General Secretary of Prospect, at the TUC Congress 2020


Attitudes of the past can often explain problems in the present. In 2012 the then Prime Minister David Cameron promised to kill off the ‘monster’ of ‘health and safety culture’. In a New Year message he said he wanted 2012 to be the year ‘we banished a lot of this pointless time-wasting from the economy and British life once and for all’.

Fast forward to 2020 and we have the current PM, Boris Johnson, at the despatch box in the House of Commons describing an HSE capacity to conduct spot checks which simply does not exist. Joining of the dots is not difficult.

The journey from ‘monster’ to ‘essential’ has been one of the key stories of the last six months. No business or organisation can now operate without a strong health and safety culture. Health and safety has not ‘gone mad’ but rather revealed itself again, as the key to commerce.

There is always a misconception around health and safety that it is about ‘saying no’ rather than focussing on how we operate, work and live safely. My view has always been that we need to use safety regulation to diagnose, prevent where necessary, and enable where possible. We must banish the notion of safety as a constraint and ground it as a given.

But where we are now is obvious. The underfunding and impact on the HSE resulted from the Cameron view.

The figures are stark:

  • Since 2009/10, the budget of the HSE has been cut by over 50% in real terms.
  • According to its 2019/20 annual report, the number of cases successfully prosecuted by HSE has declined each year since 2015/16 – by 48% in that time.
  • The HSE has become increasingly short staffed. It needs significantly more permanent inspectors to meet a gap in capability. Job cuts have also hit its science and research division too. Certain specialisms, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), have been hit hard.
  • There are now more MPs in Westminster than there are front line inspectors at the HSE – there are just 390 frontline main grade inspectors across Britain.

This at a time when the HSE is being asked to take on additional areas of regulatory responsibility, including establishing the Building Safety Regulator and additional chemical regulation responsibilities as a result of Brexit.

The coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the capacity of the HSE to fulfil its essential public function. This is despite the HSE and their local authority co-regulators being a vital part of the solution to this crisis. In May, the prime minister told the House of Commons: “The Health and Safety Executive will be enforcing (the new workplace guidelines) and we will have spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe.” The reality is that HSE management are having to perform regulatory gymnastics simply to fulfil core functions and maintain reach in the face of years of cuts.

An additional £14.2m has been made available to the HSE to respond to the crisis, however, this only replaces a fraction of the real terms cuts since 2010. It is only for one year and only available for temporary COVID initiatives.

The HSE has offered inspectors who have left the organisation short-term contracts on beneficial terms to help with the spot checks. This was an implicit recognition that without more inspectors the HSE cannot carry out its regulatory activities to the standard society and politicians expect of it. Recruiting former inspectors on short term contracts is not the answer to a long term problem.

Carrying out COVID spot checks has forced the HSE and its inspectors away from existing “conventional” regulatory work in other areas. HSE does not have the capacity to fulfil public and political expectations in these high-profile areas and maintain meaningful activity in other places. One of the reasons so many inspectors have left the HSE is low pay, hence why it is offering to bring former inspectors back at the top of the pay scale for their grade.


Polling from YouGov commissioned by Prospect demonstrates that the public expects physical inspections.

  • 67% of the public believe that physical inspections are necessary
  • 52% say they would be uncomfortable returning to work if the inspection occurred over the phone.
  • 31% of the public believe that if their employer were in breach of the government’s guidelines then nobody in their workplace would report it to the HSE.


At Prospect we are determined to keep campaigning on behalf of our members in the HSE, and all those in the wider economy whose safety is dependent on the work they do on our behalf. We want to see a commitment to ensure the HSE gets whatever resources it needs in the short term to keep people safe in this pandemic and to build civic confidence in the transition. We need a government-funded public information campaign encouraging workers and the public to report breaches of workplace health and safety guidance to the HSE. And longer term, there simply must be a commitment from government in this parliament to reverse the cuts to the HSE made since 2010 and substantially increase the number of inspectors. It’s time for the government to recognise the value of the HSE, and let our expert members get on with the job of keeping us all safe at work.