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July 30, 2010

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Spending cuts stir fears of weaker regulatory capability

The union that represents HSE inspectors is worried that public-sector cost-slashing could undermine the Executive’s ability to regulate health and safety, particularly in the high-hazard industries.

Prospect negotiations officer Mike Macdonald said the pressure on the HSE’s budget will intensify over the coming years, so the regulator will “have to decide how to prioritise its work going forward”. He called on the HSE to hold a debate on the issue and stressed the need to involve industry in setting its agenda.

Nuclear and offshore are key areas of concern to Macdonald, who said: “A third of the nuclear inspectors are over the age of 55 and there is a need to recruit nuclear inspectors to replace the ones that already exist.”

The need for a healthy stock of inspectors in this field is necessary given the ongoing new-build programme of nuclear installations, and Macdonald believes that continued recruitment, along with decent pay terms, is essential to ensure the HSE attracts the best people. He pointed out: “The idea that you can train someone with no technical qualifications to be a fully-fledged inspector would not be impossible but it would be very difficult.”

He added that a recent two-month job freeze, which affected 14 job offers made to prospective nuclear inspectors, had only just been lifted, and there was a fear that, in the meantime, some of those recruits might have found other roles elsewhere.

Macdonald did, however, praise the HSE for making significant strides over the last two years in recruiting front-line inspectors and restructuring its policy teams. He described the move to a single headquarters in Bootle as wise, and gave the HSE credit for recruiting specialist staff in certain areas and plugging the gaps of staff losses emanating from the relocation.

Figures published in the HSE’s annual report earlier this week showed that in 2009/10 it recruited 248 staff in total – 111 into extra positions – representing a headcount increase from 3591 in 2008/09 to 3702 last year.

Commenting on the figures, an HSE spokesperson said: “During the reporting period, HSE was still in the process of relocating its headquarters from London to Bootle and therefore we were required to recruit to replace posts that had been moved from London. A number of specialist staff transferred to Bootle, and the recruitment drive to replace those posts moved from London is now complete. The relocation will deliver savings of more than £50 million for taxpayers.”

Asked whether the HSE could guarantee it would be able to retain, or increase its headcount, particularly on the front line, the spokesperson added: “HSE can confirm its staffing levels are affordable in the current financial year (2010/11). The Spending Review 2010 settlement covering the next four years will not be known until 20 October 2010.”

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