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Scottish independence: whither health and safety?

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On 18 September the people of Scotland will wake up with a choice few will ever have: should we become an independent nation? With consistently higher rates of fatal and major injury than south of the border, will the independence referendum – whether the country votes yes or no – reshape health and safety?


Scotland has long had a higher rate of fatal and major injury than Britain. In 2012/13, the fatal and major injury rate in Scotland was 83.4 per 100,000 workers. This compares with a British rate of 78.9. 

Professor Andrew Watterson, a Scottish health and safety academic, has argued the upcoming independence referendum will provide Scotland with “a unique opportunity to reshape and improve occupational health and safety in the country”. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is not unlikely that health and safety will undergo significant change anyway.

There’s now cross-party recognition among those looking to maintain the union that Scotland’s political settlement needs to change, even if the country votes to stay within the UK. This could mean new forms of scrutiny of health and safety enforcement or even entirely new regulators.

The campaigns
The opposing sides in the independence referendum have largely coalesced behind two campaigns: the Better Together, representing unionists and independence advocates behind Yes Scotland (though George Galloway’s Just Say Naw campaign and the Radical Independence Campaign are notable exceptions to this dichotomy).

There are two parties sitting in the Scottish parliament backing Yes Scotland: the Scottish National Party (SNP) – the party of government – and the Scottish Green Party. The Scottish Socialist Party joins them in the alliance. Backing Better Together are the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Polls have consistently shown the yes campaign lagging the no, but political soothsayers point to the fact that, in the run up to the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, the SNP was lagging Labour in the polls for the preceding year, only to ultimately win by a significant margin. The SNP is regarded as a highly effective campaigner. It’s still all to play for.

While a range of people, parties and organisations may stand largely united behind their collective banners, there are competing views on what Scotland’s future should look like, whether the population votes for or against independence. And health and safety is no different; there is no homogeneous vision for health and safety for each campaign, but different approaches seeking subtly different outcomes.

Photograph: Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill

Independence
Independence must necessarily see a new health and safety regulator established, while, in the short term, the current stock of health and safety law – along with all other laws – will be transferred to Scotland, according to the government white paper Scotland’s Future. Future laws will be decided upon by the Scottish parliament.

If the Scottish electorate vote yes, independence day will be 24 March 2016 and the 307-year-old political union will split. The first general election in an independent Scotland would then take place on 5 May 2016.

The Scottish government’s plans for health and safety, as published in Scotland’s Future, only cover offshore safety. It makes commitments to establish a “comparable new body” that will carry out the functions HSE now has responsibility for. “This body will maintain world-leading offshore health and safety standards as currently administered,” it states. A spokesperson for the Scottish government expands on their plans below, including their plans for a new regulator.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens have set out proposals, in the event they win the election after a vote for independence, to establish a micro business regulator that combines health and safety and environmental advice and enforcement. They say this would “create one point of contact for start-up and micro businesses owners who need to concentrate on making their business a success and creating jobs”. They expand on this policy below.

But as already noted, the continuation of the union does not necessarily mean a continuation of the status quo. All parties in Better Together have pledged further devolution of one form or another.

Further devolution
The Scottish Labour Party has pledged to establish a new health and safety agency for Scotland as part of wider plans for further devolution. It’s a position backed by the party leader Ed Miliband, who has said he will bring forward a new Scotland Act if he is elected prime minister in the 2015 UK general election in order to implement this and the other devolutionary measures. This new regulator is borne out of a concern about the “acutely Scottish problem” of higher work-related injury rates. The health and safety agency would set enforcement priorities, goals and objectives in Scotland while acting within the UK’s legislative framework.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have put forward what is, constitutionally, perhaps, the boldest unionist vision for Scotland – and indeed the whole of the UK – that will see Scotland become one of a series of states within a UK federation. The Liberal Democrats call this their Home Rule proposals, which would give Scotland – and ideally other regions of the UK – substantial oversight  of areas of spend and public service delivery. Health and safety, though, along with employment and competition law, will continue to be carried out at national, and not state, level, but scrutinised by the Scottish parliament. Alison McInnes, Liberal Democrat MSP for the north-east Scotland region, sets out the party’s vision for health and safety below.

Scottish Conservative Party plans focus on devolving full income tax raising powers to Holyrood, along with responsibility for VAT and social security spending. Their commission on devolution suggested the country should be accountable for 40% of the money it spends. These are the the plans that will be implemented if the Conservatives win the UK general election, and represent, in terms of health and safety, perhaps the greatest continuity.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to know in more detail what health and safety – and indeed the workforce – looks like in Scotland. 

Occupational make up
In terms of the actual number of people in work, the headline indicators are good, at least when compared to the rest of the UK. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, between February and April 2014, Scotland had a slightly higher rate of employment than the rest of the UK. The employment rate among its 16-64 year old workforce was 73.4%; this compares to 72.9% in the UK as a whole.

But the composition of Scotland’s workforce is very different to the rest of the UK. Fewer people, proportionately, work in manufacturing; retail; transport and storage; professional, scientific and technical activities; and education.

In March 2014, 6.3% of the employed Scottish population was working in construction, slightly fewer than in the UK as a whole, whose construction sector workforce stands at 6.4%. There were fewer people, too, working in manufacturing: 7.29% of Scotland’s working population, compared with 7.68% in England and 10.10% in Wales.

But on the other hand, far more people work in agriculture in Scotland than England (2.6% of the working population, compared to 1.1%) and in the healthcare and social work sector (14.47% of the Scottish working population, compared with 12.5% in England and 12.8% in the UK).

According to Oil and Gas UK’s latest workforce demographics report, 49% of the 61,892 employees who travelled offshore to the UK Continental Shelf were residents of Scotland.

After household employees (the numbers of which are tiny), the largest growth in employment over the past year has been experienced by the agricultural industry, perhaps the most dangerous sector in which to work in the UK. Third fastest growing is arts, entertainment and recreation, followed by mining and quarrying, which includes the offshore oil and gas sector.

And there are a number of noticeable long-term changes in Scotland: the number of people working in manufacturing has significantly declined (nearly 45%) in the past 15 years.

On the other hand, professional and technical occupations have increased significantly, by around 57% in the last 15 years; as too has the predominantly office-based administrative and support services sector (up 59% since 1998) and people working in healthcare, up from around 280,000 in the mid-1990s to over 380,000 in 2014.

The occupational makeup – and therefore risk profile – of the country has changed significantly in recent years.

Coupled with this, the age and composition of the workforce in Scotland is changing, much like the rest of the UK. While this demographic still represents a small proportion of the workforce, the number of workers aged over 65 has increased over the last six years. It reached its highest of 81,000 in February to April 2013, but declined since to 68,000 in February to April 2014. Nevertheless, if the trend continues then by 2020 Scotland can expect to see around 90,000 people aged 65 and over in employment.

The national jobs figures from the ONS tracks what it calls the ‘economically inactive’ – people who are not in work, but do not meet the definition of unemployed. There are 780,000 people aged between 16 and 64 in Scotland classed as economically inactive. Of these, 20,000 (or 2.6%) are on short-term sick leave and 224,000 (28.8%) are on long-term sick leave. These figures are much higher, as a proportion of those classed as economically inactive, than the UK, which has 183,000 on short-term sick leave (2.1%) and 1,980,000 on long-term sick (which, although it sounds high, is 22.46%).

The inactivity rate (the number of economically inactive people aged 16 to 64 divided by the population aged 16 to 64) for the UK and Scotland is similar: 21.8% and 22.3% respectively, so the figures are, arguably, significant.

Photograph: Minstry of Defence

Population health
Just to make matters more complicated, Scotland faces unique public health problems. A 2014 study conducted by the ONS compared the life expectancy of 404 local authorities (LAs). Of the 10 LAs with the lowest male life expectancy during 2010-12, six were in Scotland. Boys born between 2010 and 2012 in Glasgow City – the LA with the lowest life expectancy – can, on average, expect to live to 72.6 years (at the other end of the scale boys born in East Dorset during the same period can expect to live to 82.9).

Glasgow City has the lowest life expectancy for women too, and five other Scottish LAs feature in the 10 areas with the lowest female life expectancy. A girl born between 2010 and 2012 in Glasgow City will, on average, live to 78.5; a girl born during the same period in Purbeck in Dorset will live to 86.6. Scotland has, in fact, one of the lowest life expectancies in western Europe.

But life expectancy is a bit of a blunt measure, particularly when it comes to work; healthy life expectancy (HLE) – an estimate of how many years a person might live in a ‘healthy’ state – may be better. But HLE is, too, significantly worse in Scotland than in the UK for males. It is similar for females.

Looking at Scotland as a whole, the most recent annual estimates are for boys born in 2012 to live 76.9 years on average, 59.4 of these in a healthy state. Girls born in 2012 would be expected to live 80.9 years on average, 62.0 of these years being healthy. This has particular relevance when we consider the figures mentioned earlier show the number of people in work aged over 65 increasing.

Safety in numbers
Scotland has long had higher rates of fatal and major injury than Britain, as has already been noted. This has often been put down to a workforce made up of people working in higher-risk industries, such as construction. But breaking the construction figures down, the average reported injury rate in Scotland between the years of 2008/09 and 2010/11, the latest years for which data is available in sufficient detail to make a comparison, was 706 per 100,000 workers. This compares to 564 in England and 655 in Wales.

The Scottish manufacturing sector, over the last three years, has fared worse than England, but better than Wales. Scotland’s average reported injury rate was 770 per 100,000 workers, compared with 982 in Wales and 685 in England.

In 2006 HSE carried out research into why the Scottish construction sector might have higher rates of injury than south of the border. It “overwhelmingly” put the difference down to the sector’s occupational composition: “There are proportionally many more manual (at-risk) workers in Scottish construction than in the rest of Great Britain. As a result it appears that the overall accident rate is higher in Scotland.” This, of course, doesn’t explain the manufacturing figures, to say nothing of the fact that the research is now eight years old and HSE still cites it when explaining why Scotland has higher rates of work-related injury.

Whichever side wins the independence referendum, or the ensuing elections (whether as part of the UK or Scottish national general elections), they will have to face these challenges. The question is, then, which party, and which vision, can provide the best framework for improving health and safety given the complex occupational make up, the changing workforce demographics and the historically poorer health and safety performance? Will independence allow for an increased focus on the health and safety of Scottish workers, better resources and support for business?

Or will remaining within the union allow access to the knowledge and expertise HSE has built up over decades, ensure greater regulatory continuity between countries, or even the best of both worlds? While they may largely be hypothetical questions, it is for you – if you reside north of the border – to decide which is best and most realistic.

Alison McInnes MSP, Scottish Liberal Democrats

What powers would a federal Scotland have over HSE and health and safety more generally?

We believe that there is a strong case for working to increase health and safety standards across the UK, not just in Scotland. Under our Home Rule proposals, responsibility for health and safety legislation and HSE would remain at the UK level, with Scottish MPs scrutinising the work of the regulator as they do now.

What is your vision for health and safety in Scotland?

We want to see a Scotland where there is maximum safety in the workplace at reasonable cost and minimum inconvenience to employers. Robust health and safety laws are clearly required in key Scottish industries such as oil and gas and there should be no question of commercial concerns trumping the safety of staff. But equally we need to ensure that rules are proportionate.

What role would health and safety professionals play in this vision?

Health and safety professionals play a key role in our vision for a safer Scottish workplace. Legislation can only get us so far and it is health and safety professionals who will lead on the implementation and enforcement of the rules.

Would independence be damaging in any way to H&S in Scotland?

There is always room for improvement when it comes to health and safety, but questions remain over what independence would mean for the current regime. Questions over EU membership could have implications on health and safety rules.

 In the event of independence, we all would want to see a robust health and safety regime backed by an appropriately resourced regulator. But the Scottish National Party’s independence white paper left far too many questions on this critical issue unanswered.

Scottish government

What is your vision for health and safety in Scotland?

Scotland’s Future confirms that this government, as the first elected government of an independent Scotland, proposes to establish a new Scottish health and safety body. This body will continue to deliver the functions currently performed by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as well as the safety functions of the Office for Rail Regulation (ORR). A Scottish health and safety body will enable policies to be better tailored to Scotland’s economy, geography and particular needs.

What role would health and safety professionals play in this vision?

In a Scottish health and safety body, health and safety professionals will continue to perform a similar important role, in regulation and enforcement, as they do now in the UK HSE. However with the powers of independence a Scottish body will be able to collaborate more effectively on regulation and enforcement, than the UK HSE currently does, with local authorities and other bodies which have an interest in the sector. This joined-up approach could allow health and safety professionals to play a greater, and more effective, role under independence.

Scotland has consistently recorded higher rates of work-related fatalities and major injuries than GB as a whole – what steps would an independent Scotland take to address this?

Again with the full powers of independence a proposed Scottish health and safety body will enable policies to be better tailored to Scotland’s economy, geography and particular needs.

Would independence be damaging in any way to H&S in Scotland?

No. Scotland will continue to be protected by strong health and safety measures. The legal system that is in place immediately before independence will continue on independence. Thereafter, decisions on health and safety law, including corporate homicide, will be made by the parliament and government of an independent Scotland.

Scottish Green Party

Would the micro business regulator be a one stop shop for regulatory matters? What benefits will it bring?

The single micro business regulator (MBR) would not be a one stop shop for all regulations but would provide a first point of contact for all micro businesses and would operate a risk-based approach to triage businesses.

Start-ups and micro businesses are diverse – some do have complex needs and carry out risky activities, for example some micro businesses may have a significant pollution risk. The MBR can pass these businesses ‘up’ to the regulator relevant to the risky activity (SEPA for example in the pollution risk example). For other business activities deemed to be low risk the MBR can work with the business to give it confidence it is complying with all other regulations with the minimum number of regulators involved.

This would allow start-up and micro businesses owners to concentrate on making their business a success and creating jobs. The MBR would help small business operators focus on complying with the most relevant regulations.

Is there a risk that in having oversight of a range of discreet legal areas the regulator could end up being spread too thinly and lack necessary expertise?

The micro-regulator would ‘tap into the expertise of larger regulators’. The MBR would have the skills to work with the business to make a risk assessment. Any high risk activities or activities which need high levels of regulatory expertise would be passed ‘up’ to the relevant regulator.

What is your vision for health and safety in Scotland?

Every worker has the right to a safe and healthy working environment and health and safety professionals are vital to making that a reality. We reject the idea that cutting regulation is always best for businesses. Well-designed regulation, enforced proportionately to allow Scotland’s small businesses to thrive, is our vision for health and safety in Scotland.

 

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