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EH under ‘crippling pressure’

Corin Williams03/07/2013 - 14:00

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The House of Lords heard EHOs face tough times
The House of Lords heard EHOs face tough times

A debate at the House of Lords has highlighted the pressure regulatory services have been put under after sustained public sector cuts.

Baroness Crawley, a Labour peer and president of the Trading Standards Institute, questioned the government’s plan to ensure environmental health and trading standards services are ‘fit for purpose’.

She said the debate was an ‘unashamed shout-out’ for services that protect citizens and promote legitimate businesses. The CIEH briefed some Lords before before it commenced.

‘Why do these regulatory services need our advocacy? Their strong focus on prevention can make them less visible than other public services. As one environmental health officer told a recent UNISON survey, our success is that nothing happens, meaning that nothing bad happens,’ she said.

‘However, it takes a considerably robust infrastructure to maintain that status quo.’

She asked ministers to explain how services will be protected as they were ‘under crippling pressure, as never before’.

She continued: ‘There are falls in spending of 8 per cent on food safety, 6 per cent on private rented housing standards, 28 per cent on pest control, 14 per cent on health and safety and 47 per cent on port health—the officers at ports of entry monitoring possible contamination of food and so on following events such as the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan.

‘Moreover, 31 per cent less was spent on animal health and infectious disease control. How do we deal with the next major incident of legionnaires’ disease—or more importantly prevent it—with these figures in our heads?’

In response Conservative peer Baroness Seccombe said the government had been ‘innovative’ in dealing with a ‘horrendous fiscal deficit’.

She said: ‘The work of local regulatory services may not be an area of government that receives a great deal of attention when it is going well, but it is vital to upholding the rights of consumers, providing protection to the public and acting as a source of information to businesses and the community.’

She added: ‘In many areas the government have helped to identify new and more efficient ways of delivering services. A scrupulous review of all areas of government spending has allowed for innovation while protecting many taxpayers from having to increase their contributions to what, in many cases, was inefficient spending or unnecessary programmes.’

Lord Harris of Harringey questioned plans to curb council officers’ ability to conduct unannounced inspections.

He said: ‘The government’s proposals will throw up anomalies. Some establishments will now end up being visited twice, instead of once, by the same officers. The Food Standards Authority requires, under statute, that some food-related visits are unannounced. The other, related, visits would be the subject of 48 hours’ notice. Why is that and whom does it protect?’

Lord Watson of Invergorie highlighted the important role of EHOs in improving housing standards and health and safety standards at work.

He said: ‘A year ago, the public sector trade union, UNISON, surveyed its members who work as environmental health officers. Problems associated with rogue landlords were seen as an issue by 42% of those surveyed who are dealing with these matters on a day-to-day basis.’

Lord Watson said the government was guilty of slashing workplace health and safety inspections.

‘The role played by environmental health officers in that is essential,’ he said. ‘However, as their numbers are cut, so too are the number of visits they can make. This allows some employers to make a risk assessment—not about their workers’ safety but about the likelihood of being found out for failing to comply with health and safety legislation.

‘Environmental health officers not visiting premises regularly will result in poorer knowledge of what is happening in the business community and, inevitably, a rise in workplace injuries and deaths.’

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