Ministers could commercialise swathes of the health and safety “police”, a move that insiders fear could be the “first step to privatisation”.
The Government has been seeking ways of profiting from the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) expertise. Its £145.5m budget regulates workplace safety and welfare and the HSE is prominent in dangerous industries.
Next month, the Department for Work and Pensions, which sponsors the HSE, will formally back proposals to increase money-spinning work at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton, Derbyshire.
The laboratory provides technical support to HSE’s investigations, attending 200 gas safety incidents every year. It is said to house evidence from the Hillsborough disaster and track from the Potters Bar rail crash in 2002.
In his three-yearly review of the HSE published in January, Martin Temple said the laboratory’s 359 staff and technical facilities do not solely support the watchdog, but also help government agencies with scientific analysis. This includes work that other countries would be willing to pay for, such as providing expert witnesses.
The laboratory already has some limited commercial operations, but Mr Temple added: “By developing a commercial arm, it will have the potential to seek joint ventures and collaborative work that will both increase its own commercial income and widen the opportunities for partnership with private sector providers, voluntary bodies and universities.”
Mr Temple ruled out full-scale privatisation, fearing the state could lose a pool of unique knowledge. This includes expertise in ventilation systems and chemical toxicology that has been used to reduce respiratory disease from exposure to paints during car repair work.
DWP insiders said work minister Mike Penning would back commercialisation in a formal response to the review after the European elections, but will not propose a sell-off. Minutes from a recent HSE board meeting show the agency is preparing for this backing and has hired an interim commercial director.
But officials and union leaders are concerned letting the laboratory act more like a business means privatisation is almost inevitable. “Commercialisation is fine, but it’s fair to say this could be seen as a first step to privatisation,” said a Whitehall source.
“The HSE has the vital role of promoting and enforcing health and safety laws,” said Unison’s health and safety head Tracey Harding. “It is not designed to be a money-making machine.”
Mr Penning will also back an idea to charge businesses that have good health and safety systems but nevertheless want to improve them further, for extra, voluntary inspections. Firms in the chemicals sector often struggle to get facilities built because of the complicated planning process.
A DWP spokesman said: “We have no plans to privatise the HSE or its laboratory, but are considering broadening the scope and increasing the pace of commercial work already done.”