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Sell-off fears for health and safety regulator

Ministers want to take advantage of watchdog’s expertise to raise revenue

The Health & Safety Executive is set to bring in bosses from the commercial sector to beef up its board of directors in a move that unions believe could lead to privatisation of the independent regulator.

A review of the HSE’s £145.5m budget earlier this year called on the Work and Pensions department, which oversees the organisation, to look for ways to profit out of parts of its work.

The HSE ensures safety and welfare in the workplace and is prominent in dangerous industries such as construction.

Ideas floated included developing an improved commercial model for the Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton, Derbyshire, which provides technical support to HSE investigations.  Overseas governments may be willing to pay for the laboratory’s work, such as providing expert witnesses.

Unions fear that these recommendations could mark the “first step to privatisation”.

The Government has denied that it wants to sell off chunks of the HSE, but minister Mike Penning’s  response to the review, published last month, said that the Government intended to “go further” than those recommendations to allow HSE to become “more commercial in outlook and delivery”.

As well as bringing in directors with commercial expertise, this could include partnering with organisations overseas to help the HSE to sell health and  safety advice to other governments.

“The Government is exploring options for the growth of the services provided by the HSE and the Laboratory to the outside world,” explained an insider. “Some of the work in the coming months will include looking at using external partners overseas and employing people [abroad] on different terms and conditions rather than using a civil servant.”

Unison’s head of health and safety, Tracey Harding, said that such moves could result in “taking expertise from the HSE in order to make money”.

Mr Penning said in the review response that “there is international interest in learning from and adopting Britain’s health and safety regulatory system” and officials were looking at ways  to allow the HSE to meet “a much larger proportion of its costs from commercial activities”.

The HSE has been asked to report back in the autumn over the feasibility of charging businesses that want additional visits from inspectors to ensure that their safety practices are top notch.

The organisation could also charge for an advice service for firms in the chemicals industry seeking to navigate the complicated planning system.

A DWP spokesman said: “By sharing HSE’s expertise and knowledge at home and around the globe, we are exploring taking advantage of commercial opportunities to achieve a better deal for taxpayers.”