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Date: Tue 26 February 2013

Major cuts in food safety and environmental health are putting the public at risk

UNISON Scotland warned today that new figures and staff surveys show cuts to local council environmental health departments and to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are putting public health at risk.

Council responses to Freedom of Information requests and the results of two surveys of UNISON members confirm the union’s warnings about the impact of cuts on food safety, public health and health and safety.

One member working on food safety in an environmental health department said: “We have not submitted any samples for food in ten months!”

The total number of qualified Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) employed by 30 of Scotland’s 32 councils*, has gone down by 13% between 2008/9 (519) and 20011/12 (450). There has been an even bigger drop in other staff carrying out an enforcement role in environmental health departments. (507 down to 423 in the same period. 17% **)

UNISON, which also represents meat inspectors, revealed last week that the number of inspectors has more than halved in Scotland since 2003, down from 170 to 75 – a shocking statistic in the light of the current horsemeat scandal.

In a new survey of environmental health staff and meat inspectors, 56% said that their team has seen “major” cuts, with a further 10% describing cuts as “severe”, and more than 95% expecting further cutbacks and job losses in the next couple of years.

One commented: “A further loss of posts and a reduction of the food related sampling budget are expected.” Another said: “There are far too few staff for the amounts of food premises and other additional jobs required to be carried out by EHOs."

Dave Watson, Head of Bargaining and Campaigns, said: “We know from what our members tell us that the headline figure of staff cuts, news that food sampling has gone down, and concerns about the future of the meat inspection service only tell part of a very disturbing story.

“Councils are under immense financial pressures with the worst of the so-called austerity cuts still to come. The impact of cuts so far is not necessarily visible to the public unless something goes wrong, as has happened with the crisis over horsemeat.

“But our members can see departments depleted, with the loss of experienced staff, ‘lighter touch’ regulation, fewer proactive inspections, preventive and educational work, with other essential services, as well as food safety - particularly health and safety - being cut back drastically. It is not scaremongering to say that this is a very worrying picture and many staff are under incredible pressure.

“We don’t believe this level of reduced service and increased risk is what the public wants. Councillors, the Scottish Government and the UK Government have to think again about the potential disaster waiting to happen with further cuts, unless proper funding is put into these vital services. They literally can and do make a life and death difference IF they are resourced properly.”

The responses to the FOI request showed a mixed picture for the number of food safety, public health and health and safety inspections, reflecting some recent changes to inspection regimes, with an emphasis on higher risk premises and often no visits to low risk premises. However, it is hard to compare figures over time or between councils as some include different types of inspections in the totals for each category. Health and safety inspections have fallen by 7% since 2009/10.

Alex Gordon, UNISON vice convener for environmental health and trading standards at Glasgow city council, said: “The cuts have led to a deterioration in the depth of the inspection visits, even if the paper trail shows the number of inspections are being kept up. They are not as thorough inspections as was possible with higher staffing levels. You want officers in food hygiene premises telling them how to avoid a Wishaw butcher scenario, not coming in to investigate after it has happened.”

*Two councils, Dumfries & Galloway and Highland, provided incomplete data.
**This is from the total for 29 councils as Scottish Borders also did not provide this data.

ENDS

Further quotes from our members’ surveys are below:

“The FSA, following on the heels of DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), is heavily biased in favour of industry at the expense of the consumer.”

“Qualified EHOs in my council are now doing ALL their own admin work due to reduction in Admin/Clerical staff. This has reduced ability to do the job by 30-40%.”

“The food safety inspection numbers have fallen mainly due to the implementation of the cross contamination guidance. This means more time being spent with higher risk premises ensuring they reach compliance but no time at all with the lower risk premises.

“This sounds sensible but for a large number of ‘lower risk’ businesses this lack of attention will see them increase in the risk they pose to public health. That is when we will have to pick up the pieces and try and get back to a structured inspection programme.”

“The number of health and safety inspections is extraordinarily lower than it used to be - driven largely by the Government's 'Better regulation' agenda.”

“The almost complete withdrawal from any real health and safety work is leaving the country's workforce wide open to injury and occupational ill health. We all know that that costs a vast sum in terms of lost worker hours to the employer, the health service and the individual.

“Short term financial gains are being made at the expense of significant future cost. We need to view investing in health and safety as a means of investing in the future economy of the country.”

“I have major fears about the changes to health and safety inspections having inspected a lot of businesses in the last 7 years. About 75% of them did not have risk assessments or any awareness of the need to do them. Most knew nothing about accident reporting regulations.”

“We regulate not just food and health and safety but animal welfare, tattooists, air quality, contaminated land, housing disrepair, landlord registration, regulation of houses in multiple occupation, pest control, infectious disease control and public nuisance amongst other things. With reduced staff most time is now spent in focusing on higher risk business activity. That is not to say the rest is low risk! We will be unable to spend time with businesses helping them comply with regulation and so will become more reliant on formal action such as notices or court action. This has been shown not to secure long term change in business behavior – education achieves that.

“I have spent time with parents whose child has been desperately ill with Ecoli poisoning. It is awful and preventable. We can help prevent this and other tragic things happening. But this will become less and less often. A rise in public health related illness and injury will happen. But possibly more gradually than most think. Un-noticed maybe. But it will happen.”

For information please contact:
Dave Watson, Head of Bargaining and Campaigns, 07958 122 409
Fiona Montgomery, Communications Officer, 0141 342 2877 or 07508 877 000
Malcolm Burns, Communications Officer, 0141 342 2877 or 07876 566 978

Notes to editors:

1. UNISON is Scotland’s largest trade union representing 160,000 members working in the public sector in Scotland.

2. UNISON carried out two separate surveys of environmental health staff, one last summer and another snapshot survey in February 2013.

3. Bargaining Briefing number 31 covering the information reported here is on the website: Briefing 31: Bargaining - Cuts in Food Safety and Environmental Health PDFFeb 2013

4. A report by UNISON ‘The Damage’, covering environmental health services in the whole of the UK was published earlier this month. www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/21256.pdf

A similar report on trading standards is at www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/21254.pdf

5. Figures from the Food Standards Agency show a fall in food samples taken by councils from more than 16,000 in 2008-09 to 10,200 in 2011-12.

6. Last month Audit Scotland raised concerns about food safety staffing and training levels and a loss of expertise
www.unison-scotland.org.uk/news/2013/janfeb/3101.htm

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