Skip to main content

Health and Safety Executive

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2016

[Andrew Percy in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the management of the Health and Safety Executive.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy, in this debate, which aims to highlight serious concerns about the management, culture and practices of the Health and Safety Executive. The debate is built on the case of my constituent in West Lancashire, Linda Murray. She is a former Health and Safety Executive employee whose successful employment tribunal case highlights several issues, including a culture of bullying and the use of human resources practices to pursue personal vendettas; a culture of protection among senior managers; Health and Safety Executive staff providing misleading, disingenuous and even false information; reward instead of disciplinary action for inappropriate actions; the wasting of public resources without accountability; and the non-disclosure of information, amounting to secrecy, to hide failings.

It is not the first case in which I have been involved of senior executives in a public sector organisation creating a culture of bullying and fear using HR practices and disciplinary action to pursue individuals who would not bend to their will. It is not acceptable that those individuals can act in that manner as public servants. They are not running a family business with their own money: they operate in our name using taxpayers’ hard-earned money, and there should be greater scrutiny of their behaviour and consequences for inappropriate action.

On Wednesday 5 June 2013, Judge Reed, sitting at the Liverpool employment tribunal, confirmed that Linda Murray had been unfairly dismissed by the Health and Safety Executive on 18 July 2012. The hearing lasted only several hours before giving a verdict in favour of the former employee. Linda Murray was awarded the maximum statutory compensation of £85,000. That was in addition to the Health and Safety Executive’s legal fees, which were paid from the public purse. The bill ran into hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time when the organisation faced budget cuts and staff redundancies. It is unacceptable.

It is not only the monetary cost of the case that needs to be considered, but the personal and emotional cost paid by Linda Murray. Throughout the entire period she suffered stress-related ill health, requiring medication. She lost her financial security and her family suffered great distress. She had given 33 years’ service to the Health and Safety Executive. She was held in the highest regard by the HSE staff who worked for her, much as she was by the chemicals industry when she managed an operational inspection team in the north-west.

I appreciate that there is insufficient time in the debate to outline every detail of the case and the events leading to Linda Murray’s unfair dismissal, but I suggest that the Minister begins with the 200-page report compiled by Ian Travers and the findings of the employment tribunal for more details. Needless to say, if the whole situation had been handled differently it would not have been a major incident. Instead, it escalated out of control.

To allow time for a post to be found for her, Linda approached HR about returning to her substantive grade 7 post six months prior to the conclusion of her temporary promotion as an interim grade 5 inspector. Mr Peter Baker was the senior manager tasked with finding that post. There was considerable uncertainty as people took voluntary redundancy—an option that Linda Murray did not want and could not afford. Time passed with no post being offered. Linda found the process upsetting. The general uncertainty was allied to her senior manager’s indifferent and sometimes hostile attitude towards her. In the end, she was given a position that amounted to a demotion, although she was told that it was a grade 7 post.

The whole episode led to a tense meeting between her and Mr Baker. Previously, Mrs Murray had provided challenge to and constructive criticism of Mr Baker. She expressed concerns about how decisions were being taken and the negative impact on her staff and the job they were employed to do. Following the meeting, Mrs Murray received notification of disciplinary action being taken against her. That resulted in a written warning, which was successfully appealed. The main grounds for the success of that appeal were that Peter Baker could not investigate the alleged misconduct when he was the sole person against whom the misconduct had allegedly been perpetrated.

Despite the appeal, Health and Safety Executive senior managers decided to run the disciplinary action again, and a senior crony then reinstated the written warning. A second separate investigation into Linda Murray was then pursued by senior managers, and that can be traced back to the period of her interim promotion. An underperforming staff member was put on her team, but no one told her about the performance issues. It reached a point where Mrs Murray and the staff member agreed that they could not work together. He was transferred to Mr Ian Travers’ team. Despite the transfer, the staff member continued to treat Mrs Murray with a great deal of contempt and disrespect. She requested that the staff member’s line manager, Mr Williams, speak to the person about their conduct, which he failed to do.

The acrimonious nature of a meeting between Mr Williams and Linda led to Linda being asked to meet with Ian Travers. Instead of dealing with the behaviour and conduct of the underperforming staff member, the two managers sought to deal with Linda Murray, claiming that she was bullying that member of staff. That led to Linda being forced off work with stress, and that situation was compounded by the hostility with which she was met by Ian Travers at her return to work interview. A suspension for 10 and a half weeks for insubordination was the outcome of that meeting. An example of that insubordination was asking for HR to attend the meeting with her. A 200-page report was produced and a dismissal for gross misconduct was the outcome.

From the outset of her dismissal, Mrs Murray was denied any measure of fairness or justice. Prior to her disciplinary meeting, she was not provided with the 60 questions that she would be asked. Those questions were overly long and loaded. She was refused the opportunity to interview some of the key witnesses in the case and staff were told that they did not have to provide written statements to her. Lies were told within the organisation to justify the disciplinary action. It was reported to Mrs Murray by a former colleague that a rumour was circulating that she had assaulted Ian Travers. She was never afforded the opportunity to put her side of the story. Such a culture of fear existed within the organisation that people were not prepared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. It seems coincidental that the only senior officer to stand up for Linda Murray, her ex-husband, was subsequently investigated and subjected to disciplinary proceedings.

Mrs Murray pursued her case to a tribunal, knowing that she had been hounded out of the Health and Safety Executive for personal, not performance reasons. She understood the grounds of her dismissal were erroneous and a complete fabrication. She is a well-educated woman with a law degree. She had one successful career and has gone on to build a second one, but she admits that going through the tribunal process nearly broke her. She was unable to afford a lawyer to represent her as she was on jobseeker’s allowance, she had no access to legal aid, and her trade union, Prospect, refused to support her case, siding instead with the management. Linda Murray had to defend herself against the HSE’s legal team, which was publicly funded. We paid for it.

In the end, an independent arbiter, Judge Reed, was the person who finally listened to Mrs Murray. Although she paid a very heavy price, no action has ever been taken against the individuals who pursued a personal vendetta, including Ian Travers, who initiated the investigation and who reacted in a fit of personal pique having had his management capabilities questioned; Alf Williams, who I understand is a personal friend as well as a colleague of Ian Travers, and whose evidence provided a major contribution to the investigation; Philip White, who led the deeply flawed and oppressive investigation and who was heavily criticised by the employment tribunal judge; Eddie Morland, who rubber-stamped the outcome of the investigation; David Snowball, the senior operations manager who oversaw the investigation in conjunction with Peter Baker, and who took the decision to elevate the issue to the head of human resources, who I understand is now deceased; and Gordon MacDonald, a very senior official in the HSE who was asked personally by Linda Murray to intervene, which he had the authority to do, but who failed to act, allowing Mrs Murray to endure a tortuous experience.

As an organisation, the HSE does not seem to have learned from the experience either. It has refused to acknowledge the outcome of the case and has failed to take any action to restore Linda Murray’s reputation. Specifically, it has failed to address the rumour of assault being the grounds for her dismissal. Will the Minister give a commitment that the permanent secretary for the Department for Work and Pensions will personally ensure that this matter is investigated? Can he assure me that a conclusion will be reached within six months and a report produced that Mrs Murray and I can access?

The record should be set straight and Mrs Murray should get an apology, but for the Minister there are much wider questions. How does this happen in the Government’s name—or any Government’s name? Why is no action taken to investigate malpractice when a tribunal judge finds so heavily against an organisation or Government Department? What can he do to limit and, indeed, stop bullying in the workplace? Should fit and proper person tests be applied to the misuse of power? Then there is the cry from the taxpayer: how much have these failures across public services cost the taxpayer? How much of that money would have been better directed into public services?

I have presented the case of a single person. In a couple of weeks there will be an even bigger report from the health service along similar lines. We cannot allow this behaviour to continue and I look to the Minister for assurances that it will be rooted out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I thank the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) for raising this serious issue and giving me the opportunity to provide a response as the Minister responsible for the Health and Safety Executive. Neither I nor the board or senior management of the HSE are happy to hear of any distress felt by any member of staff working at the HSE. It strives to be a good employer and knows that its highly skilled staff are its most important asset.

I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss matters relating to the individual case she outlined. However, I acknowledge the strength of the points she put forward and what she asked of me as a Minister. I am meeting with the HSE’s senior team next week and shall bring this matter up. I want to investigate the case further, and I will also ask the senior team to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it. The hon. Lady has put a case on the record very powerfully and I have listened to it, and I give an absolute commitment to look into it further. I will try to do that as quickly as possible. I thank her for putting the case; it is a credit to her work on such matters. It is particularly important that she is asking whether this is just a specific case or a wider issue. We will certainly want to look into that.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this debate and on the way she made her case. On the broader management of the HSE, can the Minister reassure me that while of course it has its advisory role, its enforcement role is equally important?

I absolutely agree with that point.

Because I cannot discuss specific cases here, I shall set out the wider issues relating to the work that the HSE is doing. Nevertheless, I have made a firm commitment to look at that serious case, and it should be investigated further.

Before the Minister deals with the generalities, may I say that there is a huge irony in the HSE being the subject of the comments I have made? Will he look at the overall picture, in which employees are bullied, but even when a case goes as far as a tribunal that finds in the employee’s favour, the system does not learn? The people who promulgate that behaviour are not held properly to account. The NHS has fit and proper person tests; what happens in other public services?

The hon. Lady’s point is absolutely understood, and we will take that forward.

The HSE lies at the heart of a globally respected regulatory system and has been a catalyst for positive change in organisations ranging from the smallest micro-businesses right up to global players that manage major hazard facilities. It has helped Great Britain develop one of the best health and safety records in the world, and fatalities, injuries and ill health have all substantially reduced since it was formed in 1975. The 2014 review reflected the high esteem in which the HSE is held. There was widespread support from stakeholders for the organisation and for the professionalism and technical expertise of its staff. I have genuinely seen that at first hand when I have spoken to businesses at events. The previous Government accepted the review’s recommendation of confirming the HSE’s operating model and its status as an arm’s length body.

Last week, the HSE launched a new strategy for the health and safety system in Great Britain, aimed at helping the country to work well. Almost a thousand people from hundreds of organisations attended seven roadshows in seven cities to develop the new strategy, with 7 million more being reached through social media. The six themes outlined during the engagement with stakeholders attracted strong support, and now the strategy is setting a positive new direction for health and safety across England, Scotland and Wales. It will help each nation to work well, protecting lives and livelihoods and helping Great Britain become more prosperous.

The strategy will help to ensure that we maintain our world-class health and safety record while maximising the wider benefits that the system can bring. Such achievements and the future ambition are made possible by the dedication, professionalism and specialist expertise of the HSE’s staff and management. I have personally visited the HSE laboratory in Buxton and seen for myself the energy and innovation of the people there. Their work is directly helping industry to improve health and safety, both here in the UK and abroad, where a number of international contracts have been secured to provide advice and support.

The HSE is part of the wider civil service and, as such, offers modern employment terms that compare favourably with other large organisations. In line with the rest of the civil service, it is aligning its human resources policies with new, modernised terms and conditions. Its HR policies reflect good practice and are consistent with what is expected of a well managed modern employer. It has excellent retention rates and turnover is low compared with similar organisations. Excluding retirement, only 3% of staff leave each year. There is a high degree of loyalty, pride and commitment, which I genuinely saw on that visit to Buxton. Many staff enjoy long careers with the HSE, giving the organisation an impressive corporate memory. The civil service people survey results show that the majority of its staff say they are proud to work for the executive and regard it as a great place to work where staff are treated fairly and with respect.

Like any ambitious organisation, it has identified areas for improvement. Over the past year, under the leadership of the new chief executive, Dr Richard Judge, and with the active support of the internal management board, the HSE has set itself a challenging agenda to invest in its people and capability. I will raise the subject of the debate with those people and ask for further work to be done.

As a result of the actions I have described, the HSE’s overall engagement score is improving. It rose by 10% on the previous survey. Although it is currently just below the civil service average, the HSE’s goal is to ensure sustained improvement and performance above the civil service average. The programme of action is designed to get the HSE into the best shape to deliver its responsibilities, not only to continue to improve an already effective health and safety system but to anticipate the future and embrace new ways of working. The programme will respond to feedback from staff, including through the annual people survey.

We are not complacent, and it is important that there is ongoing improvement. The senior leadership team’s priority is to improve staff engagement and address leadership and management at all levels. In line with the rest of the civil service, a clear statement of values and expectations for those in leadership roles has been launched, against which all managers will be measured as part of their appraisals. A key element of that ongoing work is a structured leadership and management development programme, with an initial focus on new managers. That programme will eventually be targeted at all managers, equipping them to lead the HSE through change and to manage group and individual performance confidently.

In the most recent people survey, the rating for inclusion and fair treatment stood at 71%. That figure is increasing. However, about 11% of staff reported that they had experienced bullying and harassment in the previous 12 months—slightly above the civil service average of 10%. The HSE has a robust bullying, harassment and discrimination policy, which has recently been revised with its trade unions. It takes seriously any reports of bullying, harassment or discrimination, and any such cases are investigated independently of the line management involved.

My experience of the HSE is that it is a modern, effective regulator with a diverse workforce. It has a well deserved reputation for professionalism, expertise and dedication. I have seen at first hand the energy and commitment of its people, including its leadership team, and I am confident that it recognises the importance of engaging and managing its workforce effectively and has clear plans for driving further improvement.

The HSE has helped Great Britain to develop one of the best health and safety records in the world. It has done so as a result of the expertise, professionalism and dedication of its staff, and its future success will depend on their ongoing support and commitment. Its leadership and management team recognise that and are committed to ongoing improvement. I am confident that they have a clear plan of action to make the HSE an even better organisation.

The matter that has been raised will be taken seriously, and we will investigate it further. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for West Lancashire for taking the time to highlight it to me and the senior management team. We will endeavour to do what we can.

Question put and agreed to.