Reduced resources in environmental health departments ‘putting public at risk’

Cuts to environmental health departments are putting the public at “high risk of harm”, according to a new report.

The Unison Tipping Point study examined the impact of austerity on those working in local authority environmental health teams in areas such as food safety and standards, waste management and pollution control.

It found the teams have to manage an ever-increasing workload with significantly reduced resources, leaving many working long hours as they struggle to maintain a service that keeps the public safe.

More than two-thirds (67%) of those who responded said there had been cuts or severe cuts in their service this year, while 95% said there had been cuts or severe cuts in the last five years.

Fewer than one in five (18%) believe their teams have the resources to deliver an adequate service to the public while two-thirds say they are working late and skipping breaks and lunch to try to get more work done.

The report said cuts to environmental health team budgets are leaving staff overworked, underpaid and stressed.

It warned this means “citizens and the wider environment are at a high risk of harm”.

The study calls for an end to austerity and for investment in public services.

Mark Ferguson, chairman of Unison Scotland’s local government committee, said: “This report shows our environmental health services have reached tipping point, leaving us all at risk of harm.

“Our members are under enormous pressure, with many working long hours trying to maintain a quality service.

“This survey shows a dedicated workforce who are struggling under the sheer volume of work, with nine in 10 saying their workload is higher than five years ago.

“Teams are now reacting to complaints rather than focusing on working to prevent things going wrong.

“Our members can see departments depleted, with the loss of experienced staff, fewer proactive inspections and services being drastically cut.

“Not only does this put people in danger it also pushes costs onto other public bodies – which costs more money than investing in a high quality environmental health service.”

The report also highlighted a looming skills gap as almost half of respondents to the survey, carried out in June 2018, are aged between 46 and 55 – with another fifth due to retire over the next ten years.

It warned with fewer staff being taken on to develop this will mean a huge loss of knowledge, which it said is vital in such a complex protective service.

The report said teams are now reacting to complaints rather than focusing on working to prevent things going wrong, with some areas of work completely cut back on, increasing the risk of accidents, food poisoning, contaminated land and vermin infestation.

Unison would not say how many had responded to the survey but it was a “sizeable number”.

A Convention Of Scottish Local Authorities Cosla) spokesman said: “As our #essentialservices campaign makes abundantly clear, we need a fair settlement from December’s Budget to continue to provide the essential services our communities rely on

“As we see from things like this, it is clear that the impact of past local government settlements are having a biting impact.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Despite continued UK Government real-terms cuts to Scotland’s resource budget, we have treated local government very fairly.

“In 2018-19, councils will receive funding through the local government finance settlement of £10.7 billion. This will provide a real terms boost in both revenue and capital funding for public services.

“Local authorities are responsible for managing their own budgets and priorities, including environmental health.

“The Finance Secretary will present the Scottish Government’s future funding for local government in the Scottish Budget later this year.”