Health budgets may need defending post Brexit decision

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

The most recent figures from the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility were heartening. 

They revealed there was no decline in domestic spending in the British economy after the vote to leave the European Union in June. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has now rowed back slightly on its pessimism about the initial impact of the Brexit decision, upgrading its UK growth forecast to 1.8% for 2016. 

Share prices are buoyant and the pound’s post-referendum slide against the dollar has stopped. So far, so good; those who predicted an immediate economic tumble after the referendum have been wrongfooted.

Further ahead, the forecasts are mixed. Next year growth is predicted to fall to around 1%. Surveys by the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses and manufacturers’ body EEF show business confidence has fallen; 29% of companies have reined in their investment plans for the next three years since the Brexit vote; only 12% intend to increase investment.

The economy enjoyed only a stuttering recovery after the double-dip recession of 2008-2011. Growth was stronger in services than in the sectors where safety spending is most critical. A recent poll found the leading 25 construction contractors were operating at a 1.2% profit margin on average.

All this is relevant to practitioners because, if the UK fell back into recession or even marginal growth, there would inevitably be pressure on OSH budgets and on standards. It may be coincidence but the levelling out of national injury figures in the past five years after decades of decline followed soon after the start of the economic downturn.

There is a logically sound argument that the principle of reasonable practicability – which includes the assumption that an organisation should not have to bankrupt itself to protect workers – would allow employers to lower their standards in times of diminished resources. In practice, it’s an argument that wouldn’t wash with the enforcing authorities or with anyone else. 

As our understanding of risk matures and protective equipment becomes more refined, the bar rises. For all the media talk of “health and safety gone mad” the public expectation that their lives should be free of work-related injury and illness increases too.

It is risky for employers to cut back on safety provision in choppy trading waters, but discretionary spending on some of the more holistic programmes promoted in October’s inaugural Health and Wellbeing Week is an easier saving. 

If the UK does enter another rough patch it will be down to OSH practitioners, with their colleagues in occupational health and human resources, to continue to make the business case for these initiatives. They will be able to use the data on reduced absence and increased productivity which is beginning to accumulate in support of the ill health early interventions and fitness programmes (see www.iosh.co.uk/lifesavings) advocated so strongly by EEF chief medical adviser Sayeed Khan in this month’s leader interview. 

At IOSH Magazine we will try to find more of that data and put it in front of practitioners, while hoping there is no downturn to boost its salience.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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