Making devolution work for workers on injuries and illnesses

Mark Griffin explains the rationale behind his Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill.

The testimonies I heard from the women GMB union members in January were quite simply heart-breaking. Meeting them in the final weeks of my consultation on a Proposed Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill, what they retold crystallised just how out of reach protection from illness and disease is for many women in the workplace.

Their experiences are routine and are treated as ‘part of the job’: one worker was injured falling on stairs in front of their manager, who failed to record the accident; another, an amputee, recovering from cancer, was forced to work so hard her stitches broke; and care workers spoke of their fear, going from house to house, alone, on dark nights at real risk of attacks and worse.

Regardless of their keyworker status, their work is undervalued and underpaid, their injuries and illness ignored. The risks they face go unrecognised, and their experiences underrepresented in our wider understanding of occupational hazards. As such, they are unprotected and under-compensated when they do fall ill or suffer tragic injuries.

I am adamant we must start to fix this and hope my Bill can be one such platform to put workplace hazards on the Parliamentary business bulletin. There are, of course, parallels with these women’s experiences across whole groups of workers routinely having their safety ignored – which is why I am confident the Bill can be a starting point for change.

My proposal – for an independent, authoritative research and advisory council, with powers to make the case to bring the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) into the 21st century – received universal support from those responding to the consultation.

With more than 40 responses from individuals and organisations split evenly, not one disagreed with the core proposal to establish a new council. As a result, we have a coalition of workers, academics, trade unionists, and third sector organisations ready to make the case for renewing the benefit making it relevant to the workers in modern roles and workplaces, respecting their careers and working patterns.

Support for the functions and membership proposed exceeded my expectations too. Just one respondent was unsure the Council should have responsibility to investigate and review emerging hazards, and another that it should commission its own research. Overwhelmingly respondents agreed membership must, in law, include workers, and their representatives, including unions. Though the Scottish Government could immediately establish an administrative council with these features, only this Bill would secure these new functions and mandatory trade union membership, permanently, in statute. Not one respondent reported a positive experience of the current scheme, though some noted positive aspects, a reminder that we must build on the best of the current scheme.

Now devolved legally and financially, I believe the benefit could wither away if Scottish Ministers adopt a lift and shift approach as they have done with disability benefits. Doing so would embed a system that promotes inequalities, fail to reflect modern Scotland, and would not close the enormous 6:1 gender gap in applications that is symptomatic of women’s health and safety being systematically ignored.

I also heard how badly the current IIDB scheme is simply ignoring workplace illness and diseases. Workers who are facing dismissal as long-COVID, contracted at work, leaves them unable to fulfil their duties but with no entitlement. And long-known illnesses women face, like breast cancer caused by shift work (the top occupational cancer in women), respiratory and skin diseases that care workers and cleaners suffer, and asbestos related ovarian cancer, still go unrecognised by the UK system.

I was rightly asked why specific and direct changes to the IIDB scheme were not proposed in the consultation. First, as a Member’s Bill, there are practical and resource constraints which would hamstring a more prescriptive approach akin to re-designing the benefit. Second, the task is substantial. This bill aims to create the space for experts, including those with experience of workplace injury and disease, to consider the evidence and solutions to better support those who have become disabled. Third, and more importantly, ensuring those with expertise have independence to make advice and tackle the task, will best secure agreement in Parliament.

Getting meaningful change for people disabled at work will take longer than establishing a new advisory council, but the body is vital to make case for change as robust as possible. New data and analysis, alongside expertise and testimony, will help us go well beyond the work undertaken by the Department of Work and Pensions and UK Council. Freeing the council to commission its own research, not just calling in existing evidence, will give it the tools and authority to look into the hazards and practices that don’t get a look in – including in sectors which have simply been ignored for decades.

As I write, the Non-government Bills Unit is preparing its formal summary of the consultation process, which I am hopeful will be made available ahead of Holyrood rising for the election, readying me to bring forward a formal proposal early in the next session.

Right now, Employment Injuries Assistance, as the SNP plan to call it, is years away from being truly devolved because delivery is outsourced to the DWP, in exactly the same shape as if it were still reserved. But we do now have on the table a chance to put workplace illness and disease on the agenda, and secure workers a seat at the table in shaping the new benefit.

Mark Griffin is a Labour list MSP for Central Scotland and a member of the Parliament’s Social Security Committee. See his proposal at https://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/116429.aspx

Photograph

This website is free to access.
Help us keep it that way.

Please give a donation.