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Are Rumours Of A CWU Legal Services Take Over Of The CWU Health & Safety Department Justified?

Unionsafety website editor Chris Ingram writing in a personal capacity asks this question and discovers that a coincidence of circumstances and a lack of openness on the part of CWU HQ over it's plans for the resourcing of health and safety and the future of the Health & Safety Department; may indeed explain the concerns of many within the CWU Health and Safety community; and give credence to the view that the question is based on more than just rumours:

In what could now be read as an attack upon the integrity of the CWU’s Health & Safety Department and it’s National Officer, and confirmation that the CWU’s Re-Design project is intended to ensure the take-over of the CWU’s Health & Safety Dept by the Legal Services Dept, the head of that Dept is quoted on the front page of this month’s edition of Unionline News on what is ostensibly a Health and Safety issue – Mental Health at Work.

It is incredible and unprecedented for the National Officer of one CWU Department, to publicly comment upon an issue clearly within the remit of another department’s National Officer! Not least it taking place as part of a news item on the CWU's national website.

For years the CWU’s Health & Safety Dept has given advice on mental health issues in the form of Letters to Branches, and news articles, supported and promoted activities from charities and leading organisations on the subject of mental health; whilst the issue of workplace mental health has always been one within the remit of the Health and Safety Dept. Furthermore, there has never been any dubiety that the issue is within the remit of the H&S Department.

On the contrary, the few cases of legal action against employer's who have caused workplace stress leading to mental health illness, even breakdowns and subsequent leaving of employment due to ill-health or sacking due to sickness levels; is a reflection of the difficulty and complexities of such cases.

Proving of course that the old adage 'Prevention is better than a cure' could not be more relevant and certainly the case with mental health issues in the workplace. It is the Health & Safety Dept and Union Safety Reps who are at the coalface when to comes preventing and addressing workplace mental health issues.

Given that at this year’s CWU Annual Conference, the Union's National Health Safety and Environment Officer was sidelined and replaced with NEC speakers on Health & Safety motions bar one; the view amongst some in the CWU H&S Community could well be that this is an act of contempt for the Union’s Health and Safety Dept.

On examining the words in the quote featured in UnionLine, they are weak on detail and understanding of the actual problem and lacking in statistical fact, and actually encompass other issues and none with regard to the Legal elements of the issue which one would expect from a publication that is based on providing news coverage dealing with the legal aspect and providing legal advice on the issues it reports on.

Readers may well question whether or not the quote was actually written by anyone with a knowledge of either subject or even by the individual concerned.

Indeed, Unionsafety has learned that the item is purely a lift from a CWU News website report following this year's Annual Conference and that Unionline intends to cover workplace mental health in future editions with the CWU's Legal Dept head being the key contributor.

Whilst this is being seen by many within the CWU’s health and safety community as an attack upon the integrity of the Health and Safety Department altogether, the alternative explanation that Unionsafety was given by Unionline puts their article in context, and explains the origin of the quote.

John Colbert, Unionline's editor told Unionsafety that the article,

"... has been taken directly from a news piece written by the CWU, reporting on a motion at this year’s annual conference."

He added:

"The article specifically mentions stress of the job, a topic that is very prevalent for ourselves when matters come to a head with the member and their employer.  UnionLine will be looking at this issue more comprehensively and working in conjunction with our respective owners and other trade unions we act for around how best we can feed in our expertise to tackle an increasing problem when dealing with stress issues from a legal perspective. 

Tony Rupa will be key to this as far as the CWU, as will the legal director at GMB and likewise their equivalents in the BDA, BIOS and EIS trade unions."

Whilst this may make perfect sense from a legal services perspective, a more thorough news item would by necessity include a quote from the relevant department head – surely? Further, why does Unionline News feel it is part of their remit to cover what is an item of health & safety policy and actually health and safety news is the question being asked?

To ensure there is no dubiety as far as Unionline is concerned, a number of pertinent questions were asked by this website's editor of John Colbert in his role as Unionline publications editor, which seek to clarify the role of Unionline News and of their other regular publication, Law Update (both previously promoted by Unionsafety) with regards to the issue of Mental Health support and legal advice.

John Colbert's clear and unequivocal responses are in italics:

1. Does Unionline intend to play a/the lead role on Mental health advice and support in terms of prevention of ill-health?

Short answer is no we don’t.  UnionLine does intend to offer support to any rep that requires our free legal opinion.


2. Does Unionline intend to provide advice on the prevention of work related stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that work can cause?

Once again, no we do not intend giving advice on the prevention of mental health as there are health professionals for this and we do not intend giving advice on prevention regarding the safety aspects at work as this is the HSE Departments role. Do we intend giving advice on case preparation and advice on what reps should be looking for in that preparation, yes and we already do that.


3. Does Unionline intend to provide advice for Union negotiators of national and local agreements on how to ensure mental health is not detrimentally affected by job design, attendance patterns and the introduction of new machinery, equipment and work methods?

Short answer, no we do not unless a question of legality and case law is asked for.


4. Is the intention for the Unionline newsletter to now extend beyond the legal expertise of the organisation and to become a general news publication?

No, our focus is and always will be on a legal angle that affects the members of both CWU & GMB.  Although, we shall report on any issue that has a legal ramification for UnionLine that we deal with on a day-to-day basis associated with the world of work or society. I do and will continue to push for UnionLine News to be widely distributed across workplaces for all members to access.  From the feedback I get this is something that’s is welcomed and by and large branches and regions are doing including via social media. Promoting UnionLine to the membership is my main task and will continue to be so and it would be good to see a link to UnionLine on your website.


5. With regard to the "Law Update" publication, is the intention for it to publish future articles on health and safety generally and on mental health particularly?

We shall publish topics that cross a number of areas that have a bearing on law.  For instance we are about to publish on recent developments with immigration status as we have had many members contact our advice line.  We have produced an update on speeding fines and the use of mobile phones and electronic devises whilst driving.  All of which have themed on either increases to penalties or the interpretation of the law.

Clearly it is the original article that is the problem for the Union's Health and Safety community, and in that context it is unfortunate that the article has been used in good faith by a publication that has no connection with the CWU's media team responsible for the original article.

It is for the author of the original article to explain why they chose to quote the head of the Union's Legal Department without any reference whatsoever to the National Officer and Head of the Unions' Health and Safety Department on an issue which is clearly the remit of that department when it comes to being dealt with in Branches across the country by Union Safety Reps and the Union's Area Safety Reps, as well as other Branch officials.

Unionsafety feels it is imperative that our readers understand that Unionline as a service provider of the CWU is not in any way involved with the Union's Re-Design project or the question of the future of health and safety structures and of the Health & Safety Department.

Nevertheless, and whether or not this article appearing in the Unionline Newsletter is a coincidence, and the evidence is clear that it is; a cogent explanation from those believing that the Re-Design project aim is to merge the Health & Safety Department with that of CWU's Legal Services, may well be that the original CWU News article which was lifted in full by Unionline is clear evidence of the CWU moving responsibility for the prevention of mental ill-health at work advice and support, from the remit of the Health & Safety Department to that of the CWU Legal Department thereby circumventing not only the department but the health and safety community within the Union!

USRs and ASRs can be forgiven for feeling that the message from CWU HQ is:

CWU Unionsafety Reps and their Health & Safety department have nothing to offer in terms of leading the Union in it's fight for decent working conditions and good mental health at work policies and the prevention of mental health illness.

The 'joined-up approach' to mental health issues clearly does not include the expertise of Union Safety Reps and the department which has been actively supporting the fight for good mental health at work for many years; they may well argue.

Seen in the context of these recent events,

* IR agreements with the Post Office being made by CWU IR officials that risk the compromise of the principle of the facilities for Union Safety Reps as a separate entity from IR facilities time enshrined in the USRSC Regs 1977 without any involvement whatsoever of anyone from within the Health & Safety Department

* The removal by the T&FS executive of all issues to do with Health and Wellbeing from the remit of the Health & Safety Department;  

* The ‘throw-away’ comment earlier this year at a Regional Conference by the head of CWU's Legal Services of “Health and Safety and Legal Services together where they belong”

* The sidelining of the National Officer and Head of the Union's Health & Safety Department from Health and Safety debates at this year's Annual Conference

* The misinformation in the only paragraph in the Re-Design documents to mention Health and Safety regarding the history of Union Safety Reps; which clearly illustrates the lack of Health & Safety knowledge within CWU HQ outside of the Health and Safety Department

* The failure of the Union's media department to appropriately highlight the TUC's 40 Years celebration of Union Safety Reps and the featuring of 4 CWU USRs on the TUC's dedicated website pages;

not to mention this latest side-lining of the Health & Safety Department in an article about an unequivocal issue within the remit of that department; is surely the writing on the wall spelling out the clear intent of those involved in the CWU’s Re-Design project at national level; to abolish or merge the Union’s Health & Safety Department with the Legal Dept, or that of another dept.

The possibly unintended result will be to end the CWU National Officer’s and therefore the CWU’s influence within the TUC, the HSE, political bodies and wider Health & Safety organisations, when it comes to health & safety issues such as Dangerous Dogs, the protection of Health & Safety at Work legislation and other worker's rights following the UK withdrawal from the European Union.

Of course all this will be music to the ears of the employer’s of CWU represented workers and will no doubt prompt them to ignore and even tear up national agreements on health & safety, knowing the Union’s health and safety organisation at national level no longer exists.

Knowing too that IR negotiators will have to take up the slack, despite them having no real knowledge of Health & Safety issues, Health and safety legislation and regulations and the national agreements made by the H&S Dept National Officer. Nor indeed have the mind-set of a Union Safety Rep and Trade Union national and local Health and Safety Officers for whom workplace health and safety is not merely a job, but a vocation!



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