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Agenda item

Questions from Members


In accordance with the Council Procedure Rules, the following question was asked by Councillor A Watson.


Why does this Council not have a policy on testing for drug and alcohol misuse? By having you are showing your workforce that you want to create a safe workplace. It is a well-known fact that recreational drug misuse is on the increase which can lead to addiction. Whilst it’s commendable that Durham County Council has a policy on drug and alcohol dependency which provides support for employees who have drug or alcohol problems, it has to be appreciated that drug or alcohol misuse breaches legislation such as:


·        Health and Safety at Work Act 1974;

·        The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999;

·        The Transport and Works Act 1992;

·        The Road Traffic Act 1988;

·        The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971


Testing is evidence that you have attempted to meet your obligations. Testing can detect evidence of misuse in prospective employees at the pre-employment stage. Different testing methods can show a candidate’s misuse, from very recent use to long term. Encouraging staff not to misuse is the ultimate goal of a good Drugs and Alcohol Programme with the possibility of being tested-whether prior to joining a company, or at any point during work-can be a powerful deterrent to using Drugs or Alcohol at times that could affect work performance.


Stats indicate that Durham in the North East has the highest number of people testing positive for use of Illicit Drugs. Misuse of Drugs is extremely serious, can be the cause of serious accidents, suicide, violence or even fatalities. Testing for Drug or Alcohol misuse is a policy used in some parts of the private sector, when really the public sector should be leading the way.


Prevention is always better than cure and Durham County Council should lead the way and seek agreement from the workforce which should include Councillors, to adopt a policy for random testing for Drug and Alcohol misuse.


Councillor A Patterson, Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Corporate Services and Rural Issues thanked Councillor Watson for his question.


Firstly, she reassured Councillor Watson that the Council took all of its legal and statutory responsibilities very seriously, including the issues he had raised in his question.


The Council worked in partnership with the recognised trade unions and Council staff to balance the requirements of legislation, workers rights and the practicalities of managing a complex and diverse workforce.


Councillor Patterson assured Councillor Watson that the Council did have a robust policy on drugs, substance and alcohol misuse, which clearly stated under section 2.6 that the Council would not require its employees to be screened or tested for alcohol or other drug use as a matter of course. This was a policy agreed by the Council.


There was absolutely no legislation that required employers to undertake drug and alcohol testing of their staff. The council could not take a blanket “big brother” approach to testing without good reason, could not single out individuals, nor could it legally justify testing for illegal use of substances in workers’ private lives. For practical and legal reasons the council would need all employees to consent to screening and legally, the council could not force staff to take a test.


Testing in any organisation needed to be proportionate to the risk, and very few employers would be justified in testing to detect illegal use, rather than testing on grounds of safety.


Screening in isolation did not solve problems caused by drug and alcohol misuse. A recent TUC article “Drug Testing in the workplace” highlighted that drug testing did not tell an employer what they wanted to know. It would not tell the council whether or not someone is, or was, under the influence of drugs while at work. At best it would indicate that the person had likely to have consumed a particular drug in the recent past. Testing showed up over the counter and prescription drugs because the metabolites of the drugs detected were the same, or similar, which meant that a person could be given a positive result simply because they had taken a flu remedy. People could also test positive for opiates such as heroin and codeine simply because of consumption of poppy seeds in cakes or bread which could give a similar reading.


Councillor Patterson also referred to recent research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which concluded that organisations that sought to monitor their employees excessively were unlikely to create a work environment that encouraged trust, loyalty and commitment.


The report “Pressure at Work and the Psychological Contract”, showed that employees who were closely monitored tended to have more negative attitudes towards work and were more likely to suffer from stress.

Councillor Patterson was happy to provide Councillor Watson with a link to the report if he wished to read it. Given the complexities set out, a policy approach was taken to help and support council employees via the Drugs, Substance and Alcohol Misuse Policy. The health, wellbeing and safety of all staff was paramount and the Council would continue to review and consider the merits and complexities around screening through the appropriate channels and in proper consultation with staff and recognised trade unions at the appropriate time.


The Council was currently working towards the Gold Award for the Better Health at Work Award. This included drug and alcohol awareness sessions with staff to enable them to have a better understanding of the risks related to both drugs and alcohol.


Finally, Councillor Patterson reassured Cllr Watson that the Council were aware of their responsibilities, took them very seriously indeed and would continue to place staff health and safety at the forefront of the organisation.


Democratic Services
Durham County Council
County Hall
County Durham
03000 269 714