Safety regulators have launched a second criminal investigation into a Scottish waste firm accused of stockpiling several hundred tonnes of toxic and infectious hospital waste, including body parts, at sites in England and Scotland.
Healthcare Environmental Services (HES) laid off its workforce of about 400 people without pay on Thursday after the NHS cancelled dozens of waste collection contracts.
The contracts were cancelled after warnings from the Environment Agency (EA) in England that HES was in breach of its licences. The NHS in Scotland then suspended its contracts with HES, which covered every hospital and GP surgery in Scotland, and said it would find a new contractor in April. Contingency plans are in place to handle new waste from hospitals and surgeries.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) announced on Friday it was investigating whether HES was guilty of criminal offences for failing to act on four enforcement notices at its plants in Dundee and at its headquarters in Shotts, North Lanarkshire.
The agency’s action follows a similar announcement by the EA earlier this month. After further site inspections on Christmas Eve confirmed HES was still stockpiling waste, Sepa said it could recommend prosecution if the evidence supported that.
Sepa’s enforcement notices revealed HES was keeping bulk trailers, pallets and wheelie bins stuffed with unprocessed clinical waste at its Scottish sites in breach of its licences.
“Inspections by Sepa this week have established that HES has not fully met the requirements of our latest enforcement notices and Sepa is continuing to robustly regulate the company,” the agency said.
“Breaching environmental legislation is a criminal offence. Sepa has now commenced an investigation to establish if criminal offences have been committed.”
In a further development, Mitie, the contractor that has taken over waste collection contracts for about 20 NHS trusts in England, offered jobs to any HES workers in England who had been made redundant.
“Although we are not a haulier, and therefore cannot provide like-for-like employment, we will guarantee HES employees roles on at least the same hours and pay, and with additional access to Mitie benefits and training,” it said.
Mitie said its offer did not extend to Scotland, where numerous other firms have been given temporary contracts to service hospitals and surgeries until a new national Scottish contract comes into force in April.
Jamie Hepburn, the Scottish government business minister, said on Thursday evening HES had not taken up his offer to work jointly with the firm to help staff who had been made redundant find work through a Scottish government scheme, partnership action for continuing employment (PACE).
“We did not receive a response but have provided the company with information on PACE support. After previously not engaging with this offer of support we hope that the company will now do so to assist their employees,” Hepburn said.