In a speech to an all-parliamentary group on cannabis and children, Hogan-Howe called for mandatory drug testing to be introduced at work for millions of professionals in all occupations, but in particular teachers, intensive care nurses and transport staff.
Drug testing of employees and the consequent fear of losing their jobs would act as a deterrent, Hogan-Howe said, further suggesting employers would not have to turn informant on any staff who proved positive in a test.
According to a report last year, more than a million workers have drugs in their system, while the number testing positive rose by nearly 50% between 2007 and 2011. These types of statistics are a cause for concern, but would mandatory drug testing be disproportionate to human rights and a step too far for employers’ control over their staff?
The argument that workers who are on drugs put other lives at risk is a solid one. In some industries, such as rail and maritime, drug and alcohol testing is already mandatory and necessary as a regulatory requirement.
In other industries the employers’ right to carry out drug and alcohol tests may already be included in your contract of employment or employee handbook. Indeed, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, there is a duty on employers to provide a safe working environment, which includes ensuring they do not knowingly allow an employee to work when impaired by alcohol or after using illegal drugs. But for these industries you need to give your consent to testing, although an unreasonable refusal may give rise to disciplinary action against you (and may in any event imply that you have something to hide).
This is especially the case if the reason for testing is clearly valid, such as an accident or other incident in the workplace or a marked decline in performance. Under such a workplace policy there is usually no requirement for the employer to provide notice that testing will be carried out.
The proposal of mandatory drug testing in the workplace takes matters to a new level and raises obvious concerns about the erosion of civil liberties in the workplace. Attempts by employers to force employees to take drug tests could potentially be challenged as a violation of privacy under the Human Rights Act 1988.
It also begs the question about how robust the practices and procedures of those mandatory drugs tests would be, including how expert the body or organisation would be in doing the testing, and the reliability of the results (especially if you are already on medication). A positive test could ruin your career, so all parties would need to have confidence in the testing procedures.
The undignified nature of the tests is also likely to affect staff morale, and even businesses may question whether the additional cost and time of such processes are ultimately beneficial. It will be interesting to see if this comes to fruition.