HC Deb 09 June 1953 vol 516 cc181-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Sir Cedric Drewe.]

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I am sorry to see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power has been caught napping by this sudden change in the turn of events, but I hope that he will be here very shortly.

We have a particular responsibility in this House for supervising the management of publicly-owned industries and for promoting the welfare of those who work in them. The gas industry is rarely discussed in this House, and rarely provides sensational incidents which hit the headlines. On the whole it ticks over fairly successfully. As a thorough-going supporter of gas socialism, I want tonight to draw attention to what I regard as one of the deficiencies of the nationalised gas industry at the moment. As I know from some prolonged correspondence that the Ministry of Fuel and Power is fully aware of the points I am going to make, I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will have his brief when he arrives, which I hope will be soon.

I want to draw attention to the lack of an occupational health service in the gas industry. We are very glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary arrive at last. I am only sorry that the Government Whips' department does not seem to be up to the mark tonight. I was saying, I want to draw attention, to what I regard as one of the deficiencies in the adminisstration of the publicly-owned gas industry at the present time. I believe that it should be one of the responsibilities of the National Gas Council to establish an occupational health service for the gas workers.

The Gas Council stands almost alone today, amongst national boards and national councils of industries, in failing to establish, on a national scale, an industrial medical service for the workers in its industry. I believe that the best professional opinion in this country is in favour of the development of an occupational health service. I know that the T.U.C. supports it and went on record in favour of it in principle last year. I know, also, that most of the other national boards have their chief medical officers and have established industrial medical services.

I believe, too, and this may appeal more to the Parliamentary Secretary, that it is the practice of many big firms to develop industrial medical services. In fact, it was some of the private enterprise gas companies which pioneered in this field many years ago. The old Gas Light and Coke Company and the South Metropolitan Gas Company were pioneers in the field of establishing industrial medicine for their workers before gas nationalisation came along.

It is indisputable that the gas industry, like other industries, has special problems in the field of the causation of deaths,, accidents, and other matters of that kind. It is certainly true that the Medical Research Council has decided recently to undertake some long-term research into the incidence of lung cancer amongst gas workers, which is an example of the kind of thing which requires the development of a national medical organisation on an industrial basis for the gas industry. Therefore, it is disappointing to find that today only four out of the 12 area boards which administer the gas industry of the country have established full-time medical staffs.

Only in the case of the North Thames, the South Eastern, the North Western, and the West Midland Areas' Gas Boards is there in existence any occupational health service for the gas workers. These Boards are to be congratulated on the maintenance of these services which they either inherited or initiated. One matter which is noteworthy in this respect is that in the areas where the boards have established full-time medical staffs, they are also expending much more money on the welfare of the employees, partly, undoubtedly, as the result of the influence of these professional men who are working for the boards.

Expenditure today in the areas of the gas industry on welfare for employees varies from the lowest level in Scotland of 2s. per worker per annum to the highest level of £9 per worker per annum in the West Midlands. That is an extraordinary variation. What is indisputable is that in the four areas, where there are full-time doctors working for the gas boards, much more attention is paid to the welfare facilities for the workers than is paid in the other gas board Areas.

It is argued by some that it is difficult to establish and develop an occupational health service in some gas areas because there are only small and scattered installations in those districts, but I believe that that argument cannot carry the day. If one surveys the gas undertakings that come under the 12 area boards one finds that in all of the 12 areas of the country there are some large installations and some small installations.

There is no medical staff in the Scottish Area Board, but there are very large gas understakings in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is no full-time medical staff in the Eastern gas area, but there is a very large undertaking at Tottenham. In the Southern area there is no full-time medical staff and comparatively small expenditure on the welfare of the workers, but there are very large gas installations at Portsmouth and at Bournemouth. One could carry on elaborating that point. There are large gas undertakings in each of the 12 areas, and, therefore, I believe the argument that the undertakings are so small and so scattered that all those boards would not be justified in employing salaried medical staff is not an argument we should accept.

I know that the Minister himself is not fully satisfied about the present arrangements, because in a letter he wrote to me in February he said he was not entirely convinced from the information he had gathered from the Gas Council that the present medical arrangements in the gas industry were satisfactory to meet the needs, and that there was consultation between his Department and the Ministry of Labour about health and sanitary conditions in the gas industry.

I am asking that the Minister should now go further, and, having spent some time in surveying the problem, if he cannot persuade the Gas Council to take the necessary steps to establish on the same lines as in other nationalised industries a fully fledged occupational health service for the gas workers, he should use the powers he has under the Act to direct the Gas Council to establish on a national scale a medical service that will serve for the gas workers in all the 12 ireas in which they are administered.

11.13 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stress (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I am sure the House will agree, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree as a Member of the House, that a prima facie case has been made quite clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) for urgent action on the problem he has brought before us tonight. The figures he had given us of the disparity in expenditure for the welfare of the workers as between one area board and another are really astounding, 2s. in one case and £9 in another. The question I want to ask is whether the Parliamentary Secretary has in mind the immediate rectification of this problem, or whether he wishes to shield behind the fact that sooner or later this country will be compelled to offer a comprehensive industrial health service for each and every industry of the country.

If he is going to argue that the desirable thing is to have a comprehensive national service for the country as a whole, I would put it to him that it must start with those industries where the risks are greatest, whether of accident or occupational disease. The Medical Research Council is engaged at present in investigating the problem of the incidence of lung cancer among gas workers, but we have no real hope of a full report for two or three years. That is my opinion, and I shall be very glad to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary has been advised. If I am right, we cannot wait that time. The Ministry should urge that the service given to gas workers should at least be evened up to the best level which exists now in any area in the country. Bearing in mind that the cost of that may well be excessive, the Government should be urged to produce a comprehensive service for the country as a whole, for this is a matter which could best and most expeditiously offered if it were comprehensive and nation-wide.

If the Parliamentary Secretary is able to offer an immediate rectification of the problem brought forward by my hon. Friend, and at the same time assure us that the Minister is aware of the dangers for this and other industries, and that they will do their best to bring forward a comprehensive national service, we shall have been happy to hear him.

11.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

I must first apologise for not being quite in my place at the crucial moment. There was rather a greater exodus than I would have been led to expect, knowing that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) was to speak, and I was delayed.

To reply immediately to the hon. Gentleman for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), I was rather surprised at what he said about research, with his knowledge and experience in these matters. I am afraid there is no hope of getting results within the limited space of two or three years. When one embarks on research of this sort one is seeking, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to build up case histories in order to deduce causes. It is going to be a minimum of three years, and much more likely to be considerably longer, before experience is gained from the knowledge and records which are kept of diseases and reports of infection and all those medical questions from which those who learn from these matters can try to deduce the causes which have led to the results.

It is perfectly true that the matter is in train, and so far as the question of there being only four permanent medical officers of the boards, I do not think that has any effect on this issue. There are ample numbers of cases available, even with only these four boards, to build up cases for 30,000 men, if they were all being followed, and I do not think that is a limitation in the matter of research. With the best will in the world, I do not think it will be possible to expedite the results in the way the hon. Gentleman expressed the hope.

With regard to the gravamen of the argument of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme he is really pressing an open door, and we are in a happy position tonight. He is following up and applying to the gas industry in particular the recommendations largely contained in the Dale Report which have been emphasised in leaders in the "Lancet" and "The Times" last year. As the hon. Member rightly said, my right hon. Friend has already expressed himself in a letter to the hon. Member as not being entirely satisfied with the present position. That was some months ago and, as the House would expect, as my right hon. Friend was not entirely satisfied some months ago things have happened in the meantime and we have advanced quite a substantial way.

I particularly want to emphasise that I cannot go with the hon. Member in suggesting that it is for the Gas Council to set up a medical service for the industry. It is not their job. It is a matter far more for each area board to do for itself. They are quite big enough areas and each have their separate problems and their separate geographical considerations. It is far better for them to use the benefit of their local experience of local conditions as to what are the best means of providing the most efficient and comprehensive service in their own areas than to try to set out a blueprint to be applied to one and all irrespective of local conditions.

That is the way in which the matter has grown up from the beginning. I entirely agree and emphasise that matters of health and welfare are of fundamental importance to the labour relations in any industry. It is a very happy fact that in the gas industry in particular during over a century in which it has been running there have been as happy labour relations as can be found in any industry in the country. If there had been unsatisfactory health and welfare conditions in that industry we would not have had that experience in labour relations. It cannot be so bad when one remembers that in one board, the North Thames Gas Board, they have an average at any given time of 7,000 men with over 25 years' experience of their job and some with over 40 years' experience with the Board. That shows that it is not an industry on which one need embark in any alarmist way. I am not suggesting that the hon. Member was alarmist, but this does not call for any violent or drastic state of alarm.

Mr. Swingler

That is a very good board.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I quite agree, but in boards which have inherited companies with similar experience we have similar results. The North Thames Gas Board substantially represents the area which was worked by the Gas Light and Coke Company prior to nationalisation, and for many years that company had a full time medical staff. There is no doubt that that has been exceedingly beneficial to the North Thames Gas Board who inherited that staff and made use of it and still have the same people, as well as others, employed in a medical capacity in the work of the board. So also did the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the Wandsworth Gas Company have medical staffs for many years, and the South Eastern Area Board have had the benefit of inheriting that personnel and have the tradition of a permanent medical service which is a very good thing and has done exceedingly good work.

Later, in 1948, the City of Birmingham took the same point of view, as gradually the same idea of a permanent medical service spread among the larger undertakings, and they appointed a permanent medical officer who was inherited by the West Midlands Gas Board. Generally speaking, the argument of the industry was that it consisted of small and scattered undertakings from whom experience had shown or tradition had set up the belief that it was better that the health and welfare, as opposed to the safety of the employee, could be looked after by local arrangements with local doctors rather than having a permanent medical staff.

That was the line at the time when the industry came under nationalisation—the gradual development towards the ideal which probably had been set up by the Gas Light and Coke Company. But there was a substantial change in those developments at the time of nationalisation because the Government of the day appointed a committee on industrial health services—the Dale Committee— and very shortly after its appointment in June, 1949, the then Prime Minister announced that, pending the report of the Committee, which might have very important and widespread recommendations to make, development in industrial medical services should be held up. In consequence of that little if any progress was made in the gas industry at any rate —and that is the only industry I am talking about—with regard to the development of an industrial medical service.

The Committee reported, and in February, 1951, the ban was removed by the then Prime Minister. The Minister of Labour subsequently referred the recommendations of the Committee to the National Joint Advisory Council in order to obtain their views on specific recommendations. Replies have now been received from the British Employers' Federation and from each of the nationalised industries. We have not yet received a reply from the T.U.C. Consequently action on those specific recommendations cannot be taken.

In the meantime, in the gas industry, and so far as we are concerned, we are determined to progress. It is perfectly true that some of the boards concerned are reluctant, or have been in the past for many good reasons. One is the question of expense, because the setting up of these medical services is a pretty costly business. Another is that in the interval they have been exceedingly heavily occupied in re-organisation in general, in setting about consolidating the businesses they have taken over, in standardisation, in the elimination of the old and smaller concerns, the introduction of gas grids and gas mains, and matters of that sort.

I do not think, nor does my right hon. Friend think, that there is a case for directions. If you are to have a successful permanent medical service, you have to carry the industry with you—and both sides of the industry at that. Progress has been made. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Scottish Board. He will be glad to know that the Scottish Board has agreed to a permanent medical service. The Gas Council as a council has agreed. They are in line with the views of the hon. Gentleman which are shared by my right hon. Friend. Some boards are in a special category. I am expressing a purely personal opinion when I say I do not think it will ever be the best thing for the Wales Gas Board to have a permanent medical service. They have a very different set up and different problems. The Northern Board has different circumstances; for instance more than half its gas it does not make itself.

By and large it is reasonable to expect that the remaining boards will be taking action, and there are three reasons for that. First, as the House knows, the members of the Gas Council are chairmen of the boards, and therefore each board will have at any rate one advocate for a permanent service in its chairman because, as a member of the Gas Council, he will be in agreement with the principle.

Secondly, the boards know my right hon. Friend's views, and if there should be any doubt about them, what I have said tonight will probably confirm his views to the boards. Thirdly, the Ministry of Labour Chief Medical Inspector, who has been in touch with the Gas Council upon these problems, is at the disposal of the boards, and is prepared to get in touch with them and to give them all the help, advice and guidance he can to help to meet their special problems and devise the scheme which is most suited to their particular circumstances.

Therefore, in the light of those facts, and having regard to the progress which has been made, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel that my right hon. Friend's statement in his letter some months ago has been without effect. We have made progress. We have achieved a considerable step towards getting a permanent medical service for the gas industry. We believe that it is a good thing, and we hope very much that it will now not be long before the best and most effective medical service is available to the industry.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Twelve o'clock.