HC Deb 09 February 1959 vol 599 cc939-49

7.38 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr.J.B.Godber)

I beg to move, That the Agriculture (Circular Saws) Regulations, 1958, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th December, be approved. I suggest that we might also discuss the second Motion— That the Agriculture (Safeguarding of Workplaces) Regulations, 1958, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th December, be approved".

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

We have no objection.

Mr. Godber

The purpose of these Regulations, like that of the power Takeoff and Ladders Regulations, which were made in 1957, is to safeguard the agricultural worker against the more hazardous aspects of his employment. I should like to deal first with the circular saws. These of course can be very dangerous machines. The Regulations attempt to deal with the chief causes of trouble involved. The prescribe generally for sound construction, proper maintenance and adequate lighting. There are specific requirements about unsafe blades; top and bottom guards must be provided and also, for the fixed bench type of circular saw, a riving knife is required to prevent the cut wood binding on the saw at the far side of the blade.

The provision of proper equipment is the concern of the employer, but the employee has certain more limited responsibilities such as making use of safety devices and—this is important, too—reporting certain specified obvious defects such as missing teeth in the blade. No one under the age of 16 may work at a circular saw, those between the ages of 16 and 18 must be supervised, and an inexperienced worker of any age must be instructed before he is allowed to operate.

Most of the Regulations come into force in twelve months' time although only six months in allowed for some requirements, such as restrictions on highly dangerous conditions. We have to give a certain amount of time to enable those concerned to comply with the Regulations. Consultation with the orgainsa- tions concerned has been both wide and helpful.

The second set of Regulations refers to the safeguarding of conditions of employment in buildings. Safety standards are laid down for floors, including catwalks, fixed ladders and stairs. Openings of various kinds in walls and floors and also grain pits, stokeholds and furnace pits must be guarded if workers run the risk of falling more than 5 ft. through or into them.

Stairs must be properly constructed—for example, there must not be any missing steps or other obvious defects—and they must have adequate handrails. Where stairs are so steep as to be virtually fixed ladders, there must be a handhold at the top for people getting on or off. The workers' own share of responsibility in all this is again limited to making use of safety equipment and reporting certain obvious defects such as broken handrails and guards and missing steps.

These requirements are all essentially simple and the installation of safeguards will not be costly. The second set of Regulations will not come into effect until 1st April, 1961. This will give employers time to check the state of their buildings and, perhaps, make it possible for any necessary alterations to be fitted in with work submitted, for instance, under farm improvement schemes.

Those are the principal features of the two sets of Regulations. They are mainly introducing in statutory form an element of sound common sense into provisions for both the use of these saws and for the buildings in which farmworkers work. Some of them may seem to be obvious but, undoubtedly, past experience has shown that accidents have occurred through lack of these provisions. They are a useful further addition to the safety Regulations which we have been introducing under the Act and I feel sure that in general they will commend themselves to the House.

7.44 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

We are grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his explanation of the Regulations. I have only one or two points to put to him. The first is that the legislation under which these Regulations are made was passing through the House in 1956 and the Bill became an Act in July of that year. We have been waiting a very long time for these Regulations. It was over eighteen months ago that the Queen finally gave her approval to the Bill, and I would have thought that something could have been done about this before now. I realise, however, that the hon. Gentleman's Department has had to have consultations, and rightly so, particularly with the employers' organisation and with the employees.

To say now, after eighteen months, that an employer should have a further two years in which to put his premises right seems to me to be rather stretching it, hanging it out much too long and permitting dangerous conditions to continue to operate for a further period of approximately two years. I could understand it if these were tremendous structural alterations which had to be made, but, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary himself said, most of the things which will have to be done are comparatively simple. Today we have no great shortage of building workers and there is no shortage of materials. I should have thought that the Regulations relating to the safeguarding of workplaces could well have been brought into operation in January of next year, permitting eleven months from now in which to do what I regard as a comparatively simple job of improving these workplaces. We do not, however, propose to vote against the Regulations. I merely complain at the length of time which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is giving employers in this connection.

On the Committee stage of the Bill three years ago we discussed the appointment of inspectors. The Regulations would appear to be of little value unless their provisions are enforced. When the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies, I should like him to say whether the Ministry has appointed an adequate inspectorate or what steps have been taken to ensure that those on whom these duties will be placed will be able to carry them out. What has been done about appointments or instructing officers within the Department to do this job? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider these appointments carefully and make sure that sufficient of the right personnel are charged with the duty of ensuring that the Regulations are carried out and that sufficient men will be instructed to do the job.

I hope that all the organisations concerned will take suitable steps, with the help of the Ministry, to advise their members of the responsibility which they carry. There is, of course, a definite responsibility upon the employer, but I believe that making known the provisions of the Regulations to the workers is particularly important because upon the workers in the industry undoubtedly falls a responsibility which they must be prepared to accept. It will be no use their shrugging off these responsibilities and saying, "It is up to the boss." These Regulations place a clear legal responsibility upon employees themselves to report defects as they are seen. In addition, they must not in any way interfere with the safeguards provided by the employers under these Regulations. I hope that the trade unions particularly concerned with these matters will bring this aspect of the Regulations strongly to the notice of their members.

These are sensible Regulations. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend will do everything possible to ensure that they are carried out in order that the safety of the worker shall be assisted by them.

7.49 p.m.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

I am happy to give these safety Regulations a warm welcome. They represent a tremendous step forward in the wellbeing of agricultural workers. In the county of Cheshire, of which I have the honour to represent a considerable portion, the Regulations concerning the safeguarding of workplaces will be of tremendous importance.

For very many years it has been the custom to feed the cattle during the winter months by hay which has been thrown down from hay lofts. When introducing the Regulations, my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary mentioned that there would have to be alterations to buildings. There will have to be considerable alterations to the farm buildings in Cheshire in order that the pitch holes which exist may be safeguarded by a rail.

That is a comparatively small and technical matter, but I should like to follow what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) said about informing agricultural workers. I so well remember the debate we had on 18th July, 1957, on similar Regulations made under this Act. The late Mr. Dye spoke of the importance of publicity. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, when winding up that debate, said: We will give the matter the utmost publicity. It is most important that everybody concerned should know about this matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July, 1957; Vol. 573, c. 1512.] The matter was the Regulations.

I read a small extract from the Farmers' Weekly this week which said: "On guard." The extract related to the Power Take-off Regulations, similar Regulations to these draft Regulations. What it said was that a free explanatory leaflet could be obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture in London or from the Department of Agriculture in Scotland. That was an explanatory leaflet relating to Regulations similar to these.

The National Farmers' Union, I happen to know, is informing its members of the purport of these Regulations, but, in my opinion, the instructions which are going out in the form of leaflets, and in the form of information from the National Farmers' Union, are hardly enough.

This aspect of publicity is most tremendously important, and I would ask my hon. Friend to use his influence, and to ask the Minister to use his influence, to see whether the television programme companies, the B.B.C. and the Independent Television Authority could carry out some series of feature films demonstrating exactly what these Regulations mean. If the farming community were able to see and have explained to it through the medium of television just exactly what these Regulations mean, it would be far more convinced than by just reading the Regulations in a leaflet. I am not saying that these leaflets are not first-class documents. Of course they are, but they are not the same thing as a film, and I think that the medium of television could well be employed in conveying these most important safety Regulations to the farmworkers and also to the farmers.

Prevention is so much better than cure, and I believe that prosecutions and penalties could be avoided if all in the farming community were to know exactly what these Regulations mean. As on 18th July, 1957, a strong plea for the dissemination of further information and publicity was made, so tonight in the same way I reinforce that same plea for more publicity.

7.53 p.m.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

I share the enthusiasm for these new Regulations which has been manifested by hon. Members who have already spoken. I think that both sets of Regulations will form a valuable addition to those which already exist under the parent Act of 1956.

I reiterate the plea made by the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) for maximum information to be given relating to these Regulations. There is to be a time lag before either set of these Regulations comes into operation. That period could well be used to give maximum publicity to them in order that the Ministry will have to have recourse to proceedings only in the very minimum number of cases.

There are only four other questions on which I should like information. I notice that in paragraph 6 of the Circular Saws Regulations there is a provision relating to the granting by the Minister of Certificates of exemption. A similar provision exists in paragraph 5 of the Safeguarding of Workplaces Regulations. If I remember rightly, this provision is made in both sets of Regulations by virtue of powers given by Section 1 (5) of the 1956 Act. Under the Regulations which are already in existence under the 1956 Act, and which relate to ladders, there is no provision for certificates of exemption, if I remember correctly. The same applies to the Regulations relating to the avoidance of accidents to children, but a provision similar to this in these draft Regulations exists in the Power Take-off Regulations.

In the two paragraphs, 6 and 5, of these two sets of draft Regulations reference is made to "particular cases". I want to know what type of particular case the Minister has in mind in which it would be right and proper to grant a certificate of exemption.

Those same paragraphs refer to "particular persons". I should like some additional information as to what "particular persons" the Minister has in mind in thinking of giving certificates of exemption.

The certificates of exemption will be for such periods as may be specified. It would be helpful if we could know what the Minister has in mind in relation to the periods, because there is already to be some time lag to enable persons who are to be covered by the Regulations to take the necessary action. As I understand it, the certificates of exemption would be granted for a specified period. What period has the Minister in mind?

As I understand it, when certificates are given they will be given on conditions attached to them. What type of condition has the Minister in mind? For example, under the Regulations relating to circular saws, in what type of case, to what type of person, for what period, and on what type of condition will a certificate of exemption be granted? It might be helpful if the Minister would tell us, too, what he has in mind for certificates of exemption under the Power Take-off Regulations. If I remember rightly, a similar if not identical provision relating to certificates of exemption exists in those Regulations.

Subject to obtaining some additional help from the Minister on that aspect of the matter, I welcome these Regulations, and I believe that they will contribute considerably to the safety and well-being of all those in this industry.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Godber

With the leave of the House, I should be glad to answer some of the questions which have been raised. I am grateful to those hon. Members who have spoken for the points which they have brought forward. I am grateful also that clearly these Regulations are welcome in all parts of the House.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), however, chided me a little for being slow in bringing forward these Regulations. He made the perfectly fair point that it was some time now since any regulations were brought forward. It may appear at first sight that we are being somewhat dilatory in making use of this legislation, but I think the House should realise that these Regulations require the most complicated series of consultations. I am sure that we should be at fault if we did not consult all the bodies con- cerned, whether workers' organisations, the farmers or any of the manufacturers who are the suppliers of these things, before bringing forward the Regulations.

The Regulations which we brought in first were the simplest and most straightforward. We come to a more complicated field now. Whilst these Regulations might not appear to be very complicated, in both cases we have had to have detailed consultations with between thirty and forty organisations, and that takes time. Even if it is right that we have not proceeded as fast as the hon. Member would wish, we had to make sure that we made the fullest investigation before bringing the Regulations forward.

The hon. Member also thought that, having taken all this time to reach this stage, we should be more speedy now, particularly in relation to the workplaces. I thought that that criticism was answered to some extent by my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple), who pointed out that the regulations call on the farmers concerned to make certain alterations. I agree that in a good many cases this work could be done speedily. I certainly urge that, where it can be done speedily, farmers should not wait until the last moment of the period. We have urged that on previous occasions in relation to other regulations and, generally, farmers have been ready to do that.

We must realise, however, that there are certain cases where a substantial structural alteration of a building is necessary, and we have to legislate for cases of that kind among others. We felt, therefore, that we had to allow what may appear at first sight to be a rather generous period of time, but I hope that farmers will come forward at once and provide these necessary safeguards. In many cases, of course, good farmers have already provided them, and this is really a matter of applying more force to those who have not been quite so careful.

At the moment there are for England and Wales seventy-three inspectors on our staff who are responsible for this work. They are carrying out their duties efficiently and well and are getting round pretty well. It could be argued, perhaps, that if there were more of them they would get round more frequently, but they are having a substantial effect in relation to the Regulations which are already in force. There have also been several prosecutions in recent months which have given further impetus throughout the country to the work which they are doing.

I think that at the moment we have an adequate staff of inspectors but we shall certainly keep watch on this matter. As more regulations come forward it might be necessary, of course, to increase the number of inspectors.

I entirely agree with what has been said about publicising the Regulations. We went to some pains to publicise to the greatest possible extent previous Regulations. We have issued a tremendous number of leaflets and we have done what we can to interest the farming community in this problem, by articles in the farming Press and that kind of thing. I welcome very much the suggestion that this is a matter in which the trade unions can give us invaluable help. Any help which they can give in publicising the regulations we shall very much welcome. The same applies to the N.F.U. Any such help will be a great asset.

My hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester suggested that more use should be made of television and films in this respect. There have been comments on this matter on television on certain occasions. On 18th September, 1957, there was a talk on B.B.C. television about safety on the farm. The subject has also been mentioned on a number of other occasions. I remember, when listening to "The Archers" hearing something about safety on the farms.

Mr. Champion

What did Dan say?

Mr. Godber

I am sorry, but I cannot recall. I should welcome it if Dan said a little more on this subject in the future, because we always welcome his sound common sense, and this is a very effective way of publicising these things. We have also two special films on aspects of safety on the farms now in an advanced state of preparation. We hope to have these out soon for use all over the country. I think that meets the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester.

Mr. Temple

Will my hon. Friend take steps to bring those films to the notice of the television programme authorities so that they can put them over on television, which is a most effective medium?

Mr. Godber

We have assured the television companies in the past that we are willing to supply them with any of our films, but I will see that these two are brought specially to their attention in case they are able to make use of them. We will also, of course, do what we can through leaflets and normal forms of publicity to deal with the matter.

In addition to the question of publicity, the hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) also raised the matter of certificates of exemption. He has been industrious in his researches. He pointed out that there is no provision for these certificates in relation to ladders and to children, but only to the Power Take-off Regulations and to these Regulations. The answer is simply that we have provided for the possibility of exemption purely because we want to be able, in case of need, to exempt where there are matters of research and development going on in relation to any process on the farm and the use of machinery. We want to be able to ensure that those who are carrying out experiments are able to do so without contravening the law.

For example, the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering at Silsoe, which is doing a great deal of this research work, might otherwise be breaking the Regulations.

As far as I can ascertain in the short time that has been available, we have not yet found it necessary to provide exemptions, but we have the powers, though we propose to use them only in that type of case. It is certainly not a matter of exempting farmers or areas from the Regulations, but only a matter of exemption for that type of activity. Therefore, some of the hon. and learned Member's other questions fall to the ground. Clearly, there is no need for us to provide for exemption to carry out experiments on the question whether children should be allowed to ride on vehicles. We know all about that. Therefore, that is not included. It is also self-evident that there is no need to make special provision for certificates of exemption in relation to ladders. I repeat, however, that use of these powers will be very sparing indeed arid that the hon. and learned Member need have no fears.

I am grateful to hon. Members for the way in which they have received the Regulations. They are a useful addition to a not unsatisfactory list of efforts to make farms safer. There is no doubt that the advent of mechanisation has made the farm a much more dangerous place. We are seeking in the Regulations to make it a safer and more secure place. Those Regulations which we have already introduced have had good effect. These will help further, and we shall be bringing forward more regulations to ensure that the farm is as safe a place as it can he made in modern conditions.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Agriculture (Circular Saws) Regulations, 1958, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th December, be approved.

Agriculture (Safeguarding of Workplaces) Regulations, 1958 [draft laid before the House, 18th December], approved.—[Mr. Godlier.]