HC Deb 22 July 1959 vol 609 cc1417-28

Lords Amendment: In page 2, line 32, leave out "fourteen" and insert "twenty-eight".

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Mr. Frederick Lee (Newton)

I am not too happy about this Amendment. I know that in another place it was argued that merely to substitute "twenty-eight" for "fourteen" did not entail any greater danger for the people working in the factories, and that the report was the only thing which was subject to this Amendment. It was not a question of any delay in repairing a lift which had become defective.

With some personal experience of this matter, I do not accept what was said in another place about it. I concede that in a large well-organised factory, if a lift becomes defective, it will be put out of commission, and that will be the end of it. In the small type of factory, the fact that a defect of some type has emerged in a lift will not of itself ensure that that lift will not be put into commission.

I can think of factories in which there is only one lift, which may be used to bring materials of some type or other from one floor to another, and in which, if that lift is not being used at all, it might well be that the process itself might stop. In these conditions, there is a very great temptation, even where a defect has emerged, for the foreman in charge of the department to say, "It is not a defect which will stop the lift at all; it is a minor thing, and I think that we can go on using it, rather than stop the job itself." In such conditions, I believe that it is unwise to extend the period of the report from 14 days to 28.

I would agree that in the larger and well-organised factories that sort of chance would not be taken. In any event, it is quite probable that there would be an alternative to the lift which has become defective, and certainly one of the people in charge of the safety measures in that factory would not condone the use of the lift.

During the course of our deliberations on the Bill we have often said that if only we could bring the worst type of factory up to the level of the best, there would be no problem. I shall not ask my hon. Friends to divide the House on this Amendment, but I must tell the Minister that it is a retrograde step to give the impression that there is no sense of urgency in making a report. There is the danger of accidents happening in small factories which are dependent on one lift for the whole manufacturing process since the tendency will be to take a chance and the lift will be pressed into service.

To accept this Amendment will be to go back on much of the progressive work we did during the passage of the Bill through this House. For that reason I regret that the Minister has accepted the arguments deployed in favour of the Amendment, and even at this stage I suggest that he should look at it again.

Mr. Iain Macleod

We discussed this point carefully in Committee, when the Opposition, for logical reasons, some of which the hon. Gentleman has developed again, were critical of the proposal. The fact is that reports are rarely written up within the 14 days now allowed. However, in response to the criticisms of hon. Gentlemen opposite I said that I would withdraw the matter for the moment, and would satisfy myself completely that if I put 28 days in the Bill, either in another place or on the Report stage, there would not be an increased danger to the safety of workers.

I have carried out that undertaking and have looked at the point carefully with the Factory Inspectorate and with the Ministry, and we are satisfied on the matter. I would not suggest 28 days if it were not for the fact that by subsection (1) of this Clause we are strengthening the law by requiring a copy of the report on machinery which cannot be used with safety to be sent to the Factory Inspectorate. There is also an obligation on occupiers to report to the Inspectorate the failure of any cranes or hoists or other lifting appliances. So for the practical reason that the 14 days was not being complied with, and also for the reason that we are strengthening the law by subsection (1), I have satisfied myself that there will be no danger resulting as a result of allowing this Amendment to go forward.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

I do not find the Minister's explanation very satisfactory. If, as the right hon. Gentleman says, with 14 days written into the present Statute it is frequently longer than that before reports are submitted, what guarantee would there be that they would be submitted within 28 days if that figure is substituted? If the Factory Inspectorate and the Ministry have allowed the present law to be flouted, what guarantee shall we have that this will not continue? I find the explanation thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Mr. Iain Macleod

Perhaps, with permission, I might just say that there will now be an obligation which can be enforced by the Factory Inspectorate. The difficulty about the 14-day period provision was that, although it was the law, it was so generally avoided because reports were not completed in time that it was not practicable to enforce it. It will be practicable to enforce this provision. Therefore, from that point of view the 28-day provision is more satisfactory.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

Lords Amendment: In line 46 at end insert: unless his work is so connected with or dependent on the movements of the crane as to make a warning unnecessary. Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

Mr. Lee

I hope that the Minister will tell us in detail why he felt that the Amendment was necessary. It appears to me to be a most retrograde step. The Bill imposes a duty to give warnings of the movements of overhead travelling cranes, but it seems to me that the Amendment means that no such warning would be necessary to persons working with the crane.

How does one define the people who are working with the crane? I used to be a turner, working on a lathe. On many occasions I had to use an overhead crane to move a large job into position, between one's centres on one's lathe, and so one. As a turner, should I be one of the people to whom it was not necessary to give a warning? There are people whose work is associated only with the crane, such as the man high up in the box. There are also the slingers, working at floor level. They have a far better tic-tac system than anything ever seen at Newmarket or Ascot. The clicking of the fingers, which means another 6 in. down, and so on, is a great work of art. These men do it with remarkable skill.

I would not agree that it was not necessary to warn the slingers and others working in conjunction with the man in the crane. On many occasions during their work they have to turn their back upon the crane and upon the load which is being moved in order to carry out the wishes of the man at the lathe. They cannot hope to keep in constant communication with the crane driver. Such loads can be up to 50 tons in weight, and if an accident occurs it can easily mean one or more fatalities.

Thus, we are dealing not with small matters, but matter which may involve danger to the lives of large numbers of men. I have seen loads of 30 or 40 tons crash from cranes, though in most cases, fortunately, there were no fatalities. However, I must tell the Minister that in monkeying about with issues like this we are taking very great risks. The men who work in teams on such jobs are very able, but one cannot hope to keep a crane team together for long. A man may leave, and then one has to train another man in the tic-tac system.

10.0 p.m.

Therefore, to say, as is said in this Amendment, that there will be no need to give warning to those working in conjunction with the man in the crane is to take a risk which certainly is not justified. I know that from his general approach to this Bill the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to do anything of that sort. Perhaps I am taking the opposite extreme, as I have had some years of practical experience of this kind of thing, but I do not want to see anything done by an Amendment which would result in serious injuries and fatalities. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not wish that either.

I cannot define the difference between a turner who has asked for the use of a crane to bring a job to his lathe, and the job of the man working with the team, as to the necessity, or lack of necessity, of giving warning. In practical life it does not work that way. I hope that the Minister will look at this matter again. I have read a little of what was said in another place on this matter. Frankly, I do not think that those who were supporting this Amendment really grappled with the realities.

I do not want to delay the House too long. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not trying to raise issues for the sake of doing so, but I feel strongly that this is a step he should not take. I hope that even now he will reconsider this question. I know there are no further stages of the Bill on which it could be amended, but in all seriousness and without trying to make any political point, I suggest that this is a step he should not take and I hope he will not agree to this Amendment.

Dr. Stross

I wish to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Lee). I do so because of the many thousands of cases in which I used to give evidence in the courts when men were injured. I can vividly remember one or two which were associated with accidents in which cranes were involved and to which the wording of this Amendment would apply.

The Amendment says: unless his work is so connected with or dependent on the movements of the crane as to make a warning unnecessary.

If that includes men who are associated and who may be called "slingers", I remember one or two cases where, due to inattention, men were seriously hurt, but where a warning might have prevented that happening. I should have thought that the one person who does not need warning is the man manipulating the crane because he is connected with the working and movement and knows exactly what he is going to do, but everyone else, even when dependent on the movements of the crane",

should be able to receive warning.

I am not sure whether we are not in great difficulty on another matter, the general principle of discussing these Amendments so late in the Session. If we did not accept this Amendment I do not know whether we should lose the whole Bill. If that is the case, this House is in great difficulty. Our freedom to legislate as we should like, to manifest our views fully and properly and to go into action by registering our disapproval or disagreement, is limited if we should thereby lose the Bill, which was quite good when it came before us and has been greatly improved as a result of work done on it in this House.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will say, if he wishes to make further alteration as a result of what we say tonight, whether he will be able to get these alterations carried out in time this Session without losing the Bill.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

I rise only to express my concern that this modification from another place has crept into the Bill at this stage. If we look at the provision in Clause 3 (2), as the Bill left this House, we see that it is an absolute provision. These operations, as is within the knowledge of everybody who has had factory experience of any kind, are extremely dangerous. We made in the Bill an absolute provision that where there is …. an overhead travelling crane, or … any load carried by an overhead travelling crane, effective measures shall be taken to warn him "— that is, the operative in the vicinity— of the approach of the crane. That is an absolute provision which, in the terms of an accident or any subsequent claim for damages on behalf of an injured workman, would be accepted by the courts as laying an absolute duty on the occupier of the factory to take these precautions.

We find in this Amendment a very serious watering down of the provisions as they left this House. The Amendment to which we are asked to give consent tonight asks that we should insert the words: Unless his work is so connected with or dependent on the movements of the crane as to make a warning unnecessary. Who, in the name of goodness, is to make that decision? It completely wrecks the purpose of the Clause as it stood originally.

I trust that I shall be forgiven—I am not being in any way acrimonious—for expressing great surprise that the right hon. Gentleman has not seen the significance of this Amendment which is being put forward for our approval tonight.

Obviously, none of us with any sense of proportion, and wishing to see this Bill, with all its good features, receive the Royal Assent, would wish to chance wrecking it for an Amendment like this. But I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman that we should be entitled to negative the Amendment without dividing the House. The matter is very serious, although I do not want to exaggerate it. in undermining the purpose of the Clause, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman should seriously consider whether we can refuse to give the consent that has been asked for by another place.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

I, too, am troubled by this Amendment, and I want to join in the protests made against its acceptance. Subsection (2) gave protection if any person is employed or working in any place above floor level where he would be liable to be struck by an overhead travelling crane, or by any load carried by an overhead travelling crane … and it was laid down explicitly that effective measures should be taken to warn him of the approach of the crane. That protection is clearly limited by this Amendment.

Surely it was never the Minister's intention to put forward Clauses which could be cut down in this way. I know that every practising lawyer here with experience of these cases will know what difficulty will depend on the definition of the words there inserted. They may well be said to apply to many cases, and if the intention was to give protection as originally stated, I urge on the Minister that it is surely wrong now to cut down protection in the way indicated.

Mr. Iain Macleod

Hon. Members opposite are right in their reading of this Amendment. It does have the limiting effect to which they have drawn attention. Where I differ from them is that they think that it will add to the risk of accidents. I assure the House that I would not have put forward this Amendment if I had thought that for a minute. On the contrary, it is the belief of my Safety Department and the Factory Inspectorate that it is better to have this Amendment, purely from the point of view of safety. Perhaps I may briefly explain the reasons, although I do not want to cover the debate in another place.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) thought that there was no need to give warning to the driver of the crane. No doubt that is so. The Amendment goes beyond that and covers the team working on the crane. It is the point of view of my Safety Department and the Factory Inspectorate that if we were to include a requirement that specific warnings had to be given to all the workers in these circumstances, that would probably involve a good deal of shouting or signalling at the time and we would thus add to and not detract from the confusion. We must remember that these places are nearly always extremely noisy.

The general requirement to warn workers of the approach of an overhead travelling crane will continue to apply in all cases where workers are liable to be caught unawares by the approach of the crane. The suggested Amendment was criticised in another place on the grounds which have been repeated tonight, including the legal argument that the Amendment would undoubtedly weaken the provision. In reply, the point was made that to put an obligation that unnecessary warnings were to be given to people who, from the very nature of the work, would be well aware of what was happening, would be the more liable to lead to confusion.

In view of the criticism in another place, I discussed this again before I made up my mind on my attitude towards the Amendment. On balance, I am satisfied that, while fully understanding the anxieties expressed by the Opposition, I should ask the House to accept the view of my Safety Department and the Factory Inspectorate. I simply assure hon. Members that I would not have put forward this Amendment if I had not been buttressed by that agreement.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)

I do not think the fears of my hon. Friends will have been allayed by the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. As he said, this matter was debated in another place and a number of arguments on both sides was put forward. It seems to me that insufficient attention has been paid to the words "above floor level" which appear in Clause 3 (2).

What the subsection provides and all that it provides is that if a person is employed or working in any place above floor level where he is liable to be struck by an overhead travelling crane, or by the load of the crane, effective measures should be taken to warn him of the approach of the crane.

10.15 p.m.

The argument put forward in another place in support of the Amendment in terms was that it would be unnecessary and a waste of time to give warnings to people on the ground waiting to receive the load. It was suggested, indeed, that it would be so unnecessary that it would be disregarded and that it would be dangerous, because it would mean that other people who were in danger would not get the warning. All that misunderstands what the Clause as drafted provides for. The danger for people working above the ground is the danger of being struck, either by the crane or its load, and hurled to the ground. Hon. Members with experience of these matters, either on the floor of shops of factories or as lawyers who have been concerned in accident cases resulting from these incidents, know what fearful injuries can arise in these circumstances.

The case of there being a team of workers above floor level, which is an argument the Minister put forward, must be exceedingly rare, if not non-existent. I cannot picture them. One gets the kind of case which my hon. Friend was advancing of a person waiting to receive the load who may be above floor level. There may be a turner working on one of these very large lathes where they work above floor level on a platform. Is he not precisely the type of person who should receive a warning when a load is arriving which may strike him and knock him to the ground?

The people liable to be struck by the crane itself are a quite different category of people. They are maintenance men, electricians, and so on, working aloft. They may be painting or carrying out some operation of that kind. Those were the people to whom the Clause as originally drafted was directed.

The Amendment only arose out of the addition we made in Committee of the liability to be struck by the load as well as by the crane. It seems to me as though someone who drafted the Amendment has thought the matter up in a rather abstract way and thought that people who will receive a load do not need a warning, forgetting that the Clause bites only on people who are working above floor level. Surely they need a warning. Can the Minister give us some actual instances and examples of the kind of person who would be working above floor level who might be struck and who would not need a warning? I confess that I am unable to think of one.

In addition to that, there is the point made by my hon. Friends of who is to decide whether the warning is necessary or unnecessary. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said, any lawyer can see at once that the words in the Amendment could lead to endless argument. It is not lawyers who have to interpret this on the floor of the shop. Someone has to decide whether in a particular instance a warning shall be given. Surely it is much better to be definite so that people know what their statutory obligations are. If the obligation is that anyone working above floor level who is liable to be struck shall be given a warning, that is clear and everyone can understand it.

Finally, I echo the protest made by a number of hon. Members at this matter being introduced at this exceedingly late stage. As the Minister knows, we on this side of the House have been most anxious to co-operate in making this Bill as good and effective as it can be. We have expressed our gratitude to the Minister for the extraordinarily receptive attitude he has had to all the suggestions we have made. We think that it is most alarming to find an Amendment of this kind being brought to this House at this very late stage, on a matter which has never been raised before at any previous stage of our deliberations and which we feel very seriously reduces the effectiveness of the Clause.

Mr. Iain Macleod

It is true that towards the end of a Session one is often in this difficulty with many Bills. I can think of at least one example which will follow a little later tonight which is not dissimilar. It frequently happens that when a Bill is altered, as one hon. Member rightly said this Bill was altered in Committee, representations which were not made on the original Bill are made, quite rightly, on the new form of words which the House of Commons has thought fit to insert. It is, of course, only reasonable that, in later stages of a Bill, those representations should, as in this case, be taken into account.

The hon. Gentleman said that he found it extraordinarily difficult to envisage circumstances in which these last few words now added would be applicable. That, of course, shows—one of the points I have been making—how extremely limited this provision is. It is extremely difficult to think of such a case, but that, on the whole, is an argument for me rather than for him. The sort of case one thinks of is precisely that which he mentioned—the team working, some above floor level, and at different levels, carrying out tasks in connection, perhaps, with the unloading of a crane.

For those people who are working with the crane and know exactly what is happening to it all the time, I little doubt that there is no need for this sort of warning to be given. Indeed, it would add to confusion if, in this case, an insistence was made. After all, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) said that he would agree with respect to the driver. I assure the House that this extension is a very limited one and applies to the sort of team that the hon. Gentleman suggested. I believe that it is the right provision to add to the subsection.

Question put and agreed to.