HC Deb 22 July 1959 vol 609 cc1429-36

Lords Amendment: In page 4, line 13, at end insert: but no account shall be taken for the purposes of paragraph (b) of this subsection of any deposit or other material liable to give off dangerous fumes in insignificant quantities only.

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

Mr. Lee

I do not think that aristocratic influence has improved the nature of the Bill at all. It may be that those in another place are not as conversant with these matters as are some of us in this House. I really do not understand the right hon. Gentleman's accepting this Amendment at all. We are here discussing the question that … no account shall be taken for the purposes of paragraph (b) of this subsection of any deposit or other material liable to give off dangerous fumes in insignificant quantities only. I do not know whether the Minister can define what is meant by "insignificant quantities only." I know that we had quite a lot of discussion on this matter in Committee, and that this Amendment provides that the requirement of Clause 6 (5,b) shall not apply where the sludge deposit or material present in a confined space is liable to give off … dangerous fumes in insignificant quantities only. Have we, in this Bill, made any provision to ensure the presence of a person competent to define material giving off fumes in insignificant quantities? As I understand, there is no person at all whose presence—in the sense of defining insignificant quantities of material giving off certain types of fumes—we insist on in the Bill. There is, of course, the presence of the competent observer who has been mentioned in connection with the Bill, but he cannot possibly be a chemist or a person so trained as to enable him to define what quantities of this type of material capable of giving off dangerous fumes constitute significant, as distinct from insignificant, quantities. It may well be that the insignificant quantities—thinking in quantitative terms—may be capable of increasing the amount of noxious gases given off as time goes by.

I must ask the Minister to give us a better explanation than we have gleaned from reading the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debates on the Bill in another place, or from anything that we have heard from him so far on this matter, before we let this Amendment pass. It seems to me that we are departing from the very high standards which I thought we had achieved in the passage of the Bill through the House, when we are now prepared to put in all sorts of rather negative escape clauses which, to a great degree, will vitiate much of the great work we have done.

I do not know why it is necessary for us to talk in terms of a differentiation as between significant and insignificant quantities? To do that while we are discussing materials, such as sludge and that sort of thing, capable of giving off poisonous gases, is providing a quite unjustifiable escape clause for people who, frankly, want to find some way of evading the provisions of this Measure. It would appear to me that the Minister is taking great chances in asking us to accept this kind of Amendment.

So far as I remember, we have had no previous discussion on this sort of subject, and I suggest that at this stage to begin to cast around to find escape clauses which will materially weaken many of the very important principles which were established during the passage of the Bill through the House, is to go back on what was a fine job of work. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now give us a detailed explanation of the difference between significant and insignificant quantities of deposit capable of giving off dangerous fumes. At the moment, I do not believe that under the provisions of the Bill anybody is required to be present who could be competent to give such a decision, and, therefore, in those circumstances, it would be right and proper to insist upon the previous words which the House decided to insert in the Bill.

10.30 p.m.

Dr. Stross

I have studied what was said in another place on this matter, but I am rather confused by the wording of the Amendment, although I think I understand what lies behind it and what is meant to be implied. The aim was possibly quite adequate and well intentioned. We are here considering men who have to enter confined spaces, without breathing apparatus. They are to go in for only a limited time. If there has been any sludge or other deposit left there which would or could give off dangerous fumes, the provisions of subsection (5, b) of the new Section 27 of the principal Act, so it is suggested now, are not to apply if the amounts are insignificant.

I can well understand that it would be really impossible to clean out every particle of material in cleaning out a confined space, and if this is what those who put forward the Amendment had in mind, I can appreciate that point of view. On the other hand, the words make it clear that those who proposed this Amendment would not object to sludge being left in such quantities as still to give off dangerous fumes, but then the qualifying word "insignificant" is added.

In some scientific work, the word "insignificant" has a technical meaning, just as the word "negligible" has. For example, when referring to the number of possible cases of cancer of the bone which may ultimately eventuate during the next fifty years as a result of fallout of radio-strontium, one is able to say that the number will be "negligible", or that it will be "insignificant", although one will know that there will be many thousands of such cases distributed throughout the world's population. One could never say whether they were really due to that cause, or to some other carcinogenetic cause, and, compared with the 3,000 million people who are born, live and die in each generation, "insignificant" is a correct application.

Workmen may often have to go into confined spaces, without breathing apparatus, where there will be sludge in quantities termed "insignificant" and so judged by the observer who is at the works and who may be hard pressed and wanting work turned out fairly quickly. Has the Minister considered whether insignificant amounts of sludge and the fumes emitted may, over a period of time, seriously affect a man's health, although no one will ever be able to prove it?

With those thoughts in my mind, I support what my hon. Friend has said, although, perhaps, I do not go so far as he in condemnation of what was in the minds of those who drafted the Amendment. We should have an explanation. If it were possible for the Minister to make the wording clearer so as to give protection against ill-health rather than catastrophe and collapse, we should all be very greatly obliged.

Mr. Weitzman

Whatever may have been in the minds of those who drafted the Amendment, the point is really a quite simple one. Can fumes be dangerous if they are emitted in insignificant quantities only? Is not the addition of these words a way of begging the question? If something is left which is liable to give off dangerous fumes something wrong has been done and there must be a remedy for that. If one goes on to add the words in insignificant quantities only". one really adds nothing at all. If the danger is there, it ought to be guarded against. If there are fumes given off in insignificant quantities only, so that they do not constitute a danger, there is nothing calling for protection.

Once one recognises the fact that the fumes are dangerous and the workman or employee is confronted by that danger from the fumes, one must omit these suggested words. I respectfully suggest that the Amendment is based on a misconception and that it does not recognise the real evil here.

Mr. MacDermot

I support what has been said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), and I would put this further question to the Minister. What is the necessity for this Amendment at all, in view of the provisions which are already in the Bill, in subsection (1) of the new Section 27 of the principal Act which is to be introduced by Clause 6 of the Bill? It states: The provisions of subsections (2) to (8) of this section"— that includes the subsection which is the subject of the Amendment— shall have effect where work in any factory has to be done inside any chamber, tank, vat, pit, pipe, flue or similar confined space, in which dangerous fumes are liable to be present to such an extent as to involve risk of persons being overcome thereby. Surely, the effect of those words is that only where there is a confined space in which dangerous fumes are liable to be present to a significant extent does the rest of the substituted Section 27 have any effect.

Consequently, in subsection (5), which is the subject of the Amendment and which opens with the words A confined space shall not be certified under subsection (4) of this section unless"— "a confined space" must mean a confined space as defined in subsection (1), because it is only in relation to those confined spaces that the provisions of subsection (5) shall have effect. Subsection (1) says so. Therefore, it is only if there is a danger of fumes to a significant extent—that is, an extent liable to involve risk of persons being overcome—that one has to worry about subsection (5). Therefore, to add the proposed words is pure repetition and tautology.

If I am wrong, and if there is some reason for the words, my second question is to ask whom the Minister envisages to be the responsible person who is to give the certificate. I refer to subsection (4). It is one thing to say that a responsible person shall give his certificate as being satisfied of the matters in paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (5), because those are all matters which are clearly determinable; they are matters of certainty whether effective steps have been taken to prevent any ingress of dangerous fumes and so on. When, however, one starts placing on the individual who is to give the certificate or not the question of deciding whether the quantity of fumes liable to be given off is significant, it becomes important to know what are to be the qualifications of this responsible person to decide the matter. It is nowhere defined to whom he must be responsible, what his qualifications are to be or what sort of person he should be.

To sum up, my view is that purely as a matter of construction, the Amendment seems to be unnecessary. If, however, I am wrong and it is necessary, how, as a matter of practice, will effect be given to it?

Mr. Iain Macleod

Hon. Members opposite are, I think, making heavy weather of the Amendment. The speech to which I will direct my attention most closely, because it was the one that was nearest to the point which is before us, is that of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross). To deal, first, with the question about the long-term danger—the accumulation of a risk to ill health growing over weeks, months and years which may be insignificant in itself—the answer is that Section 27 of the parent Act of 1937 and Clause 6 of the Bill are concerned not with the long-term dangers, but with the immediate danger that somebody may be overcome. The long-term dangers to which the hon. Member referred are taken care of, so we believe, by subsection (1) of both Sections 4 and 47 of the 1937 Act. If the hon. Member studies Sections 4 and 47 of that Act, I think he will find that they are satisfactory concerning the long-term risk.

My view is that the Amendment is necessary to take account of this sort of case, which, again, is precisely the one referred to by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. Paragraphs (a) and (c) of subsection (5) of the Clause are unaffected by the proposed Amendment, which relates merely to paragraph (b).

There are a number of processes—I have some examples here, though I am bound to say that I do not understand fully the scientific complications of them, but I could recite them if necessary—in which substances are left adhering to the sides of vessels. It may be necessary in some cases for a worker to clean out such a vessel and he may occasionally have to go inside the vessel, as is contemplated throughout this Clause, to do so.

It is not possible, of course, as paragraph (b) stands, for a worker to go inside a vessel to carry out any operation at all, however minute are the particles which may have been left provided that they give off dangerous fumes, without breathing apparatus. The view that we take is that in cases where it is necessary to remove the deposit from the sides of the vessel but where it is wholly unnecessary that breathing apparatus, safety belts, ropes and the rest of the precautions should be taken, these words enable that type of cleaning to be done without the more elaborate precautions being taken that are, of course, necessary if the material is giving off fumes in any quantity.

I think that the words are necessary and the responsibility rests again on the "responsible person" which, as the hon. and learned Gentleman quite fairly said, is nowhere defined. It is probably not in the nature of things that one can define it, but I do not think, on the whole, that this will be a particular burden, because in the cases in which this new proviso to paragraph (b) will apply it will not be a question of a man making a fresh judgment on each occasion. In the few processes to which I have referred, and in which compounds are changed into other compounds, it would not be necessary for the full protection to be carried out and the full safety precautions taken.

Mr. Weitzman

If the fumes are insignificant, how can they be dangerous? If they are dangerous they are not insignificant.

Mr. Macleod

I have not the hon. and learned Gentleman's legal facility, but I am told—I can only rely on my legal advisers in these matters—that these words are necessary because paragraph (b) of subsection (5) as it stands means that any deposit, however small, that gives off a dangerous fume has to be removed. It is possible for such deposits to be in such insignificant quantities that it is not necessary for the full safety precautions to be taken. For those cases I would ask the House to agree to the Amendment.

Mr. MacDermot

If I understand the right hon. Gentleman aright, he is now saying that the Amendment is intended to apply only to cases where the quantity of fumes given off on any occasion will be insignificant. If that be the case then, surely, the confined space, as I pointed out, will not come within the wording of subsection (1) and, therefore, none of this applies at all.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.