HC Deb 28 June 1962 vol 661 cc1514-29

11.27 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I beg to move,

That the Agriculture (Field Machinery) Regulations, 1962, a draft of which was laid before this House on 31st May, be approved. These Regulations, which will apply to Great Britain, are the tenth in the farm safety series. The existing Measures cover farm risks arising from unsafe buildings and ladders, power take-offs, circular saws, threshers and stationary balers, among other things. We are now concerned with mobile field machines such as tractors, combines, different harvesters, trailers and the like and also with powered handtools. The purpose of the Regulations is to protect farm and forestry workers against the risk of injury when using these machines.

As in other safety Regulations, obligations are imposed on both employers and workers. Employers must not let workers use a machine unless it complies with the Regulations. In general, components such as shafting, pulleys, flywheels or belts which might cause injury must be guarded. In addition, specific requirements are laid down regarding other parts of power-driven field machines of a particular kind. I do not want to go into too great detail.

Workers must not remove guards except for cleaning and must put them back before using them again. They must tell their employers if safety devices become damaged and they must not ride on drawbars. I am glad to know that I have the support of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton) in this. It sounds innocent enough, but accidents have happened. Workers must not get on or off moving machines while towing. These are particularly dangerous practices which have been the cause of many serious accidents, some of them, I am sorry to say, fatal.

The Regulations provide that a worker should not start a self-propelled machine except from the proper driving position. Some people might say that this sounds grandmotherly, but I am glad again to know that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West supports me. This practice has been the cause of accidents. Nor should a worker leave that position when the machine is in motion except for special emergency. Getting on or off moving machines can cause many accidents.

In addition to the obligations imposed upon farmers and workers, for the first time in these farm safety Regulations obligations are imposed upon the sale by manufacturers and dealers of any field machinery. The Regulations prohibit the sale or hire of new machines for use in agriculture unless they comply with the safety requirements. This we think necessary because safety is as much a matter of good design as of fitting guards and we need to ensure that new machines come into the hands of farmers properly equipped from the start. That does not mean that many of the machines already in use are not well equipped. Once they are in use it is the responsibility of the employers and workers to keep them safe. These are the principal features of the Regulations.

The cover a wide variety of machines and therefore contain a good deal of detail which I think is necessary if the Regulations are to achieve the purpose which we intend. We have done our best to strike the right balance and to ensure that there will be adequate and satisfactory safeguards without there being so much detail that difficulty arises over ensuring that they are complied with. I assure the House that the requirements are practical and necessary to safeguard workers. I know that hon. Members will not pick out individual items on which to comment. This is a matter of danger to life and limb of the men working on the land. No doubt it would be possible to make fun of individual sentences but they have been included for a specific and genuine humane purpose.

All the interested organisations have been consulted and it has been possible to meet many of the views which have been expressed. It has taken some time and of course there have been divisions of opinion on some points, but I am glad to be able to say that we have achieved a wide measure of agreement and we are grateful for the help which we have received from many people and organisations. There are certain requirements, such as those relating to towing devices, the maintenance of guards and the prohibition of riding on drawbars, which will come into operation three months after the Regulations are made.

In view of the large number of field machines now in use which could be improved by guarding, and the effect on the design and manufacture of new machines which these Regulations are bound to have, some time must be allowed for the main requirements of the Regulations to take full effect. For the new field machines the main requirements will operate from 1st July, 1964. This gives adequate time and strikes a fair balance between the demands of reasonable safety and the legitimate need of the machinery suppliers to make the necessary alterations.

There are some complicated problems of redesign and production and therefore it is reasonable to leave a fair amount of time for that to be carried out economically. Some manufacturers have already started. They have prided themselves in the past on the safety of their machines. Others are fitting new guards to existing designs. For many of the machines now in use the problem is one of adaptation and of providing guards and other fittings. This will make demands on local workshops where much of the work will be done. It cannot all be done at once and so the Regulations will allow a period. We have put the machines in five classes each with its own operative date.

These are the statutory requirements, but in the interest of his workers and for his own peace of mind the wise farmer will, I am sure, give early consideration to what is necessary and not wait until the last moment before the Regulations come into effect. The Agriculture Departments will use all available means to inform the people concerned of their responsibilities under the new Regulations, and will help them. We shall publish a leaflet explaining the detailed requirements in a form which will be easy to understand. More general announcements such as reminders will be broadcast and published in the Press. The Department's safety inspectors will always be ready to advise and help not only farmers but manufacturers and dealers.

Mechanisation has been of immense value to farming and to the community as a whole and in many ways it has made much of the work less back breaking. But machines have brought new risks, and we must accept that. It is not generally recognised how high the accident risk on the land is, nor how high the accident rate is, and in that I include not only fatal accidents, but serious injuries which can hamper or even incapacitate for life a man who may be the bread-winner of a family. Every industry has its special risks and in agriculture workers are often alone when an accident occurs, and that in itself presents its own special problems.

Hence I would hope that it is agreed that there is a need for the Regulations to minimise those risks. If these Regulations can save what may seem even a small number of families from the death or serious injury of a member, they deserve the welcome and support not only of the House, but of the country.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

Is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that, even with all the delays laid down in Schedule 2, he will have a corps of inspectors to ensure the application of these Regulations? Secondly, can he tell us why it takes from 1962 to 1968, which, after all, is six years, to put Regulations of this kind into effect for the protection of farm workers?

Mr. Vane

All hon. Members will pay tribute to our inspectors, who have done a great deal. I said in the House not long ago that we were reorganising the service to some extent and there will be more of our staff who have had training in this work and who will be able to help. Many will be combining this work with other duties, and there will also be a smaller corps of specialists.

Mr. Loughlin

How many does the Minister expect to get?

Mr. Vane

I could not give that figure off the cuff, but we are expanding the service.

I know that this seems to be taking a long time and I knew that some hon. Members would ask why. We have gone into this matter very carefully. This is a very big task and we felt that to carry it through smoothly it would be better to give adequate time. However, I appreciate that it seems a long time and we shall hope to improve upon it.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that there will be no attempt to probe the details, and even though the phraseology of the Regulations may sound peculiar at times, we are anxious that we should have improved safety in agriculture. I shall not make a long speech. I had hoped that we would have had a longer debate on this subject, but, unfortunately, we were rather preoccupied about silage. Silage is very important, but safety is much more important. I hope that my hon. Friends will not be touchy about this.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East) rose

Mr. Peart

I am only saying that safety for the farm worker is more important than subsidies for silage production. I should have thought that in saying that I would have had the support of my own side of the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton) will join me in asking some questions, because he represents the workers' union, and the Regulations are the result of consultations among the various farm organisations and the workers concerned. I regard this as important, much more important than any other aspect of agriculture which we have discussed this evening.

Mr. Loughlin

I know that my hon. Friend's intentions are good, but he must not construe the fact that we have been prepared to debate the subsidy on silage as evidence of any intention to delay this topic so that we could not adequately debate it.

Mr. Peart

I am not saying that. I am just saying that as a matter of priority, I should have preferred a major debate on this topic rather than on that. If my hon. Friends wish to stay longer, I shall be delighted to listen to their contributions. But I regard this as the most important of the agricultural matters which we have discussed this evening. I do not in any way belittle those who are prepared critically to examine the incidence of subsidies. That is the purpose of an Opposition. I am merely saying that the interest of the workers in the industry, which are covered by the 1956 Act, deserve our attention perhaps to an even greater extent.

The powers contained in Section 1 of the Agriculture (Safety, Health and Welfare Provisions) Act, 1956, are of great importance to thousands of agricultural workers. Section 1 provides that Regulations may be made for protecting workers employed in agriculture against risks of bodily injury or injury to health arising out of the use of any machinery, plant, equipment or appliance…. This is a very important Act, and these Regulations made under it are very important. I cannot say too often that I should have thought I would have had 100 per cent. support on my side that this is more important than discussions on silo subsidies.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West will take part in the debate and ask questions. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary mentioned that this covered the sale of field machines. I am under the impression that it covers also the letting and hire for use in agriculture. The hon. Gentleman did not mention this.

Mr. Vane

I mentioned that.

Mr. Peart

I apologise. I am glad that it is clear. Many people hire machines. It is very important that we should have strict safety precautions. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West, who represents many agricultural workers, is as anxious as I am to ensure that the inspectorate service is satisfactory. I want to be certain that the inspectorate service has kept pace with the new legislation and the Regulations made under it. Figures can no doubt be given, but I ask merely for a broad assurance.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Hilton (Norfolk, South-West)

I agree entirely with the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) about the importance of these Regulations. Silo is important, but the safety of the people working in agriculture is of paramount importance. That is why I welcome the proposals contained in the Regulations. Anything designed to minimise the risk of accidents on farms receives my whole-hearted support. In recent years the number of accidents in agriculture has assumed alarming proportions. Nearly 150 people were killed on farms last year. About 50 were killed by tractors overturning. I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate the seriousness of this aspect of farm safety, because I think that some years ago he had the unfortunate experience of having a near-relative— a brother-in-law, I think—killed in a tractor accident.

Mr. Vane indicated assent.

Mr. Hilton

In this connection I wish that the Regulations had gone a little further. I hope that the Minister, in conjunction with the manufacturers, will try to ensure that a safe cab is attached to tractors. I understand that this has been done in some countries and has proved satisfactory. If it could be introduced in this country it would further reduce the number of serious accidents on farms.

It is true, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, that safety in agriculture must be a joint effort between farmers and workers if it is to be successful. It is a fact that many of the safety precautions are plain common sense and have for years applied in industry. I see no reason why farm workers should be exposed to the risks from which factory workers have been protected for many years.

I am all in favour of these proposals. But it is useless to introduce such Regulations as these unless we have an inspectorate capable of ensuring that they are carried out. We have in operation a number of Regulations for safety on farms, but on too many farms they are not being carried out. Too frequently we receive reports that there are no toilet or washing facilities and no first-aid equipment, and that machinery is unsafe and unsuitable; and the reason is that at present there are too few inspectors to ensure that farmers carry out their obligations.

The Minister has recently assured us that it is intended in the near future to increase the number of inspectors. I appeal to him once again to take the matter very seriously. I am sure that it is right in principle that we should have all these safety Regulations, but until we have sufficient inspectors to ensure that they are carried out, they will not be carried out as we all wish so that the number of accidents on farms is reduced.

If I have one complaint about the Regulations, it is that there will be a long delay before the whole of them can be brought into operation. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to ascertain whether it is necessary to wait until 1968, as the Statutory Instrument states, before all machines are controlled. That is a very long while, and in the meantime the lives and limbs of farm workers will be in jeopardy. If the Minister could speedily increase the number of inspectors so that the Regulations could be brought into operation within a year or two, he would earn the gratitude of all farm workers.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

It is good that the Regulations follow an Act introduced by a Conservative Government. When I hear some of the comments made by the Opposition, I am glad to know that that is the case.

We ought to appreciate that the Regulations must be interpreted sensibly. I agree with the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton) that they are very important. But I do not agree with him when he says that there are not enough inspectors or that the inspectors cannot do their job. My personal experience is that they have managed to do their job very well so far.

Mr. Hilton

The Minister himself admitted to me in the House recently that there are insufficient inspectors to carry out this important task. If the Minister admits this, I see no reason why the hon. Member should now say that there are plenty of inspectors, for that is untrue.

Mr. Prior

I do not know the Minister's experience. My experience is that they came to my farm early on and went through it with a toothcomb. Some of the things which the inspector said ought to be carried out were quite unnecessary, quite apart from the fact that they cost me a great deal of money.

One of the troubles about these Regulations is that although the men start by putting on the necessary guard and shield, in farm work there is always a rush against the weather, and when something goes wrong the men of their own accord take all the guards off in order to get the job done more quickly.

Some of these Regulations must be looked at very carefully. My hon. Friend said that there had been full consultation with all the interested parties. The people who know what is unnecessary and what is necessary are the inspectors on the job. It is my feeling—and I have to be careful here—as I have talked with the inspectors on this subject that they are not consulted, and that the consultation goes only as far as the chief inspector and does not get down to the people on the job. Before some of these Regulations are introduced, I hope that the inspectors on the job will be consulted.

I find it difficult to understand one or two of the Regulations. For example, every field machine must have a seat of adequate strength, being either fitted with a backrest, or otherwise so shaped as to protect the worker against slipping from the seat… If anyone has ever slipped from the back of his seat, I shall be surprised, and I regard this provision as being superfluous. The Regulations must be sensible and must be interpreted sensibly. Quite often it is necessary for a machine to be left running. Take balers, for example; when one has a loose bale which has not been tied up by the string, the tractor driver gets down from the baler, leaves the baler running, goes round the back and collects the loose hay, and brings it round to the front and feeds it into the pick-up of the baler. From now on, according to the Regulations, that will be illegal.

Mr. Percy Browne (Torrington)

It will not be illegal. Under Part IV, Regulation 17 (1, b), it is in order.

Mr. Prior

I am afraid that I did not follow the reference. I will take my hon. Friend's word for it.

Mr. Loughlin

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) is wrong.

Mr. Browne

May I read the relevant passage: Provided that if any part of a field machine required to be guarded is not in motion the guard may be removed therefrom by a worker …(b) for carrying out any essential adjustment to such part while it is in motion, being an adjustment which cannot otherwise be carried out.

Mr. Prior

This is not an adjustment; this is part of the working of the machine.

We must interpret these Regulations with a great deal of sense. I am worried that farm workers may get a bit too casual with farm machinery. We do not necessarily guard against accidents by having everything guarded too well, because there are a hundred-and-one ways in which accidents can occur. The most remarkable farm accident I ever came across was where a man was operating a corn elevator. The corn made dust, which made the man sneeze. His false teeth fell out and he grabbed at them in trying to stop them from going up the elevator—and he lost two fingers. That is an example where a guard could operate to the employee's advantage.

Above all, we must keep a sense of proportion about these Regulations. I hope that my hon. Friend will see that the inspectors are consulted—the men who do the job of inspecting day-to-day on the farm. They have treated farmers so far with the utmost respect, kindness and sensibility. I hope that they will continue to do so. I hope that when pressure is brought to bear it will be on the manufacturers. They are the people who need to be watched and on whom the law should operate most strictly. They are the people who should design proper equipment, safe to be used. If the Regulations are to be enforced I hope that they will be the people who will suffer first from them.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

There are two reasons for my short intervention in this debate. One is the public rebuke administered by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) to myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). The other is the contribution just made by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). I consider these Regulations to be of supreme importance to agricultural workers. I am not concerned what Government put into effect Regulations of this kind if the Regulations are designed to give the safeguards to people who are engaged in an industry.

When I made a short intervention in the debate on silos I did so believing—I think correctly—that there is no time restriction tonight and that if I considered it necessary to deal with certain points in that debate it did not mean that I thought this debate any less important. I welcome these Regulations because they make up an agricultural workers' charter which should have been brought in many years ago. If I have any reservations on them it is on two points which I raised with the Parliamentary Secretary before he sat down.

It is not true to say that there are enough inspectors to cover the whole of the farming community in addition to their present commitments. I was a trade union official before I became a Member of this House and I know of the good work done by the inspectorate. My experience of both male and female inspectors was that they were a good body of people seeking to do a job in most difficult circumstances. Whilst it may be relatively easy for a corps of inspectors to carry out periodical inspections of factories in a city like Birmingham, the Parliamentary Secretary must realise that when one is dealing with farms the number of visits per day must be restricted because of the travel time involved. Therefore, the number of inspectors required in the agricultural industry pro rata to the people employed will be far greater than in any other industry.

One reason why I raised this question with the hon. Gentleman was that I wondered what degree of thought had been given to building up the corps of inspectors who will be required within the next two years if these Regulations are to be applied. This matter has not been sprung on the Department in a week and I should have thought that at this stage the hon. Gentleman would have been able to make some assessment of the number of inspectors required year by year to the point when all the provisions come into effect in 1968. Apparently no thought has been given to it. I urge on the Minister the necessity to give very serious thought to this matter, to get on with the job of recognising that the number of inspectors who will be required will be substantial, and to try to enrol the right type of people for the job.

I wish to refer to the time that is to elapse before the full provisions come into effect. The year 1968 is a long way off and these provisions are designed to eliminate accidents in agriculture. It would be a crime if, having recognised the necessity for these Regulations, we were so neglectful of our responsibilities as to condemn a single agricultural worker to the danger of accident merely because we have decided that the provisions should not come into effect before 1968. I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of bringing the date forward.

I now turn to the second reason for my speech. In the speech of the hon. Member for Lowestoft we had the authentic voice of the more backward farmer. He complained that an inspector had been to his farm and that not only did it put him to some personal inconvenience but that it cost him some money. He said "it cost me a great deal of money."

From then onward he reiterated the sort of arguments that were advanced by reactionary employers against the whole of the Factory Acts since the time of Lord Shaftesbury. He is following in the historic footsteps of those who would consider the question of cost before the life and limb of the workers in the industry. [Interruption.] That is true. I ask those hon. Gentlemen who do not agree with the inference that I have drawn from the hon. Member's speech to read closely the report of his speech in the OFFICIAL REPORT. There was a constant reiteration about difficulty in interpretation and application of the Regulations. There was the oft-repeated assertion that the people who were more likely to disregard the Regulations would be the workers themselves. I have heard that sort of argument time and again when I have had to go to employers and tell them that they were not complying with the Factory Acts. They have said, "We see that the guards are on but the workers want to make an extra 2½d. an hour and so they take the guards off."

I want the Minister to resist any attempt by any section of the industry to water down the Regulations solely on the ground that they may be difficult to apply. Of course, they are going to be difficult to apply. In an industry where safety Regulations have been virtually non-existent, obviously it is going to be difficult to get the employers to adjust their minds to the need to apply regulations. I accept that the farmers—who, I understand from the Parliamentary Secretary, have been consulted and have subscribed to the Regulations which we are debating—will do their utmost to ensure that they are applied.

I am not saying that the farming community is any worse than another other community. It is only that element within its ranks so ably represented by the hon. Member for Lowestoft that I fear, and I ask the Minister to ensure that the agitations which may spring from the element to which I have referred within the farming community after the Regulations have been in operation for a short time will not lead to any watering down of the Regulations.

12.6 am

Mr. Percy Browne (Torrington)

I think the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) will find that most farmers will do their best to see that these Regulations are carried out. I know that I shall. I have two men who work on my 100 acres. They have been with me for 14 and 12 years respectively, and I should dislike an accident to happen to either of them.

I want to say a word not about whether the tying up of a baler that has broken [...] an adjustment or not, but about the manufacturers as they come into these new Regulations. I find that the reason why most guards are taken off is because the grease points of machines are often placed in such a position that one needs to be either double-jointed or have a grease gun like a corkscrew to get at them. So off comes the guard, and very often it is not put back. My hon. Friend should ensure that manufacturers work to a standard so that these points for normal repair and maintenance are easily accessible.

It is true that half the accidents are caused by tractors overturning. The tractor's centre of gravity has to be fairly high to go through mud and so on, but there are two points here. First, having seen several accidents, it is my experience that nearly always the tractor involved in the accident has worn tyres, and that the accidents occur mostly when the ground is hard. I think that it would be worth while to write into these Regulations that inspectors have power to ensure that worn tyres are replaced, because this is the main cause of tractors turning over.

Secondly, and I say this with all seriousness, particularly on steep ground it would be a great advantage if some form of anchor could be devised which would be part of the tractor and could be let down in times of crisis. Last week I was baling in a steep field and the tractor almost ran away with me every time I went downhill. There was fortunately a bit of flat ground at the bottom of the hill which enabled me to stop and so avoid going over a precipice. This frequently happens in my part of the country. If the driver applies the brakes, the wheels lock and he goes for a burton.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an exciting reminiscence and immensely interesting, but we cannot amend the Regulations by adding to them. We can either approve them, or not.

Mr. Browne

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, but I hope that the point has been taken.

Finally on the question of tractors, I hope that manufacturers will be encouraged to ensure that the guard for the power take-off on the back of a tractor can be easily removed and replaced. At the moment one has to fiddle about with three screws, and the guard rarely fits once it has been removed.

12.9 a.m.

Mr. Peart

May I, with the leave of the House, say a few words before the Minister replies?

I must say this publicly, because my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) mentioned it. I in no way intended a public rebuke for his contribution to the debate on the Silo Scheme. I merely said that I thought we had spent rather a long time on silos and I was concerned that we would not spend enough time on agricultural safety. I am glad that I provoked my hon. Friend into making a contribution and I hope he will not be too sensitive. After all, we are all anxious to have safety.

I welcome the Regulations and I am glad that my hon. Friend, who represents an agricultural workers' union, put his case. Let us be frank, discussions after midnight do not get the same Press and publicity as earlier debates. I was anxious that a full discussion of this matter should take, place and I assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that my hon. Friends and I support the Regulations most strongly.

12.10 a.m.

Mr. Vane

Although we cannot prevent every accident by legislation, we are undoubtedly doing something worth while tonight. We need the co-operation of all concerned because we want to build up a healthy respect for the system of safety and our inspectors will do their work, not only in a police sense, but with a sense of education. It will take time, but I am sure that this is the right step. Regarding the number of inspectors, hon. Members will recall that when I spoke on this point I said that we had in mind an expansion of the number of inspectors and I do not think that any hon. Member will have cause for complaint about there being too few inspectors to do the job. As I said, there is a great deal of reorganisation going on and that will mean that all our officials, as well as others, will be fully trained in their duties.

Mr. Willis

When the Joint Parliamentary Secretary talks about the inspectors being trained and the other plans, does that include Scotland? Does everything he is saying apply to Scotland?

Mr. Vane

I am speaking broadly. I have England and Wales particularly in mind, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland confirms that the same is happening in Scotland.

Regarding the time lag, I realised that the time we put in would invite criticism but, having considered the matter, I realised that there was no point in puting in a time we could not achieve. There is no reason why we should not make fast progress, but it must be genuine progress. Remember, this is the tenth of a series and while it may be possible to improve matters in this connection, we shall have to see how things go as time passes.

As to the problem of overturning tractors, this is indeed a subject on which I have special feelings. It is the cause of more fatal accidents than any other and it is true that one other country has special regulations. I can assure the House that we are in close touch with all the organisations concerned, the farm workers, farmers, manufacturers, and so on, to see whether we can gain anything by designing a Regulation. However, we must not jump too readily to the conclusion that the conditions in other countries are so similar to our own that the same Regulations could be operated and the same benefits derived. I knew that the Regulations under discussion would receive a general welcome and I am glad that that has been confirmed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Agriculture (Field Machinery) Regulations, 1962, a draft of which was laid before this House on 31st May, be approved.