HC Deb 25 February 1965 vol 707 cc775-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ifor Davies.]

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

I crave the indulgence of the House on this the occasion of my maiden speech. I am deeply conscious of the inadequacy of my expression, which springs from a feeling of overwhelming nervousness, and for this I apologise to the House.

My constituency of Neath is in South Wales. It is a place where one finds many sharp and vivid contrasts. On the one hand, there are within its boundaries great industrial undertakings which make a vital contribution to the country's economy, for instance, coal mining, steel making, oil refining and light industry. Alongside this industrial activity, there is much scenic beauty in the valleys which comprise the constituency, a beauty which, over the past few years, has been greatly enhanced by the operations of the Forestry Commission.

It is also a place where one finds many reminders of our country's past history, for in the Borough of Neath itself there is much evidence showing that Neath was a place of considerable importance in Roman and Norman times, and, just outside, we have preserved for us as a result of the preservation work of the Ministry of Public Building and Works evidence that the area was a centre of considerable activity in the early Church in these islands.

The interest of the people of Neath in cultural matters is very marked. There are few constituencies which could claim that, operating and functioning regularly, there were six amateur operatic societies, a considerable number of choral and dramatic societies, and—I see that there are several of my Welsh colleagues present—considerable interest in the Eisteddfod.

I am proud to be the Parliamentary representative of such a constituency, which, for 19 years, has been represented by one who earned considerable respect both inside the House and outside for his quiet wisdom and his sincerity of purpose, a man who, we are all happy to see, is making a good recovery after the unfortunate accident which he sustained in his home. I refer, of course, to Mr. David Williams.

Although I have spoken of the beauty, the historical associations and the cultural life of my constituency, it is to its industrial affairs that I wish to apply myself in the short time available to me, directing the attention of the House in particular to the problem of accident prevention in industry. This is a subject of great interest to the people of Neath who earn their livelihood in the industries there.

If an examination is made of the reports of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Factories and of the Ministry of Labour, one finds that an unsatisfactory comparison occurs between the time lost to industry through industrial disputes and that lost through industrial injuries. Unfortunately, strikes and lock-outs make the newspaper headlines, whereas accidents do not usually do so. I once heard a definition of an industrial accident as being an unexpected contact with interference with the work activity of a workman. Such interference is something which should not be tolerated in a modern industrial society, especially as most of these accidents can be avoided, as it is a waste of valuable productive effort.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is, I know, well aware of the continuing rise in the number of injuries sustained, and this is also the case with many industrial and trade union leaders who have a great concern with the problem, for they see that an industry which has a high incidence of accidents is not an efficient industry. The extent of the problem is often worse than that shown from sources from which we get the figures showing the accident rate, for these figures do not show the alarming increase in the incidence of minor injuries which are only minor because of the intervention of good fortune.

I have said that most of these accidents could be prevented and the wastage of productive effort avoided. This has been found by those industries, such as steel, coal mining, oil refining and others, which place the highest importance upon accident prevention and in which it is understood both by employer and employed alike. I am sure that, in these industries, this consciousness of the need for accident prevention will show, with the passage of time, a considerable improvement in the safety performance.

However, it is among the smaller firms that one comes across failure to appreciate the full importance of efficient accident prevention and where there is a lack of conviction on the part of employer and employee that safe working is in everyone's interest. The factory regulations lay down that, where a firm employs 20 or more persons, a safety supervisor must be employed, but it is the experience of many of us who sit as magistrates and who have to listen to prosecutions brought by Her Majesty's Inspector of Factories against employers because some factory regulation or other has not been complied with, that the supervisor is usually a man who has other responsibilities and regards his responsibility for the safety performance of his men as not having quite the same degree of importance as some of his other duties. Because of this, he fails to inspire in his men a conviction of the importance to them, to their families and to the country, of adopting safe working procedure.

Accident prevention is a human problem. It is a question of getting the right attitude and motivation towards it. It is not a job which can really be left to someone to do as a part-time occupation and this, of course, has been recognised by some of our larger industrial concerns. Here I would like to pay particular tribute to the firm of which I was an employee before entering this House—the Steel Company of Wales, which has placed a very high importance upon the need for efficient accident prevention and a high safety performance.

This need for a concentration upon this performance in safety is becoming all the more important as we note the increase in the use of mechanisation. At present, there are excellent short courses which are arranged and from which benefit is derived. There is also the Institute of Industrial Safety Officers, which has 1,200 to 1,300 members. Through its membership, it offers a yardstick of efficiency in accident prevention. However, there are 2,000 safety officers in industry who could well be in possession of such a qualification. Unfortunately, no prescribed course is available to any man who wishes to attain a qualification through the Institute. If he wishes to do so, he is left to his own devices, to work out his own salvation.

I hope that consideration will be given to the possibility of establishing something like sandwich courses at some of our colleges of technology, which would certainly assist in promoting the preparation of people to obtain this qualification. If we are to advance the new techniques in industry and introduce new methods of production, we must pay a higher regard to the task of preventing industrial accidents, and we must see to it that there are men and women who are trained am properly qualified to do this work. We do not employ a man, when we employ him to do a job, to pay partly for the job by spilling his blood. I regard the prevention of accidents in industry as one of the most important problems we have to overcome in a modern industrial society.

I thank the House for the indulgence and consideration which have been shown me this evening.

11.43 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ernest Thornton)

I should like, first, to offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman) on his maiden speech. I know, as we all do, what an ordeal a maiden speech is, and doubtless my hon. Friend is feeling very much more comfortable now that he has got over it.

I congratulate him on the pleasing manner in which he addressed the House, the very great clarity with which he spoke and the obvious sincerity which underlay his remarks about this very important subject. I assure him that he has emerged from it with very great credit, and that the feelings of diffidence which he disclosed to the House were hardly necessary. I am sure that we can all look forward with confidence and pleasure to his further contributions to our deliberations.

In electing to make his first speech on industrial accident prevention, my hon. Friend has chosen a subject of outstanding importance, and I welcome the opportunity tonight to say something on this very important topic. My hon. Friend commented on the serious concern which has been caused by the continuing rise in the figures of reported accidents. I want to take this opportunity to endorse most strongly what he has said and I assure him that my right hon. Friend is very deeply concerned about the accident situation in industry. I assure the House that my right hon. Friend regards these rising figures as something which we as a nation cannot afford, either on humanitarian or on economic grounds.

My hon. Friend has, quite rightly, referred to how strikes, official and unofficial, capture the headlines and how accidents in industry, usually because they occur in isolation, get little publicity. He quite rightly called attention to the fact that the loss, caused by accidents, to the economic wealth of the country in production far exceeds the loss from industrial disputes, whether unofficial or official.

This morning, the provisional figures of reported accidents for the fourth quarter of 1964 were published in the Ministry of Labour Gazette. For the final figures for 1964, we shall have to wait until the April issue of the Gazette. By adding the figures for the fourth quarter to those of the first three quarters of 1964, however, we get a rough total for the year.

What we get is a staggering figure of more than 268,000 reported accidents. This is the first time since the war that the total has exceeded the quarter-million mark. The figure of 268,000 represents an increase of more than 31 per cent. on the 1963 figure, which itself was a very high figure on a curve which has been rising almost continuously since 1958. The long-term trend of fatal accidents, however, has been a slowly falling one, but the provisional figures for 1964 are slightly up on 1963 and may well be even higher when final information is available.

There was, however, a special reason for that. The severe weather at the beginning of 1963, which brought some work to a virtual standstill, kept down the number of fatalities. On the other hand, the provisional figure for 1964, at 637, is 4½ per cent. less than that for 1962, when the number of fatal accidents was 668.

Taken at their face value, the total of 268,000 accidents represents a very grim picture. There are, of course, certain factors which must be taken into account when interpreting them as a measure of industrial safety. Among the most important of these factors is the proportion of reportable accidents which are, in fact, reported. The two surveys on the reporting of accidents, which were carried out in October, 1962, and in April, 1964, suggest that this proportion was higher in 1964 than in 1963.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

May I bring two important facts to my hon. Friend's attention? One of them was mentioned in the admirable speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman) and the other is the statement made by Lord Robens, only a few days ago. The point I wish to make is that in the nationalised industries, under nationalisation, the fall in fatal accidents has been most dramatic and that last year Lord Robens was able to announce that the number of miners slain in getting coal had dropped every year and last year was the lowest.

In his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath also drew particular attention to and complimented the firm with whom he had been employed—the Steel Company of Wales—for its attitude to industrial injury. I believe—and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to go on for so long—that if examples like that are given the publicity which they deserve, other parts of industry might try to achieve similar results.

Mr. Thornton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I am apprised of it, and I welcome it, but I must get on, because I have some observations to make on the accident problem.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to say how much higher the total of reportable accidents will be for the year 1964 as a whole compared with 1963. However, we are now considering, as a matter of urgency, the best way of obtaining continuous information about reporting standards, and when this is available it will be possible to measure the effect of the reporting factor, because this is important in making a correct assessment of the incidence of accidents.

The next point which must be taken into account is the increase in the number of people at work, and, therefore, the number of people at risk, and the increase in the number of hours which these persons worked. There are other factors, too, but we have to recognise that when all these are taken into consideration they do not explain fully the serious rise that has taken place in recent years, and it is unlikely that their cumulative effect is an adequate explanation of what has, unfortunately, happened.

The conclusion that there has been a real and substantial rise in the incidence of accidents seems, I am afraid, quite inescapable. This is an intolerable situation. It is one of which all of us, Government, employers, workers, and the public, ought to be ashamed. A sense of shame is often a prerequisite for reform, and it is reform that we need—a new spirit of determination throughout industry to stop the human suffering and waste of our scarce manpower resources which these appalling accident figures represent.

If any words spoken in the House tonight can help to arouse remorse and a determination to do better in future, they will have been well worth saying.

I have no doubt that many people will say, "That is all very well, but what are the Government doing about it?" The Government accept that they have a heavy responsibility in this matter, and they will not shirk it. But I want to say, with all the emphasis that I can, that the main responsibility for the continuing high toll of life and limb seems to rest with those who are engaged in industry, on both sides.

My hon. Friend rightly said that most of the accidents which occur in industry could he prevented. He is right about that, of course. About two-thirds of reported accidents come within the category of the notorious "Big Five", that is accidents which are due to various kinds of human failure—among them failure to behave with care and common sense. I think that we must appreciate that accidents of this kind cannot easily be reached by legislation, or prevented by factory inspectors. They can, however, be prevented if management and workers develop an active safety consciousness.

That does not mean merely a verbal acceptance of safety as a good thing, but an ingrained operating belief which really influences people's behaviour. In many firms this attitude is already understood, and very good results have followed. An example of this is the coal mining industry, to which my hon. Friend referred. The biggest responsibility rests, of course, with managements. There is no avoiding that situation, and it is the employer upon whom rests most of the obligations imposed by the Factories Act.

In cases which the law does not and cannot reach it is management which sets the safety tone of the establishment. But the workers, let us not forget, have their responsibility, too. Without their co-operation in such matters as the use of guards, protective clothing and the exercise of reasonable care, the efforts of management are bound, to a greater or lesser degree, to be frustrated. I therefore most earnestly appeal to all those engaged in industry to take a fresh look at this whole question of safety; to re-examine their attitudes and their performance, and to see whether they can say, in all honesty, that what they are doing on safety is enough.

We in the Government will continue to do all we can—and it is a great deal—to help industry to move in the right direction. Though there are limits to what can be achieved by legal provisions, the Factories Act and the regulations made under it will continue to be of great importance. Where new provisions are shown to be necessary, or old ones are out of date, we shall take the necessary action. We shall continue to develop our advisory and propaganda work in this important field.

In particular, we intend to intensify the pressure which, with the full backing of the B.E.C. and the T.U.C., we have been exerting on industry with a view to the development of better safety organisation and practice. We are also very conscious that our knowledge of the factors which underlie the continued rise in the figures needs to be improved, and this is a matter on which the Chief Inspector of Factories is to mount a special inquiry by selected members of his staff.

The time at my disposal does not permit me to go into any detail about past Government action and future plans, but I must, however, refer to the specific question about safety supervisors which my hon. Friend brought to the attention of the House, a very important point on which I wish to comment. I can agree with the thought which lies behind much of what he has said, but there are one or two qualifications which ought to be expressed in making this general endorsement of his remarks.

In the first place, I think he may, unwittingly, have given the House the impression that all establishments covered by the Factories Act, in which more than 20 people are employed, are required to have a safety supervisor. This is not so. Requirements of this nature only apply in certain industries and processes, such as construction, ionising radiation and pottery, where very special problems arise.

In general, the view which has been taken is that, although the employment of safety officers in appropriate cases is very desirable and should be encouraged, the development of the practice should be on a voluntary basis. Again, while I entirely agree that the safety officer should be given proper time to devote to his safety duties, it is not always practicable, and may even be wrong in some cases, to insist upon a full-time appointment.

Finally, to make a more general comment, my hon. Friend's remarks left me with the impression that where there was a full-time, well-qualified safety officer the main safety problems were solved. This is not so. I would draw the attention of the House to two things. First, we should never forget that it is the employer, and not the safety officer, who is responsible for compliance with the Factories Act and regulations. Secondly, that no safety officer, however well qualified he is, can be expected to get very far unless he receives the full support of top management. This is quite crucial for any safety effort in any establishment.

It has been very useful to ventilate this important question of industrial accidents, and I hope that what has been said tonight by hon. Members and myself will make a contribution to the solution of the problem and will meet with an adequate response. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity tonight of making these observations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.