HC Deb 21 July 1970 vol 804 cc449-57

2.23 a.m.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth, Central)

This is a late hour, but this is a subject of national importance. I wish to speak on the valuable work done by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Its work covers safety on the roads, in the home and industry. Ever-increasing numbers of industrial accidents are taking place, with work people being killed or seriously injured as a result, so it is right that this House should discuss this subject.

Recently the President of RoSPA said: There are bound to be more things that R.o.S.P.A. can do in this field and, indeed, other things are planned. But it should be a very sobering thought to managing directors that, with the means already available, they could probably halve the accident rates in their factories by a continuous, genuine and intelligent display of personal concern. In 1968—the last year for which I have been able to obtain figures—625 people were killed as a result of industrial accidents, compared with 564 killed in 1967. In 1968, 312,430 people suffered industrial injuries, compared with 304,016 in 1967. This is an indication of the ever-increasing problem we face with industrial accidents and why we must do everything possible to reduce these figures.

The Vote to which I am speaking is for a sum of £14,090 and the revised provision is for £14,100, a very small increase and one which I do not relish with great enthusiasm because it is far too small for the important work for which the Society is responsible.

Already, in the life of this Parliament, hon. Members have been asking Questions about industrial safety and Government action on the subject. Yesterday the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) asked what assistance the Minister of Public Building and Works was giving to publicise methods of preventing accidents in the construction industry. In this connection, in his Annual Report, the Chief Inspector of Factories comments: There were 238 fatal accidents"— on construction sites— during 1968, an increase of 20 per cent. This was particularly disappointing since in 1967 the number of fatalities had fallen below 200 for the first time in 10 years. Some of my hon. Friends put their names to Motion No. 11 which appears on the Notice Order Paper. Headed "Safety for Industrial Workers," it refers to a statement made by the Director General of the British Safety Council, who said that there were nearly 23½ million working days lost in 1968 as a result of industrial accidents, compared with less than 5 million lost through industrial disputes.

In my maiden speech I spoke of industrial relations. I have never minimised the importance that we must place on improving relations and in finding ways to solve industrial disputes. I hope that we will not minimise the importance of trying to reduce the number of days lost through industrial accidents. When one considers the cost involved in days lost through accidents, one realises why this number must be reduced. It has been estimated that in one working day, about 75,000 people are off work because of some various sorts of industrial accidents. The sum of £43 million was paid out for National Health Service treatment to people who had suffered industrial accidents—this at a time when my right hon. and hon. Friends have been commenting on the need to develop the N.H.S., and at the very time when there are many demands on our financial resources to tackle some of our social issues. We pay out this sum of money because of industrial accidents. I have discovered that about £40 million a year is paid out by insurance companies to people who have had accidents at work. The total cost with the loss of production and the cost to the N.H.S. is well over £200 million a year.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, because the subject is so narrowly drawn that it would be difficult to keep within its confines, but I hope that he will keep more closely to the Vote in question than he has been doing.

Mr. Cox

I sought advice on the matter because of the very point you have made, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and was told that provided I gave the details of the reasons why I believed that the Vote should be increased I should be in order. That is what I have tried to do.

The work undertaken by the Royal Society in this field should be encouraged. There are exhibitions, leaflets, displays and conferences which bring to the notice of both workers and management its important rôle. This is why I believe more money should be allocated by the Government to its work, for while management may suffer from accidents at work, in that production may have to stop, this bears no relation to the suffering often experienced by the worker involved and his family.

We can equate with the problem of industrial safety the fact that when industrial accidents take place there is often a tendency for industrial disputes to follow. A group of workers may argue that there were not sufficient safety provisions. About 30 to 40 per cent. of industrial disputes occur because of working conditions. This is another reason why industrial safety is so important.

So far as I have been able to discover, very little money is spent in this country on trying to find out the reasons for industrial accidents. Because of the respect that the Royal Society commands from both workers and management it is just the body that should be entrusted with research into why industrial accidents are on the increase in this country. Such work cannot take place unless there is adequate money to support it. I have not been able to discover the total spent in this country on industrial safety, but the total expenditure of the Royal Society on industrial safety in 1968 was £203,679, a small sum when we consider the very responsible work that it undertakes.

Many hon. Members may say that it is all right for me to talk in this vein, but that there are many other services needing money, and they may ask, "Where are we to obtain it?"

The Industrial Injuries Fund, I understand, has a balance of £300 million and interest on it amounts to something over £15 million a year. Is it not possible for a small percentage of the assets of the Fund to be given to organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents? I hope that the Minister will be in no doubt that many hon. Members on this side of the House do not intend to see the carnage of lives and injury to workers continue as in recent years. We support the Society and hope to hear not only that the Government support it but that they intend to give it a much greater degree of financial support for the work that it does.

2.36 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. Dudley Smith)

Apart from his closing words, I thought the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) approached this subject with moderation and good sense. When I first heard that he had chosen this subject for debate tonight, I thought that I might have the opportunity of congratulating him on his maiden speech, but, as he has reminded us, he has already made that in this Parliament on the subject of industrial relations. I find myself in the position of making a maiden venture, because this is my first appearance at this Dispatch Box, although I have had the experience of speaking from the Dispatch Box opposite.

This is an important subject. As the hon. Member has told us, the work of the Society is well known. It covers a very wide field, particularly with road safety, and accidents in the home, as well as with safety in industry which the hon. Member has raised tonight.

Of the Society's annual budget of approximately £¾ million, its Industrial Division, which is concerned with industrial accident prevention, accounts for something of the order of £200,000—considerably less than one-third. I mention these facts to put the Industrial Division, which is what we are concerned with, in its proper context. Let me make quite clear that the work of the Society's Industrial Division has always been highly valued by the Department of Employment and Productivity and, before that, by the Ministry of Labour. It has at heart many of the matters which are the concern of the Factory Inspectorate and there is a long record of close and fruitful association between the Inspectorate and the Society.

Among the main functions of the Industrial Division, are the provision of safety training courses—not only for safety officers but for various specialised groups such as power press workers, supervisors, fork-lift truck drivers, and more generally for young persons—and the publication of advisory literature posters and other propaganda material. This is a valuable service to industry for which industry, quite reasonably in my view, pays, and should be expected to pay. There are 3,000 companies in membership of the Society and these cover over 6,000 factories and commercial establishments. The member firms pay subscriptions which vary according to their size. In addition, the Society has developed local accident prevention groups of which there are about 70 up and down the country and it promotes an annual conference.

The D.E.P. Factory Inspectorate co-operates closely over many of these activities. The Chief Inspector and other members of the Department attend the annual conference and make contributions. Our Deputy Chief Inspector is a member of the National Industrial Safety Committee which is the guiding body of the Industrial Division. The Inspectorate gives help with lectures on training courses for safety officers and others, and inspectors also take a limited part in the activities of local groups.

It would clearly be wrong to judge the contribution that my Department makes to RoSPA merely by the size of the grant we make. The various activities that I have mentioned all represent Inspectorate time and, therefore, an effective charge on the Department, and it is help which the Inspectorate is glad to give as part of its general work.

The grant which RoSPA receives from the Department has been limited to a contribution towards expenditure on the regional organisation of the Society. This regional organisation was set up five years ago, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, and the grant for 1970–71 amounts to 50 per cent. of the Society's expenditure with a maximum of £14,000 from the Department. I do not know if the hon. Gentleman knows, but it is a fact that the Society has a wish to become self-supporting. This was the idea right from the outset when the original agreement was made in 1965. It is a very laudable ambition that the Society has. The Department has guaranteed to help the Society over its initial period. That is what we are doing at present. The main contribution of the regional organisers is to make provision for safety training courses of a type not otherwise available. This is certainly work which we want to encourage.

No one would deny that the persistently high number of accidents in industry today is a matter for considerable concern. The hon. Gentleman referred to this as a problem of increasing intensity. While there is plenty of room for argument as to exactly what the figures mean, we all need to remind ourselves constantly that it is a problem which needs to be tackled vigorously. At the same time, we must remember that the all-in figure includes a range from fatalities, the number of which must not be under-estimated, to serious injuries causing incapacity for life, to minor bruises, scratches, strains and sprains.

The criterion for reportability, which was fixed as long ago as 1924, is three days' absence from work. As the Chief Inspector of Factories pointed out in his Report for 1967— The three-day criterion no longer has the same meaning it had in the days of high unemployment, before the Welfare State when workers were under great pressure to return to their jobs before they were fit. The hon. Gentleman quoted a number of interesting figures about accident totals in Britain. It is estimated that in premises which are subject to the Factories Act there are between 9 million and 12 million accidents every year. Roughly 322,000 of those, or 2½ per cent., were at the last count ones which could be described as reportable accidents because they caused disablement of the individual for more than three days. Of those 322,000, over one-half were comparatively minor.

The increase in the figures can be explained, certainly in part, by the fact that there are more short-term absences from work. Those who are affected have less to lose. There is also more conscientious reporting of accidents by employers. Accidents are more easily detected. They are more easily listed than they were even a few years ago.

Statistics are very useful, but as in so many spheres they can be misleading. The Chief Inspector of Factories, who is a reasonably impartial witness on this subject, said this in his Report for 1968: I do not wish to repeat the arguments I put forward last year against the use of gross totals of accidents reported to the Inspectorate as an index of safety performance; changing social conditions over the years have altered the meaning of the three-day absence criterion of reportability. This is vividly illustrated by the mining industry, where the fatality rate has been reduced since 1947 by two-thirds, and the incidence rate of certain classes of serious accident by one-third: during the same period the number of accidents causing disablement for more than three days has risen by over 70 per cent. That indicates, although it is not entirely comparable with the rest of industry, that the overall total can rise while the number of the more serious consequences of accidents can go down. Nevertheless, we are all agreed that there are too many accidents of all kinds, and a great deal of the effort of what is in reality a modern and sophisticated Factory Inspectorate is directed precisely to this problem.

I emphasise that there is no simple solution to the problem, just as there is no single or straightforward cause of accidents in any sphere of life. It is a human problem, which is complicated by technology, by modern industry and by the needs of modern life. Sometimes, it is diverse and relatively obstruse where technical problems are involved.

The striking thing is that a vast number of accidents are often caused by simple faults of carelessness. Things are left where people can fall over them or where they can fall on people. We can all be guilty in this respect. One can fence in a machine, but one cannot stop a man from spilling oil near to it so that somebody slips up. One can preach to the individual to take care, but familiarity breeds contempt and over a period he may get away with it and ultimately, alas, suffer disastrous results when things go wrong.

In this whole problem, education is paramount. It is, therefore, extremely important that societies like RoSPA should do all they can, and the Department of Employment and Productivity should do all that it can, to educate those who work in industry, both management and employee, to take far more seriously the whole problem of safety and protection of the individual.

The day-to-day work of our inspectors in the field is supplemented and guided by the consultations which take place all the time with industry about handling of particular problems and about a realistic approach to safety matters. Joint standing committees, on which both sides of industry are represented, tackle problems in particular areas and on more general matters. There are frequent consultations, as I am sure the hon. Member knows, with the C.B.I., the T.U.C. and the nationalised industries under the aegis of the Industrial Safety Council.

One might ask what is the right approach to safety matters. We are, naturally, awaiting with great interest the report of the Committee on Safety and Health at Work under the chairmanship of Lord Robens. It was the view of the last Administration that the time had come for a thorough and wide-ranging inquiry to look at the function of legislation in this field, and I agree with the views advanced at that time. The part played by voluntary bodies and the various Government enforcement agencies certainly comes into account in this respect.

The House will be pleased to learn that the Committee has already started its work. There must, naturally, be a little time before it completes its difficult and fairly complicated assignment. It is certainly not lacking in drive and enthusiasm. I know that Lord Robens is particularly keen that he should do a good job on this project. I have no doubt that there will be very useful results from the exercise, which the Government will wish to consider closely. I expect that the rôle of such bodies as ROSPA and their relationship with Government organisations and industry will come under scrutiny in the Committee's review, but there is no need for them to be afraid of that.

The hon. Member suggested towards the end of his speech that the Industrial Injury Fund should be called upon to make a contribution to help RoSPA I am clear that this would not be right. The disposal of the Industrial Injury Fund is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security and the purpose of the fund is to meet the future costs of disablement pensions. The question of accident prevention, however, is very much one for my Department, and I have tried in these few remarks to indicate some of the ways in which the problem is being tackled.

It is a matter for the Department and for the Factory Inspectorate, but, above all, it is a matter for industry itself, both employers and employees. I am sure that it would be wrong to regard the amount of direct Government help, even to so worth while a body as RoSPA, as being of more than marginal significance in the vital battle to cut down the number of accidents in industry.

The hon. Gentleman, even at this unearthly hour of the morning, has done a service by raising this subject, a subject on which none of us can be complacent, and he has, I am sure encouraged both RoSPA and the Department to do all we can to achieve the right type of co-operation. We are not complacent about industrial safety. We try, as, I am sure, successive Governments have tried, to be realistic in the matter. It is a most important human problem, and I hope and expect that there will be valuable progress made in the coming years.