HC Deb 03 August 1972 vol 842 cc1001-6 In section 10(3) of the Agriculture (Safety, Health and Welfare Provisions) Act 1956, for the words 'An inspector shall have power to do' there shall be substituted 'The duties of an inspector appointed under this section shall be confined to', and in section 3(3) of the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act 1952 for the words 'An inspector appointed under this Act shall have power to do' shall be substituted 'The duties of an inspector appointed under this section shall be confined to.'.—[Mr. Buchan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I beg to move—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am afraid the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Con- cannon) cannot move that the Clause be read a Second time since his name is not appended to the names which appear on the Amendment Paper.

Mr. Buchan

I formally beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that it will be convenient also to deal with Amendment No. 53, in the Title, line 11, leave out 'increase the penalties under' and insert 'amend'.

Mr. Concannon

We do not wish to prolong this debate. In the time which has elapsed between Committee and Report there have been many to-ings and fro-ings between the usual channels, and also in the meantime we have received the Report by the Robens Committee on Safety and Health at Work. If the Minister could give an indication that the principles lying behind the new Clause and Amendment No. 53 will be contained in future legislation or will be considered in future discussions, I think perhaps we might be prevailed upon to withdraw the new Clause and Amendment No. 53 which goes with it.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Mills)

In moving the Clause so quickly hon. Members opposite have given us time to say a few things about farm safety, a subject about which we all feel strongly. I well remember the speech made by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) in Committee; he obviously knows a considerable amount about safety matters in general, and certainly seems to know something about farm safety, too.

I must point out that the Clause as drafted could prove something of a boomerang. Far from securing a separate safety inspectorate, it might deprive inspectors, however organised, of the enforcement powers which they need. I know that neither side of the House seeks to bring about such a situation. For that reason alone I shall seek to urge hon. Members opposite to withdraw the Clause.

Several arguments have been put forward over the past weeks and months for a separate inspectorate. However, I do not think there is a case for it. If we look at the statistics we see that the non-fatal figure dropped from 14,000 in 1958–59 to fewer than 7,000 last year. On that front there is some improvement, despite the fact that there is a great increase in mechanisation and a decline in the number of farm workers. The fatality figures show a rather different picture. The figure is still about 100 a year, so there is no room for complacency. I know only too well, coming from the South-West, where there are hills and difficult fields to deal with, that the number of accidents is a serious and sad business.

Regarding prosecutions, there is nothing in the figures to warrant criticism of the Agricultural Departments' stewardship of their farm safety responsibilities under successive Administrations. There were 207 successful prosecutions for contraventions of the regulations in 1971. So enforcement standards are not being, and will not be, relaxed.

This brings me to the key implication of the Clause: that safety would be en- hanced if we had a full-time inspectorate engaged exclusively on safety enforcement. Like the previous Administration, I question this view.

As the House probably knows, we have 40 full-time safety specialists and about 400 inspectors who are the general purpose field officers engaged for about a third of their time on safety duties for which they have been specially trained. They are not amateurs; they are trained in this sphere. The 12 wages and safety inspectors in Scotland, nine of whom are in the field, similarly spend about a third of their time on farm safety matters.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite claim that the interests of farm safety would be better served by a separate safety inspectorate. Without prejudice to any action which may be taken on the recently published Robens Report on Safety and Health at Work, it is only right that I should put forward the other side of the argument.

First, if we had these specialists there would be fewer safety inspectors. I do not think that would be a good thing, realising that agriculture is so widely spread that it would be difficult if there were fewer safety inspectors. In these circumstances relations with farmers and workers, which are very important, would be more formal and the special relationship and spirit of co-operation which has grown up between most farmers and their local inspectors could be destroyed.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Will my hon. Friend address himself to the point that financial support, albeit minimal, is being withdrawn from the voluntary advisory committees? Is he aware that there is a great deal of unhappiness that that support has been withdrawn? Will he assure the House and the people concerned that the Government still support the good voluntary work that is done?

Mr. Mills

I have heard about this problem. We have withdrawn only secretarial assistance. Our safety inspectors and the committees are still there, and we are watching what is happening under the new arrangements.

I hope that this special relationship which has been built up between the farmers and the inspectors will never be destroyed. I know how important it is. These people know the farms. They go on to the farms to look at other things and can point out to a farmer in a pleasant way that something is wrong with his tractor or power take-off shaft or something like that. Therefore, it would be unfortunate if this relationship were destroyed.

Some farms which do not have regular workers are largely outside the scope of the regulations. These farms are by no means immune from accidents. The present organisation gives our field officers an opportunity to advise on safety when visiting these farms for other purposes.

I turn now to the Robens Report and its possible effects. It is interesting to see that the Committee says: As we have seen, inspection of provisions for the safety and health of workers in agriculture presents problems of organisation arising from the fact that farming units are small, numerous and very widely scattered. This means it is entirely different from a factory or anything else, and we must accept that. We think that the new Authority should be responsible for administering farm safety legislation and that all full time agricultural safety personnel should be brought within the unified inspectorate. The general run of safety supervision visits to farms should continue to be undertaken by the field officers of the Agriculture Departments acting for this part of their work as agents of the Authority. 5.45 p.m.

In other words, the Robens Committee evidently believes that the front line duties of an agricultural safety inspector are best performed under arrangements of the kind which now prevail. This is important. One may disagree with parts of the Robent Committee Report, but it is important that this front line work with this special relationship which exists between the inspectors, because of their other duties, and the farmers should continue to prevail. Lord Robens backs this up.

I am sure the House would agree that, pending the outcome of the Government's consideration of the Robens Report, it would be unfortunate for the agricultural safety legislation to be amended in such a way as to negate one of its recommendations. For that good reason, not only because of the drafting, I invite hon. Gentlemen opposite to withdraw the Motion.

Mr. Buchan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. We are in general agreement with his conclusion. However, in view of his special responsibilities and the difficult history of this matter, I would ask him to press the Government to make sure that we have an early decision on the Robens Committee Report.

In these circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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