HC Deb 19 July 1972 vol 841 cc618-24
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

The report of the Committee on Safety and Health at Work has been published today and copies are available in the Vote Office. I should like to express the Government's gratitude to Lord Robens and his Committee for their careful examination of this difficult subject.

The report recommends the unification within a single comprehensive framework of legislation of the main Statutes bearing on safety and health at work and certain aspects of the protection of the public, and also the establishment under my broad policy direction of a national Safety and Health Authority to replace the present range of separate administrative arrangements. The main central inspectorates enforcing the present legislation would be brought together within the Authority, and protection would be extended to almost all people at work.

These and other recommendations are designed to create a framework within which employers and work-people jointly can achieve a more self-regulating system for securing safety and health at work, in which the inspectorates can be used more effectively in assisting employers and work-people as well as concentrating more effectively on particular serious problems, and in which statutory regulations can be kept as simple and up-to-date as possible.

The recommendations are far-reaching and the report will obviously require careful study by all concerned, both inside and outside Government. Nevertheless, the Government are convinced that reform is now a matter of considerable urgency in an area of such great importance to all employees, and it is their intention to take early action towards achieving the broad objectives of the report. I am therefore giving urgent consideration to the specific recommendations of the Committee. In the first place there will be consultation with the CBI, TUC, local authorities and others concerned about how best to achieve these broad objectives. I hope this preliminary consultation will be completed by the autumn so that intensive work can then begin on the preparation of a Bill.

Mr. Prentice

The House will need time to study these recommendations in detail, but it is clear that Lord Robens and his colleagues have produced a major report on this matter of very great value. My own first reaction to what I know of the proposals so far is that they are likely to command very wide support.

I welcome that part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement in which he said he recognised that reform is now a matter of urgency. Would he agree that this urgency is underlined by the continued disgracefully high figures for industrial accidents and confirm that the 1971 figure was over 268,000 notified accidents? I believe it was a little lower than the figure for the preceding year, but it is a good deal higher than it was a decade earlier, and it is a figure which represents a great deal of human suffering and an enormous loss of productive time far in excess of time lost in industrial disputes. Would the right hon. Gentleman also agree that the urgency of the matter is also evidenced by the fact that we are now facing new hazards due to new industrial processes as illustrated, for example, by the poisoning at Avon mouth, and that there are other risks which may be occurring for work-people in the period ahead and that, therefore, there is need for a system by which the new risks can be identified and controlled quickly?

As to consultation, I was impressed by what the right hon. Gentleman said about doing it quickly, but would he not agree that the actual consultations and discussions which the Robens Committee has had have been themselves a form of consultation, in that the organisations mainly involved have had ample chance to give their evidence, and that he and his Department must be aware already of the major issues involved? Although I would not speak against consultation, the whole process can be speeded up for that reason.

We shall, clearly, want a debate on this matter, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to discuss this point with the Leader of the House. I would suggest that the debate might take place very soon after the recess, so that the House of Commons itself is part of the consultative process before the legislative proposals are finalised. I would suggest to him that the Government might find some time for the Third Reading of the Employed Persons (Safety) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that Bill has passed through most of its stages in this House but is now held up by a small group of reactionaries among the back benchers on his own side of the House? The Government's good intentions in these matters could be confirmed by the Government's providing whatever time is needed for the Third Reading of that Bill.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman's statement referred to the centralisation of the inspectorate. Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that the size of the inspectorate is one of the keys to enforcement, and, although there has been some improvement in the number of inspectors in recent years, will the Government bear in mind the evidenece for the need now to increase the numbers, training and variety of the inspectorate without waiting for consultation on other aspects of the Robens Report?

Mr. Macmillan

I hope the whole House and, indeed, all concerned will welcome the great work which Lord Robens and his Committee have done, and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for it. It is, as he says, a major report of great value. I agree on the urgency. As I said, we hope to complete our consultations in the autumn, and, considering the number of people involved and the width of the interests concerned, that will be operating fairly quickly.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the degree of consultation which has already taken place through the work of the Robens Committee. It is certainly not the Government's intention to throw open the whole subject again for debate, which has, after all, been going on since about 1967, in general discussion of these problems, but we are to consult about the new specific proposals contained in the report.

As to the request about other legislation which may be before the House, I think it would be wiser to wait and see what the whole of the consultation on the details will produce. I certainly wish to see the TUC and CBI consulted, because, with regard to enforcement—to take up another point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman—this, he will see from the report itself, is a major factor in which as far as possible industry should be helped by joint consultation within industry, between management and work people through the unions, to concentrate on prevention of accidents, and this is the emphasis which the report has given so as to enable the enforcement side of the inspectorate to operate, as I said in my statement, more effectively. While these proposals are being put into force it is our intention to maintain the efficiency of the other part of the inspectorate, as is the responsibility of my Department.

The complexity of the problems—the last matter referred to by the right hon. Gentleman—is, indeed, one of the new difficulties which everyone is facing in this field, and is in itself a powerful argument for the unification which Lord Robens recommended.

Mr. John Page

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the report is widely welcomed, and will he accept that hon. Members on this side of the House are also anxious for speedy legislation so that piecemeal legislation by way of Bills introduced regularly by hon. Gentlemen opposite will not in future be required?

Mr. Macmillan

I assure my hon. Friend that it is our intention to get specific proposals ready for the House and to produce legislation as soon as we can.

Mr. Hattersley

Will the Secretary of State confirm that paragraph 70 of the report speaks of the necessity to place a statutory obligation on employers to consult their work-people? Since a Bill to bring that about has been carried on Second Reading by the House on three occasions in the last two years and is blocked only by a tiny number of his hon. Friends, will be consider asking his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to provide a few moments of parliamentary time for Third Reading so that we can take that legislative burden from a Government who are not over-endowed with legislative time?

Mr. Macmillan

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has heard what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but with a subject involving as many Government Departments as this, with emphasis on co-operation between management and workpeople and the possibility of an extra burden being put on employers and extra responsibilities on employees, I think that the statutory duty of consultation should be left to be dealt with in the major legislation proposed.

Dame Joan Vickers

Will my right hon. Friend say whether any future legislation will cover Her Majesty's Establishments such as Royal Naval Establishments and Dockyards?

Mr. Macmillan

That is a matter which will have to be discussed. When my hon. Friend reads the report, she will see that it proposes the extension of provisions for safety and health at work to as many work-people as possible.

Dr. Summerskill

In view of the increasing complexity and incidence of industrial disease as opposed to accidents, will the right hon. Gentleman clarify what part, if any, the Department of Health and Social Security will play in the new scheme? Will he also give the House some idea of how the new scheme will be financed?

Mr. Macmillan

The hon. Lady is a little premature. These are proposals for safety and health at work which are put forward by a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Robens. They have yet to be discussed within Government and with interests outside Government. The hon. Lady has raised questions which should be raised during those consultations, and on which after those consultations have taken place, I hope to inform the House. I think the hon. Lady will understand that if I attempt to be specific on any one individual part of the report as opposed to another, I shall be guilty of prejudging the consultations and discussions which will take place.

Mr. Redmond

Will my right hon. Friend accept from one who was a member of the Standing Committee on the Employed Persons (Safety) Bill that we like the principle of the Bill but do not like the detail and would like to have it improved? Will he also accept that, now that we have the report, we shall press for early legislation so that the whole subject can be consolidated and properly dealt with? Does the report mention apathy? Apathy is surely the enemy of safety in industry. No one is interested in avoiding accidents until an accident happens, when everybody gets excited about it. Does the report make any recommendations for overcoming that problem?

Mr. Macmillan

The whole approach of the Robens Committee has been to emphasise the joint responsibility of management and work-people in co-operating to achieve safety and health at work. Of course there is the problem of apathy to overcome, but there is the problem of apathy in safety on the roads or, indeed in safety in the home. The number of people who try to mend fuses without switching off the electricity is remarkable. This is a matter which requires comprehensive legislation. There are conflicting interests between environmental and interior considerations, which have to be resolved, and certain problems, particularly with newer dangers, which require continuing study, and we must provide the proper framework for that.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

To what extent does the report touch on an occupational health service? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, pending legislation next year on the reform of the National Health Service in England and Wales, it might be necessary to have the kind of debate asked for by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) to clarify this, because legislation on this subject affecting Scotland is already going through the House?

Mr. Macmillan

Yes, I am aware of the problem. Questions of occupational health are separate from the questions dealt with in the report, but we have certain proposals coming forward on that and there will be an opportunity of discussing them later.

Mr. Pardoe

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that this immensely important report will be welcomed on both sides of the House. Will he give an assurance that in his negotiations and discussions on the report with interests out- side the House two matters will be considered: first, the need for a national statutory level for toxic materials in places of work and factories; secondly—although prevention is better than cure—the necessity for a disability income so as to avoid the unseemly haggle that occurs about whether a person is suffering from an industrial disease or merely a disease?

Mr. Macmillan

Both questions raised by the hon. Gentleman are outside the terms of reference of the report.