HC Deb 12 June 1972 vol 838 cc1142-7

10.16 p.m.

The Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Howell)

I beg to move, That the Employer's Liability (Defective Equipment and Compulsory Insurance) (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th June, be approved. This is the second of the lesser, although important orders, before we come to the main one this evening. The order is quite short and I believe wholly non-contentious. The House has already passed almost identical legislation for Great Britain and I hope that it will now support the application of similar arrangements to Northern Ireland. The order stems from a Bill introduced in the Northern Ireland Senate which had passed its Committee stage without amendment before the Northern Ireland Parliament was prorogued. The Measure was welcomed by all who contributed to the Senate debate. It is supported by the employer and trade union interests in Northern Ireland who were consulted in the preparation of the Bill. I shall, therefore, be as brief as possible in my explanation of its contents and intention.

The order is intended to provide protection for Northern Ireland workers comparable with that available to workers in Britain under the Employers Liability (Defective Equipment) Act, 1969, and the Employers Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act, 1969, both of which originated at Private Members' Bills. Its purpose is, therefore, twofold.

First, it will make Northern Ireland employers responsible for injury to employees caused by defective equipment even though the defect is attributable to the fault of a third party, for example, a manufacturer or supplier. Hitherto an employee seeking compensation for injury in such circumstances has had to claim against the third party. This order transfers the primary responsibility to the actual employer of the person who is injured. In future, therefore, the employee may claim against the employer and if the claim is upheld the employer will have to pay compensation. He may then, of course, take action to recover from the third party. It will be for the employee to prove that the equipment was defective.

Second, employers in Northern Ireland will be required to maintain insurance against liability for personal injury sustained by employees and arising out of and in the course of their employment. Most employers are already covered for this kind of risk, but the order will make it compulsory.

Third, the order will therefore extend to all employees the protection which is already enjoyed by those who work for employers who have taken out appropriate insurance. It is obviously important that when employees make claims against employers for damages at common law or for breach of statutory duty they should be assured that their claim can be met and that they will not find themselves proceeding against men of straw, and, therefore, unable to secure their full legal rights. The order is intended to achieve that purpose.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

Following what you said, Mr. Speaker, that the previous debate would be narrow and that this would be very narrow, I can assure you I shall not detain the House long, but since I had the honour of presenting this provision in a Private Member's Bill I think I might be permitted to say a word or two.

For the benefit of the Under-Secretary of State, and, it may be, for his education, I would point out that many of us from Scotland, particularly those of us on this side of the House, have been reluctant to become too involved in Northern Ireland affairs, but I think we can appreciate what is colloquially known as a Billy and Dan situation. That is part of the education, I am sure, of some hon. Members opposite. They may not appreciate the fact that I regard myself as an agnostic territorial Celtic supporter. That means that I am one of the few who could have played for either Rangers or Celtic. The nearest I got to it, possibly, was playing for Partick Thistle. I mention that merely to illustrate that some of us who could have made a contribution to debates on this matter have been reluctant to engage in Northern Ireland affairs, probably because of the fear that all we might succeed in doing would be to transfer some of the bother over to Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

However, I think it will be in order for me to make some comments on the first part of this order, and my reason for doing so, apart from the personal one, is that I am often reminded of the fact that the present Home Secretary has repeatedly referred to the need in Northern Ireland to try to get politics on to a normal party basis. I would not expect a leading Conservative to say that what is meant is really that politics should get on to a class basis.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think the hon. Member said he was going to make a very narrow speech. It seems to me to be a remarkably wide one so far.

Mr. Brown

I was just coming to the relevant part. Part II of the order is a useful contribution which affects all employees. I wish there had been more provisions like this in Northern Ireland in the past. In this spirit I commend the order to the House.

Although the Minister has said that the order is made with the approval of and after consultation with both employers and employees, I hope that he will seek the good offices of the trade union movement in the North to publicise the order and to draw it to the attention of the trade union movement in the South who perhaps might be helped to initiate similar legislation.

With those few brief remarks I give the order my full support.

10.25 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I welcome the draft order but I should like to ask the Under-Secretary of State whether, when future legislation comes before the House that is applicable to Northern Ireland, it could be directly applied to Northern Ireland so that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies could take part in the debate on that legislation. I welcome the legislation, and anything that helps the working classes of Northern Ireland will always have my support.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I should like to clear up a couple of minor points arising from the draft order, which I welcome. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) referred to the parallel legislation in Great Britain. Provision is made in that legislation for insurance companies which demand very high premiums or refuse to insure customers. In view of the civil disturbances in Northern Ireland, there is anxiety that this question is not adequately covered. Will procedure be provided to fill the gap which may arise? How are Northern Ireland employers to cover high premiums or the refusal to insure?

A minor point arising under paragraph 10 is the difference between the draft order and the original legislation. The original legislation enabled regulations to be made to differentiate between different cases or classes of cases, but there is no comparable provision in the order. Why has this provision been left out? Is such a power covered by the paragraph as it stands, or is the power thought to be unnecessary?

10.28 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

As my colleagues have allocated to me the duty of scrutinising matters which fall within the scope of the Stormont Ministry of Health and Social Services, I should like to make one or two brief points.

The order, unlike some others which have come before us, is being laid in draft form and not under the emergency procedure. It was introduced in the Senate of Northern Ireland but did not come before the Commons in that Parliament and has not therefore been given consideration by the directly elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

In Great Britain the insurance under Part III is usually £2 million or unlimited. Will the same apply to Northern Ireland? I share the curiosity of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) about the omission from paragraph 10 and I wonder what is the explanation. Should this perhaps be looked at again? I understand that Part III will come into force by Statutory Instrument. It would be helpful if employers could be given notice as to when the compulsory insurance provisions are likely to take effect.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

Even this order reveals that there should be some method by which these sort of matters may be looked at on a prior occasion. I know that this matter is being considered, but it points to the fact that if tonight we found something of a minor nature that should be altered, it would be rather late in the day to become involved in it.

What will be the minimum insurance cover permitted by the regulations. We have heard mention of a figure of £2 million in respect of Northern Ireland. Bearing in mind the rise in prices and the value which ought to be put on lives which are lost, I wish to ask whether this figure is large enough to meet the needs of the situation. It is a small amount and I should like to have the Minister's advice.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. David Howell

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) for intervening in this debate. He is, as he said, right to claim parentage in matters of this kind. I am glad to receive education from him, as from other hon. Members, on these and other complicated and important matters, and I was grateful for his comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) asked what would happen if insurance was denied or if a company refused to insure an employer. There has been no experience of anything of this kind so far, no similar situation has prevailed on this side of the water, and there are no indications any situation of this sort will arise in Northern Ireland. If it did, one question that might be asked is: how is it that the employer is such a risk that no one would insure him? This might raise the question whether he should be in business at all, and we might have to look at that situation. However, there seems to be no remote possibility that such a situation would arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) reminded us that this order is not being raised under the urgent procedure process, as is the case with other orders. The part about which he asked takes effect three months from when it is made. This will be very shortly, assuming that the order is approved this evening.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and other hon. Members asked about the £2 million ceiling and wondered whether this was the same as the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom. Yes, it is. I was asked: is it large enough? I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but we feel that in the foreseeable future it is about right.

I was asked about the omission from Article 10. The part to which reference was made was omitted because of an equivalent provision in Section 17 of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland), 1954, which makes it unnecessary to put it in this particular order.

The general point was raised whether this was not perhaps the most satisfactory long term way to cover legislation for any part of the United Kingdom. I agree. We are operating under temporary provisions and one accepts that we have to deal with legislation and the needs of Northern Ireland in ways less than satisfactory from the point of view of Members of Parliament. That is the position and we shall try to do our best.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Employer's Liability (Defective Equipment and Compulsory Insurance) (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th June, be approved.