HC Deb 05 August 1975 vol 897 cc409-19
Mr. Madel

I beg to move Amendment No. 188, in page 85 line 11, leave out Clause 104.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we are taking the following amendments:

No. 189, in page 85, line 13, leave out from 'which' to 'remove' in line 15.

No. 215, in page 145, line 40, leave out Schedule 14.

No. 216, in Schedule 14, page 145, leave out lines 45 to 47.

12 midnight.

Mr. Madel

The associated amendments give us the opportunity to discuss amendments to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act proposed by the Government. The Under-Secretary of State will remember that in Committee we said that apart from our anxieties about the agricultural part of the Bill we would delay our debate until now.

It is a familiar debate, so I will be brief in enunciating the arguments. We have had this matter out many times before. We start from the proposition that we want to involve all work people in safety at work, whether they are or are not members of a trade union. A year after the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act reached the statute book, I felt it right to ask the Under-Secretary of State if he will list those firms which have non-trade unionists on safety committees, those firms which have trade unionists an non-trade unionists on safety committees and those which do not yet have any safety committees as laid down by the Health and Safety at Work Act etc., 1974. The hon. Gentleman replied: The Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission informs me that this information is not available. The hon. Member will know that until regulations are made under Section 2(4) and (5) there is no statutory requirement for the appointment or election of safety representatives from among employees. He will also be aware of the Government's intention to repeal Section 2(5) of the Health and Safety Act through the Employment Protection Bill."—[Official Report, 18th July 1975; Vol. 895. c. 620.] Thus, one year after the Act went on the statute book, we do not have this information about safety committees. Nor do we have any information to suggest that there is a great yearning among the TUC and trade unionists generally that subsection (5) of Section 2 of the Act should be wiped out. The TUC has issued a valuable and useful booklet called "Health and Safety at Work". I do not detect in it a great yearning to strike out subsection (5).

The foreword to the booklet, referring to the Act, says: Among the major changes it makes is the recognition, by law, of the right of large numbers of workpeople to appoint their own safety representatives, with statutory responsibilities for monitoring, and setting standards of safety and health at work. It goes on to say, in the introduction that the booklet …is designed for those who need to know more about industrial safety, health and welfare problems, but who do not want to get too bogged down in technical and legislative jargon. The booklet says, on page 9, that the Act …puts new general duties on employers, ranging from providing and maintaining a safe place of work to consulting with their workers. Later, it goes on: In addition to these requirements, employers will need to provide their workers with a written statement of their safety policy… and so on.

A year after the Act, the TUC booklet and the Answer I received from the Under-Secretary of State do not suggest any need for the Government to strike out subsection (5). An article in Personnel Management in November 1974 stated: The industrial safety committee of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents told Mr. Foot, '…We consider that clause 2 may have a deleterious effect on safety inasmuch as subclause 4 restricts the appointment of safety representatives to the recognised trade unions". This in effect would exclude those work people who are not members of trade unions from participating in the selection and appointment of safety representatives. ' The article went on to tell of experience in other countries with the establishment of safety committees: In France, for example, safety committees have been mandatory since 1947 for all those organisations employing more than 50 persons and it has been said that their safety record compares poorly with other countries not having such a requirement. It said that in the Republic of Ireland …the 1955 Factories Act included a provision for safey committees which would be set up in the same way as that provided for in our own Health and Safety at Work Act. Today, in the whole of Ireland there are only some 187 committees, leaving a massive slice of Irish industry with no safety committees at all. All this underlines our anxiety expressed at the time of the passing of the Act that this would be a slow process and that it would take a lot of education to get people at work—managers and workers—interested in health and safety. It is, therefore, wrong for the Government to strike out subsection (5) only a year after the Act reached the statute book.

Why is there this rush? We do not see the TUC in its booklet pressing for the change. There is no evidence from outside organisations which suggests that there is a need for this change. We cannot see any arguments in the Government's favour for this proposal.

It may be in three or four years that factories which are not 100 per cent. unionised will be lagging behind firms which are either closed shops or 100 per cent. unionised in the provision of safety committees. But let a little time elapse. We ask the Government to consider this matter again. There is no need to rush it. Time may prove the Government right. Time may prove us right in what we did in amending the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. But we suggest that in the 12 months after the Act became law there is not sufficient evidence to justify a change. I urge my Friends to support the amendment.

Mr. Greville Janner

I think that the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel) has misunderstood the situation. The subsection does not prevent employers from consulting non-union employees. If the subsection is repealed, there is no reason why consultation should not take place. The repeal of the subsection will mean that the Secretary of State cannot and will not make regulations forcing employers to consult nonunion representatives on pain of possible prosecution. That is what must be removed. If that element goes, we are left with the power of the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring employers to consult union representatives so as to bring recognised trade unions into the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, into the implementation of the rules and, one hopes, into the campaign to try to cut down the terrible toll of death and accidents in industry.

Once subsection (5) has gone, subsection (4) can be activated in a way which it has not been possible to activate it so far. It is not a question of rushing. Every day which passes without the Act being implemented in this way means that more people die or are injured. I believe that there is a great need to rush. The sooner we get it done, the better.

We should get the matter right immediately by removing this subsection and enabling the proper regulations to be made by the Secretary of State as soon as possible thereby involving the unions completely in this work.

Mr. Cyril Smith

I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 189 and 216. I will do so briefly.

The fact is that these amendments raise a fundamental issue which the Government prefer to face, and will have to, in the next 12 or 18 months rather than tonight.

We heard a statement today by the Secretary of State for Trade on the issue of worker participation in industry, and so on. The real issue in that situation will be whether workers shall be represented only by trade union representatives or by representatives appointed by workers as a whole. That kind of principle is inherent in the amendments which we are now discussing.

The view of the Liberal Party is that representatives of workers, be they on health and safety committees or on other types of committees, ought to be elected from the whole of the workers in a plant, not necessarily in a whole company, rather than be appointed from, by or with the consent of the trade union movement alone.

In Committee, not only on this Bill but on other Bills on which I have served, I said that the continual strengthening of the powers of the trade union movement as opposed to the strengthening of that movement—I distinguished between its powers and its strength—was a rod which the Government were making for their own backs and one on which the chicken will ultimately come to roost ere long. It seems to be suggested that the only people who can represent in this way are those who are nominated by or on behalf of the trade union movement. What is the position of a person who is not a member of a union? I shall be moderate in my estimate and say that approximately 50 per cent. of employees are not members of a trade union, however much we may regret the fact.

Clearly the implication of the clause is that health and safety committees shall consist of employee representatives who are representatives of the trade union movement. Bearing in mind the lateness of the hour I shall not detain the House on this matter, but I took the view, as did my hon. Friends, that we should at least table an amendment to make our view clear on the issue of employee representation. I believe it would be better for industrial relations and for the ultimate strengthening of the trade union movement if the Government could get away from the idea that the only people who should represent workers are trade union representatives rather than workers' representatives. It is vital that the Government get away from that idea. Our industrial relations would benefit as a consequence of such a move.

Mr. John Evans

I rise briefly to support the clause. I served for a long time on workers' safety committees. I point out to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) that in the overwhelming number of cases the representatives on safety committees are shop stewards who have been elected by the workers. That applies in almost every establishment where there is any sort of trade union activity. I make that clear because there seems to be a constant thread running through the arguments in Committee and on the Floor of the House that representatives will be directly nominated by the executive councils of the trade unions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let it be remembered that the representatives will come from the shop floor. They will be shop stewards. That has always been the position. Of course, in a large establishment not every shop steward can serve on the safety committee. If that were not the position there would be 40, 50 or 60 shop stewards serving on many safety committees. I have served on workers' safety committees—

Mr. Cyril Smith

The hon. Gentleman is not the only one.

Mr. Evans

I know that I am not the only person who knows about these matters, but I am entitled to make a contribution to the debate. I have sat here all night listening to everyone who has taken part in the debate and I shall briefly give the House the benefit of my small experience of these matters. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Rochdale has served on a workers' safety committee—

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Cyril Smith

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that I have been secretary of a works committee, the chairman of a works committee, and also a parliamentary candidate on the Transport and General Workers' Union's approved list.

Mr. Evans

I was not asking the hon. Gentleman for his life story, but about his experience on works safety committees, on which I have served.

I was seeking to deal with the point about how works committees are formed. We should not lose sight of the fact that shop stewards who serve on safety committees have "teeth", whereas other representatives do not. In many establishments on which I have served managements have been reluctant to introduce measures to protect the safety of their workers. Too often workers' representatives have to threaten action to get anything done. I believe that the only people who can be responsible for representing the labour force are the democratically-elected shop stewards.

Mr. Bulmer

I wish to express my concern that farm safety should remain with the Ministry of Agriculture. I declare an interest as a member of the National Farmers' Union.

We have had the benefit of the safety at work legislation for only a year and during that period the Ministry has worked hard on revising the regulations and on draft codes of practice. Furthermore, officials have examined ways in which the regulations can be made more effective. I think that it can be said that the farming industry is ahead of many other industries.

I hope that the Minister will explain why he feels the need for change at this time. We are concerned to ensure that life on the farm should be as safe as possible, particularly at this time of the year when farms tend to be adventure playgrounds for children.

The subject of safety falls very much within the responsibility of field officers. Having spoken to a field officer in my county, I discovered that his reaction was unfavourable to any change. Indeed, field officers had not even been consulted. He thought that the proposal would diminish the range of interest in his job and he emphasised the point about continuity. He stressed how important it was for him to be able to combine his other functions with visits to farms on a continuing basis, so that he could build up the confidence of the farmers in a whole range of activities.

One worry within the farming community is to the effect that a change of responsibility may lead to delay in the payments of grants. If a safety officer has to give his approval, we shall require an undertaking that it will take no longer than it takes at present.

The field officer has been described by one union official as 20 per cent. police officer and 80 per cent. farmer's next best friend. The change proposed by the National Union of Agricultural Workers has no doubt been introduced on that basis. Perhaps the Minister will be able to confirm it. Those who work on the land comprise as to two-thirds self-employed farmers. I understand that the Minister wishes to differentiate between the fanners who employ labour and those who do not.

Perhaps the Minister in his reply will be able to say how he sees the future of the people who work for the Ministry and how the situation will affect farmers. I believe that safety standards may be put at risk. I am sure that no hon. Member would wish to see a lowering of standards. Why disturb arrangements which seem to have worked so extremely well?

I should like to call the Minister's attention to the divisive effect of insisting on safety committees being composed exclusively of trade union members—and this regardless of how few people in a company are organised by the trade unions. There are classes of work people—whether they be women or older employees or those with special knowledge—who are in no way sympathetic to the measures which the Minister has in mind. Does the Minister envisage extending the provisions to rescue teams? Finally, I ask him to recognise the rights of the non-union employee.

Mr. Harold Walker

The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel) reminded us that we have been over most of this ground on more than one occasion. What has been singled out as the cardinal issue in this debate—that of worker safety representatives and safety committees—has been the subject of dialogue and debate in this House for years. We have been round the course so many times that many of us are becoming dizzy. I think that it is about time that we reached a final decision, once and for all.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the agricultural provisions and the deletion of the special arrangements for agriculture from the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. I find it astonishing that the Opposition, despite what has been said repeatedly in this House and despite some of the points put by them as recently as the last Question Time but one to my Department, should still want to perpetuate this piece of discrimination against agricultural workers, singling them out for special treatment as though, for some obscure reason, they should be deprived of the protection offered to other workers. That is a situation which will not be tolerated by anyone.

I turn to the principal issue in this debate, which is whether safety representatives should be drawn exclusively from the ranks of trade unions or whether there should be, in non-organised or ill-organised situations, statutory provision for other than trade union representatives.

I comment briefly on the provision inflicted upon this House in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act by another place last year. It said that regulations made by the Secretary of State could provide for the election in prescribed cases by employees of safety representatives from amongst the employees.

Who did the other place think might trigger off this process? Was it thought that an individual employee might do it? If such a person who could not claim to be representative of anyone but himself approached his employer, the employer would assume that he was not representative and, therefore, would not take any action. Was it thought that an employer might do it? Was it thought that a group of organised employers might trigger off the process?

If this provision were not in the Act, there would be nothing to stop that taking place on a voluntary basis. The point that I have just made would be essentially a voluntary process. So, first of all, there is no need for it, anyhow.

I welcome the Opposition's change of heart. For many years they campaigned vigorously against the concept of safety representatives. Now they are saying that they merely think that everyone should have the chance to be a safety representative. I welcome that change of attitude.

The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South made the point that it was a year since the enactment of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. He will know that it became operative only on 1st April of this year. The commission was established last autumn. But I am second to none in my desperate anxiety to see these regulations made and the provision prevailing for the appointment of safety representatives and the creation of statutory joint safety committees.

The reason for the delay is the insertion of Section 2(5) in the Act and the fact that the commission has been deeply divided about how to handle the situation. By getting this provision out of the way, we shall enable the commission to get on with the job.

I sum up. First, the Government believe that safety representatives should be appointed by the trade unions. We believe in bringing the trade unions more fully into involvement in health and safety matters than they have been hitherto. It is a criticism of the trade unions that perhaps in the past they have been too obsessed with negotiating terms and conditions of employment, rather than getting themselves sufficiently involved in safety matters. This will bring them more fully into involvement.

Secondly, when they are appointed, the representatives will need the special facility of an organisation like a trade union.

Thirdly, I return to the point about Section 2(5) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. To do it in any other way than we have proposed would invite all kinds of spurious organisations to use the provisions as a side wind to secure recognition.

I have spelled out these difficulties so repeatedly that I feel that I might be tilling the ground into dust if I continue. I think the House is familiar with the premise. As I said, it is time to make a final decision. Let us make it now.

Mr. Prior

In our present drought conditions, the last thing I want the Minister to do is till the ground into dust. All he has done is put a little more fire and life into our debate at this late hour.

I will not prolong the proceedings. We have been around this course a number of times. We on this side—I believe that that applies to the Liberal Party and even the Scottish National Party—have never felt that we have had satisfactory answers. The Minister must not be allowed to talk this nonsense about agricultural workers being singled out for different or worse treatment. The whole purpose of trying to keep agriculture separate from the commission as a whole was to ensure that the expertise of the safety officers of the Minister would be available.

I made a suggestion to the Minister in Committee which he felt was worth considering, although he gave no further undertaking about it. I hope that in another place their Lordships will return to this issue of the agricultural workers and the arrangements which have been working satisfactorily in the last year. I support fully the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Bulmer). We are trying not only to make progress, despite the Minister's efforts to raise the temperature, but also to approach this matter in a more conciliatory manner, particularly on the narrower question of agriculture.

Because I hope that in another place a view will be taken about agriculture remaining separate, will not advise my hon. Friends to press this matter to a Division [Laughter]. If the hon. Member presses me too hard, we shall have a Division. Otherwise, I was going to ask my hon. Friend whether he would withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Madel

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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