HC Deb 25 May 1977 vol 932 cc1478-89

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ashton.]

7.1 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to raise the subject of safety in agriculture and, in particular, the death of my constituent Saul Ben Randall.

I think that I can best put the House in the picture by describing what the Minister said to me in a letter after I had made inquiries about this matter. Giving the background of the matter, what he had to say was, on this particular farm young people were engaged to work on Saturdays on two tractor-drawn potato harvesting machines. They replaced teams of regular workers, employed from Monday to Friday, in order to complete harvesting delayed by adverse weather conditions. Before work began on the first Saturday the young people were divided into two teams of five. In each team four worked on the harvester and were instructed to pick out the stones which were being lifted with the potatoes. The fifth member of the team was instructed to follow the harvester and collect in a basket any potatoes which had fallen from the machine and tip them into the trailer travelling at the side of the harvester. On the first Saturday work stopped after an hour owing to bad weather. Harvesting again took place on the following Saturday when before commencing work the tractor driver operating the harvester subsequently involved in the accident instructed four of the team of young people to carry out allotted tasks on the machine and the fifth to walk behind the harvester to pick up potatoes into a basket. During the morning both the employer and his foreman visited the field to see the harvesting operation. The accident occurred immediately after the lunch break when it is believe that the five young people climbed on to the harvester to return to the top of the field to begin harvesting again. No one saw the accident occur although it was clear from the wheel marks in the soil that Saul Ben Randall was run over by the harvester. This is a tragic instance of yet one more accident to a young person—he was 15—who has died in agriculture on a farm.

I want now to quote from the letter that Saul's mother wrote to me. She refers to the fact that there was an inquest. A verdict of "Accidental death" was brought in. Subsequently there was a court hearing involving the farm worker who was driving the tractor that was drawing the potato harvester, but at the time of writing nothing was known of what the subsequent actions would be or of their result.

The mother is speculating on what is likely to happen after the inquest. She says, As you understand, such actions"— if they be brought— will not benefit us at all. Nothing can bring Saul back to us again. But I feel that you too will be aware of the dangers faced by youngsters working unsupervised with modern machinery. The agricultural worker is in many ways the Cinderella of the labour force; and because of the tied cottage system they do not speak up easily. In your constituency many hundreds of schoolchildren must work holiday time on farms and I believe that you could help by urging the Ministry to prosecute each and every farmer not complying with the accepted safety standards. After the accident the mother says, The farmer sent us a typewritten note to say ' Please find enclosed postal order for £4.80 being the sum of one day's work for Saul Randall'—not even a regret or a word of sympathy; and certainly no hint that such things must not happen again. I am sure that you will feel like us, that it must not, and hope that you will show your interest to the Ministry who have the case in their hands. That is a poignant letter. I regard it as my duty to put the facts as clearly as I can this evening to my hon. Friend the Minister. I am sure that he will take on board what I have to say.

The parents of this boy, Mr. and Mrs. Randall, are two splendid people. I met them after reading that letter. I know what this debate must cost them. By all accounts, Saul was a fine boy—I never met him. Having this debate means that the whole subject, which causes them the greatest concern and grief, has to be raised again. I have put this matter to them, and they have said to me, "Mr. Ellis, do what you can. There are other young people." That has been the spirit that they have shown throughout.

Nor were they wanting any degree of vengeance. I want to make that clear. An inquest was held. It resulted in a verdict of "Accidental death" I am sure that no one wanted to kill this boy and that the verdict was right. I have no quibble about the courts. There was a case involving a farm worker and there was no vindictiveness there. It was a tragedy for him as well.

However, I am concerned this evening to bring home to my hon. Friend the fact that if there is legislation to protect young people, it must be enforced, and, if necessary, it must be updated.

The boy's brother worked with him on that fateful morning. He gave his evidence. When he was asked further about the matter he said Each of we five schoolchildren had had two turns of walking behind that day. Everybody rode uphill on the ladder when he was doing the 'outside' turn. Sometimes the driver stopped the harvester but sometimes we jumped on the ladder when the machinery was moving in a forward direction. I have no idea whether the driver knew what we were doing. I have a verbatim record of the inquest and a picture of the potato harvester. I shall gladly give the picture to my hon. Friend. It is a big machine. Its ladder comes down immediately behind the big back wheels. If any person slipped while standing on that ladder while the machine was travelling, he would go straight under a rear wheel.

The point that I want to make—I shall make it again before I resume my seat—is as follows. My constituency has a steelworks, too. Let the House suppose that we had a working practice that meant that a steel worker, on arriving at work, would suddenly find allotted to him five schoolchildren when perhaps he had had no training in supervision, safety measures, or anything else of that kind, someone merely saying to him "You have a job to do this morning. You are using a complicated and dangerous piece of machinery. Here are five schoolchildren to help you." Let us suppose that he placed them around the machine, got on the front to drive it and could not even see them. Let us suppose that the operation commenced and one of the youngsters became entangled in the machinery or fell, and no one saw the incident.

Later another person, whether it is in a factory or a steelworks, walking through the shop would find a dead body on the floor. That would be a cause célèbre. It would be taken up by every newspaper. There would be a row of great magnitude. However, in agriculture such an accident is apparently generally accepted.

I have undertaken some research and I have read the Committee reports of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1972. When I read the reports I observed the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), who is now the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. My hon. Friend is a great personal friend and he mentioned that the Committee had discussed farm safety and accidents involving young people when engaged on farm work. He suggested that I should look at the Committee proceedings.

I took up his invitation and I read that he put forward the proposition that fines should be increased where safety provisions had been ignored. He said: I am not over-connected with farming in my constituency. My hon. Friend is supporting the proposition that fines should be increased. He continued: I do not think I would ever have bothered at all if it were not for the fact that a tragic accident happened to a boy of under 15 who had been working for eight days on a farm in my constituency. Tragically, he was killed in a farming accident. I do not wish to reopen the case but it led me to look at farm safety and safety regulations. Being a safety officer in one of the more dangerous occupations in this country, the mining industry, I was shocked and amazed by what I found in agriculture and by the attitude towards safety in agriculture. In the next paragraph my hon. Friend says: Safety figures and regulations are shocking. From my point of view, the figures are nigh on criminal. Since 1965, 1,823 farm workers have been killed, 518 of them because of one type of accident—tractors overturning. Since 1965, 289 under-15-year-olds have been killed in farming. Those figures are shocking. I say that with a guilty conscience, not having picked it up earlier and because others who have been involved in another industry as safety officers have not more closely involved themselves with such tragedies."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H 21st March 1972; c. 656–7.] As my hon. Friend said, he is a miner. Mining is a dangerous industry. From that point of view his remarks on this subject are significant.

I have been able to obtain accident figures since 1972. In 1973 in Great Britain there is a change in the figures because from that year onwards they relate to those under 16 years, whereas before 1973 they related to those under 15. In 1973, 120 farm workers were killed, 28 of them under 16. In 1974, 104 farm workers were killed, 30 of them children. In 1975, 101 farm workers lost their lives, 23 of them young children. In 1976, 102 farm workers died, 21 of them young children. The 1976 figures have yet to be confirmed.

I accept that we have changed the regulations and have tried to improve them. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will comment on these matters extensively and will explain what has been achieved. It is wrong that there should be dual standards of safety in different industries. Throughout the country young people engage in what is a dangerous industry—I refer to agriculture—that employs sophisticated machinery.

It is not only the machinery that is dangerous, because farmers use such things as pesticides. Farming is becoming big business. I suppose that we are all guilty in that we have allowed young people to work in agriculture. It is accepted that young people will be about in the circumstances that I have described.

These events often go unremarked. There is a close relationship among those who work in agriculture. In many cases they live in small villages and they know one another. However, when people lose a child they are naturally affected by grief. It is a tragic happening. But my constituents seek to forget. They are not vindictive. Very often these matters are glossed over and conveniently forgotten. Some of us who have had experience in these affairs have known what has been taking place over a long period. We shall redouble our efforts to ensure that proper standards are observed.

I have seen the parents in this case and they are the salt of the earth. They are concerned to see that this sort of accident does not happen to our children. As their Member of Parliament, I can do no less than to raise the matter on the Adjournment and to introduce it on other occasions so that the House may focus its attention. That is our duty as Members and as Ministers.

It is difficult to obtain industrial accident figures and I hope that my hon. Friend will do some research. The figures are usually tabulated per 100,000, and it seems that on that basis there are more fatalities in agriculture than in most industries. There are between two and three times as many per 100,000 in agriculture. I do not suppose that there are comparable figures for school children that relate to other industries because the practice that obtains in agriculture is not so extensive elsewhere.

Surely we have a public duty. I understand that the provisions for enforcing farm safety have been placed with the new Health and Safety Executive. I know that there were those in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who wanted to keep that power for themselves. I was always of the other view.

I hope that the word will go out from this place tonight to the Health and Safety Executive that we expect it to be tough. We shall be looking for a reduction in accidents and fatalities, but when they occur we shall be asking for comparative statistics. We shall want to know what action is being taken. We shall want to know what fines are being imposed and the steps being taken to remedy the present state of affairs.

During the time that I have been the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe this case is the second fatality in a very short period. My memory may be slightly at fault, but I believe that it was about two years ago that there was a fatality in a strawberry field. Families were picking strawberries—I suppose that it is a pleasant thing to do—when the tragedy took place. A toddler wandered from its parents. A tractor was coming down the field between the rows and the driver never saw the child. The toddler was killed.

If I am belabouring the point I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me. I wish to stress that that sort of thing is happening in agriculture day after day and week in, week out.

Some of us intend to do all that we can to put matters right. If we do not succeed in reducing the number of accidents and fatalities, we are coming to the conclusion that we must introduce legislation to make it an offence for school children to be employed in agriculture.

7.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Grant)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) for raising this matter. I appreciate the spirit in which he has raised it and what he has said about the spirit in which the parents of Saul Ben Randall have asked him to pursue the matter.

The safety of children on farms continues to be a matter of serious and continuing concern, particularly to the agricultural inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive. I share their concern and should like to express my sorrow at the two tragic accidents to which my hon. Friend has referred. The Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission has assured me that in his view there is no question of the application of dual standards towards safety in industry, by which I assume that my hon. Friend means in a factory environment, and safety in agriculture. However, there is a distinction in respect of the age at which young people can be employed in agriculture and in industry.

In the case of Saul Ben Randall, as my hon. Friend said, the driver of the tractor was prosecuted and found guilty of not taking reasonable care of the health and safety of other persons, as it is put, and he received a 12-month suspended sentence. Thus, action was taken in that case under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Although the dangers of working in factories have long been recognised and legislated against, it is only comparatively recently that significant legislation for the protection of workers in agriculture was introduced. The first measure was the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act 1952 followed by the Agriculture (Safety, Health & Welfare Provisions) Act 1956. The former enabled regulations to be made to protect workers from the risk of poisoning when using certain specified substances. The second Act had a much wider application relating to accidents and health hazards on the farm including the provision of sanitary and washing facilities for workers and safeguards for young people lifting weights. Regulations were subsequently made to protect workers against bodily injury or injury to health arising from the use of machinery, for providing a safe place of work and for the avoidance of accidents to children.

Altogether, 11 sets of regulations were made under the 1956 Act. In addition the regulations made for the safe use of pesticidies have been replaced by revised regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which now embrace the self-employed.

It is the intention that most health and safety regulations will be made on an across-the-board basis but there will still be some which relate exclusively to agricultural matters. My hon. Friend will know that already regulations have been made regarding the preparation of written safety policy statements which apply to all industries, including agriculture. Also, recently, regulations have been accepted by this House regarding safety representatives and safety committees on a similar basis.

With the transfer of full responsibility for health and safety to the Health and Safety Commission—I am glad my hon. Friend welcomed that—the agricultural inspectorate has been strengthened and now comprises almost 200 full-time inspectors. During 1976, over 29,000 visits of inspection were made to farms when both advisory and enforcement functions were carried out. Since the new powers of the 1974 Act were made available in April 1975, the inspectorate has made full use of them and in 1976 issued 212 prohibition notices and 877 improvement notices.

My hon. Friend referred to the letter from Saul Randall's mother and its reference to the need for prosecutions. As he said, it was a poignant letter. The inspectorate were also responsible for mounting 221 successful prosecutions during the year under the agricultural regulations and the general provisions of the 1974 Act.

It is the practice of the inspectorate to investigate all fatal accidents and poisoning incidents and the more serious of the reported non-fatal accidents involving workers. In 1976, over 1,700 non-fatal accidents—almost 40 per cent.—were in fact investigated. I hope that this will indicate to my hon. Friend, who asked for a tough approach, that the inspectorate rigorously pursues an active health and safety policy in agriculture.

Turning to the specific question of the safety of children on farms, I must say that this is a particularly difficult problem, almost peculiar to agriculture. We are all aware of the high figure of child fatalities—unfortunately amounting to 20 or so every year. This is an unacceptable situation. However, we have to face the fact that the farm, besides being a workplace, is traditionally something of a playground. It would not be practicable to ban all children from all farms—and my hon. Friend has not asked for that. We obviously would not want to do it. However, the overwhelming majority of farm accidents involve children at play and not at work.

What the agricultural inspectorate has always stressed is that all concerned—parents, employers and workers—have a responsibility for seeing that children are kept away from operating machines, are shewn where they can safely play and are adequately supervised. Every opportunity is taken by the inspectorate to bring home to the fanning community and school children the hazards existing on farms. My hon. Friend will know that for the recent EEC Farm Safety Week the theme chosen by the United Kingdom was "Children and Machinery" with the slogan "You can't play safe with machines". This choice reflects the continuing concern of the agricultural inspectorate about the number of children who lose their lives on farms each year. The campaign was given the full support and co-operation of all major organisations in agriculture.

The week was launched at a Press conference on 2nd May by the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission. This was followed by the first showing of a new children's farm safety film specially produced under commission from the Health and Safety Executive The film was designed to warn children about dangers on the farm in a way that they would understand and through characters with whom they could identify and it does this very effectively. Equally it has a message for parents and indeed every adult with responsibilities for children.

To coincide with the week, the Executive launched three national children's farm safety competitions through some 25,000 schools throughout the country. The EEC Farm Safety Week received very wide coverage by the Press, radio and TV, particularly in the regions. We hope that it will help to drive home the message that accidents do not just happen—they are caused. It is hoped this extensive campaign will achieve its objective of reducing the number of accidents to children on farms.

The employment of children on farms is governed by various statutory measures. There are a number of agricultural regulations which protect the young person under 18 or in some cases under 16. In the case of driving and riding on tractors and other self-propelled machines, the minimum age is fixed by regulations at 13. There is legislation governing the employment of children, for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is responsible.

Under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, local authorities are empowered to make byelaws on the part-time employment of children under compulsory school leaving age, outside school hours, in non-industrial occupations. The Children Act 1972 fixed the minimum age of employment at 13, but byelaws may also provide for the employment of children under 13 by their parents or guardians in light horticultural or agricultural work.

The Employment of Children Act 1973 empowers my right hon. Friend to introduce national regulations to replace the local authority byelaws. My hon. Friend will know that the introduction of these regulations was postponed for at least two years, in February 1976, because of the limited resources available to local authorities to implement them. Even so, when the regulations are eventually made, there is no proposal that they should prohibit the employment of children in agriculture. I know that my hon. Friend did not ask for that.

There are many light jobs on farms and holdings that have been traditionally undertaken by children and this applies particularly with small family businesses. I think it would be wrong to legislate to prohibit young people from performing jobs on farms which help the small family farm and encouraged the youngsters to take up a career in farming.

Mr. John Ellis

It is the whole atmosphere which is wrong. People say that they know the difficulties but that it is traditional to have young children around farms. But unless there is a new realisation of the dangers involved, we shall have to start thinking about making it an offence for children under school age to be around dangerous machinery unless the pattern of operations is changed. Then the agricultural industry and all concerned will understand that this is a serious matter. This is not just one or two isolated instances. These accidents happen here, there and everywhere all the time. We must break through to people. I hope my hon. Friend will agree with that.

Mr. Grant

I think that I can agree with that. What my hon. Friend says is right. Unless there is a further improvement, a whole atmosphere of pressure will build up along the lines that he has suggested and it will be very difficult for us to resist it. We have to achieve a further improvement and to bring it home to people. I believe that the measures that I have described and one or two others that are in hand will satisfy my hon. Friend that there is a great deal going on. It would be premature, however, to make any judgment that legislation is necessary as of now. Where there are known risks, regulations have been made and these are kept constantly under review by the Executive.

The inspectorate has the advice of the Agriculture Industry Advisory Committee, set up last year by the Health and Safety Commission. This was the first such industry advisory committee to be appointed, and it underlines the importance that the Commission give to this subject. That Committee is considering measures designed to reduce the hazards to children on farms. Any recommendation that it puts forward will be carefully considered by the Commission, who will not hesitate to take whatever steps are felt to be necessary for the protection of young people on farms, including putting before my right hon. Friend any proposals for regulations. Also, I shall undertake to ensure that the Commission's attention is drawn to my hon. Friend's remarks tonight.

But regulations are not necessarily the answer in all cases. Recognising that it is not possible, or even desirable, to keep children off farms completely, I would urge everyone fully to accept their responsibilities in this respect. Many accidents could be prevented if children were provided with safe areas in which to play away from form operations and other hazardous situations and were properly supervised.

With the co-operation of those concerned we should be able to achieve the reduction in the number of child fatalities in agriculture that we all want to see.