HC Deb 26 February 1980 vol 979 cc1318-28

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

11.51 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak about a subject of great importance to the nation—that is, health and safety at work. It is a subject that is largely ignored by the media except when there is a massive incident on the Flixborough scale. The Government have paid less attention to it than it deserves.

It is interesting that when strike action takes place there is an immediate demand for legislation by certain narrow representatives of the employers. The Government have responded very willingly and introduced legislation. They organised masses of police against pickets. Yet on a general, average year-by-year record, more days are lost through industrial injury than by strike action. For example, in 1976, according to figures published in the Employment Gazette, 3.2 million days were lost in strikes, while 15 million days were lost through industrial injuries.

In 1977 the days lost in strike action went up to 10.1 million. The days lost through industrial injury went up to 15.7 million. In 1976 five times the number of days were lost through industrial injuries as opposed to strike action.

Industrial injury figures are based on the DHSS survey. They exclude certain categories of sufferers and those who were off work for longer than six months, due to injury. In spite of this massive disparity between days lost in strike action and industrial injuries the inspectorate currently are facing financial cutbacks at the critical area of inspection.

In the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate the shortfall in inspectors is a massive 53 per cent., according to an answer given today by the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). Yet at the same time the Government announced the appointment of 1,000 social security investigators. The Nuclear Inspectorate is 53 per cent. short of inspectors to work in the field. That is against a background of the warnings by Sir Alan Cottrell that were reported in The Guardian of Thursday 21 February as follows: MPs were told yesterday that if Britain now goes ahead with a programme of American-style nuclear power stations using pressurised water reactors (PWRs) they may later have to be shut down at great cost if the engineering techniques to ensure their safety prove impossible to develop. The warning came from the Government's former chief scientific adviser, Sir Alan Cottrell, who said he would advise sticking to the British-designed advanced gas cooled reactor (AGR). He was giving evidence to the Commons Select Committee on energy. Sir Alan pointed out that the PWR design was the same basic type of reactor as was involved in the near-catastrophic accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, last March. The Committee also heard further evidence on this point. I refer again to The Guardian report, which states: Giving evidence to the committee later, the French-trained nuclear engineer, Mr Shoja Etemad, who has written articles in The Guardian on the PWRAGR issue, suggested that the position on PWR cracking may be more serious than Sir Alan believed. The cracking is the area that is revealed by proper, continual and careful inspection. The Government have embarked on a programme of expanding nuclear generation with a design that is by no means proven and is subject to severe criticism at a time when the nuclear inspectorate is 53 per cent. undermanned. The Minister has pointed out that any future position of the inspectorate is determined by the cutbacks, affecting all Departments, that the Government are making.

There have been cutbacks in inspections in the other areas of the Health and Safety Executive Inspectorate. This was admitted to me by the Minister on 31 January, when he said, in answer to a parliamentary question: There has been some curtailment of travelling in some Health and Safety Executive inspectorates due to increases in the costs of travelling not fully covered by increased funds and to the need to economise in the use of fuel."—[Official Report, 31 January 1980; Vol. 977, c. 740.] In practical terms, this means, for instance, that in the Shrewsbury office of the Health and Safety Executive, the agriculture inspector, who covers Coventry, cannot investigate two serious accidents on site until April, when some moneys are available at the start of a new financial year.

These problems are emphasised by the executive's bulldozing through a reorganisation of the inspectorate against its wishes in 1975–76 with the rubber stamp of the Health and Safety Commission and the then Minister. District offices were closed in my area at Shipley, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield. This now means a 50-mile to 60-mile return journey between Leeds and Keighley. When the district office at Shipley was open, travel to Keighley could be effected in half the time, over half the distance.

Under reorganisation, Preston now covers Carlisle. The Bristol office covers Penzance, Falmouth, Redruth and Camborne. I warned at the time, in an Adjournment debate, that it would mean more travelling and less inspection. Now, under the Government's savage cutbacks, inspection is even further curtailed, because travelling is cut back.

The decision to move the executive to Bootle was welcome from the point of view of regional dispersal, but it raises the question why 300 office staff are to stay in London. What is the justification for this move? The executive appears willing to reorganise virtually everyone except itself. This will involve more travelling not on inspection to factory sites, where it counts, but between London and Bootle and back. I understand that Mr. Locke has made no secret of his determination to stay south of Milton Keynes. One wonders who is in final charge of the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission.

What are needed are more people to make inspections and not a massive head office staff spending much of its time travelling between its office and regional headquarters at Bootle. Some areas of inspection give cause for concern. In replies to parliamentary questions, I discovered that between 1975 and 1978 7,255 accidents occurred in quarries, causing workers to have three or more days off work. In other words, they were of a relatively serious nature.

During that period 58 people died, and the Quarries Inspectorate managed a total of four prohibition notices, three improvement notices and three prosecutions. Those 10 actions resulted from more than 26,000 inspections. I cannot believe that from that number of inspections, that number of accidents and that number of deaths, there was justification only for that small number of actions.

There is a marked contrast between the attitude of the Government towards social security scroungers and employment scroungers who do not obey the legislation, who cut corners on safety and do not provide proper standards. They get away with it. Yet the Government are to employ another 1,000 social security inspectors while people who work in quarries, mines and factories are dying and very little action is being taken by the inspectorate. In answer to a question that I asked, the Minister said that he was satisfied. The reality on the ground is different.

There is a quarry at Bridgwater which in 1978 excavated a barrowload of stone each week so as to come under the Quarries Inspectorate rather than the Factory Inspectorate, which was thought to be more scrupulous. There is need for action on that score.

The Minister might say that I should discuss these matters more often with the Health and Safety Executive. I did that several years ago, with disappointing results. In 1976 I raised the matter of the lifting of heavy weights, following an unsuccessful application for a Ten-Minute Bill. In proposing that Bill I pointed out that the position regarding weight limits was confused. The Agriculture (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations 1959 provide for any workers employed in agriculture to lift any load consisting of a sack or a bag together with its contents lifted or carried unaided a maximum of 180 lb. Yet the Woollen and Worsted Textiles (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations 1926 put the maximum, where the yarn, cloth, tool or appliance is reasonably compact, at 150 lb. or where it is not a rigid body, 120 lb.

Section 72(1) of the Factory Act 1961 limits the load for any employed person to any load so heavy as to be likely to cause injury to the person lifting, carrying or moving it.

There are three standards, but there are not three standards of people working in agriculture, textiles and factories. It is not surprising that, on average, 50,000 people a year suffer from accidents involving strains and sprains to the trunk, including slipped discs.

Following my unsuccessful application for a Ten-Minute Bill I met the chairman of the commission in September 1976. A promise was made to provide guidance notes to the inspectors by the following December, and a code of practice in the lifting of heavy weights was promised by April 1977. Neither has materialised. Nor have regulations been produced to bring the lifting of heavy weights into common form in the hope of reducing the number of injuries that occur each year.

I received from the Minister a reply to my question as follows: The Health and Safety Commission is considering proposals prepared by the Health and Safety Executive concerning regulations and guidance on manual handling. The Chairman of the Commission will inform me of the results of its deliberations."—[Official Report, 17 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 101.] That is nearly four years after the matter was raised in the House and subsequently with the commission. That is not good enough, because people are being injured all the time. Over that period about 200,000 suffered back injury, at least in part because of the inadequacy of the regulations.

Many of those injured, when seeking compensation, will be denied it by virtue of the judge relying on the very high limits laid down by the agriculture regulations.

The lack of care and competence of the executive and commission extends further. Various items of legislation require notification of processes to various named inspectors. The executive has chosen to qualify inspectors universally. Now, 1,465 inspectors hold full warrants and 323 hold part warrants. That causes some confusion, because section 19(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974—the Minister will no doubt vividly recall that we served together on that Committee—states that every enforcing authority may appoint as inspectors such persons having suitable qualifications as it thinks necessary for carrying into effect the relevant statutory provisions within its field of responsibility". Subsection (2) states that Every appointment of a person as an inspector under this section shall be made by an instrument in writing specifying which of the powers conferred on inspectors by the relevant statutory provisions are to be exercisable by the person appointed. Every inspector now has a universal warrant, so that a factory owner can notify an agriculture inspector, or a person occupying premises where nuclear plant is operating can notify an agriculture inspector, that the terms of the legislation have been carried out. That was not the intention of the legislation.

Only today, the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments examined the position of the Whitwell Mine (Teleplatform Haulage and Refuge Holes) Regulations 1980, which are not the main bone of contention in the House. We reported the matter because the instrument requires elucidation. We pointed out that the expression "inspector for the district" in regulation 4 has no legal meaning any longer. We said It would appear to the Committee however that, as drafted, the inspector referred to in Regulation 4 need not be an inspector appointed specifically for mines and quarries for the provisions of this Regulation to be complied with. The Committee consider that the Explanatory Note to this Instrument should have clarified the matter. The question is simply one of administrative organisation. I do not think that the legislation has been carried out effectively. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is not a private manual of guidance; it is a Public Act of Parliament. It should be carried out more accurately.

I hope that it will not prove to be the case, but the matter may well be tested in the courts. I think that it would be preferable for the Minister to issue some sort of guidance to the executive and commission rather than face that alternative.

I have covered a broad range because the opportunities for debating health and safety at work—a vital and important topic—are limited. I suggest to the Minister that there should be more expenditure on inspectors, the restoration of district offices, and a more vigorous approach by the executive and commission, especially on the lifting of heavy weights. Perhaps a more vigorous approach could be betokened by the production of the 1978 annual report, which is well overdue. The clarification of the procedure of notification to inspectors, and the author- isation of those inspectors, should be clarified and separated one from another.

I believe that the Minister has a good background to the matter. He served on the Committee. He has legal experience on the question of obtaining compensation. He knows as well as I do that it is people's lives and limbs that we are discussing. It behoves the House, and the Minister, to take action on the lines that I have suggested to reduce the enormous number of days lost through industrial injury, which is a more important question before the nation than the days lost through strike action.

12.9 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) has selected a broad subject for an Adjournment debate. He will understand if a somewhat fragmented reply has to be given to the wide variety of subjects that he touched upon in his speech. As the House knows, the hon. Gentleman has a close interest in this matter. However, I think that he does the subject less than justice by condemming the Health and Safety Commission and Executive for lack of care and lack of competence in the discharge of their duties.

Similarly, he does the Government less than justice—which perhaps will seem to him a less important matter—when he accuses them of devoting less interest than the subject of health and safety at work deserves. It is worth remembering that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act was the product of all-party support deriving from the report of the Robens committee. The commission and the executive that were set up under it have the task of embodying, and giving effect to, the policy of that Act. The Government attach great importance to the whole subject of maintaining proper standards of health and safety at work, for the precise reason that the hon. Member gave, namely, that in an average year—it so happens that it is not the case this year—more days are lost through accidents than through strikes. The toll that that takes in terms of human suffering, to say nothing of the economic loss to the country as a whole, is very great.

The hon. Member ought not to give the impression that all is for the worst, and getting worse in the worst of all possible worlds. I thought that he gave a misleading impression of the state of affairs in the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate when he said that it was 53 per cent. under strength. He will know from the answer that he received—I do not have that answer with me, and I speak from memory—that it is true to say that a shortfall of that order currently exists in the lowest ranks of the inspectorate, that is to say, the inspectors. Their establishment is considerably lower than that of the next rank up, where the shortfall is considerably less.

While I am on that subject, I am advised that at present there are 18 vacancies out of an existing complement of 104 nuclear inspectors in the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. There, no doubt unwittingly, it was misleading to say that the nuclear inspectorate as a whole is 53 per cent. under strength. That is not the case.

Similarly, the hon. Gentleman dwelt with some force upon the policies adopted by the Quarries Inspectorate when it comes to deciding whether or not to prosecute in respect of breaches of quarries law. What ought to be borne in mind is that over the last 10 years there has been a fairly consistent and maintained reduction in the number of deaths each year, as well as in the number of quarry injuries. I gave the hon. Gentleman the figures on 21 January. In 1960 there were 38 deaths and 2,601 injuries, resulting in more than three days' absence. Coming down year by year to 1979, the figures for which are provisional, that number has been reduced from 38 to 12 fatalities and for injuries from 2,601 to 1,846.

Whereas I do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman accurately sets out the answers that I have given in the past about the numbers of prosecutions, prohibition orders and enforcement notices, they must be seen—if he is to castigate the inspectorate in the manner in which he has castigated it—against that satisfactory record of decline both in deaths and in serious accidents.

The reorganisation of the inspectorates that took place in 1976 was carried out for a particular purpose. The reorganisation replaced 130 district offices by 21 area offices, with 14 sub-offices in locations that were a long distance from the area office. Inspectors were then posted to industry groups, and each group specialises in a number of industries. It was known that there would be a penalty for that reorganisation in the form of increased travelling by inspectors but it was thought that proper organisation of work by inspectors would reduce the lost time considerably and that the increased expertise deriving from specialisation would be worth the extra cost.

The primary objective was to increase the inspectors' knowledge of the health and safety problems of the industry and their solution—not to produce inspectors who were as knowledgeable about the operation of the industry as those who ran it. That objective is, in the view of the chief inspector, Mr. Hammer, well on the way to achievement. It is not possible to cost the extra travelling involved, either in time or in money, but the objective must, in my view, be right. We are faced with industry of increasing complexity, as new technology becomes available. The risk of accidents and disasters of the type to which the hon. Gentleman referred—the Flixborough disaster a few years ago—is such that we face increasing risk through the development of new and perhaps less familiar technology that will increase. Therefore it is important that the inspectorates should be grouped, so that there is a grouping of expertise and an ability on a wider scale than was possible before reorganisation to master the special knowledge of safety procedures that is required to provide the degree of safety and supervision that the Act requires. That was the purpose. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the penalty in increased travelling time, but it was a penalty that was foreseen, and it is one that is worth paying.

Mr. Cryer

It is not a penalty that is worth paying, because it cuts out the number of inspections before the reorganisation specialist services can be called upon readily, and where necessary, to meet advanced technology. Does the Minister not recognise that by limiting expenses, the reorganisation, coupled with a cut-back in expenses, has savagely cut back the number of visits that can be made?

Mr. Mayhew

I do not accept that emotive way of putting the case, or the comparative way of putting it. I do not think that it is right to say that there has been a savage cut. It is right to say the Health and Safety Executive, in common with the rest of the public sector, is subject to the Government's policy of reaucing public expenditure. However, because of the importance attached to this work by the Government, the proposed money cuts are less than those proposed for many other areas of expenditure.

The Government have not made any bones about the likelihood that some visits will be cut in consequence. However, it should be borne in mind that the Health and Safety Executive—if I can put it this way—has come off better than many other areas of expenditure for the very reason that I gave at the outset: the Government attach great importance to the executive's ability to carry out its work properly. The commission and the executive are at present examining the effects of the proposed cut in the HSC budget on the work of the various divisions.

I should mention perhaps that the 3 per cent. cut in salaries and related expenditure imposed in 1979–80 was a cash cut of almost £1 million. For 1980–81, this new level is being taken as a base and is further reduced by £0.6 million as a first stage of the further reduction by 1982–83 of £2.2 million in staff costs. In 1982–83, the cuts announced by the Government in our statement of 6 December will amount to £2.23 million or about 260 jobs.

Until the review is complete, it is premature to speculate about the effect of those cuts on the number or types of visits paid by inspectors. The commission and the executive are conscious of the important role of inspectorates in carrying out their functions in health and safety matters. I am certain—I have been assured of this—that they will bear that in mind in their deliberations.

An important point to remember is that the inspectorates will from now on have to give less of their time to training than they have in recent years. The training load is now diminishing and the overall effectiveness of the inspectorates' field force will therefore be enhanced.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned warrants and drew attention to the fact that notification of accidents, for example, may be made to any type of inspector, whether or not he has a specialist knowledge of the matter complained of. Technically, that is correct, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that assurance that I gave, in a written answer, that internal—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.