HC Deb 03 February 1984 vol 53 cc505-24 9.35 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I beg to move, That this House condemns the cuts in the Health and Safety Executive — cuts which involve reductions in routine inspections, in the number of accidents inspectors are able to investigate, in the number of enforcement notices that are issued and in provision for research, and which make it impossible to achieve satisfactory standards of health and safety at work; and calls on the Government to increase the resources allocated to the Health and Safety Executive to enable it to carry out its responsibility to ensure that proper and effective health and safety standards are maintained at all workplaces, and thus to put an end to the cuts that kill.

As you will see, Mr. Speaker, I have a few notes. I shall try to rush through them as quickly as possible, as a tremendous number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak on this important subject.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Of course it is important.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, it is. This is the third time that I have come out first in the ballot for private Members' motions.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The hon. Gentleman has joined the Establishment.

Mr. Skinner

It is all about luck. The first time I came first in the ballot about 11 years ago—I proposed a Socialist budget. It was pretty good and much better than the one which we had from the Chancellor of the time. I am pleased that some of my suggestions were carried out by the Labour Government. That Government could not carry all of them out because the International Monetary Fund interfered in about 1976 and stopped the Government from carrying out my budget of 1973. Circumstances then were not much different from what they are now. The pound was being defended by the workers. They were trying to stop it going down and were having to pull up their socks and tighten their belts to do so. Later they had to stop it from going up. They are now having to stop it going down again as it is at its lowest ever level.

This debate is about another vital issue which has been at the centre of trade union philosophy ever since trade unions started. Most people tend to think that trade unions are all about improving workers' wages. For those of us who come from some of the more arduous occupations such as mining, railways, docks, shipyards and the newer technologies such as the chemical industry, having to provide decent conditions is uppermost. The debate is about freedom to work and having security when at work.

The Prime Minister is always prattling on about freedoms. Today's debate is about an extremely important freedom. It also concerns the 700 people who die each year as a result of industrial accidents. It is about the 275,000 people, on average, who suffer serious injury as a result of work. It is also about the 900 who die each year as a result of industrial diseases. They can be seen in the Welsh valleys, the coalfields and textile areas. They suffer from asbestosis and various other diseases of the lung. They can be seen leaning over walls having managed to stagger about 20 yards, their hollow chests coughing up their lungs. They are the casualties of the arduous conditions in which they have had to work. People who work in the new technologies such as the chemical-based industries sometimes have fingers that are wasting away as a result of the cancer-inducing substances with which they have worked and which have gradually permeated their bodies.

It is only recently that a Labour Government introduced industrial diseases benefits for people such as I have described and their widows. The debate is about freedom and liberties. I do not expect any support—I might yet get a bit of vocal support—from those employed in the relatively safe areas such as barristers. I am not making any representations this morning on behalf of the Inner Temple or the outer or up and down temple—whatever they call themselves. I have no doubt that occasionally someone has to see that the toilets are in order and that the carpets are thick enough for them to walk on, but if someone becomes a casualty in the law courts the Establishment or the Conservative party will not search for answers. That will always be done by the trade unions and the Labour party. It will not be done by the Social Democratic party—there is not one hon. Member from that party present — or the Liberals. I should have thought that an alliance Member would be present, because we are talking about a subject which can be used by it, and no doubt is, as one of the safe areas about which it can argue, although it will not do anything about it.

The debate is also about security at work. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) today. He used to represent Ebbw Vale. When he was Minister for Employment, one of the measures which he and Mr. Deputy Speaker my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker) brought in was the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. It was an important step forward.

My right hon. Friend will accept straight away, and have to admit, that mining was not altogether happy about having to incorporate the mines and quarries inspectorate within the Health and Safety Executive. We tended to believe that we could manage the matter successfully within the industry. I shall develop that argument. Time has shown that it was probably worth while for the pits. Agriculture was not altogether happy with the idea, as the industry had its agriculture inspectorate. The same applied to shipping, which was represented by the National Union of Seamen. Shipping said, "We do not want to be brought into the ambit of the Health and Safety Executive."

I have some figures which show that, contrary to what happened in many other industries where the number of accidents declined, in shipping, accidents, deaths and serious injuries have continued to rise at an incredible rate. Last night I was shown an article from the National Union of Seamen which showed that the number of deaths in shipping per 100,000 employees is four times the rate of that in coalmining.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there has been no progress in the offshore oil and gas industry? That industry remains within the purview of the Department of Energy, when it should have been placed within the remit of the Health and Safety Executive. The Government should take the step by bringing safety measures to a group of workers who are often unfortunately and fatally exploited.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend will agree that one of the reasons why the new growth industries of the '60s, '70s and '80s which have been exploited by people who have obtained the cash from someone else as a result of previous exploitations do not want to be included in that they do not want interference from anyone. They want to conduct their enterprises without an inspector looking over their shoulder to see whether conditions are right for deep sea divers. That is the last thing they want. They do not want snoopers.

There are plenty of snoopers for other activities. The Government are not against snoopers in the DHSS. There has been a massive increase in the number of snoopers examining those who receive £25 or £26 a week, or for carrying out surveillance in cases of cohabitation and such matters.

Generally, bosses do not want people snooping on what they are doing. It is no surprise to me that they want to keep at bay those who would say that working conditions are not right and should be improved. They do not want the trade unions intruding. If one studies the historical development of the industrial revolution, one finds that the last thing the bosses want to stop them exploiting the workers or the flow of their entrepreneurial skills is to have inspectors, trade unions and watchdogs to see that people were not smashed to pieces by their jobs. I was paying a special compliment to my right hon. Friend for introducing the Health and Safety Executive.

The people employed in merchant shipping are now saying that they would like to come away from the Department of Transport and be brought under the general umbrella of the Health and Safety Executive because accidents and deaths are increasing at an incredible rate, in contrast with the reduction that took place after the 1975 Act. In the past few years, as a result of the rundown in the numbers of inspectors, the decline in the number of accidents is being reversed. When the Bill was going through the House of Commons I remember reading that "Lord Bananaskin," who was then in opposition, welcomed the measure. He said that he would support any measures which would increase and strengthen the areas of inspection. What a carry on. Since then there have been massive reductions in all the branches that were set up. There is no doubt that when the Act came into force, despite the initial problems with mines, quarries, agriculture, shipping, and so on, fairly significant improvements were made. Safety at work measures were overhauled as a result of the setting up of a special department. Instead of examining 250,000 work places with 11 million workers, the safety measures were extended to about 750,000 work places employing 17 million workers. The Act placed the duty upon employers to carry out proper inspections and brought all the inspectorates together.

In 1983, 3,723 people were employed in the Health and Safety Executive. In 1974, when the Act brought together all the groupings that I have described, the department kicked off with 3,500 workers. The numbers rose to about 4,250 by the time that the Labour Government left office. Now, as a result of that crowd being in power, the numbers are down to 3,723.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Does my hon. Friend also realise that when the legislation was introduced in 1974 it was promised that there would be 50 per cent. more factory inspectors? That promise was repeated in July 1979 by the Conservative Government, but the reverse has happened.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend is right. I do not know whether he has seen my notes. He is improving. He was on the Front Bench the other day and made a marvellous speech. Now he has come straight to the point. There were 978 factory inspectors in 1979—I believe that that was the highest ever figure—as a result of the Act when the Labour Government left office. By 1983 they were down to 833. The promise of a 50 per cent. increase is explained by those figures. There were 2,127 prosecutions in 1979 — not enough in my view. They are down now to 2,022. The average penalty following prosecutions under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act against employers who have not been carrying out their statutory duty, so that people have been burnt to death in fires or crushed in equipment, is £205.

I was sent a copy of February's edition of Safety and Fire News. It states: Mailing magistrates fined a mid Kent firm £400 and ordered them to pay £660 costs. That is nearly as much as the fine for a football hooligan on a bad day at Chelsea. The fine was imposed after a paper machine operator's skull had been smashed by a 3-tonne pressure bar. The article went on to say: Although the firm's chief engineer insisted there had never been any similar accident or near miss involving the machine, the magistrates were told that the bar had fallen on three previous occasions. And factory inspector Malcolm Moore told the court that the firm had ignored these warnings … The firm … were convicted of negligence by the magistrates. Another article is headed: Tragic Electrocution 'could be prevented'". It states: Low cost insulation … could have saved the life of a 47-year-old farmworker … Ridgeway Grain Ltd., Edwards' employer"— —Edwards was the man who was killed— were fined £400 after admitting breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Mr. Dixon

I agree with my hon. Friend that the fines imposed on employers are meagre. Does he realise that on the day on which the National Graphical Association was fined £50,000, two employers were fined on average £1,000 each as four people had been killed due to neglect? That was ridiculously low.

Mr. Skinner

That explains why we are in the Opposition and why Tories support the Government. They represent the bosses. We represent those who are exploited by capitalism. I see that one alliance Member has turned up. The rest are absent from the debate.

Some of the fines imposed on those who went to defend the NGA on the picket line at Warrington were greater than those paid as a result of prosecutions after people had been killed. In the pits, mines and quarries the number of inspectors has decreased by 19 from 1980 to 1982. I shall get the figures right so that I am not challenged by the Minister. His wages have not gone down. Since the Health and Safety Excutive came under his control he has had another £5,000, but he is not doing any extra work.

One might ask why we have had all these Government cuts. The answer is simple. The Government intend to give those who finance the Tory party a better chance of exploiting the workers. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh. There is always much nervous laughter when one touches that chord.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

The hon. Gentleman has talked eloquently about the number of cuts in the mining inspectorate. I think that he would have difficulty in proving that the National Coal Board has made massive contributions to the Conservative party.

Mr. Skinner

Let me put it this way. The man who is running the NCB now and the one who ran it before have made strong moral commitments to the Tory party. They made it abundantly clear which side of the fence they were on. I cannot be sure how many people in the NCB hierarchy have given money to the Tory party. I know what their actions suggest to me. I do not want to argue about whether they have made a financial contribution en bloc, but there is no doubt that they have assisted the Tory party in no uncertain fashion.

The cuts are being made because the Government represent the bosses. As soon as they came into power in 1979 there was a 3 per cent. cut in the staff of the Health and Safety Executive. In December 1979 another cut of 6 per cent. was announced. The Government received a TUC delegation. Big deal. The delegation met the then Secretary of State. However, in July 1980 there were further cuts of 8 per cent. Bill Simpson, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, went to see the Secretary of State. He said, "All these cuts are ripping the heart out of the Health and Safety Executive. We cannot carry out the functions that have been laid down by the Act of Parliament." He saw the wet Tory who is now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. One would have thought that that would make a difference. It did not. By December 1981 the Tory Government initiated another 2 per cent. cut, so the unions went to see the next Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). He argued in his usual fashion, "We are increasing resources. We are not cutting back at all." The Government had made these cuts, but he said that.

We all know what the then Secretary of State did with the figures. He knew how to fiddle them. He fiddled the unemployment figures as well as those for the Health and Safety Executive. No sooner had the unions turned their backs than there were cuts of 5 and 10 per cent. in the Health and Safety Executive.

There are fewer inspections and inspectors. In 1979, 22.5 per cent. of workplaces were inspected, but the figure is now down to 15.5 per cent. It is now suggested that as many as 25 per cent. of all the farms in Great Britain never have been or never will be visited because of the lack of inspectors. The chief inspector of the nuclear inspectorate said recently: We are so overworked with having to go to the Sizewell inquiry to deal with the PWR application that we cannot carry out the job that we are supposed to do. It is said that everything is all right at Windscale and that all the nuclear power stations are safe, yet the chief inspector said that the inspectors cannot do the work as there are not enough of them.

A legislation review unit was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent. It has had to be abandoned. The Minister has announced a big campaign on noise. It is a big propaganda job. All the Tory newspapers, the BBC and the ITV have gone to great lengths to explain how the new Minister of State has started the campaign on noise. He says that noise in factories will be eliminated. What is happening in reality? There is money for the equipment. So it is all ballyhoo. All the talk about eliminating noise in factories to prevent industrial deafness is a gimmick invented by the Minister and his friends. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive does not have the cash to buy the equipment.

Mr. Pavitt

I have noted with care the amount of research that my hon. Friend has done into the question of inspections in various activities. Does he have any figures about the number of inspections that have taken place into noise affecting workers on the shop floor, and does he have any information about pressure being brought to bear on the Government to bring down the number of decibels permitted, remembering that in this country the permitted number is higher than in the Common Market?

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend wil have gleaned from my remarks that inspections are made probably not more than once every four or five yeas, if an establishment is lucky enough to get an inspection.

Mr. Dixon

The rate is now one in seven years.

Mr. Skinner

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) for pointing out that inspections are taking place at establishments only once every seven years. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) has, I know, been active in campaigning to get a reduction in the number of decibels, but hardly anything has been done otherwise on the decibel question. The Government will go on trying to kid the workers that they are concerned about noise in factories and so on. They do not kid my hon. Friends, and they do not kid me.

Mr. John Evans

Is my hon. Friend aware that in one of its better moments, the EC Commission introduced proposals substantially to reduce the amount of noise to which workers could be exposed? In a recent debate in the European Parliament the Conservative Members voted against it, and in a debate in this House a few weeks ago the Minister of State said that he was under heavy pressure from all parts of the Tory party not to accept the regulation that the Commission had proposed.

Mr. Skinner

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that interruption, but I do not get worked up over the Common Market's activities. The Common Market is all about passing the buck. It enables the Establishment to say, "We should love to do something"—about this, that or the other — "and introduce regulations, say, to eliminate noise and enable claims to be made for industrial deafness, but we must deal with the Common Market." The Common Market does the same; the Assembly passes proposals and the Tory Members vote against it.

That is to be expected, because most of the Tory MEPs represent either the farmers or the people who are running the few factories that are left in Britain. I am not kidded by all the weaving and bobbing by the members of the Tory party. At the end of the day, their activities are all about not giving the workers the freedoms and liberties at work that they need.

Mr. Dixon

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that the EC recommendation to which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) referred—the debate on which in this House took place late at night — was for 85 decibels? The Government are trying to get the Health and Safety Executive to think in terms of 90 decibels. The difference between 85 and 90 may not sound much, but 90 decibels is four times as loud as 85, and that is what the argument is all about.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend is more aware than many hon. Members of these facts as a result of the long years that he worked in the shipyards, when the men were arguing not about who does what but about how to get the work done and make sure that they did not get wet through as they worked in the cold and the rain, outside in all weathers, deafened by the noise. My hon. Friend knows the figures well and, as he said, while to the layman the difference between 85 and 90 may not seem large, that difference must be put in its correct context.

Apart from all the other activities of the HSE that the Government have wound up, they have gone one further and as near as damn it got rid of the employment medical advisory service. That service was set up to promote high standards in occupational health and medicine. I have been sent a cutting from the Nursing Times—I am not normally sent cuttings from that publication—which, in the issue of 25 January 1984, wrote: Twenty-three occupational health nurses look set to be made redundant — by the national OH watchdog itself, the Health and Safety Executive. One of the nurses threatened … claims they have all been kept 'completely in the dark' … The OH nurses were all full-time until 1980". Those nurses are being sacked because of Government cuts, yet the Prime Minister talks about St. Francis of Assisi and compassion when she uses one of her many Janet Brown voices to kid the people.

When replying to the debate, the Minister will no doubt argue that notwithstanding all the cuts that have occurred in the Health and Safety Executive there are today fewer accidents. That will probably be the centrepiece of his argument—that we are doing all right; that only 3,723 people are employed there as opposed to 4,250 when we came to office, but that the number of accidents is still declining.

Of course, the Minister has a few things on his side. For example, about 50,000 firms have gone bankrupt or into liquidation since the Tories came to power in 1979. He will probably not refer to the fact that, as a result of abolishing industrial injury benefit, it is more difficult to estimate the number of people involved in accidents at work. Further, with getting on for 4 million people on the dole, we have between 1 million and 2 million fewer people at work today than in 1979.

Despite all those facts and all the claims that the Minister may make, the accident rate in manufacturing industry has gone up, as it has in construction and, in particular, in mining. Indeed, I was not certain of the figures until I checked them yesterday. When the Labour party left office in 1979, 1.03 people were killed or seriously injured per 100,000 manshifts in the mines. In 1982 the system of measurement was changed—I would not allow the Minister to get away without that being mentioned — and the figure went up to 1.75 per 100,000. But by 1983, the last figures available, it had gone up to 1.96, even measured by the new system. In other words, there has been a 12 per cent. increase in the number of people killed or seriously injured in the mines, even in the last year.

Because of the rundown in the HSE, with fewer inspectors and fewer inspections, we are beginning to see a trend; the accident rate is rising fast. Indeed, an article in the Financial Times suggested that an increase would be revealed throughout the length and breadth of British industry.

I grant that there will be areas where there will not be an increase. They will be safe enough inside Greenham common. The Government are looking after the Yanks; they will make sure that there are proper inspections taking place inside Greenham common. They will not be too interested in the people outside. The Yanks will make sure of that. We are reaching the stage when almost every week a missive is sent from Ronald Reagan to the Prime Minister telling her to do this, that or the other, and I have no doubt that he has made sure that all the necessary safety equipment has been installed to look after his soldiers and others inside the Greenham common Yankee camp.

The Minister is likely to argue that, in this age of technology, we need not worry about the number of staff being reduced in the HSE—a reduction of about 700—because a computer system has been introduced, as a result of which we are able to rationalise our resources. The fact that we have fewer staff and therefore fewer inspections should not worry us, we shall be told, because the computer is able to show exactly where the risk spots are, so we need visit only those. According to the people engaged in the use of computers—I shall not name them because I know what the Government do to people who have the audacity to speak their mind and who are members of a trade union — that is another con trick because the computer is eliminating only the so-called "low risk" areas. The rogue employers are not being investigated — for example, in the recent east end clothing factory fire, several people were killed. Sweat shops of that type will be left out of the investigation because the computer will track over, concentrate on some of the larger industries and leave the rest out.

The investigations will not bother about those kids who are killed or injured on the youth training scheme. The Government claim that they are worried about them, just as they did recently in a letter to me about Mr. Layton, one of my constituents from Shirebrook. He told me that he used to be a lorry driver for the firm Bowmans. He picked up cold slurry and carted it to a power station. The people at the power station said that the truck load had too great a water content, so sheets had to be put over the top of the truck—not that the employer had apparently bothered about that before. Mr. Layton asked for a ladder to put the sheet over the top of the truck. Because my constituent not only asked his employer about getting a ladder to climb up to put the sheets on but asked a bloke about inspecting the coal slurry, he got the sack.

The matter went to the Health and Safety Executive and to the Minister. What did the hard-hearted Minister do? He supported the tribunal. Mr. Layton had been a lorry driver for 18 years. He had merely made a complaint about the need for sheeting and subsequently asked for a ladder so that men could climb up to put the sheeting on the truck. Previously several people suffered various injuries and one had recently broken his ankle.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear to the House that he is talking about an independent industrial tribunal—

Mr. Skinner

It is not independent.

Mr. Gummer

—which made a decision. As Minister, I have no power to intervene nor should I intervene in the actions of that independent tribunal. Does the hon. Gentleman not find it disgraceful to attack the independence of an industrial tribunal?

Mr. Skinner

I do not regard it as an independent tribunal, and I never have done. That statement applies also to local appeal tribunals dealing with special hardship and industrial deaths—I might as well get it all out on the record — because most people on those tribunals represent the Minister's class. They are lawyers and people from the CBI and such organisations. They do not understand what it is like to be injured at work. I have never accepted that those tribunals are independent. It made no difference to me when the Labour Government were in power, so I am not saying anything out of turn. I have always believed that those tribunals are stacked against the ordinary worker.

The Minister should have investigated Mr. Layton's case and given him a chance of a further review. The Minister has certain powers, but he decided not to use them because he is not concerned about a fellow who complained about wanting a ladder to save himself from injury. The Minister is concerned about the employer, who is from his class.

Mr. Dixon

The Minister would say, "Because fewer people are employed and 4 million people are on the dole because of our policies, we do not need factory inspectors for them because they are not working." The reverse is true. Many of the large companies—some have closed — have safety committees and are safety conscious. Many small cowboy outfits which have grown up because of the Government's policies have poor safety provisions. The HSE should be more vigilant.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend is right. That has occurred because it takes time for the trade union movement which represents workers to build up their expertise, even in large factories and gradually to get on top of the job of providing for health and safety at work. Once the trade unions have achieved that, the Government come along and, ruling by fear, decide to run down industry and throw people on the dole. This means that 300 or 400 people are chasing after each job. That is part of the rule by fear. Having done that, the Government take more of the freedoms that have been fought for under the Health and Safety and Work etc Act 1974. My hon. Friend is bang on about that aspect.

Suppose the HSE had been up to standard with 4,400 or more staff, and suppose that, with 4 million on the dole, it was possible for the increased number of inspectors in the HSE to inspect premises—not after an accident but before one. The complaint registered by my constituent would have been examined. He lost his job and is now on £25 a week because of his complaint. That suits the Tory Government. That is the type of society that they want and why youngsters are on £25 a week. The Government want to bring down wages so that profits can grow and finish in the pockets of the Tory party.

The Government are not only unable to deal with the inspections required at present but are bringing down new regulations. The handling of hazardous substances regulations will come into force in early 1984, and the Government will need more staff to deal with those regulations. The Government will not provide that extra staff, so there will not be the extra resources needed to carry out the legislation. When the regulations for controlling major hazards are passed, further demands will be placed on the HSE and it will not receive the extra resources. The Government have introduced the asbestos licensing regulations. The HSE has been inundated with requests to go to the cowboy firms that are stripping asbestos. The staff of the HSE have said that asbestos stripping is a labour-intensive job and that they cannot keep up with it. There is much ballyhoo about removing asbestos to improve working conditions, but the Government make no extra resources available.

We want an expansion in the HSE and an increase in the number of inspectors so that we can reach the targeted number of jobs. There is much talk about the new technology-based industries. Surveillance must be carried out. An article in The Guardian of 26 January states: The locations of about 2,000 sites handling dangerous chemicals are kept secret by the Health and Safety Executive because of pressure from private industry, according to a report published by the 1984 Freedom of Information Campaign. The Confederation of British Industry is said to have blocked a recent attempt by the Health and Safety Executive to persuade the Government to name the sites requiring local authorities to provide information to people liable to be affected by an accident. As a result, only 250 sites will be made public.

Mr. John Evans

Is my hon. Friend aware that section 4 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act included a subsection that was inserted by the Conservative Opposition which laid upon employers a requirement that they notify residents within the area of dangerous practices or toxic substances being used within that establishment which could be hazardous to people living around the factory? That subsection has never been implemented. One would have thought that, when the Tories took office, one of their first actions would have been to implement the subsection that they inserted in the legislation.

Mr. Skinner

The Prime Minister is for ever appearing on television and talking about how the Government cannot do certain things.

Mr. John Evans

That is right.

Mr. Skinner

That is the Prime Minister's philosophy. She says that the Government cannot interfere and that the market force system must prevail. Roughly, she is saying that all will come out in the wash. When it is suggested that the Government must bring in a directive to make a change and to organise the system so that the well-being of the people around the factory is looked after, the Prime Minister asks herself whether the measure will clash with her philosophy. Milton Friedman may ring up and say, "What the hell's going out? My whole creed is being smashed through your Government's interference". The past five years have been riddled with such dilemmas for the Government. The Government are now suffering because the dilemmas are taking a much starker form. I can well understand why they do not do anything.

Mr. Pavitt

To amplify the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans), it is not just a matter of toxic substances in factories. At Willesden junction in my constituency ICI has some very large silos which cause considerable concern because nobody knows whether the contents are changed from time to time for more toxic or perhaps even radioactive substances.

Mr. Skinner

I can well understand that concern. In and around my constituency and the constituencies of Chesterfield and Derbyshire, North-East, a number of firms such as Staveley Chemicals and Bolsover Coalite have been developing the new chemical-based industries, but the inspectors cannot keep up with the developments. More attention must be paid to areas like that. We hear plenty of talk about the need to stop pollution, about acid rain in Sweden and West German forests. I am worried about the people in our constituencies where the Health and Safety Executive needs more staff and resources to keep up with the new developments in the chemical-based industries.

In 1968, before I was a Member of Parliament, there was an explosion at Bolsover Coalite and people finished up with a disease called chloracne. Nobody even knew what caused that until there was a similar explosion in Seveso in Italy followed by an outbreak of chloracne. As the Italian factory was carrying out similar operations, the Bolsover company realised what had happened. In other words, it took another accident seven years later to enlighten people, not to mention some local press activity and various other people becoming involved. Only then did we manage to stop the production of dioxin at that factory and stop the company making money out of it.

That has not stopped the Prime Minister's husband, of course. He is still in the chemical-based industries. He does not mind making a penny or two—or a million or two — out of spreading these chemicals all over the world. Very little is said about that here, but it illustrates my argument. The Prime Minister's husband would not welcome the Tory Government stepping in with new regulations because my hon. Friend's constituents in Brent, South are suffering. Denis Thatcher would not be at all happy if the Tories trooped through the Lobby in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), and the Financial Times then informed him that, due to the new regulations, share prices had fallen by 20 per cent. That is the real world. My hon. Friend has been around long enough to understand that as well as most.

When serious accidents occur — Flixborough was a case in point—everybody is upset and even the Tories say that it must not happen again. Everyone says that new regulations must be introduced, but the Government do nothing. They starve the Health and Safety Executive of the resources to carry out its work.

New areas of technology are constantly being developed. It is now suggested that people who have to watch visual display units for hours on end are suffering from facial dermatitis and God knows how many other diseases. The Health and Safety Executive cannot investigate that properly because it does not have sufficient staff.

The same applies to the nuclear industries. There is a ready answer to that, of course, although we cannot deal with it today. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends would support the idea of halting the nuclear programme altogether and using the 300 years' supply of coal that lies below the earth instead of closing down the pits.

We cannot have a stronger Health and Safety Executive with inspectors all over the place ensuring that working condition are safe and fewer people are killed and injured unless we have the money to finance it. I have never suggested that money falls out of the sky, but there are plenty of places we could get it from. We could reverse the tax cuts which have allowed people with incomes of more than £29,000 per year to make money out of five years of Tory rule. Let us take back the recent £300 million handout. If we give £230 million of that to the people suffering under the housing benefit scheme, there will be £70 million left for the Health and Safety Executive. Many of the problems raised in today's debate would then be well on the way to being solved.

The Government are spending £18,000 million to finance the dole queue. They say that there is no money in the country when there is all that waste of talent and resources. The latest estimate for Trident is £12,000 million. The Government are spending all that to keep Ronald Reagan happy and to provide additional work in the run-up to his election before the boom comes to a sudden halt and we run into the biggest economic crisis that this country or the western world has ever faced.

We have money to send to Argentina. The Prime Minister had to crawl on her hands and knees to the bankers. About this time last year, the big five — Midland, Lloyds, NatWest, Barclays, and the governor of the Bank of England—told her that they had money out there which they could not get back because Argentina had no money to pay. They suggested that all those bad debts — in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and the other 40 rescheduling countries — should be set off against tax. The Prime Minister thought that it was a good idea but was afraid that the story might get out. It did get out because I put down a parliamentary question about it. We are paying for tax relief on all those hundreds of millions of pounds.

That money is going to bail out not the Argentine people but the bankers in Argentina—the friends of the big bankers here. They might even be able to afford a few more bombs to lob across to the airport that the British taxpayer is financing in the Falklands or to drop on the prefabricated units acquired from Sweden through James Brewster Associates. That is another story that the Prime Minister hoped would not get out. The Government do not want the Health and Safety Executive examining those units. They have triple glazing. I am sure that my hon. Friend would appreciate that in Willesden. Out there, there are triple-glazed houses built by a Swedish firm. The Prime Minister was not batting for Britain then. She went in first and opened the innings for Sweden. There is plenty of money for her son, too, opening the innings out in Oman, whizzing around with the Omani air force and picking up money on the side.

Of course there is plenty of money in this country. The carpet in this Chamber cost £24 per sq yd, yet we are told that there is no money in this country. I am told that the Duke of Devonshire has now organised his taxes so that his group does not pay any, so there must be plenty of money about. I read the other day that a question had been tabled in the House of Commons. The Government are talking about there being no money. The Prime Minister has had £1.5 million spent by the taxpayer to pay for all her visits abroad in the past five years, and she goes on about the taxpayer's money and she goes on about the GLC. All her friends on the Tory Benches attack the GLC for looking after the citizens of London, and those in other areas throughout the country, by providing free bus travel and other services for pensioners. She has received £1.5 million to finance all her gallivanting trips abroad, and what does she come back with—nothing. She has gone to the Common Market for the past five years supposedly to bring back bucketfuls of money. This country spends £4,000 million on contributions to the Common Market in subscriptions alone. Since this Prime Minister has been in power, we have spent £2,500 million, 60 per cent. of the total, and yet we are told that she is coming back with barrel-loads of money, so of course there is plenty of money in the country to finance the Health and Safety Executive.

The Health and Safety Executive needs only a few million pounds to start with on top of the £85 million it now has, yet all this money is being wasted. The Government will find it for the stock exchange and the law courts, but they are not bothered about the Health and Safety Executive. They are not bothered about the GCHQ either, because they let the Yanks tell them how to organise affairs and strip the workers of their right to belong to a trade union — and we reckon that we are living in a free country.

The debate is not about the board rooms in which 300-odd Tories with their various directorships are represented. The debate is about the workers, the ones who are last in the queue every time, the ones who are told that, if they will only wait, they can have everything, but it will not be today, oh, no, not today, and there is just a chance it will not be tomorrow, because that is too soon as well.

In the 30 years in which I have been involved in politics, we have always been told by the Tory Establishment, and the other echelons of the Establishment, that the workers have got to wait for another year to get their benefits. We are demanding that the Health and Safety Executive be financed in a way in which it can carry out its job.

I said earlier that the Government's strategy is ruled by fear. This rundown of the Health and Safety Executive that is endangering people's lives at work is all part of that process: get people on the dole, get them fighting for jobs, make them have to put up with all sorts of inconveniences when they work in factories and offices, and say to them, "Do not complain, do not get on to the Health and Safety Executive". The Minister can then say that the number of complaints has gone down, because the people at work are frightened to open their mouths. The constituent I mentioned is an example of that, but Mr. Layton opened his mouth and, as a result, he got thrown on the dole. This Minister refused to assist him in any way.

The TUC has launched a campaign to get the Health and Safety Executive off the ground, and that is what I have been trying to do today. I know that my hon. Friends will attempt to do the same. I have to say to Len Murray and the rest of them, with their built-in automaticity rule on the general council, that all the fine words this morning from any hon. Member on these Benches will not be enough. It is all part of a propaganda exercise, but I am not fooled. We cannot win in the House. There is the parliamentary arithmetic against us for a start, a Government majority of 144, and it is bigger than that when the Social dreamers and the rest of that lot do not turn up. When they do turn up, they vote with the Government most of the time, if they are not on a sabbatical. I am not kidding about what we can do in this place. I say to Len Murray, in response to the attempt I have made this morning to set the debate on its way in the House of Commons—and it is important, it has to be done—that, if we are going to win this battle, it will be won in the factories, in the offices, in the pits, in the dockyards and in the shipyards. A more co-ordinated effort by the TUC is needed, and it must not divorce health and safety at work from all the other things that it has to do. This situation is linked with the Warrington picket line, the attacks on the NGA and the attacks on those workers down at Cheltenham and elsewhere. They are all linked, because this Government have their plans carefully worked out. I say to the TUC, therefore, that we are pleased to get involved in the campaign, but the TUC must understand that, to achieve the ultimate success that we want for working class people, it will have to be done by extra-parliamentary activity, and on the picket line.

10.34 am
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Having heard the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) speak for just over an hour, I have come to the conclusion that he is a much maligned man. The suggestion that he might be a beast is a despicable accusation. I have come to the conclusion, having had the opportunity to hear him, that he is much more like a constant walking shaggy dog story. He is like one of those shaggy dogs that one meets on a housing estate; the kind that barks at the postman and the milkman, and yaps at everything. The hon. Gentleman yaps so much that one can never sort out what he is yapping at. One cannot sort out the good points from the bad. I suspect that somewhere in those 60 minutes of the hon. Gentleman's speech there may well have been a good point, but he yaps so often that one has become immune to listening to anything that he has to say.

What the hon. Gentleman did have to say was interesting, because it highlighted the inherent differences between the philosophy of these Benches and that of his Benches. To sum up what he said in just over an hour, the accusation is that the Government have cut the funding to the Health and Safety Executive, which in turn has meant that the executive has had to reduce the number of inspectors, which in turn has caused more accidents, which in turn means, quod erat demonstrandum, that the Government are responsible for more accidents. That is what I think the hon. Gentleman was saying.

In my submission, that is philosophical, factual and practical nonsense. It is philosophical nonsense because not at any time during the hour and a bit during which the hon. Gentleman spoke did he ever mention the concept of individual responsibility. The response of the Labour Benches and the Labour party to any problem is that it is a problem for the state and the only way one solves it is by spending more taxpayers' money.

It is my submission that the primary responsibility for doing something about present levels of occupational accidents and diseases lies with those who create the risks and those who work with them. That was what Robens said in 1973. It is the individual responsibility of the employees, the individual responsibility of employers, and, might I say, the individual responsibility of Members of the House, to set an example, to give a lead in our own patches and our own constituencies, to try to encourage employers and employees to think health at work and to think safety at work.

The hon. Gentleman lives and dreams the conspiracy theory of politics. He lives and dreams the theory that every employer is doing nothing, and wanting to do nothing, other than conspire against his work force. That is absolute bunkum. I have yet to come across an employer who does not want to co-operate with those who work with him to provide a safe and sound workplace in which to work.

I think that the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) put it succinctly in a recent article when he said that it is time that people recognised that the best people to lean on workers to achieve reasonable standards of industrial safety are their own unions, their own selected or elected leaders, their colleagues and their mates. That came from an hon. and learned Member who sits on the Labour Benches, and it sounds sense. It advocates co-operation; none of this ghastly class conflict, this cheap chat of extra-parliamentary activity.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Bolsover that it is people like him who have destroyed the Labour party, that it is people like him who have ensured that the Conservative party has a majority of 144, and that I look forward with confidence, because of people like him, to sitting on these Benches for some years to come.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

We do not want the Tory party to tell us what to do. We can interpret what we have to do, and do it, far more competently than anyone on the Government Benches.

I want to return to what the hon. Gentleman said about the philosophical concept. He relied solely on the basis of individual responsibility. Is he saying, as a corollary, that we do not need the Health and Safety Executive? If he is, will he now confine himself to the legislation for which his Government are responsible? Our case rests on the fact that, in practice and implementation, they have not lived up to their legislation.

Mr. Baldry

The hon. Gentleman needs only to look at the empty Benches around him—even if there is to be a full Division — to realise how much work the Labour party must do to set its house in order.

One of my difficulties as both a Member and a barrister is that of trying to deal with the number of very bad points made by the Opposition. It has become almost impossible to distinguish between the bad points and the good points—[Interruption.] Before Opposition Members denounce barristers, I remind them that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman), who has just left the Chamber, is a barrister. And before the hon. Member for Bolsover starts talking about public schoolboys, I must tell him that there are twice as many old boys from my school sitting on the Labour Benches as there are on the Government Benches.

A major step towards encouraging individual responsibility was introduced by the Labour Government led by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) — the last true attempt at a social democratic Government that this country will ever see, pitiful though it was. They introduced safety committee regulations and safety representatives. Rather than listening to empty, wasted, useless chat about extra-parliamentary activity, it would be better if the House constructively considered how it can campaign to ensure that every work place has a safety representative, and that those representatives get together in areas to discuss how to make their work places safer. Let us at least attempt to take a more constructive and positive approach.

The hon. Gentleman's argument was flawed not only for philosophical reasons, but for practical reasons. The Health and Safety Executive requires fewer staff because computer-based rating systems for hazard assessment have been introduced. That means that visits by inspectors can be targeted on areas with the greatest priority — where the risk to employees and the general public are great or where the track record of the firm shows that visits are necessary. In any event, fewer inspectors do not affect the number of accidents—only the number of accidents that can be thoroughly investigated.

Rather than constant carping, I suggest that the Labour party should welcome the Government's provision of additional financial resources for the Health and Safety Executive in each of the years since they took office—despite the economic climate and a broader policy of restricting public spending.

The consultant editor of Health and Safety at Work took a practical approach to the matter in an editorial in this month's edition. He said: When conversations turn to discussing accidents at work, they usually centre on how many of them there are within a period—traditionally a year. The talk of total numbers is followed by a completely stereotyped series of responses"— such as we heard from the hon. Member for Bolsover today.

The consultant editor continued in the practical and constructive attitude that we have not heard from the Opposition this morning, and said: I should like to suggest a slightly different way of looking at work accidents — by stressing that there are very few of them! The only problem is that the few there are keep on happening over and over again. They happen to lots of different people, in many different places and at different times. This appears to be so because we seem to feel obliged only to learn from our own experience and shy away from the benefits of industry's past and present collective experience of 'classic' accidents. It is really all a matter of changing from a purely numerical approach to accidents to an analytical one that identifies particularly troublesome activities on which we could all concentrate our efforts. Take just two examples of 'classic' accidents — the mayhem and death caused by reversing vehicles — and the loss of life to unprotected, would-be rescuers entering fume-filled tanks bravely but in vain. Identifying and dealing with a mere handful of these classics would make a substantial dent in the accident totals—certainly big enough to start a trend! Unlike the hon. Member for Bolsover, I believe that collective individual action towards such targets could make great headway. We should say to those in the road haulage business, "Right, let's have a campaign on reversing vehicles." We should say to those in the chemical industry, "Right, let's have a campaign to make people more aware of the dangers of fumes." That would make considerably more headway than trying to make cheap points, quoting statistics and promoting some nonexistent class war. Everyone wants to ensure that the accident statistics are reduced to a much lower level than at present.

I wish to make a number of brief points to support my contention that we should analyse where, how and why accidents happen rather than simply studying statistics.

We should run individual campaigns, and I fully support the campaign on noise being organised by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment. Other campaigns could be organised on chemicals and asbestos. We must ensure that the publicity provided by the Health and Safety Executive is carried out with much greater flair. The publications on health and safety matters must be more attractive, more eye-catching and really get their message home. We need to inform not only employers but employees of what needs to be done. Clear, attractive, one-page leaflets should be distributed on the dangers of asbestos, chemical safety and noise. That should be supported by co-ordinated campaigns in specific areas.

Every worker exposed to asbestos should be given a leaflet to help him understand about asbestos and its dangers. We live in a chemically pervasive society. There are few factories and workshops where chemicals are not lying around. We are not sufficiently aware of the dangers or how to safeguard against them. I hope that the regulations, which I suspect will be introduced soon, will provide a clear and simple classification for the packaging and labelling of dangerous substances. Together with that, there must be a clear and coherent publicity campaign to ensure that everyone understands which chemicals are dangerous. Anyone entering a work place should know at a glance how dangerous a chemical might be and what medical attention must be given if there is any spillage. We must have an imaginative publicity campaign to ensure that we are all aware of chemicals and their dangers.

Although large companies have safety representatives and are conscious of their obligations to their work force, the new, small firms sometimes tend to let such matters slip. I suspect that that is not usually because of culpable willingness and wilfulness to ignore health and safety obligations, but rather a simple ignorance of them.

A well-organised and well-run company will register with the Health and Safety Executive, obtain a copy of form 9 from its area offices, get various other general forms, obtain accident books, a register of notifiable accidents and dangerous occurrences, and so on, but an increasing number of new small firms do not have the need for that drawn to their attention. Therefore, it might be a good idea to brief the small firms service about the health and safety requirements for new companies. Easily understandable leaflets should be made available to explain what is required. Local enterprise agencies, which are being set up throughout the country, should be encouraged to start new businesses and to ensure that they run in a way that is both safe and healthy.

Ultimately, it is important to put across the message at local level. I venture to suggest that a decent double-page spread on health and safety in every local newspaper would prove far more worth while than all the extra-parliamentary activity that the hon. Member for Bolsover can muster. People want to know how to run their businesses in accordance with the health and safety requirements. They do not want to duck their responsibilities. They want to know how best to approach the matter.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to give us some guidance on a simple practical matter. We heard quite a lot from the hon. Member for Bolsover about the sanctions imposed by magistrates' courts. Of course, the great conspiracy theory of politics suggests that the magistrates' courts are all run by lackeys of the ruling class—

Mr. John Evans

They are.

Mr. Baldry

I think that that is very insulting to the many members of the trade union movement who serve as magistrates. They would find that remark offensive.

Mr. Evans

Very few of them sit as magistrates.

Mr. Baldry

Even in industrial areas, the number of prosecutions brought before magistrates on health and safety matters is far less than the number of prosecutions for motoring and other offences. The Magistrates Association gives magistrates clear guidelines on the tariffs for motoring offences. However, perhaps more help and guidance could be given by the Magistrates Association on the tariffs to impose for health and safety matters and the criteria that should be referred to when a tariff is being fixed.

My experience in magistrates' courts, when both prosecuting and defending on health and safety matters, is that it is often a bit of a lottery, not because magistrates do not want to do their best by the community as a whole, but because they do not have a sufficiently wide—

Mr. Gummer

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for allowing me to interrupt him. His experience is important, and I wonder whether he would care to comment on the suggestion that one of the problems about making decisions in magistrates' courts is that magistrates may not sometimes be sufficiently aware that the Health and Safety Executive takes firms to court only as a last resort. It tries to improve things first. Therefore, when it takes a case to court it is because it is serious and should not be seen as a sort of first offence. It is a very serious matter and should be seen as such by magistrates.

Mr. Baldry

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Magistrates Association could well make that point to its members. My experience is that when the Health and Safety Executive takes cases to the Crown court there is no difficulty, because Crown court judges are used to applying the tariffs and know the criteria. I think that a little more education of magistrates is required on Health and Safety Executive matters. Magistrates are not unwilling to do their duty by the community, but in some areas they do not have sufficient guidelines.

I am sure my hon. Friends will say, as I do, that we all have a responsibility for ensuring that everyone works in a healthy and safe environment. We cannot abrogate that responsibility by saying that it is the duty of the state, and then crying for more funds for state organisations. We all have an individual responsibility. Conservative Members spend a considerable amount of time trying to get to every workplace and factory in their constituencies. When we go to those factories, we shall now be thinking about health, safety, noise and so on.

After we have asked what the prospects are for employment and investment we shall ask what the company—the employers and the work force—are doing to ensure that it is a healthy and safe place in which to work. We all have that responsibility, and we cannot shift it on to the state and arrogate our responsibilities to others.

10.55 am
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) sought to reprove my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for the manner in which he presented his case. However, those of my hon. Friends who heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover will be extremely grateful to him for raising the subject, and for the way in which he presented the case. He presented it with his customary passion and determination, and included a whole series of facts and figures. It is notable that the hon. Member for Banbury did not seek to answer any of my hon. Friend's points. Accordingly, we shall have to wait to see whether the Minister does so later.

I am particularly glad to take part in the debate, because I was the Minister responsible when the health and safety legislation was enacted and the Health and Safety Commission was established. I am proud of the work that we sought to initiate then, and am interested in ensuring that the House continues to survey it. What my hon. Friend said at the beginning made it clear that it was essential that the House should continue its survey of the activities of the Health and Safety Commission and the Department of Employment. I hope that such debates on the work of the commission will become a regular part of our proceedings. They can help to save lives and to ensure that the commission does the job that those of us who set it up, and Parliament, envisaged.

I pay tribute to some of those who have made the commission work, and who have been associated with it from the beginning. I have three people, in particular, in mind. First, I pay tribute to Bill Simpson, the chairman of the commission, who wrote his most recent words on the subject in the last report that he presented. He has been there from the beginning, and has given the commission a splendid start. There are two other people without whom the commission could never have been established in the way in which it was. I refer first to the director general, John Locke, who played the foremost part in ensuring that the commission was established. In the previous years he had been very active and determined. I am not one of those who believe that it is right to denounce civil servants in the way that some do. John Locke was one of the great civil servants, and without his inspiration and drive we would not have been able to establish the commission in that way. Fortunately, having played the leading part in establishing it, he was also appointed director general. He has been there for nine years, and knows more about it than anyone else in the country. His work has been of outstanding importance to the commission.

Professor Harvey was associated with those who sought to establish the commission, and he played a leading part in trying to enthuse all the different people whose backing had to be secured if we were to succeed with the legislation, frame the commission, and make it work. I know that he looked forward to the establishment of a commission that would cover the whole area of safety at work. He knew that real advances could be made in that way. He believed that he knew more about it than anybody else, because he had the whole experience of the inspectorate behind him. He also believed that the legislation that we introduced was the most important legislation on factories to have been brought in since the first Factory Acts in the 1820s and soon after. He believed that the Act could ensure that we carried health and safety into the new age on a far better basis than was ever done previously. One of the reasons why he was so passionate about the matter was that he knew it could not be left to market forces. The free market could not be left to determine how these things—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As we are taking part in a serious debate and as a serious matter is being introduced in view of the variations in what different Ministers have to say, I should like to know whether the Foreign Secretary's statement will be followed by another statement from another Minister. We must get things clear today. Ministers are arguing the toss with one another on television; one is saying one thing and one is saying another. Can we be assured that we are to hear the real statement from the real Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Speaker

We have not heard the statement yet.

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