HC Deb 03 February 1984 vol 53 cc535-74

Question again proposed.

Mr. Foot

It was notable that, during our recent exchanges on GCHQ Cheltenham, the spokesman for the Department of Employment withdrew from the Chamber. It would be pleasant to think that that was an act of decency as he did not wish to be present and listen to what was being said. This is an aside in preparation for our continued debate but the shambles and worse than shambles that has occurred about the rights that have been invaded could not have happened if the Department of Employment, which knows something about these matters, had had a representative present when the discussions took place. That is one of the reasons why the Government have got into such a mess.

Apparently, the matter was not discussed at any Cabinet meeting and there was no proper meeting at which the Department of Employment, which has experience in redundancy provisions and proper protection for people who might be dismissed, was represented. The proper standards of the Department of the Employment depend on whether we have a Minister who is prepared to sustain discussions. I have given the Minister the benefit of the doubt and suggested that the Department did not know about these matters. If the Minister tells us that the Department knew all of the implications, the problem is all the graver.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but it would appear that he is still discussing the private notice question. I think he knows that the debate is about health and safety at work and Government cuts.

Mr. Foot

I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I should have thought that there was sufficient latitude in these matters to make such observations, especially because the Minister, as far as I am aware, was not present during the private notice question.

I should not like what I was saying about some of the people who helped to establish the Health and Safety Executive to be miscarried because of an interruption in the debate. Professor Harvey was among those who played a leading part in ensuring that the commission was established. He had great experience in the factory inspectorate and believed that the only way in which his great work could be promoted was by the establishment of such a commission. He and others were eager that we should carry that work forward.

There were three major subjects of debate in the preparation for the commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover touched on one. It concerned the way in which treatment was to be accorded to the previous inspectorates. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, the National Union of Mineworkers was deeply worried lest the great advances which it had made in inspection be injured by the new body. We had consultations with the NUM and its advice helped to improve the legislation. Some parts of the Act were devised as a result of the proper system of consultation. My hon. Friend was generous enough to acknowledge that most people who look back on those discussions agree that the combination of the Government making proposals and consulting experienced bodies benefited miners and other workers. We tried to ensure that the best experience in leading industries such as mining should be brought to others.

There were some departmental objections to the Bill. That is why the Labour Government had to give it a high priority to secure it. There was the alkali inspectorate and others which did not want to be included in the new commission. Eventually, because of the inspiration and hard work of John Locke, the different and countervailling interests were brought together and the Bill was presented to the House. It was historic legislation which has benefited the country enormously. One of the matters on which there was strongest opposition from the Tory party was the establishment of proper trade union rights on safety committees. It was an innovation put forward by the Labour Government and by the trade unions which spoke to us about those matters. We should never have been able to establish the Health and Safety Commission on a proper basis without trade union representation on the committees. It was one of the main features of the legislation.

Objections to the introduction of safety regulations and to ensuring that they are properly observed have come not only from employers; there have been trade unionists and workers who have not been immediately ready to go ahead with such schemes. All those objections can be overcome by intelligent consultation which is what the Department of Employment was engaged in. We had no difficulty in reaching agreement with the trade unions, and plainly there was no difficulty with the Labour Benches. The chief difficulty in achieving trade union representation on the commission came from the House of Lords. It produced many objections to the scheme. It has great experience in these matters, as we all appreciate, and fought desperately hard to prevent the introduction of such measures. I believe that the legislation had to be brought back to the House of Commons on two or three occasions to have that feature included in the Act. I should be happy to receive the Minister's confirmation that, despite all the objections that Conservative Members had at that time, trade union representation on the commission is one of the excellent parts of the legislation and one which should be carried forward and built on in the future.

Another matter about which we argued and which held up some of the legislation for a time was its application to agriculture. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover reminded us, some people did not want the legislation applied to agriculture. Chief among those were the landowners. We did not have a majority in the House of Commons and we had difficulty in passing the legislation through here because of Tory objections. When the Bill reached the other place, it was thrown out. The other place had the biggest attendance of landowners that it had had for years when the application of safety measures to agriculture was being discussed. I understand that there was a full House. We were defeated there. We did not have a majority in the House of Commons so we could not get the measure through on that occasion.

On the earliest possible subsequent occassion, we carried through the simple proposition, and it is staggering to think it is only 10 years ago that we were having these controversies, which provided that health and safety measures must be applied to agriculture. One of the reasons why our argument was so powerful was that mechanical methods of agriculture were expanding. A considerable rearguard action was fought for a long time with votes in the House of Lords throwing out those offensive clauses which provided that health and safety measures should apply to people on the land.

I should be grateful to have the Minister's confirmation that the Government fully accept the wisdom that we and the trade unions showed then of saying that this legislation must, of course, be applied to agriculture.

If one studies reports one can see the nature of the accidents on land and that they have been increasing because of the introduction of mechanical methods on a far larger scale than had been contemplated. That is another reason why legislation had to be brought forward and a commission had to be established to cover the whole of industry. One of the main reasons why we wanted to introduce the legislation was that we knew that the developments in different industries were likely to lead to greater danger to people's health and lives. It was therefore all the more necessary to have speedy action and knowledge brought from one section of industry to another to ensure that safety standards should be raised as high as possible. An illustration and confirmation of that need was the Flixborough disaster, in which about 20 people were killed, which happened while we were going ahead with the legislation.

A commission was established and the executive started work. Promises were made. We wanted to see greater resources given to the commission. We did not obtain all the resources that we wanted at the beginning despite the fact that we had given the legislation and the resources a high priority. Everyone knew that resources were an essential factor. We realise that they are not the sole factor. The hon. Member for Banbury said that resources are of little or no importance. No one on the commission who knows anything about the subject would hold such a view. As I shall prove in a moment, the commission has made representations on that point which have been turned down by the Department. There is no doubt that it is necessary to have extra resources.

The most important place to have those extra resources is on the inspectorate. The inspectors have a difficult task. They are not especially welcomed by employers in many factories, and sometimes there are objections from the shop floor. The inspectors have, to some extent, to tread their own path, and sometimes they are not popular in what they do. In my opinion, they are magnificent people who serve the community and industry. They deserve the greatest encouragement. The best encouragement that they could have would be an increase in their numbers. They would then be able to share the work. They know better than anyone that they cannot visit all the factories as regularly as they should. There is work crying out to be done. Far from their work diminishing, it will multiply, perhaps fivefold with all the developments in industry. The Government should be studying the expansion of the inspectorate and its services. That is the way in which the commission had been considering these matters, and why there has been some controversy with the Government over it.

I am not decrying the achievements. I am proud of them. They would not have happened without the establishment of the commission incorporating the principles I have mentioned. No one can deny that. We have every right to be proud of the legislation. As Simpson said in his report, there has been a 30 per cent. reduction in the number of fatal accidents in the nine years since the Act came into operation. There has been a slight turn for the worse during the past year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover properly noted, but that does not alter the fact that there has been a considerable improvement in the number of fatal and serious accidents during the period.

The main reason for that improvement is that the health and safety legislation took the experience of what had happened in the pits and elsewhere and applied it to the 5 million workers who had never been covered by health and safety legislation before. It was a great advance and reform, and the figures prove that the legislation was successful. It could and should have been much more successful.

The figures, which showed the substantial reduction in fatal accidents as a result of the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive, should have encouraged the Government to increase resources, not diminish them, particularly when the loss of working days through accident and illness in most industrial countries is huge. There are 16 million working days lost every year through accident and illness. That is far greater than any loss from industrial disputes. Great advances can be made. That is proven by the fact that great advances have been made over the past nine years.

One would have thought that any Government looking at such figures would respond to what is happening, particularly when they are told by the Health and Safety Commission some of the facts and how it has been able to carry out its duties only because of the recession. If it were not for the recession, it would be covering fewer factories. Those facts are in the report. It is not the biased view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. It is in the report presented to the Department of Employment, which shows that the commission's coverage of industries would have been much more limited if it had not been for the recession. Presumably one day we shall recover from the recession, so there is all the more need for greater resources.

Some exchanges about the matter took place in the Tebbit regime. On 3 March 1983 there was a headline in The Guardian: Further staff cuts imperil safety laws, Tebbit warned.

The hon. Member for Banbury tried to deride my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover for connecting the amount of cash with the number of people who have been killed or injured. My hon. Friend is not alone in making that connection. It is made by those who know the most about the matter. The report was written on behalf of the commission by Mr. Brian Martin, the director of the commission's resources and planning division. He knows something about these matters. This leaked document, sent to the Department of Employment, got into The Guardian. It did not get as much attention as some other leaked documents, I am sad to say, but I hope that it will have more now. Mr. Martin said: We now have in total just over 3,700 staff in post—a reduction of 13 per cent. since 1979 as compared with an average reduction of under 11 per cent. in the Civil Service as a whole. We have continued to provide a basic level of service to the public despite this very substantial reduction in our resources. This has only been possible, however, because of the effects of the recession and because several pieces of major legislation have not come into force as quickly as had been expected.

Even this Government have had to introduce particular measures for new industries. The background is that the commission said that it must have more resources to do its job properly, and the Government said something different. A reply was sent by the then Secretary of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to Mr. Bill Simpson. The Guardian reported: Mr. Tebbit asked for the 5 and 10 per cent. reviews in January"— that was January 1983. The Secretary of State's letter said: I do recognise that consideration of these issues will impose a further burden on the Commission and the HSE. But I am sure you will agree that it is important that we should continue our progress in realising reductions in Civil Service manpower where this is possible.

I should be glad if the Minister told me exactly how many reductions have been made since that letter was sent. A great protest was made at the time. Perhaps we blocked some of the reductions that the Government proposed and defended in the letter to the commission. I should like to have the exact figures.

The claim about Civil Service manpower and the totals is a disreputable business, particularly when in so many areas it is only a matter of book-keeping. When the Manpower Services Commission was set up, we were told that a great reduction in Civil Service manpower would take place. The MSC was established before we took over. We did not want to do away with it because we believed that it would be foolish to tear to pieces an operation that had only just been started. However, it is a ridiculous piece of book-keeping to say that people who work for the MSC are not civil servants and therefore do not figure in the Civil Service list, whereas those who previously worked for the Department of Employment were.

If one cuts the number of civil servants inspecting factories, one increases the total of deaths and accidents in the workplace, now running at 16 million. There is a sharp connection between the scale of the inspections and the scale of accidents. If one cuts the number of people in the inspectorate, which has been done, and damages the way in which the inspectors do their jobs, more people are threatened and may be involved in the accidents that we are seeking to avoid.

I hope that the Minister will not defend the miserable, squalid cuts that he and his Government have already imposed on the Health and Safety Commission. I hope that he will tell us that he is prepared to give millions of pounds in an increased allocation over the next few years. It should be a substantial increase. I hope also that that figure will be translated into more inspectors and inspections and that he will relate it to the scale of industry that they will have to cover.

It is a great advantage that we should have this debate regularly. We in the Opposition are determined to do so. We want to check exactly how the commission that we set up is being operated, how much it is being sustained by the Government and what more can be done. No one can doubt that new areas of British industry will be established over the next decade where the commission's work will be more essential than ever. Just as we fought to get the commission into operation and to save lives by doing so, we are determined to fight for the resources to enable the commission to do its job.

11.57 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I have spoken in many Friday debates. One of the reasons why I have always enjoyed speaking on a Friday is that more often than not the debate is about subjects on which both sides of the House agree. Often the means to achieve that end are different, but at least we have been able to agree on the means.

Many of our constituents complain that when they listen to "Yesterday in Parliament" we sound like a disorganised rabble. That is probably because of the heckling. Friday debates must come as a comfort to them as they hear hon. Members, usually at their best, talking about things that unite them rather than things that disunite them.

When I saw the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I thought that hon. Members could agree on the end. I suspected that the hon. Gentleman would launch an attack on the resources devoted to the Health and Safety Executive. I thought that that attack could be countered. Perhaps in my naivety I did not expect that he would not simply say that the Government have not devoted sufficient resources to it—Conservative Members often say such things, too—but would suggest that anyone who employs labour does so with callous disregard for the wellbeing of the work force and that it does not matter to the employer whether his work force is injured, maimed or killed, provided that he can turn a pretty penny in the process. That attitude is as wrong as it is insulting.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman could for one moment abandon the sour and sterile rhetoric of the class war and consider, when he says that he champions the working classes, for whom they are voting. The people for whom they are voting are not Opposition Members, but Conservative Members. That illustrates as graphically as anything how wholly out of date is his class war rhetoric.

The saddest thing of all is that when Labour Members will not even give my hon. Friends and me credit—if they want to adduce the argument in this way — for incompetently wanting to do our best, it means that at the end of the day they are not championing the working classes, whoever they may be, but utterly insulting them. They are saying, in other words, that they are so craven, stupid and duped that they will keep on voting in a Conservative Government. If I had such a low opinion of the people I represent I would get out of the country quickly, and I suppose that it would be a matter for individual choice whether I decided to go east or west. On a subject of this importance, one hoped to hear something more important than a diatribed which owed everything to "The Ragged-Trousered Philanthopists" and drew nothing from what had happened since.

It may be said that lawyers do not have a great deal of experience of accidents at work. However, at the time when the hon. Member for Bolsover was enjoying his privileged education at Oxford—I fear that I could not partake of education there—I had started in law and was spending a great deal of time investigating factory accidents. The hon. Gentleman might not realise that, even in the west country, there is a fair degree of industrialisation, and that that is certainly the position in Cornwall.

I was finding in the early 1960s and late 1970s as I was investigating factory accidents that workers were—if not regularly, then far too often—injuring themselves. They were damaging their hands in milling machines, losing fingers and sometimes even worse, and when they were not operating dangerous machinery one could see, as even the hon. Member for Bolsover said—it was possibly one point that was worth while making in an hour's work — that even when using something like a ladder the most appalling injuries could result if people did not realise the way in which basic equipment such as that should be operated.

Mr. Skinner

I had better put the record straight before some of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends repeat what he said about my having received a privileged education at Oxford. I attended a short parliamentary course at Ruskin in 1966, and probably thousands of others have attended similar courses. I did not go to any of the colleges there, however, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the context in which I happened to be at Oxford for a short period at that time.

Mr. Nicholls

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having gone to Oxford. When I say that I envy him, I do not say that in a Socialist sense of begrudging him. I am simply pointing out that, at the time when he was at one of our great learning institutions, I was doing the sort of work of which he was speaking, investigating factory accidents and doing something practical to help the people whom he seeks to champion.

It came across clearly to me when doing that work that it was often management and work force who did not realise how conscious one must be of the types of accidents and dangers that work forces encounter. Even if, as a lawyer, it might not seem that I have much acquaintance in a practical way with this subject, I assure hon. Members that I do. Further, I assure Labour Members that I and many of my hon. Friends do not need lessons in how to be concerned about people who run risks of the sort that occur in an industrial context.

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman is in a closed shop.

Mr. Nicholls

I shall come to our general approach to health and safety legislation, but first I want to comment on how it can apply to the youth training scheme, because although Labour Members have been wise enough not to raise that issue today, they refer to it in some of their more unguarded moments. They say that in the youth training scheme, in particular, people are very much at risk, and that is an accusation which should be answered.

We are aware of how, after the 1972 Robens report, the apparatus came about and came to be used. It has been suggested that one can attack the way in which the Government can be said to be responsible for the operation of the legislation by discussing the number of people employed as a result of it, and it is true that those numbers have fallen. In 1979 the HSE was employing 4,117 people, and by 1984, 3,577 were employed. It is simplistic in the extreme, but typical of those who say it, to suggest that if fewer people were employed, less good must have been done. "Employ more people and more good will be done", they say.

There are two basic reasons why that argument cannot be true. First—the hon. Member for Bolsover, who has left the Chamber, mentioned this point, if only to deride it — the systems that one can now use by way of computer-based predictions of where the real areas of need are at least ensure that resources can be placed where they are most needed. In a sense one could say that that is a degree of means-testing, but it is means-testing in a sensible way, for what on earth would be the point of employing vast numbers of people to visit industrial work places where, because of the nature of the work being done, there was virtually no possibility of a serious accident occurring? That would be a great way to spend other people's money, but it would not do anything to protect the people about whom we should be worrying. Thus, to be able to use modern computer systems to work out where resources can be used most effectively is the right way to proceed.

Since 1972 there has been a complete change in the industrial pattern. When the HSE was formed, it was projected—it was only a projection—that in 1975 there would be 750,000 premises employing 17 million people which would fall to the factory inspectorate. In 1982 the inspectorate was responsible for about 475,000 premises employing 15 million people. That tells its own story.

In a similar way, even from the point of view of the mines and quarries inspectors, although the numbers employed fell, the number per employee rose over a long period. In 1962 there were 3,773 employees per mines and quarry inspector, and by 1982 that had come down to 2,427. My point is that one cannot simply say, "Reduce the numbers and the benefit is reduced". The resources available must be used properly.

All of that in the end should be reflected in the figures relating to fatalities, serious accidents and other injuries. It is no good the hon. Member for Bolsover deriding the fact that there has been a reduction. If there had been an increase he would have been only too keen to take up another hour of the time of the House to point that out. It is, therefore, fair to consider the figures. In terms of fatal accidents—this is in relation to accidents per 100,000 employees—in 1978 the figure was 3.2 and in 1982 it was 2.3. It must be said that in 1981 the figure had fallen to 2.1, but the fact remains that the underlying trend is going in the direction that we all want to see, and that is down.

The same can be said for major injuries, although the point can be most dramatically made by looking at the figures for other injuries as well. For example, between 1978 and 1982, per 100,000 employees, there were 2,600, 2,420, 2,070, 2,000 and 1,830 accidents in those years. What comes out of the figures absolutely incontrovertibly is—

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

That they are all wrong.

Mr. Nicholls

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman care to explain that interruption?

Mr. Janner

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, while all statistics are basically untrue, those that concern accidents at work are provably untrue because the methods of collecting those statistics have altered year by year, so that even the Health and Safety Commission admits that there is really no way in which one can know the true figures, and that that will become even more difficult in future years because they are about to change again?

Mr. Nicholls

What the hon. and learned Gentleman says about statistics simply means that he disagrees with the statistics that I use because they do not support his case. If he had statistics which supported his case, I am sure that he would trot them out at great length. I agree that statistics do not always tell the whole story and that they must be qualified. I deliberately did not quote the figures of major injuries, because I concede that the basis has changed, but it is nevertheless fair to say that, on those figures, which are accurate so far as they go, there has been a reduction. As I say, I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would have quoted other figures at me if he thought that they would support his case.

Mr. John Evans

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1982 there was an increase in the number of fatal injuries in the construction and manufacturing industries? Given the appalling decline in those two industries, that is a remarkable comment on the figures which the hon. Gentleman has just produced for the House.

Mr. Nicholls

I am happy to repeat that in 1981 there was an increase in fatalities generally, and I do not believe that any hon. Member would treat that lightly. It is, nevertheless, true that there has been a decrease in fatalities over a sustained period. That does not mean that we should be complacent, but it is a fact that the hon. Gentleman must acknowledge. I do not know whether he will do so.

Inevitably, as I come from a rural constituency I am especially worried about accidents in rural areas. I do not believe that anyone who has not had such an agricultural background can understand how dangerous the farm can be. The figures tell only part of the story. Not one farmer would deny that there can be accidents—for example, when tractors roll over — which never reach the statistics. Often they are not reported because the accident was a narrow miss.

Although I acknowledge that the farm is a dangerous place, again the figures show sustained improvement in the number of fatalities. In 1970–71 there were 137 fatalities and by 1980–81 there were 74 fatalities. The worst aspect of those figures is that in 1980–81 there were 23 children among those fatalities. I hope that the Minister can provide an assurance that he is satisfied that the number of health and safety inspectors employed in the agricultural sphere is sufficient. It may be that the HSE has planned other initiatives for use in the agricultural area, and I should be especially grateful if the Minister would say something about that.

It is probably fair to say that the present youth training scheme is well regulated, well run, and appreciated by employers and the people who undergo training and by the more responsible sectors of the trade union movement. It owed a certain amount to organised chaos in the way it evolved from STEP, YOP and WEP. I believe that in its early days there was concern that the trainees did not receive the full benefit of the law under the health and safety regulations. I believe that all trainees would have been covered under one section or another of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act, 1974. Perhaps that was a subject for some debate. If it is a subject for debate, it must also be a matter of anxiety. I welcome the fact that we now have the Health and Safety (Youth Training Scheme) Regulations 1983, which put the matter beyond doubt.

I did not come to speak today to say that I could not imagine any other steps that the Government could take to improve health and safety conditions. More can be done. Clearly, we would all want to have drawn up a list of worthy causes promoting the benefits of the legislation, but it does no good to anyone to decry what has been done. What has been achieved under the legislation is remarkable. To suggest that all we must do is pile more money on the problem and make fatuous analogies about triple glazing in the Falklands and ask why we cannot apply the same measure to Willesden does not play any part in our deliberations. I applaud the Government for what they have done and assure them that I shall be watching to ensure that their good work continues in the same vein.

12.14 pm
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

It is normal procedure to follow the arguments of the previous speaker, but having listened to part of the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) I found that three-quarters of it was used to deride my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who had the initiative to propose the debate. My hon. Friend should not be derided, but should have the congratulations of the House for bringing such an important issue to the Floor of the House. I shall pass on those congratulations to him. There is nothing oafish about having a debate on health and safety at work, especially when it includes hon. Members who have worn a pair of overalls and seen health and safety from the industrial side not from the court room, as was said by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who admitted that he is a lawyer.

I declare an interest as a sponsored member of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union. I have no doubt that many of my hon. Friends are sponsored members of unions, and this is an issue in which they are interested. Most unions have fought hard and long for many years to achieve adequate safety regulations, and that is not simple to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) talked about the House of Lords safety committees. I have served on a safety committee with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans). I was called out of the safety committee in Hawthorn Leslie's shipyard, and, with 24 hours' notice, was given the sack. Employers do not have to worry about picketing, but merely pick up a phone and ensure that a former employee does not get another job in the industry for many months. I fought for improved conditions in the shipyards. I had experience of conditions there and did not pontificate, as do some hon. Members from the legal profession.

I had to leave the Chamber before my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover finished his speech — and I apologise — because I had to take a deputation to see another Minister. I do not know whether my hon. Friend used the figures that I shall use, but they are worth repeating. Each year, 700 people die because of accidents. About 275,000 suffer serious accidents at work and each year 900 die after industrial diseases. Despite those figures, the Government have cut the factory inspectorate, not because there is no work for the inspectors, but because of a ministerial diktat that expenses had to be cut irrespective of whether they were necessary. That is the reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover was so vindictive about the Government's policy.

In an earlier intervention I mentioned that when the health and safety regulations were introduced in 1974 it was promised that there would be a 50 per cent. increase in the number of inspectors. That promise was repeated in July 1979 by the Tory Government. In fact, the reverse has happened, in spite of the need for an increased number of inspectors.

It is no good the House passing legislation to protect people if it does not provide the resources to enable those laws to be carried out. That is the reason for the debate. My union called for an extra 21 field inspectors—one for each region—to help the understaffed construction inspectors to cope. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North said that fatalities in the construction industry had increased. No new inspectorate resources are being assigned to the problem of asbestosis, which for many years has afflicted those involved in the construction, shipbuilding and other industries. Without adequate enforcement, the new laws will be a licence to kill and will merely legitimise some of the cowboys who are not worried about safety regulations.

There has been a shift in the policy of the Health and Safety Executive. More inspectors spend time on policy than on enforcement. In the Yorkshire region there was a switch of two experienced field inspectors from enforcement to service in an asbestos manufacturing weighing group, which is doing valuable work, but they have not been replaced in the field. Will the Minister assure us that field inspectors who are switched from policy areas are replaced in the field? That is important. When shall we hear that the inspectors are coming back to the Yorkshire region after being switched away from it as a result of the policy change?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent referred to the fact that pathetic fines and no gaol sentences have been imposed for murdering and maiming people. On the very day when the National Graphical Association was fined £50,000 for breaking a ridiculous law, two employers were fined an average of £1,000 apiece for negligence resulting in the death of employees.

In relation to hazardous work there has been a change of emphasis from the effective "safe work place" to the ineffective "safe worker" basis. It is no use simply issuing posters about noise hazards to stick on factory walls if noise levels in the workshop are 100 decibels or more. It reminds one of the propaganda posters during the war about walls having ears. We need effective enforcement.

We recently spent an hour and a half late at night debating EEC proposals on noise abatement suggesting a maximum permitted noise level of 85 decibels. That would affect 1,700,000 workers in the United Kingdom. The 90-decibel limit suggested by the Minister and being taken on board by the HSE would affect only 700,000. That decision seems to have been taken on a purely financial basis.

Mr. Gummer

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dixon

The Minister disagrees. I give him credit for having taken a great interest in this problem. I have attended functions at which he has spoken sincerely and well on the subject.

I have a medal for 30 years service in the shipyards — a hearing aid. Like thousands of people in heavy industry, I suffer from industrial deafness. I was therefore sorry that the Government did not accept the EEC view, and I was appalled at some of the arguments used by Conservative Back Benchers. The Minister at least showed more sympathy than some of his hon. Friends.

I hope that the Minister will agree to withdraw that part of the secret instructions sent to inspectors in September which states that where engineering controls are considered reasonably practicable, but the employer has opted for the provision of ear protection, further enforcement action should not be considered … provided the protection is effective and worn in noisy areas. That is a blatant example of failure to enforce the law properly and contradicts the letter of the Department's 1972 code of practice as well as the spirit of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act and the policy of the Health and Safety Executive.

The job of the inspectors is to remove hazards at source whenever it is reasonable to do so. There has been a change of emphasis. One might almost think that pressure had been put on the Minister by a Society for the Deafening of Workers. Will the Minister assure the House that the emphasis on "practicable" measures in the Factories Act will not be replaced by the weaker "reasonably practicable" requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act? Section 1(2) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act was included specifically to prevent that happening, but it has already happened in respect of regulations about lead and is now part of the draft provisions on asbestosis and hazardous substances. I have no doubt that other hon. Members will refer to that later in the debate.

Why has the Health and Safety Executive only just got round to enforcing the Health Safety at Work etc. Act and the 1972 code on noise? Between 1975 and 1982, only 101 notices were issued under the Act—11 per year for the entire country. In view of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffered noisy conditions and now suffer from industrial deafness, that is a disgrace.

The GMBATU which is my union, and the AUEW—that of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North—have taken the lead in the fight against noise and for adequate compensation when protection has not been provided. We were appalled at the Newcastle judgment awarding paltry sums to people who had lost their hearing.

One of the problems in this country is that it is difficult to discover the extent of the disease of deafness because people do not like to admit that they suffer from it. The blind have white sticks and dark glasses, but the deaf do not like to admit their disability. I am the same. I tend to keep my hearing aid in my pocket. I do not use it in the Chamber, because although we are in the 20th century the Chamber has no link system so that hearing aids can be used. If I try to use mine, I overhear all the muttered comments by hon. Members when others are speaking and one does not like to hear such things. In my area we set up a hard of hearing group but it was disbanded because people would not come to it although many thousands of people in the area suffered from deafness. People do not like to admit it, so the disease has been hidden for many years. It is time that employers recognised it.

I hope that another EEC suggestion will be taken up. If people become blind, employers do not simply sack them and put them on the street. They try to find them other jobs. There is little sympathy from employers when people become deaf. The EEC suggests that any worker removed from a job due to deafness should, if possible, be given alternative employment. Very little effort is made by employers in that context, although there is great sympathy for people who become blind.

That is the kind of development that we wish to see. The entire 1984 report of the Health and Safety Commission contains just one small paragraph about industrial deafness. The problem is that it does not have the resources to deal with the matter. I do not say that all employers are bad. Some employers are concerned, because it is in their interests that employees do not suffer from sickness or accident. An examination of the records in this country will confirm that for many years many more days have been lost through sickness and acccident than through strikes. Some employers are concerned, but unfortunately some are not. It reminds them of the old saying about a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. It all depends whether one is giving or receiving it. This is one of the arguments that we used to use when negotiating with the employers in the shipyards which the House debated earlier this week. I recall what used to happen in the shipyards when they were in private hands. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North will recall what used to happen. To give an example, I worked as a shipwright in the yard. One of our jobs was to put steel plates together on the shell of a ship, after which the welder would weld them. To do that we used to weld a steel lug about 1.5 in wide and gins thick on to the steel plate. We were not allowed to have gloves to wear when holding the lugs.

That was the practice in the late 1960s. It was necessary to go to several conferences to get an industrial glove to wear when holding a lug on a steel plate. Those were the sorts of employers that we were dealing with. Not all employers are enlightened. In fact, most employers have to be enlightened by strong trade unions in their establishments. I used to go home every night with septic burns. That is the kind of situation that prevailed in the shipyards at that time. It is tragic that we would go back to those days if the Government carried out their policy.

On the question of noise, provision has existed to enable preventive action to be taken since 1945, but unfortunately not much action has been taken. Can the Minister assure the House that the new enforcement action will take into account noise levels between 80 and 90 decibels, and not just above 90 decibels? Most people suffer deafness at between 80 and 90 decibels.

The Health and Safety Executive has made no attempt to estimate the size of the occupational disease problem, despite the conclusion of the Robens report 12 years ago. The indications are that about 30 per cent. of all ill health and disease is work-related. That was the conclusion of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a United States Government body, for which there is no effective United Kingdom equivalent.

The available United Kingdom statistics suggest that the United States estimate is not wildly wrong. For example, there are more deaths from prescribed diseases — and this grossly underestimates the real problem, according to the Pearson commission—than from fatal accidents at work. Conservative estimates put the number of occupational cancer deaths at between 1,200 and 7,000 a year. United Kingdom and United States surveys indicate that approximately 20 per cent. of respiratory disease, 13 per cent. of heart disease and 13 per cent. of mental disease are attributable to work, and these are problems in areas where the Health and Safety Executive needs additional resources. At present, the resources of the HSE are insufficient to enable it to carry out its work. When I was speaking to a member of the Health and Safety Executive, he said that it was possible to visit only one in seven factories. That means an inspection once in every seven years, which is inadequate. That is why we maintain that more resources are required.

It is no good the Minister putting forward the argument that, because fewer people are working as a result of the Government's policies and are on the dole, there is no need for the same number of factory inspectors. When big firms with effective trade union-backed safety committees and trade union-trained safety committees are closed, it results in those recalcitrant employers who are not particularly worried taking heed of the regulations. However, when the big firms are closed and replaced by small cowboy firms which are not interested in safety, more, and not fewer, inspectors are needed. This point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.

Can the Minister also assure the House that the follow-up survey of bladder cancer tragedy in the dyestuffs industry, which has claimed at least 500 lives, and which the Ministry and the chemical industry promised 30 years ago, is being carried out this year, as requested by the trade unions, Professor Fox and Professor Case?

I shall conclude because I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to make important points. In fairness to the Health and Safety Executive, I should say that it is doing its best with the resources provided by the Government. We want the Minister to agree to provide more resources so that it can do its job more effectively.

There is a lesson which we urge employers to learn. Some 150 years ago the House debated the first factory reform legislation. The Government should pay heed to the words of Macauley, who, 10 years after opposing factory reform, recanted with the words: Never will I believe that what makes a population stronger, and healthier and wiser and better can ultimately make it poorer. Those are the sentiments that we want to hear from the Minister. We need more resource for the Health and Safety Executive.

12.36 pm
Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

I must disappoint Opposition Members by informing them that I have no association with the legal profession—I am an engineer. The only point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is on the importance of the House debating health and safety at work. I find it difficult to accept his latter points when he tried to make the issue one of conflict rather than of co-operation. If there is one area that benefits trade unions, employees and management alike, it is in keeping employees healthy and free from accidents at work. It is not a matter of confrontation.

As the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said, much of what came about following the 1974 Act was through the discussion and involvement of trade unions and management. That is essential if there are to be good work practices, and it is not a matter of contention or argument.

Few major employers do not want to work with safety committees. When the Act came into force in 1974, it was not that employers did not wish to be involved, but rather that there was great apprehension about the Act not only covering accidents within the workplace, but placing responsibility for them on those who designed the equipment. Those problems have since been resolved.

There has been a growth in the number of successful health and safety committees, and industry after industry has benefited from that. Not many years ago most companies, especially large ones, were prepared to provide safety equipment, but many employees did not use it. For example, there is great danger in operating grinding wheels, yet not long ago anyone walking into a factory would find that some of the work force was not wearing goggles. Although supervisors and shop stewards told them to wear them, they would not do so. That does not happen much today. The Act and the actions that followed it have improved the awareness of safety in industry. People now recognise that they should wear protective clothing and take sensible precautions.

Many accidents are not major catastrophes, but are silly, simple things. People may trip over something, or the floor may be dangerous and someone may slip and break his leg. However, great improvements have also been made there. The 1972 Robens report stressed the responsibility that rested with employers and employees for the risks that exist. It pointed out that it was they who had the most to gain by reducing risk and by taking sensible measures. Indeed, companies and employees have often done just that.

The Opposition have suggested that the great advance hoped for has not been made, but that is to adopt a very pessimistic view. Things have improved, and throughout the past nine years there has been co-operation between the unions and management. Other things too have happened in industry. The Robens report was published 11 or 12 years ago. In the intervening period, and certainly since the Act came into force, we have introduced new technology and new products. There have been a number of changes in organisation, which has automatically resulted in improvements in safety at work.

We now design machines and equipment using as one of the main criteria the requirement that they must be safe. We use many failsafe devices, which, again, help. We cannot do some of the things that we used to do that led to injuries at work. In industries which use presses, many setter operators had a joint missing from one of their fingers, not because they did not know what they were doing, but because it was possible to wedge the press open when they were doing some setting. Today, much more care is taken.

There have also been advances in the electrical world. Instead of having loads of wires that have to be soldered, and instead of someone going up in smoke because he has touched the wrong one, the microchip and printed circuit boards have meant that such dangers have been removed and that time has also been saved, which is of advantage to the companies involved. Such work is now simpler and easier.

The movement of goods and materials in engineering and other industries automatically leads to risk. Every time someone picks something up or tries to move it, there is a risk factor. However, automation has reduced the need to pick up things. The use of robots sometimes makes it possible for that whole process to be done from start to finish. Consequently, the risk of accident is reduced. In addition, pallets are now used more. For example, bricks are put on pallets and a jib crane is used to take those pallets off the lorries. There are much better handling techniques which prevent certain back injuries which were once commonplace. I know that many jokes are made about people with back trouble, but that was once a big problem. However, the incidence of back injuries has now been considerably reduced.

There is a low incidence of accidents in offices. Nevertheless, action has also been taken in that regard, and the use of the computer has made it possible to transfer information automatically, thus avoiding the need for people to take pieces of paper all over the place. Thus, there is less movement, less filing and less picking up and putting down of items. That has helped to reduce the number of accidents.

Many companies are successful in running the health and safety committees and that should, and has, removed some of the workload from the factory inspectorate. The many changes in practices have also led to more recognition of the things that are likely to be dangerous. Not many years ago doors and gangways in a factory were likely to be blocked by people working or by trucks and stillages. However, as the safety representatives have worked conscientiously, it is nowadays more likely that something will be done. That self-regulation has played an important part in the benefits that we have seen.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) expressed doubts about statistics. I think that it is right to be dubious at times. However, a release from the Health and Safety Executive in September 1983 stated: Total injuries show a reduction in all sectors between 1981 and 1982 … This reduction continues the previously noted long-term downward trend in overall reported injuries: though comparison with pre-1983 figures need to be treated with caution.

The number of accidents has been reduced. We have benefited from the co-operation of those in industry. However, there are some areas in which that co-operation has not been easy to achieve. For example, it is easy to achieve within a compact work force where small groups or teams work together—generally the ability to appoint safety representatives and a monitoring programme is relatively easy—but as a work force disperses over a wide area into smaller groups control of it becomes more difficult, as does self-regulation.

The Act places a tremendous onus on individuals to look after themselves. Dispersal of a work force leads to one or two people working together away from any real supervision. Often they are skilled men who can get on with the job conscientiously. If they decide to take short cuts and adopt unsafe practices, it is difficult for anyone to be directly responsible. If two people work together and one is considerably more experienced than the other, it is unlikely that the more experienced man will report that his colleague is using unsafe practices.

We all know that familiarity breeds contempt. We know that it is not only the inexperienced who are injured. Injury often befalls very skilled workers who know that they can take a short cut and save time. That does not happen in nine cases out of 10. It does not happen, perhaps, in 999 out of 1,000 cases, but on the one occasion beyond that we have an accident that is often serious, and sometimes even fatal.

These problems arise in smaller units. It is not always possible to set up health and safety committees within them, and there is not always the required degree of specialisation. Very often, people will muck in and help one another. One may be qualified to do that, and used to doing it, while the assistant, for example, may not be so well qualified. As a consequence, there is a danger of injury. That happens when people are not properly trained for their work. As I have said, there are not enough people with the necessary degree of specialisation. In many instances there is not a sufficient need felt, or the necessary money, to enter into considerable investment in material-handling equipment. Small units have distinct problems.

It cannot be denied that many small organisations are not aware of their responsibilities. I hope that the Health and Safety Executive and the Minister will try to ensure that small organisations are helped to have a better realisation of safety requirements. They must realise that they are not the subject of a witch hunt. Those who are in charge of small units are even more dependent on the individuals who work for them than large companies. They know that there is no substitute at that moment. The smaller companies and smaller units have peculiar needs.

In many instances, training within small units is more important than within large organisations. Often there is not so much knowledge and expertise within the smaller undertakings. Many larger organisations have induction training and machine training, for example, and they undertake their training extremely well. Small units cannot offer those facilities and, therefore, the training is not done. I believe that the importance of health and safety should be pushed at workers continuously throughout the training initiatives which the Government have taken. Health and safety, even in a basic form, should constantly be brought to the attention of both employers and employees. The trend has been improving in recent years. We cannot be complacent, but we must recognise that there are limits to what ought to be done by inspectors and industry.

There are much greater risks in some industries than in others. The likelihood of accidents is 10 times greater in the mining and quarrying industry than it is in distributive trades. The high-risk industries are conscious of the problems and take tremendous care. They have not been able to reduce the number of accidents as much as they would like, and we would not expect them to be able to do so, but they must develop their efforts.

Overall, I am relatively satisfied with the general arrangements for the HSE. They are sound and we are moving in the right direction. It is right that the executive should be efficient and if more can be done for less, that will be all to the good. The Government are already devoting substantial resources to this area.

I ask the Minister and the HSE to remain conscious that smaller organisations need to be helped. Throughout people's training they must be made conscious of the need to work properly with safe practices.

It may be said that the fears and apprehensions that accompanied the 1974 Act have disappeared, but the impetus has also been lost and we need to put more zest into our efforts to stress the need for safer working practices. But, as the Robens report said, self-regulation by individuals and employers is paramount.

12.52 pm
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on initiating what has proved to be a useful and instructive debate. He was right to emphasise an important freedom in industry—the freedom to enjoy a safe place of work. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that that important freedom is denied to many people; it is denied to the 400,000 people who were injured and the 468 people who were killed at work in 1982. It is denied to those who work in the construction industry where an accident takes place every three minutes of the working day.

I speak with personal experience, because my father, who worked in the construction industry, suffered an industrial injury and was off work for nine months. It says a lot about the attitude of employers that during that time he received no occupational sick pay and no payment from his employer. My father had to rely on state benefits and he received only £200 in compensation. That sort of attitude to workers divides the House and I have personal experience of that attitude. Therefore, I speak strongly about safety at work.

The picture is profoundly disturbing. Conservative Members have said that the answer to the problem lies in self-regulation and individual responsibility. They are right to say that that was the cornerstone of the Robens report and of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

I support the argument that places collective bargaining at the centre of industrial relations and sees it as the vehicle by which we control and regulate industrial relations and safety issues.

I should have more confidence in the argument that we have heard from Government supporters if I genuinely believed that they shared that same commitment to collective bargaining. However, it is clear from this Government's record and the way in which they have discouraged collective bargaining that their attitude works through to individual employers.

In 1979 the Conservative party manifesto talked about reducing the power of the trade unions. The present Government have done that and they have derived tremendous satisfaction from the way in which the recession has reduced the power of individual workers and their collective organisations.

It is no good Government supporters saying that we need to exercise individual responsibility and self-regulation if the very organisations through which that self-regulation is to come about are themselves subject to attack. Listening to the speeches of Government Members, I get the impression that they have little idea of what is going on in industry and industrial relations. Taking advantage of the recession, how many agreements have employers torn up and not been prepared to honour during the past four years? How many individual workers are in fear of losing their jobs? How many are frightened of being thrown on to the dole queues and are reluctant to complain about safety risks and relucant to demand the basic rights and privileges that they should enjoy in a decent society?

The recession has been used as a discipline by the Government to weaken the powers of trade unions and the rights that individual workers should enjoy. The recession creates an atmosphere in which collective bargaining and self-regulation on safety issues is not encouraged.

Going even further, the Government have introduced two major pieces of legislation—the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982 — both designed to restrict the freedom to bargain and to impose upon employers decent basic individual rights at the work place. Now we see it taken a stage further at GCHQ, where the Government are introducing a new principle of enforced, compulsory non-unionism.

During Question Time yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about the right to belong to a trade union and the right not to belong. But she has now introduced a third category, the compulsory enforcement of non-unionism. This is being imposed on a group of workers who have demonstrated their loyalty to the state and to the Government.

Against the background of a Government who encourage non-unionism and encourage employers to break agreements, is it likely that self-regulation and individual responsibility will resolve these problems?

We are living in a climate in which workers are afraid to use the resources and the organisations available to them. Employers are encouraged by the Government to break agreements and to weaken trade union organisation. We have to cast our minds back only two months to see the attitude of the Conservative Government to one employer who, I suspect, did not give safety a very high priority and who was encouraged by the Government to use the courts in an attempt to break up a trade union organisation. That employer was encouraged not just by the Conservative party but by right hon. and hon. Members representing the alliance, who clearly have their own priorities when they talk of industrial relations and the trade union movement. I am sure that at some stage in this debate we shall hear the alliance spokesman say that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends are committed to safety at work. But they are not committed to trade unionism, enforcement and self-regulation, because they are not committed to the values of collectivism that the trade unions represent.

It is no good basing any argument on the self-regulation principles of Robens and those of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. It is no good talking about individual responsibility and self-regulation. We have a Government who do not encourage the growth and development of trade unionism.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was a major and revolutionary breakthrough in industrial relations. It encouraged tens of thousands of workers to become involved. It gave them the right to become involved and to take an intelligent interest in the affairs of their work place. I suspect that many of those workers now find themselves in the dole queues as a result of the Government's actions. Conservative Members look amazed by that statement, but I know from personal experience that the first people in line for redundancy in most engineering factories in Leeds are those who have been prepared to stand up on behalf of their fellow members and to be safety representatives and shop stewards. That is how employers have used the advantages that the Government's policies and the recession have provided.

If we cannot rely on collective bargaining or upon self-regulation, the individual worker will look to enforcement through the agencies provided. There again, however, reassurance is difficult to find. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover gave a catalogue of cuts that the Government have made in the enforcement agencies. There have been reductions in the number of factory inspectors—the very field service that provides some deterrent to employers who are prepared to take risks with safety. That is reflected in the number of visits that inspectors make to factories. The 216,000 visits that were made in 1980 dropped to 190,000 in 1982.

The same fate has befallen the agricultural inspectorate. One might have thought that the Conservatives, who have an interest in farming and agriculture, would try to ensure that their constituents—their own work force in many cases — were adquately catered for. Perhaps they are interested only in the financial benefits of farming and their interest does not extend to employees. That is reflected in the Government's attitude to the agricultural inspectorate which has been reduced by one quarter since September 1979.

Other branches of the Health and Safety Executive have also failed to keep pace with the workload or have suffered a reduction in numbers. Specialist inspectors are in especially short supply. Only 12 months ago there were three inspectors who were qualified to check microbiological hazards. Today there is only one. I pay tribute to him or her, as that person is also expected to service the specialist committees of the Health and Safety Commission. It is absurd and dangerous that one inspector is expected to protect workers in hundreds of hospitals and laboratories from virulent infectious diseases. Without such protection those people run risks that no right hon. or hon. Member would expect to take.

Mr. Leadbitter

My hon. Friend's mention of hospitals gives me the opportunity to draw his attention to an interesting facet of the law. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Factories Acts and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 affect the Health Service in many ways. The employer in the Health Service is the Crown and the Crown cannot prosecute itself. That is why all of that legislation falls short and why much must be done in the Health Service to improve safety standards.

Mr. Fatchett

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many trade unions and hospital administrators are keen to improve standards. Enforcement of safety standards would be enhanced if the Health Service was covered by those provisions.

The Government's record on this matter is one of neglect and indifference. I shall quote from Health and Safety at Work for April 1983 which comes to exactly the same conclusion: keeping the bare bones of the HSC and the HSE structures in place is not the same as providing the resources needed to ensure that they are as effective as possible. It is alarming that Mr. Selwyn Gummer is unaware of the damage done to enforcement of health and safety legislation by cuts in the HSE's budget. I am sure that those alarming fears about the Government's attitude will be justified when the Minister replies.

I do not wish to finish on a critical note, because the spirit of the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, is to give the Government the opportunity to redeem their mistakes, recognise the error of their ways and return to the path of righteousness. I am sure that my hon. Friend would be delighted to see righteousness on the Government Front Bench.

I want to put some questions to the Minister to give him the opportunity to show that he recognises the strength and force of the argument that has been advanced. Is he prepared to restore the cuts in the factory and agricultural inspectorates so that they have the resources to get on with the job and ensure enforcement of the legislation? Secondly, will he provide adequate specialist care in the areas to which I have referred, so that there can be the necessary enforcement? Thirdly, will he provide moneys to ensure that the noise reduction campaign is not just a publicity gimmick but is backed with resources so that industry knows that the Government are firmly committed to that issue?

Fourthly, when does the Minister propose to increase the level of maximum fines and to what level does he intend to increase them? The Minister has already admitted that there is wide agreement that the maximum fine of £1,000 under section 33 is too low. I believe that £10,000 would be more appropriate. There are those who say that no figure can be put on a disregard for life and health.

Mr. Janner

Does my hon. Friend accept that the £1,000 maximum in the magistrates court is much too low but that on trial on indictment the Crown court has the power to impose an unlimited fine and imprisonment? The trouble is not the level of the maximum fine, but the fact that fines imposed by courts tend to be ludicrously low, utterly inadequate and so miserable that the inspectorate does not feel that it is worth bringing a case before the courts. Secondly, there has not been one case where imprisonment has been imposed, no matter how many people have been killed in industry, despite the fact that it has in other countries. Does my hon. Friend consider that the Lord Chancellor should at least advise magistrates and judges to use their powers and impose the penalties that they already can impose to show people in industry and commerce that health and safety matter?

Mr. Fatchett

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend is correct. It would help the High Court and the magistrates courts if there were a clear statement of the Government's intention and commitment. A statement from the Lord Chancellor along the lines suggested by my hon. and learned Friend would be a great help.

The maximum fine at the magistrates court is £1,000. I wonder whether the Minister is prepared to accept the suggestion made in The Magistrate in February 1982. It suggested that 25 per cent. of the maximum penalty should be established as the minimum fine. Many hon. Members may feel that that is too low. According to that journal, in 1980 fines in magistrates' courts represented only 16.5 per cent. of the possible maximum fine. Penalties need to be increased quickly, and Government action would be well received.

When the Minister replies, we will hear how earnest the Government are on these matters. If we receive satisfactory answers, we will know that the Government are not simply paying lip service to the matter. I fear that we will hear empty rhetoric and no real commitment. The prevention of injury and death at work involves cost to the Government and the employer. The language of monetarism and the Government's philosophy are that those costs are avoidable. Unless there is a change in policy and a belief in the prevention of accident and injury at work, the Government will have a record of making sure that thousands of workers suffer hardship and injury, and sometimes death, as result of the Government's reluctance to change policy and to stand up to their responsibilities.

1. 11pm

Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) might have been referring to me when he said that at least one Conservative Member was amazed at what he was saying. My amazement was not at the miraculous conclusion that he drew, but at the fact that yet another Opposition Member, when referring to the important subject of health and safety at work, expressed the issue in terms of class struggle, anti-collectivism and so on. He said that what the Government were doing was another sign of the way in which they are determined to stamp on working people and stamp out the rights of the masses in their workplaces. That was a disappointment.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) referred to the unreliability of the statistics. Nevertheless, an examination of the statistics that are available suggests that the level of reported accidents and injuries, taken globally, is still higher than acceptable. I accept that there are ways in which the definition of various accidents and injuries has differed from 1978 to 1982. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right in saying that further changes will confuse people when making comparisons between earlier and later statistics, and make the comparisons unreliable.

It is a matter of regret that in 1982, 2.3 fatal accidents, 58.2 major injuries at work and 1,830 minor injuries per 100,000 workers were still being reported. Therefore, almost two in every 100 workers suffer some form of injury, either major or minor, in the course of one year. Surely that is not ideal.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recall that particularly in the case of minor accidents — my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) will accept this—many of them are not entered into the log book, as they should be. They may be regarded as trivial or not sufficiently important to be entered in the register. However, their consequences may not be foreseen, and the damage that they might have caused may be great.

If one were to take a simple global view of the statistics that have been collected, one would see that since the introduction of the Act the number of recorded accidents and injuries has fallen by only around one quarter. One as to take into account all sorts of factors such as the level of industrial activity, the number of workplaces and the average number of people employed in each of those workplaces. I take a different line from my hon. Friend, in that I believe that one has to conclude that the level of accidents is still too high and could be reduced significantly. I say that despite the fact that on an objective basis there is every reason to believe that considerably increased resources are being devoted to the Health and Safety Executive.

I bow to other hon. Members' greater knowledge, but I believe that it is right to say that the total net expenditure on the Health and Safety Executive rose from £46.4 million in 1978–79 to over £80 million in 1982–83. By my reckoning, that is a virtual doubling in gross terms and an increase of over 10 per cent. in real terms. Although the level of staff employed at the Health and Safety Executive has fallen since 1979, from 1976 to 1982 there was an overall increase of about 12.7 per cent. Although there is at least one front-line inspector for every 1,000 work places and we now have computerised hazard assessment, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) referred, there is still evidence of an unacceptable level of accidents at work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton made an important contribution and pointed out that he was not a barrister. Barristers seem to have come in for an inordinate amount of stick today. I am grateful that he spoke as an engineer, because I speak with experience of running a workshop on a day-to-day basis. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the greatest single cause of accidents is failure to observe obvious and straightforward safety regulations.

This, I assure the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, has nothing to do with grinding the faces of working people into the dust or with anti-collectivism or with a failure to discuss safety policies. It is about an understandable part of human nature, which is that one can take any human horse to water in the industrial environment but one cannot make him drink when it comes to simple safety rules.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton instanced a number of examples, and I have one in relation to the recent campaign on the effects of noise, to which several hon. Members have referred. I was recently part of an all-party delegation to one of the largest manufacturing operations in Britain. Part of the visit was conducted in an area of high noise. We noticed as we went through the factory that all the work force had been issued with ear mufflers, those bright yellow mufflers which are, or should be, a feature of all such working environments, but eight out of 10 chose to wear them necklace-like around their necks rather than over their ears.

I agree with those who have said that industrial injury caused by exposure to noise never appears in the pages of a health and safety register because it is a cumulative problem which may manifest itself after perhaps 30 years in the same working environment. What I have said is not intellectually rareified. It must be a cause of regret to all hon. Members that simple straightforward precautions are ignored by so many people in the workplace. It cannot be put down to a failure, for example, of supervision. That would be too critical of those who are charged with the responsibility of supervision in a workshop and who must ensure continuity of production. In the case that I mentioned it was not a failure to issue ear mufflers, but simply a natural reluctance to wear them at all times.

Mr. Dixon

I was endeavouring to make the point that the workplace rather than the working person should be made safe. In other words, we should be making the machinery quieter rather than asking people to wear ear muffs.

Mr. Norris

While investment in safer, which means quieter, machinery is necessary—and my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton pointed out that much of the machinery and capital plant now being produced is inherently safer — I think that the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) will accept that there are many environments in which even present technology does not permit of a silent workplace. I am simply referring to the human element implicit in such a simple matter as wearing ear muffs.

Mr. Janner

I thank the hon. Gentleman not only for giving way but for his constructive approach to this matter. Does he agree that there are three levels on which this problem must be dealt with? First, as he says, the work force could wear ear muffs. Secondly, the work force and supervisors should work together. The supervisors tend to give up in their attempts to have ear muffs worn. If the supervisors, the unions and the safety representative cannot get together so that people feel they ought to wear their ear muffs and take other safety precautions for their protection, we might as well all give up. That is one area in industrial relations in which the work force and supervisors should work together.

Thirdly, does the hon. Gentleman know that there has been a prosecution against people for not wearing ear muffs and that the HSE is starting to enforce those rules, but is having great trouble because it is short of staff and so is unable even to carry out those duties that it already has?

Mr. Norris

I was not aware of the prosecution to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. I do not seek to suggest that because the matter of wearing those safety devices is one for individual workers there is no responsibility on supervisors. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right. I am trying to show — this is something that can find common accord on both sides of the House—that the supervisor who tries to persuade people at their place of work to wear those simple safety devices and who consistently fails in that endeavour will almost inevitably come to accept what will occur. That is a matter of great regret, but it is human nature.

I know that other hon. Members wish to participate, so I simply draw the attention of the House to other instances where safety measures cannot be other than a matter of individual responsibility. I constantly draw attention to the wearing of overalls in my place of work. Overalls are provided, yet the work people who wear ties constantly leave overalls open to the waist and are therefore vulnerable to those ties being caught in machine guards, and so on. I am amazed that facilities are provided in many cases, yet little use is made of them.

To stop at that critical point would not do justice to the simple human element involved in that subconscious decision not to take advantage of all the safety devices available. I am not sure that I want to be in a society in which every man, automaton-like, instantly seizes upon every directive laid upon him and complies with it 100 per cent. There are a number of cases, however, where we must do more as employers and employees to prevent the large number of accidents that occur. I do not believe that accidents have a great deal to do with the number of inspectors or the massive increases in expenditure by the HSE, but they may have much to do with creating climates on the shop floor where health and safety regulations can be taken on board more readily.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) suggested early in the debate that barristers were concerned simply about toilet accommodation. I have always been amazed that, even in this day and age, large numbers of employers maintain a distinction between the toilets which the management of a company might use and those which the work force might use. That is an ignorant distinction to draw, because, apart from anything else, if the management is prepared to share the facilities with the work force that will, I hope, result in some upgrading of the facility and mean that management and the work force will take greater care to ensure that such facilities are kept to an acceptable standard. The same applies to canteen facilities, where distinctions are often made on a hierarchical basis.

The abandoning by British management of that fundamentally misguided feature would be constructive in terms of health and safety. Becoming more involved in areas where workers carry out dangerous tasks is the greatest single way for management to become aware of bad practices so as to stamp out such practices and secure a safer working environment. Moreover, my experience is that that creates not only a safer and healthier working environment, but a happier and more constructive work force.

My whole thesis has been that, although much can be done by legislation, inspection, advice and so on, a great deal will always remain the responsibility of the individual worker. That being so, motivating workers to consider the working environment in a responsible way must be the most important task of management and of those charged with health and safety responsibilities.

Employers must ensure variety in work. The greatest enemy of safety is boredom. We have heard about the practice of simply jacking open presses. A person who has been doing the job for 29 years and has done that 1,000 times can take a sheet or a board out without any difficulty, but the one occasion on which the procedure is carried out with slightly less dexterity because the worker's attention is momentarily distracted results in the loss of a finger joint, as one sees so frequently at the workplace.

Boredom is the enemy of safety in so many cases that far more should be done to create variety. For example, rather than taking the production line basis as the normal assumption as to how an article should be produced, there should be far more team working so that tasks can be shared or rotated. For job rotation in the formal sense there should be more training so that people can share a variety of jobs. I am sure that hon. Members appreciate that I do not suggest this in terms of a confrontation on demarcation practices, but in the sense that anything that we can do to relieve tedium, especially where heavy machinery is involved, will achieve as much as simply spending extra money. We must improve safety where it matters—on a day-to-day basis, in the middle of a boring week, at the end of a boring winter in the average workplace which may not have been visited by a health and safety inspector for a considerable time.

Incidentally, I believe that if the health and safety inspector calls every week he will be treated with the contempt accorded to the familiar. We have all seen that irony at the workplace. Too much reliance on the weekly safety meeting is counter-productive, because the people involved become part of the normal boring practices of the workplace.

We need a constructive approach by management as well as continued efforts by the Government if we are to make further real strides in improving industrial health and safety.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I call Mr. John Evans.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the usual custom and practice for Front Bench spokesmen to wind up debates? Some of us have sat here for four hours since 9.30 this morning waiting to be called. If the Front Bench spokesmen are called now, I shall not be able to express the point of view of the 420,000 USDAW workers whose sponsored Member I am.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have much sympathy with the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), but on a day selected for the debate of private Members' motions the normal practice is for Front Bench spokesmen to intervene at some point in the debate. I call Mr. John Evans.

1.29 pm
Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

I sincerely hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) catches your eye later in the debate. I hope that I can curtail my remarks to an appropriate length so that my hon. Friend has an opportunity to be called.

I say to the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) that the problem the House is debating is not whether the factory inspector calls every week, or even every year, but whether he calls at all. That is the subject of the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend on winning the ballot for private Member's motions. I was even more encouraged when he told the House that it was the third occasion on which he had won the ballot. I am one of those who, after 10 years, are still trying to win a ballot.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the choice of subject, and the quality of the wording of his motion. In that context, he has performed, as usual, a public service. The quality of the wide-ranging presentation of his argument held the House transfixed, even if, hardly surprisingly, some Conservative Members did not like the truisms that he was uttering to them.

It is monstrous that, nearly 12 years after the passing of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, motions of this nature should still need to be debated in the House of Commons. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) that it should be a normal part of the annual work of the House to debate the yearly report of the Health and Safety Executive. If the House did that, the millions of people who are affected by the regulations would have a great deal more sympathy and time for the House of Commons.

It is even worse that the TUC, the British trade union movement, has felt it necessary to launch a campaign against the Government's cuts in the Health and Safety Executive. Here I must say that the subject of the title of the TUC's campaign is extremely apt, TUC warning. Government cuts put workers' health and safety at risk. The truth is that no one can seriously deny that. I was a new Member of the House of Commons in 1974, when it recognised the need to place the health, safety and welfare of those in work above considerations of profit and loss, and to put on to the statue book the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. That Act has been a landmark, and owes a great deal to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent and, if I may say so, to yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who, in your position as Under-Secretary at the Department of Employment, piloted the Act through the House. I am sure that it is one of the proudest achievements of your parliamentary career.

As the first five years of the legislation showed, that Act did much to improve the conditions and quality of life of those at work, and reduced risk of injury. The Act also extended the possibility of protection to the people who, in their daily routines and lives, were at risk as a result of their living close to dangerous sites or chemical plants. Unfortunately, that part of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act which my researches tell me was drawn up on behalf of the Conservative Opposition by the then Member for Penrith and the Border, now Lord Whitelaw, and which laid upon the manufacturers of dangerous processes the onus of informing nearby residents of those processes and the attendant danger, has never been activated. Indeed, it is worth looking at section 3(3) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 which says: In such cases as may be prescribed, it shall be the duty of every employer and every self-employed person, in the prescribed circumstances and in the prescribed manner, to give to persons (not being his employees) who may be affected by the way in which he conducts his undertaking the prescribed information about such aspects of the way in which he conducts his undertaking as might affect the health or safety. When one considers that so much has been said in the debate about processes taking place behind closed doors and with nobody knowing about them, it is essential that people are aware of section 3(3) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, and that they should be prepared to act upon it.

The Act has benefited many, but, like many reforms that are built on co-operation and consent, it can be rendered ineffective by neglect and indifference. Despite all that has been achieved during the first 10 years, the system that has been established by generations dedicated to improving the health and safety of workers is today moving towards a crisis. The Health and Safety Executive, the body responsible for inspection of workplaces and enforcement of health and safety standards, is no longer able to carry out its role effectively in many areas.

Since the advent of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, there has been widespread recognition that realisation of the potential within the legislation required an expansion of the staff and resources allocated to the Health and Safety Executive. The theme running through the contributions of Conservative Members has been that, if only individual workers would take more care, the cuts in the HSE would not amount to much and there would probably be a benefit to the Exchequer.

I wish to make it perfectly clear that I, my hon. Friends and the entire British trade union movement have always sought to impress upon individual workers the duty and necessity to take protective measures. But the problems with which we are now dealing include the necessity for a proper policing and enforcement agency, and the lack of resources for such an agency to back the individual's responsibility.

It is true that the Act expanded the scope of protection to more than 17 million workers, spread across 750,000 workplaces. But because of the appalling recession during the past four years, the chances are that those figures have been drastically reduced. Nevertheless, we hope that one day we can return to those levels.

Many groups, including the TUC, were quick to realise that we had broadened the obligations of the HSE. That increased its work load and changed its method of work. At that time, the Labour Government were committed to expanding the resources of the HSE, and the staff complement rose from 3,500 in April 1975 to 4,250 in November 1979. Probably the single most important element of that expansion was the growth in the number of factory inspectors from 775 in April 1975 to 950 in April 1979, with a planned increase of 200 during the following five years. It is sad that the verbal support of Conservative Members—who were then in Opposition— for improving the strength and effectiveness of the inspectorate evaporated so quickly once they came to power.

The immediate and sweeping staff cuts in the Civil Service that the Government initiated when they took office, their ban on recruitment and the 3 per cent. reduction in staff generally have delivered a damaging blow to health and safety legislation. The Government's fetish for reducing bureaucracy was not matched by any comparable fetish for improving people's safety at work. By September 1983, the Government had sacrificed more than 500 staff jobs in the HSE. The Government's ideological drive to cut jobs in the public sector is precisely the neglect and contempt that cost lives and health.

The Government live in a world of false economies. What is the cost of a factory fire? What is the cost of a nuclear error? What price will the Government set on people's lives at work and in the surrounding communities? There is a rightly growing anxiety among members of the community about dangers to themselves and their families from the industrial activities on their doorsteps that involve chemical, toxic, inflammable and explosive substances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover referred to Flixborough. There have been other major incidents at Stalybridge and Salford during the past three or four years. God knows what could occur in many other establishments which, quite frankly, are not being inspected with the required frequency.

By cutting back on health and safety, the Government are pursuing a policy that is retrogressive, anti humanitarian and plainly ill-founded. Accidents and hazardous working conditions are responsible for an enormous toll of misery to workers and their friends and families, with about 700 deaths and 275,000 accidental injuries every year, with a much larger number of uncharted incidents of ill health caused by workplace hazards. The annual estimate of the cost of such accidents is an incredible £2,000 million per annum, or 1.5 per cent. of this nation's gross national product.

The Government have claimed to be increasing the resources of the HSE, but the reality is quite the reverse. The grant-in-aid from the Government has fallen steadily, in real terms, since 1980. There are now only 557 factory inspectors in the HSE's area offices. That is 107 fewer than in April 1980. The Government's announcement that they are recruiting 35 specialist inspectors barely begins to confront the enormity of the shortage. The Government cannot deny that fewer inspectors means fewer workplace inspections.

The truth is that many small plants will not be inspected in the immediate or near future. Fewer inspections means less enforcement, and less enforcement means short cuts and negligence, which can lead to accidents, injuries and death. Fewer inspections also mean a lack of maintenance, because of an employer's determination that he can cut costs on dangerous machinery. Machinery may not be properly fenced and proper maintenance schedules may not be kept. Consequently, machinery and plant can and frequently do cause injuries.

Where are the resources to tackle the health hazards posed by asbestos? The Minister knows, because we have discussed it in the House, of the concern that has arisen because of the increasing number of applications to strip asbestos from old power stations and factories. He is well aware that the HSE simply has not got the inspectors to carry out the vital work of monitoring the quality and capabilities of some of the firms that are claiming to be experts in asbestos stripping. Where is the inspectorate to explain, in some detail, the hazards possibly facing young people who are now on the youth training scheme?

In January this year, the Government annnounced that youth trainees would be treated no differently from other young workers, and would be afforded the protection of the existing legislation. That is fine, but I feel sure that it is small comfort to the trainees who have already been injured on badly supervised or unsafe schemes. Indeed, the provision is small comfort to the factory inspectorate, which has made it clear that it does not have enough staff to inspect the many small work places to which young people are now being sent. I am sure that it will give even less comfort to parents who know nothing of the MSC's cursory and token assessment of the health and safety policies provided by some employers, who take their sons and daughters as trainees. What checks are made of the health and safety records of employers providing schemes? What checks are there on the real standards of supervision and safety? Those are questions that the Government cannot answer for fear of betraying the myth, as easily as they betray the young people who rely on such safety for a secure future.

It should be appreciated that school leavers going on to those schemes have no idea of what industry is about, or how dangerous machinery can be. But, when all this is said, what incentive do the Government provide for employers to meet their obligations under the legislation? Several hundred people die or are injured every year in industrial accidents involving breaches of the regulations. Yet the average penalty, according to the HSC manufacturing and service report 1982, was a mere £225. That has to be set against the 1,495 successful prosecutions that were brought for failure to meet health and safety regulations.

Bearing in mind the many recorded and convicted actions, will the Government recommend, or consider imposing, minimum penalties for health and safety breaches? Why do the magistrates' courts deem the exposure of employees to unnecessary risks in the workplace to be such a minor offence? In 1982, breaches of the Act in respect of women and young children carried an average penalty of £77. Failure to provide protective clothing carried an average penalty of £88. Failure to provide first-aid facilities carried an average penalty of £50.

It is interesting to contrast the rather different attitude that is taken to workers and their trade unions in cases involving industrial disputes, when draconian laws are introduced and enormous penalties imposed when workers seek to defend themselves by taking industrial action. We are only too well aware of certain well-publicised instances recently.

There is growing concern that the nuclear installations inspectorate and safety executive, because of Government cuts and an archaic salary structure, is not now attracting the quality and calibre of staff that it needs if it is to do its job correctly. There is growing public concern about all aspects of safety at nuclear installations. If public confidence is to remain in the NII as a body capable of carrying out its task adequately, it is essential that it must enjoy public confidence. There is a growing feeling that it is not structured in a way that will maintain that confidence for very much longer.

It is wrong that the Department of Energy continues to be the body that controls health and safety within the offshore oil and gas industry. There are some who argue that there is often a conflict of interests within the Department about extracting oil and gas from under the ocean and, at the same time, ensuring that correct and adequate safety standards are maintained. No one can deny that the industry, which operates in appalling conditions, has an appalling record of death and disaster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and I served our apprenticeships and work experience in dangerous and dirty industries — we worked in the shipbuilding and ship repair industries. We had the privilege—sometimes it was a doubtful privilege—of serving on safety committees. We often took a different view from management on the depth, level and necessity of safety standards. The Minister must accept that there are occasions when incidents occur that would not and should not have taken place if proper safety standards had been accepted and imposed by the management. If every management in the land lived up to its obligations fully and completely and had the interests of its workers 100 per cent. at heart, there would be a very good chance that we would not need factory inspectors. Everything would be perfect. The reality is different. There is no denying that proper health and safety provision involved expense, and some employers are sometimes not too keen on incurring an expense.

Time and industrial processes have moved on. Men are still being killed and maimed by things falling on them or collapsing under them, and we still always have those problems, but new problems are arising from new industrial substances, materials, techniques, chemicals and processes which put at risk not only work forces, but, potentially, whole communities. We need a new stringency in legislation. We must have more resources for the HSE and it must be strengthened.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has performed a public service and, on behalf of the Opposition, I commend his motion to the House. Even at the eleventh hour, I plead with the Government to be prepared to join the TUC in mounting a massive campaign to persuade everyone in our nation of the necessity for good health and safety provisions at the place of work. If we embarked on such a programme, it would save many millions of pounds and much human suffering and misery.

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

I am sure that I shall not be breaking the normal rules if I say that I suspect that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would prefer not to be in the Chair for this debate, but would rather be mixing it on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that I am not breaking the rule when I say, "Hear, hear," to the Minister's comment.

Mr. Gummer

You took my remarks in the spirit in which they were meant, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am pleased that we are discussing the subject, although I am sure that if it were not for the House's knowledge of the generosity and care with which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) always approaches matters, we might have suspected that his reason for tabling the motion was not so much to discuss the subject as to make party political and class warfare comments. We can see that from the fact that the motion was tabled at almost the last possible moment. That is usually done when an hon. Member does not want an argument about the facts and is not seeking information or trying to urge the Government to do their best, but merely wishes to have an argument that is as acrimonious as possible.

The hon. Member for Bolsover has a history of acrimony in these matters. The scheme to help pneumoconiosis sufferers was introduced by a Labour Government, but I had the pleasure to announce that the payments would be regularly uprated in line with the cost of living. In the debate on the first of those upratings, the hon. Member made one of the most outrageous attacks on doctors working in the pneumoconiosis scheme that I have ever heard. He suggested that they deliberately misnamed people's diseases to help a Tory Government. That is the level on which the hon. Gentleman speaks and he proved it again today when he made an attack on tribunals by reference to one case.

I checked up on that case. The decision was unanimous. Each tribunal has three members and the representative of workpeople agreed with the decision.

Mr. Skinner

He was wrong, too.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman wants the Government to interfere in the independent system that was set up for people's protection. He believes that there is a universal plot. He makes the sort of discussion that we ought to be having on these matters much more difficult.

We are discussing a report on which both sides of the House have been able to proceed in concert. The Bill was introduced originally by a Conservative Government. It is the only advantage of our failure to win the 1974 general election that we know that both parties were committed to broadly the same legislation. This is not a partisan Act. It is one that we all supported, and I have tried to continue in your steps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by attempting on as many occasions as possible to get all-party support for what we want to do. In that sense, although I am pleased that we have this motion before the House, I am sad about its terms.

Mr. Skinner

When the Minister reads Hansard tomorrow I think that he will find that when I was attacking the composition of tribunals I made it clear that I was attacking the majority of those represented on them, because I know that only a small minority of them represent our side of the fence.

As for that debate upstairs in Committee, which had nothing to do with this debate, I was not attacking doctors so much as the Minister himself. He was saying that he could not find sufficient money for those with industrial deafness and the rest of it when he had just pocketed another £5,000 per annum because the Prime Minister had decided, without a ballot, to make him chairman of the Tory party.

Mr. Gummer

I refer hon. Members to the report of the Committee which considered that statutory instrument. During its proceedings the hon. Member for Bolsover said: I repeat that the Tory doctors make certain diagnoses so that the Government do not have to pay any money."—[Official Report, Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c., 7 December 1983; c. 6.] That is what the hon. Gentleman said, and now he is attempting to mislead the House by ignoring what he said.

The hon. Member for Bolsover also attempted to attack the members of those tribunals. More than 1,000 members of those tribunals are appointed on the recommendation of the Trades Union Congress. It is a disgrace that the hon. Gentleman should besmirch decent people who spend a great deal of their time trying to do what is right by the majority of the population.

I come next to the hon. Gentleman's comments about accidents — [Interruption.] I listened to the hon. Gentleman for an hour. Although most of what he said had nothing to do with health and safety, it is time that he listened to my answers to what he said.

Mr. Skinner

He is a joke.

Mr. Gummer

If the hon. Gentleman would listen to me, he would be in a position to decide whether I was a joke.

The annual average of accidents in mining where there are changes in measurement procedures and the rest of it — [Interruption.] The measurements and comparisons are not always easy in accidents not least because ways of reporting differ from one place to another, one area to another and one industry to another. In mining there is a continuity because of the nature of the industry.

Between 1970 and 1974 the annual average of accidents per 100,000 man shifts was 118.79. Between 1975 and 1979 it fell to 93.12. In 1980 it went down again to 72.66. In 1981 it fell to 64.26. In 1982 it fell to 54.39. The fall is continuous and clear, and the hon. Member for Bolsover is wrong to say that there has been an increase in the number of accidents in mining—[Interruption.] In fact, he is even more wrong, because I can announce today that it looks as though the figures for fatalities in mining will be down to their lowest in history at, probably, 30 in 1983 —[Interruption.] That compares with 38 in 1982, 35 in 1981, 42 in 1980 and 53 — [Interruption.] It is interesting. The hon. Gentleman said that it went up, whereas it has come down to 30 compared with 35 in 1981 and 38 in 1982. The hon. Gentleman is taking one year when there was an increase of three. The figure has fallen by eight now—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not wish to hear the facts. He is interested only in political propaganda. Many of us believe that he has done a grave disservice to the discussion by the way in which he introduced the debate.

Mr. Skinner

I care far more than you.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) knows that he must not persist in interrupting from a sedentary position. No matter how provocative the Minister is, I am sure that the House wants to listen to his speech, as do I.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to make it clear that if this hypocrite here—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he cannot use that word about another hon. Member. He must withdraw it.

Mr. Skinner

I shall not withdraw it, as that is what he is.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is Friday, not Tuesday afternoon. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, at my request, withdraw what he has just said.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am afraid that if the hon. Gentleman persists, I have no option but to warn him that I shall have to ask him to withdraw from the Chamber. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will respond to my request.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I therefore have no option but to ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw from the Chamber for the rest of today's sitting.

The hon. Member, having used a grossly disorderly expression, was ordered by Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER to withdraw the same, but he declined to comply with that direction; whereupon Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Standing Order No. 24 (Disorderly conduct), ordered him to withdraw immediately from the House during the remainder of this day's Sitting, and he withdrew accordingly.

Mr. Gummer

You were not in the Chair at the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the debate has not run its usual course because we have dealt with considerations which perhaps ought not to enter into this debate. The whole House cares about accident rates. One accident, whether minor, serious or fatal, is one too many. We must therefore ask ourselves how we might best deal with those accidents. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have advanced various methods by which we might improve matters.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr Foot) whose contribution in these matters is well known. None of us would wish to deny it. It was sad that he quoted out of context a letter which I understand was leaked in The Guardian. The letter was prepared by an official and it was different from the letter which the commission sent. After all, the commission, not the official, is responsible for its letters. More serious than that, however, is the fact that the letter was not written in response, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, to present circumstances. It was a response to the hypothetical situation that resources to the Health and Safety Commission were reduced by 5 or 10 per cent. It was not a response to resources being increased, as was the case. I am sure that, when the right hon. Gentleman reflects on and reads what he said, he would not wish it to be suggested that someone said that resources were not being provided.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to attack the Government for reducing spending.

Mr. Ray Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to attack an hon. Member whom you have just asked to leave the Chamber? Would it not be more in keeping with the traditions of the House for the Minister to deliver his speech to the right hon. and hon. Members who are present?

Mr. Gummer

I was referring to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent, who is in the Chamber. I was answering a point that he raised and was not referring to the hon. Member for Bolsover.

Mr. Foot

Now that the Minister has referred to those documents, I trust that he will follow the normal precedent and present them to the House, so that we can judge them.

Mr. Gummer

Of course I shall not fail to follow a normal precedent. However, I have referred to the document to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, and it appeared in The Guardian.

The right hon. Gentleman attacked the Government for cutting resources for the Health and Safety Executive. The House should be aware that that is just not so. In actual terms, between 1978–79 and 1982–83, the amount of money spent by the Health and Safety Executive, contrary to the specific comments of Opposition Members, has risen from £46.4 million to £80.2 million—in real terms from £31.7 million to £34.9 million. It may be that in the best of all possible worlds we should spend more. I do not suggest the contrary. I suggest that our debates would start off much more sensibly if we had the facts right instead of inventing them and worrying ourselves about fears that do not exist.

There are specific matters about which we have considerable anxiety. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) spoke about small firms. I will take up his point about whether liaison with the small firms organisations is satisfactory. I agree that we could provide better information on registration, and so on, for the small firm when it starts. I have taken a particular interest in small firms. I recently visited a number of garment factories where there have been fire problems. That is not a responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, but I wanted to see what help we could be to the fire officers. We shall do what we can about that.

A number of hon. Members mentioned sanctions. I announced last month that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would in the near future be raising fines and penalties available to magistrates. I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) that it is not just the level of the fines which is important, but the way in which they are applied. I believe that during my intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, I showed my support for the idea that it may be necessary to remind people of the way in which the Health and Safety Executive brings prosecutions. It is the end of the programme rather than the beginning. When a case goes to court, it should not be seen in the context of a first offence, but as the only thing that the Health and Safety Executive can do, having gone through everything else, to make an employer behave himself.

Mr. Janner

While I accept what the Minister says, will he undertake to discuss with his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor whether he will now introduce a programme of guidance to magistrates and judges to advise them to work along the lines that the Minister suggested courts ought to work?

Mr. Gummer

I should want to consider that suggestion in the context of the timing of the raising of the penalties. It may well be that it should be considered, but I have already given an undertaking to study the matter.

I want to deal with some of the comments made about safety committees and trade unions. I am in favour of trade unions being interested in the proper representation of their members, and safety committees must be a part of that. Nothing that I say will derogate from that. It is most important that the workers should be represented. I am pleased about trade union representation on the committees not just because it involves trade unions, but because they represent the workers. I should be worried if trade union representation on the committees were seen as a part of the battle in industry instead of what it should be—proper representation of ordinary people at their place of work to see that safety is fully maintained.

One of the problems about the arguments advanced by Opposition Members is that—this is true of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent—one never spends enough on health and safety. If I may refer, once again. Mr. Deputy Speaker, to your experience, that must be something that any Minister finds because people will always say, "If you spent the money here or there, or did something else, you could improve health and safety." Therefore—

Mr. John Evans

But the Government have cut the support.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman should not say that. The fact is that we have increased the resources that are available. It is all very well for him to say that. We are spending more money in real terms than his Government spent. If we are not spending enough, his Government were spending less. One must ask whether Opposition Members have the right to make such extreme statements.

In case the hon. Gentleman feels that I am being too tough on him, I should tell him that I am concerned about many areas. I am pleased that we are seeking to increase the agricultural inspectorate and that we are recruiting at the moment. We need to sharpen up the approach to safety on the farm. I had a meeting with the National Farmers Union to see what we could do about the extension of safety committees in farms. The nature of farms and those employed on them have made that a less advanced area. There are small groups of people, widely scattered. Safety representation is not as good as it should be.

Complaints have been made about the mines and quarries inspectorate. There is now one inspector for about 2,500 miners, whereas 20 years ago there was about one inspector for 3,500 miners.

Mr. John Evans

There are now fewer miners.

Mr. Gummer

That may be so, but the hon. Gentleman cannot therefore complain that the mines are not as well covered as they were before. The facts show the opposite. One of the things that the hon. Gentleman should know is that 90 mines and quarries inspectors earn more, even without this year's increase, than almost all those in the nuclear installations inspectorate. The mines and quarries inspectorate has been particularly well supported by both this and the previous Government. Therefore, the facts of the debate are that the helpful and real contributions have come from Conservative Members, who have sought to direct the Government towards specific—

Mr. John Evans

Have not Opposition Members made helpful comments?

Mr. Gummer

I would not say that. On the last occasion when I spoke from the Dispatch Box about noise, I said that helpful comments had been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, on this occasion, because of the way in which the motion was introduced, on the one hand suggestions have been made about improving health and safety and on the other hand there has been a return to the class war.

I shall consider with care the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) about the agricultural inspectorate. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) referred to noise. He was generous enough to say that, even if most of us were awful, at least I had some interest in the problem of noise. It has been difficult to get people to take the matter seriously. Resources are being devoted to the matter. That is why we have been able to conduct the awareness campaign and are now implementing a tougher policy on enforcement. All that is part of the programme.

It has been difficult to get that support. I sought it personally from the Health and Safety Commission. It has been difficult for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman mentioned — that, somehow or other, deafness is not treated as seriously as other industrial injuries, although it is now the most prevalent industrial disease, which we have failed to combat.

It was not right for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that I was giving a negative view on the European Community's proposals for noise control. It proposes a single figure of 85 decibels both for the use of audiometry and as the threshold figure. That is inefficient. It will be impossible to enforce it properly not only in this country but elsewhere. There are alternative and better ways open to us. I have never said that 90 decibels was the one figure that we were aiming at. It happens to be the level in the Health and Safety Commission's present guidelines, which are enforceable in the courts.

While, therefore, I have not said 90, I think that that sort of figure is more likely to provide a system by which we can reach out to those who are in danger. Although it is right to say that 85 is much lower than 90, many workers who are exposed to noise of 85 would find it difficult if they were told that, even though there was no discernible danger in many circumstances at that level, they must wear ear protection permanently; that would be quite unacceptable.

Mr. Dixon


Mr. Gummer

I have very little time in which to speak. I must get on.

If I am told by the hon. Member for Jarrow that I must not put ear protection above everything else, then I must tell him that I am totally opposed to the argument that goes on about this matter. There are those who constantly say that it must always be ear protection and that nothing must be done about machinery, because that is too expensive, while those on the other side say that if it cannot be done via the machinery we must not have ear protection. Those of us who care about deafness must do a deal on those two aspects, and that deal is that we want both, until we can have what we really should have, which is noise attenuation at source, and that means the production of new machinery which does not make a noise.

That is why the comments of the hon. Member for Bolsover—I must tell him in his absence—about the European Community were wrong. The EC provides us with the opportunity to make rules and regulations under which every country in the Community must demand standards of engineering applying to new machinery, and that means that instead of one having a competitive disadvantage if one goes for noise attentuation, we all start on the same level, which is absolutely vital. Even those who are not particularly keen on the European Community must agree that that is a major advantage which we should Support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens), from his wealth of industrial experience, made some extremely worthwhile comments, and I hope that we shall be able to encourage other employers to take the sort of attitude that he expressed.

I must tell the hon. Member for Leeds, Central that I cannot promise to restore the cuts about which he spoke, because there have been no cuts. At a time when the number of accidents is falling, when the new computer arrangements mean that we can use our inspectorate more effectively than ever before, and when, in other areas, we have had to cut expenditure in real terms, we have safeguarded the Health and Safety Executive, showing that the Government give safety a high priority.

It was a totally unacceptable slur on an employer for the hon. Gentleman to say, in a totally different context, "I suspect that he does not put safety as a high priority." I put it to the hon. Gentleman that he does not know whether he does or does not, and that he made the comment merely as a party political reference to somebody he does not like, and it is unsuitable for health and safety to come into that area.

Mr. Fatchett


Mr. Gummer

I must not give way, or others who wish to take part will not have an opportunity to do so.

The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central about microbiology is that we have a small team of four inspectors and that we believe they are adequate for the needs we have. I shall look at any specific points he brings to my attention, should he wish to write to me or discuss the matter with me later.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) that it it important to take seriously the points he made about noise and particularly the enforcing of rules, and I was interested in his remarks about accidents being caused through boredom. Accidents occur because people get used to believing that they can get away with unsafe practices, and, as we know, the real problem with accidents is that they do not always happen. If every time one used the machine without the guard on one hurt oneself, people would not use the machine without the guard in place. The danger is that 99 times out of a hundred one gets away with it, and it is on the one occasion when one is distracted that the accident happens. That is an important aspect which we must take seriously.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) accused the Government of not doing what the Conservatives sought to add to the Act, but that is not true. I agree that we have not carried through—as his party did not when in office—the generality of it in the sense of placing a general requirement. But under the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations, the Health and Safety (Agriculture) (Poisonous Substances) Regulations, the Packaging and Labelling of Dangerous Substances Regulations, the Petroleum Spirit (Motor Vehicle, etc.) Regulations, the Petroleum Spirit (Plastic Containers) Regulations, the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act, the Safety Signs Regulations and under other dangerous substances legislation we have insisted on precisely what the hon. Gentleman is asking, which is that people round about should be notified.

We are looking to see whether we should do more than that and whether it would be right to have a more general power and insistence. We have found that specific method to be very effective because, one by one, that notification draws the attention of employers and the work force. A general regulation might not be as effective. We will continue to look at this matter. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman when the Government consider changes and say what we feel.

If I was not able to cover all the matters raised by the Opposition, it was because of a lack of time. I shall be happy to write to them in response to their points. It is my earnest belief and desire that health and safety at work should be a matter on which both sides of the House can unite. We are bound to disagree and have arguments about how to deal with that matter, but it is not helpful to press forward—this is a line that all of us in general support—and demand constantly that we debate this matter in an atmosphere not of sensible contribution but of party political class warfare. I must say that the contribution of a distinguished Member, the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent, was not one of his finest.

2.21 pm
Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

I shall be brief and not follow the remarks that many hon. Members have made in great detail. I want to make some especially important points about hazardous substances which are the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, and I prefer to spend most of the short time available to me to speak on that aspect.

Although the Minister may rightly refute the approach adopted by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), it would be a sad day for health and safety if the Opposition — whichever party was in Opposition — were not pressing the Government to spend more money on it. The Minister conceded that point during his speech. Although he is right to condemn the partisan spirit in which the hon. Member for Bolsover introduced the debate, he should not protest too strongly at the Opposition seeking to help him to get more funds out of the Treasury to do his job, and that of the Health and Safety Executive, more effectively.

Irrespective of any disputes about the direction in which the figures are going, there are major black spots in areas that have long had black spots in terms of the numbers of deaths and injuries — in maintenance, construction, mining and quarrying—and I do not believe that any of us would rest easy because of a slight decline in, for instance, mining deaths when in the past year three or four fewer people were killed than in the year before that. As long as there is that percentage of deaths and injuries in those black spot areas, none of us should rest easy.

I hope the Minister will pursue vigorously two areas that have been raised by hon. Members and I endorse the anxiety that has been expressed about them. One area is new technologies and new substances. Hon. Members are aware that, in many areas where the petrochemical and other such industries operate, developments of new techniques, technologies and substances create a great deal of fear and uncertainty among the work force. Although management is aware of those fears and uncertainties, I hope that the Health and Safety Executive will have the resources to cope with those developments.

The Health and Safety Executive finds it difficult to keep track of subcontracting which occurs predominantly in the construction industry. I hope that adequate resources will be sustained and added to ensure that subcontracting is properly policed.

I entirely accept that the approach to health and safety at the workplace should be one of consensus and not confrontation and I agreed very much with the comments of the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) in that respect. Nevertheless, we still need the big stick and tough laws to ensure that there is strict enforcement to deal with the minority of irresponsible employers. With that in mind, I welcome the Minister's remarks about toughening up the penalties in due course.

I hope that adequate resources will be provided for the HSE to carry out the new responsibilities announced recently whereby it will take over the watchdog role in relation to the safety of distribution and consumption of gas both at home and in the workplace. The number of explosions in the gas industry and in people's homes and the resulting publicity have caused great anxiety in recent times. I am sure that many hon. Members are as pleased as I am that responsibility for that area is to be taken over by an independent organisation—the HSE—and is not being left so much in the hands of the industry itself. The Stockton-on-Tees home safety association has made representations to me and I know that it will be pleased that that responsibility is being given to the HSE, but adequate resources must be provided. The HSE is taking over an enormous job from the Department of Energy. It must have the resources to monitor what is happening in the distribution and use of gas both at home and at the workplace.

A bombshell hit Teesside just before Christmas when it was announced that the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive was to investigate the possibility of dumping nuclear waste in an anhydrite mine beneath Billingham — a highly-populated area in which, as throughout Teesside, a vast number of hazardous substances are already stored. Everyone on Teesside utterly opposes the placing of nuclear waste under people's houses. I have never heard such a ludicrous proposition. It is difficult enough to decide where it should be put, but the last place to put it is under people's houses and under dangerous industries. That announcement has also heightened anxiety about the other substances stored and used by industry in Teesside, which probably has the highest concentration of hazardous substances in the entire country.

The HSE is responsible for monitoring those substances and the firms using them, but a number of difficulties have arisen. The best-known example on Teesside was the Carless chemical plant. The HSE announced that the plant was a blight on the centre of Middlesbrough. Time does not permit me to go into the details, but the result was that Middlesbrough borough council and the county council had to buy the company out at a cost of £1 million so as to sustain the development of the centre of Middlesbrough and put a new road through northern Middlesbrough.

Compensation for removal of hazardous substances in that way is a major problem. There are 36 sites on Teesside with major hazardous substances. It is not good enough for the HSE on behalf of the Government and the public to declare that the sites are dangerous but not to provide the means to buy them out if action has to be taken due to the planning blight caused. I hope that the Minister will consult his colleagues at the Department of the Environment so that this problem can be overcome.

A further problem arises in relation to information about hazardous substances. I believe that more anxiety is caused by keeping the sites secret than by publishing information about them and the safeguards to reassure people that adequate steps have been taken to protect them if anything goes wrong. I hope that the Minister will consult the HSE to ensure that full information about the properties, transportation, storage and use of hazardous substances is given to work forces and to the public so that they may be reassured that adequate provision is being made to protect them.

I hope that the Minister will consult the Department of the Environment about one other matter, which is the loophole in the planning law whereby no permission is required if a warehouse is converted from a current safe use to a use that involves the storage and use of hazardous substances. It is only if there is to be any change in the actual building that permission is required. That is an inadequate state of affairs in areas such as mine which are dominated by heavy industry such as steel, petrochemical and engineering, all of which use such substances.

Although the Minister cannot respond to my points now, I hope that he will either refer them to his colleagues or respond to me in writing.

2.29 pm
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I declare my interest—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.