HC Deb 05 February 1988 vol 126 cc1318-27

Order for Second Reading read.

1.47 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I beg to move, That the Bill now be read a Second time.

In the extremely brief time that is left to debate the Bill I hope that the House will agree that it is a sensible, helpful measure and that it deserves a Second Reading.

The Bill is based on two simple principles. First, the importance of freedom of information opening up the processes of government and administration and, secondly, the need to take any steps that can improve public safety provision. The Bill requires all monitoring agencies responsible for public or environmental safety to keep a register of the notices that they issue, available at reasonable hours for public inspection, with copies available at modest cost. The agencies covered include the factory inspectorate, the agricultural inspectorate, the nuclear installations inspectorate, the railways inspectorate, the industrial air pollution inspectorate, fire authorities, and local authority environmental health officers.

The notices covered would be those issued under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, which covers pesticides, and the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987. Among the events that may be covered by the provisions of the Bill include the spreading of dangerous asbestos dust, chemical spillages in factories, fire risk in places of public resort and the dangers posed by the particular usage of pesticides.

There are a number of provisions in the Bill for firms or organisations affected by a notice to place their account and explanation alongside the notice in the register. There is also a provision for any notice of appeal to be included in the register. There are provisions for a record of compliance to be placed in the register at the appropriate stage. In respect of any trade secret information which might be included in the original notice, there is provision, on application by the firm or organisation affected, for possible exclusion.

In addition, I have made a deliberate effort, in drawing up the Bill, to keep costs of implementation to an absolute minimum in an endeavour to remove any resource implications. The Bill has the strong support of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the Consumers Association and the Freedom of Information Campaign. I pay tribute to the work of Maurice Frankel, the director of the campaign, for the assistance he has given in drawing up the Bill. The Health and Safety Executive has formally informed the Employment Select Committee in open evidence session on 20 January that it has no objection to my Bill.

Why is the Bill needed? First, because there is always an advantage to be gained from greater openness in the routine administration of public affairs. Greater public awareness will increase, and it will improve the standing of the monitoring agencies responsible for public safety. Secondly, many of the notices issued under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act are already made available to trade union representatives to the work force at the place affected. Why should the public not know, too, when there is a wider hazard to them?

Thirdly, the industrial air pollution inspectorate already lists notices that it has served in its annual report, but that list, by its very nature, is retrospective and out of date, and no explanations or details are given.

Fourthly, it is important that persistent offenders under safety regulations are brought to public attention. The "unfair picture of a firm's record" argument, which has been made in the past about publication of details of notices, is partly covered by the provision placed in the Bill for the firm's own account to be put in the register. It would frequently lead to an entirely correct impression being given to the public about the performance and safety record of the firm if information is publicly available about breaches of safety and environmental provisions.

Fifthly, the prospect of publication will assist inspectors in ensuring compliance with legislation. A large amount of the work of inspectors is done by a process of informal warnings, discussions and letters. When those informal procedures are ignored, formal notices are served. The threat of publication will be an added weapon in the hands of inspectors, ensuring speedy compliance.

Let me give an example which relates to an event that is still very much on the minds of hon. Members—the tragic fire at King's Cross last November. We know from unpublished documents which have never officially come into the public domain that there was an inspection of King's Cross along with Paddington, Marylebone and Baker Street tube stations, on 24 March last year, which was carried out by the railways inspectorate. It found a series of problems relating to the possibility of fire risk. No prohibition notice was issued until 10 December 1987, after the King's Cross fire occurred. That notice had to be issued because, dating back from March last year, items of safety work which had been required at the original inspection had not been carried out.

Several questions about the lapse of time between those two events must be asked, but the key point is that if a notice became public knowledge when it was issued, it would be much easier for inspectors to secure speedy compliance with requirements that they have put on organisations such as London Underground. I say that with some feeling because four of my constituents died in the fire. Any step, however small or tentative, which would help to prevent such tragedies should be welcomed

What might the objections to my Bill be? There might be an argument about resource implications. I am anxious to make the process of publication in register form as simple and cheap as possible. I hope that we can discuss that in Committee if the Government are unhappy with my proposals.

The second argument—which has been raised—is that publication might encourage more appeals. That is partly taken care of by the provision for compensating statements by the affected firm. It is important to remember, however, that the appeals procedure is itself public, so appealing to a tribunal to avoid unfair and unfavourable publicity is not necessarily effective.

I believe that, under my Bill, fewer notices would be served and that the informal pre-notice procedure would be strengthened. That would be a very good thing.

Thirdly, the Department of the Environment has some vague proposals afoot for a package of information measures relating to pollution. They are to be brought in at some stage in the future. I sincerely hope that nobody will advance the classic "Sir Humphrey" argument that, because further proposals might be made at some stage in the future, we should not take this small step now. I am reminded of the famous doctrine advanced by Cornford in "Microcosmographica Academica" where he says that the principle of the wedge is that we should not do something good now for fear of having to do something better in the future.

The Bill takes a small but useful step forward. I should like to give just one example drawn from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), who has taken an interest in the matter. It relates to a firm called the Stalite Battery Manufacturing Company Ltd. Two years ago, it was, as it had been for a decade, in Barnsley. It had 50 employees and made heavy-duty and car batteries. Nobody noticed that anything was amiss until one of it workers was admitted to the Barnsley general infirmary in April 1985 with acute lead poisoning.

Acute lead poisoning is extremely rare, so the worker was the centre of considerable medical interest. The local council employment adviser was informed, and he began to ask questions. It transpired that the local factory inspectors had issued improvement and even prohibition notices on the firm for years, but the managing director, a certain Albert Smith, had taken no notice of any of them.

The battery site was of interest to the workers and to local residents because it was near a housing estate. Tests showed that the level of lead pollution in the air and in the effluent from the factory was well above any safety limit.

The key point is that it was only once the information came into the public domain after the case of acute lead poisoning, which is still affecting the individual, that action was taken and real, effective, pressure was brought on the firm to mend its ways. In the end the firm has moved its site of operations and there is now considerable concern in its new location a few miles from Barnsley about its present activities.

The message should be clear. Where the public get to know about occurrences of that type effective pressure can be brought to bear on employers and public organisations that are ultimately responsible for the public safety implications of what they do. My Bill will help in such circumstances. It will not miraculously guarantee improvements in public safety, but it will take us along the right road. In the aftermath of King's Cross I hope that the House will agree.

2 pm

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

First, I compliment the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) on the way in which he opened this debate. He set out the issues with which the House must deal with both clarity and eloquence, and I am sure that the House must be grateful to him for that.

I am personally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for coming to see me with his advisers early on to tell me what he had in mind. It is probably common ground between us that if I was unable immediately to go as far as he would have liked, nevertheless we could help each other explore at an early stage some of the issues with which we would be coping. Obviously, today is the culmination of that process. The hon. Gentleman took the trouble to come and see me and explain, again with great clarity, what he had in mind and he will appreciate that today to some extent we are both singing the same song.

The Government's response is to welcome any proposal which is intended to improve health and safety. Naturally, we must consider the costs and ensure that they are compensated by the benefits which accrue directly or indirectly. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman made that point. Our starting point on any safety suggestion is to be favourably disposed. Ultimately it does not simply come down to cost alone.

We recognise and, indeed, understand the genuine wish of the public to know what is safe and unsafe, and what the enforcement agencies are doing about dangers which may affect them. That is the public's right, both as taxpayers and the people most directly affected. The House must ask itself whether this particular Bill takes us forward in achieving those two objectives of improved safety and of making useful information available.

It may be helpful if I address some of the statements made in the public debates surrounding the Bill. We both know that we cannot be responsible for the comments on a Bill that is being introduced to the House. There have been several contributions on television and in the press which to some extent have exaggerated what the Bill is setting out to do.

The Bill would require a register of formal notices issued under statute. It does not require that all letters from enforcement bodies be made public. I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for that, but it is an important distinction which certainly has not escaped public comment. Thus, for example, the advice given to Bradford football club before the fire would not have been disclosed under the terms of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned King's Cross and I am sure that he will appreciate my reticence in saying much about it. However, it is right for me to acknowledge that the House knows how deeply he feels about it, bearing in mind that some of his constituents were killed. In asking the hon. Gentleman to respect my reticence, I understand from my knowledge, and it flows from what he said, that notices were not issued in that case, so would not have been revealed under the terms of the Bill. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the background to the debate encompasses the incident at King's Cross.

The Bill does not state that internal memoranda and similar letters must be registered; therefore, internal company memoranda would not be made public. For instance, that would mean that comments made by ships' captains about the doors on cross-channel ferries would not have been disclosed before Zeebrugge. I mention those points because it is important that the Bill should be seen for what the hon. Gentleman intends it to be, and that it should not be extended.

Some of the comments made on the Bill have been misleading. I do not advocate such proposals, because they would restrict the mass of advice and discussion on health and safety issues, much of which is heeded without it going any further. If every letter or note on safety had to be disclosed, far fewer would be written. The result would be that much of the good that is achieved would no longer be achieved.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

I do not oppose the principle of the Bill, whose broad thrust is fairly sensible, but the Minister may be able to help me on one aspect. I have in my constituency several highly sophisticated agrochemical works. They are operated under conditions of great safety, and are scrutinised keenly by the Health and Safety Executive. Indeed, the companies are extremely cautious, and small explosions cause tremendous excitement. Perhaps I should have asked this question of the hon. Member for Islington, South arid Finsbury (Mr. Smith). If a notice was served on one of those firms for a minor matter, which had nothing to do with general safety or the risk of blowing up the entire community, and the full background was not published, would there not be a risk of much local hysteria and the circulation of misleading information?

Mr. Nicholls

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There could be such a risk, and the impression could be given that that company's safety record was worse than it was. There must also be the possibility that instead of saying, "We will comply with the notice" — despite what the hon. Gentleman said, fairly, about notoriety cutting both ways—the company might decide to defend its position. I suspect that, in practice, in many cases health and safety inspectors take a fairly rigorous view of the requirements, knowing that they will be complied with quickly. Perhaps I need say no more about that. The points made by my hon. Friend could be argued both ways, and I suspect that the weight of the argument lies more with him than with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury.

In considering those issues, I have had special regard to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which is included in the schedule. I do so because the Health and Safety Commission is responsible to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and because the executive's inspectors issued about 9,500 notices in the year April 1986 to March 1987.

It may be helpful for me to say something about the commission and the executive which I hope will put the Bill in context. The proposals are not the first foray into what might be called uncharted territory. Health and safety is not the domain of dark secrets. On the contrary, the Health and Safety Commission is a tripartite body which is rare in having a stated policy of openness and which is exhaustive in its efforts to consult widely on all its activities and proposals. When a notice is issued at a workplace, the employees who work there are informed by inspectors and a copy is made available to them.

Regulations developed by the commission and enforced by its inspectors concerning major hazards such as chemical works require local neighbourhoods to be informed of possible dangers and of what would happen in an emergency. Health and safety inspectors are trained to be helpful to the public, working through advice and trying to work through consensus where they can achieve it.

None the less, the commission was not content. In 1985, it issued a discussion document seeking public comment on access to health and safety information. On the basis of the many responses that it received from people who are interested in this area, the commission issued a policy statement in 1986 setting out its aims and how they should be implemented. I do not intend to quote from that at any great length, but the central theme is worth addressing.

The commission's main concern is that the public should be safeguarded from the health and safety consequences of industrial activity and should be in a position to understand the nature and extent of important industrial hazards. It says that where the public's immediate safety or health could be at risk, they should be in possession of information that will enable them to understand their position and to know what action to take in the event of some emergency. All hon. Members will thoroughly support that standpoint.

One specific change resulting from that exercise is relevant to the Bill. It is to make available at Health and Safety Executive offices a series of registers listing, for example, all premises that have been notified to the executive and all licences, certificates and orders. Of specific relevance to the debate is that the executive established a register of all successful prosecutions under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

I return to my question whether the Bill will achieve its objectives. Whatever else one may say, a list of convictions, done and dusted, that put the matter beyond doubt because it had been dealt with by a court, will be of great interest to those who take an interest in these matters. Those registers including the register of convictions, attract very little public interest.

In its discussion document the commission considered whether to include improvement and prohibition notices on the register and sought views upon that. It decided not to do so on the grounds that many more notices are issued than prosecutions mounted, so that administration would be a real burden. It is worth stressing that it is not a question of saying that because it would produce administrative burdens it should not be done. It is more a question of saying that if, in an imperfect world, resources are limited, we must concentrate on making the best use of them.

Whether or not a company is served with a notice is not necessarily a reflection of its overall health and safety standards. Therefore, a misleading picture might be given. I concede to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury that that argument applies both ways. The way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) advanced the point shows that it is a matter with which we must come to grips.

When looking at these issues, I found that the overwhelming majority of improvement notices are complied with. That is an extremely surprising statistic. Only a tiny minority are challenged at an industrial tribunal or are subsequently the subject of prosecutions in the magistrates' court. It is a matter for concern if those who receive the notices say, "If I am to be pilloried, I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb". Far better that he should say, "The Health and Safety Executive inspector was a bit over-rigorous, but I have built up a good working relationship with him and, therefore, I shall comply." If a person feels that the mere service of a notice will put him in the dock, there must be a substantial risk that notices will be defended.

I understand that the average time taken to prepare an improvement notice is about half an hour and that sometimes it is done on the spot. However, to prepare a case for an industrial tribunal will take up a great deal of an inspector's time during which he could have been out issuing improvement notices, the vast majority of which would have been complied with. It is a question of how one achieves what one sets out to do.

If the Bill goes to Committee we shall have to study it closely to see whether these and other handicaps can be minimised. For example, the arrangements for recording and dealing with appeals require consideration, and the present proposal that a record of compliance be entered immediately in the register would be administratively difficult. Despite its reservations, the Health and Safety Commission has said in a letter to me, and through its chairman to the Select Committee on Employment, that it has no objection in principle to the Bill's proposals. We shall have to return time and again to that theme. There are so many things that disunite us in the House that it is important to identify the ends on which we agree, even though we differ on the means.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I have been listening with great interest to my hon. Friend. As a sponsor of the Bill may I ask, in view of what he has said about the commission's recommendation, whether he would advise the House that the Bill should go into Committee so that these matters may be explored, especially the pre-notice provisions, to which I attach great importance? It would be a great help if my hon. Friend can give us that assurance. That would relieve the anxieties of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant).

Mr. Nicholls

I should not try to assess whether all the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West will be addressed in Committee. The line that I have taken and the theme that I will develop is that we welcome what the Bill sets out to achieve. However, we must ask ourselves whether this approach can be developed to achieve that end. If the Bill reaches Committee, we shall have to explore that. For all the reasons that I have set out and which I covered to some extent in the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West, we have our doubts whether the Bill will achieve that end. However, the aim of the Bill is wholly laudable. There will be other occasions when I shall claim that hon. Members' concerns are not entirely laudable. They will probably disagree with me, but of course they will always be wrong and we will always be right. However, this case is different.

Mr. Chris Smith

I fear that the Minister is coming dangerously close to saying that he approves of the intention, but, unfortunately, the Bill will not take us very far. Will he confirm that he wrote to his right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council about my Bill stating: Even if it becomes law, it will do little damage and perhaps some good.

Mr. Nicholls

I am sure that I have many vices and some virtues, but the idea that I can recall every statement or letter that I write to colleagues or the idea that I would discuss correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council is going too far. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his optimism.

The Government's most important reservation about the measure does not concern health and safety. It concerns sections 7(1) and 9(1) of the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987 which are listed in the schedule to the Bill. The House assented to the 1987 Act on the basis of clear affirmations by Ministers that notices would be restricted to enforcing authorities and that any extension of the right of disclosure would be undesirable, as likely to compromise the working relationship between fire authorities and occupiers. The Government must therefore hold a reserve on that element in the proposals and will look to changes in Committee.

None the less, the problems to which I have referred are comparative details when set against the principles at stake. The public are concerned about health and safety and how it affects them. They want to know, and feel, that their knowledge may help lead to improvements. Perhaps that is an over-optimistic view. As I have said, the Government have some doubts that the Bill will achieve its objectives or provide useful information. However, we acknowledge that the Bill is laudable in its concept and we do not oppose its principles or aims. Therefore, although we shall have to exercise considerable care in Committee, we do not oppose the Bill today.

2.18 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

If I were to use the parlance of the second-hand car trade, I would describe this Bill as "a nice little runner". It is in the best traditions of a private Member's Bill. It is laudable and covers a very important area of concern. It has been presented by my colleague the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who is known for his thoroughness, care and concern about these issues. I congratulate him on introducing the Bill.

This is not the day of the week for Opposition Members to speak at length and I will be brief. I do not want to make a very political speech. We are very concerned about the broad trends in health and safety in British industry and the level of the inspectorate. We are also worried about the increasing number of incidents and accidents that are becoming, to quote Paul Simon, "very disturbing". There are more accidents, less supervision and fewer return visits. There is a whole area of concern that we need not debate today.

This little Bill takes a step towards giving the public more information. I can recount a constituency example. My constituency contains one of the largest chemical works in the country, ICI's organic dyestuffs works at Dalton, which also works in agrochemicals. European legislation made the substances produced there notifiable. The process that that necessitated, such as consultation with the community, only added to the plus side of relationships between the company and those living in the surrounding environment. It was a very positive step. People knew much more about what went on in the plant, and about its products. That process did not cause hysteria; it made for a greater effort on the company's side, and a positive perception on the part of the residents.

I believe that this Bill will take us in the same direction. Let us get rid of some of the secrecy. People should know about what is going on in establishments close to where they live. Life is becoming more sophisticated in industry, and the industrial and chemical processes involved are becoming more complex.

Opposition Members believe that there is nothing wrong with the Bill slipping quietly into Committee for serious consideration. It could be improved and modified, but most normal, reasonable people would not want it to founder at such an early stage. We wish it godspeed through Committee.

2.21 pm
Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley)

First, I pay tribute to the way in which the Bill was presented by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). If we are to adopt car parlance to evaluate it, I shall differ from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman): it may be a starter, but it is probably unlikely to pass its MOT fitness test. I say that because of an experience which age alone ensured that 1 had—before coming to the House in 1979 — on local authority statutory bodies—consultancy committees, and the like—in and around Birmingham. I served on bodies that were essential in evaluating health and safety necessities, and I took a special interest in the administration needed to ensure that the regulations were complied with.

In that context, I bear in mind the tragedies referred to by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, including the horrendous fire at King's Cross. Councillor Geoffrey Marks, who was a colleague of mine on the city of Birmingham council in 1959, died in that holocaust. It would do less than justice to his memory if I did not support ideals which might help to alleviate problems, but I do not believe that these proposals would do so.

Experience has shown us that the extension of administration and bureaucracy, and the necessity of increasing staff numbers, do not necessarily bring about the desired direct results of increased safety or protection. In such instances as the disaster at Ronan Point, there would have been no opportunity to know of the existence of the latent faults beforehand, and therefore no entries on any registers would have helped. There are other circumstances, in which the information is already known and the facts are listed, and legislation exists to deal with them. We must also ask whether, if a register is produced, it will be of any use. Are the penalties sufficiently draconian to ensure that the register would be complied with—or would it be just another unnecessary overlay?

We have all the continued minutes of the planning authorities, the fire committees, the transport committees, and health committees and other bodies that deal with the existing situation. It is necessary to show as continued minutes those items that have not been dealt with by the inspectors. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred to King's Cross. He knew about the work that needed to be done. He was aware of it, because he spoke about it. If a register had existed, it would not have increased the awareness of the fact that the work needed to be done.

If one looks at the workings of a decent authority or statutory body, one can see that the inspector tables his requirements so that they are shown in the minutes. Those requirements should be on the agendas of everyone who needs to consider them and the appropriate legislation should be used in the event of a failure to observe them. These eyes of mine have, over the years, grown tired and my glasses have to be worn in pursuance of the studying of such items on agandas and minutes well into the midnight hours. Therefore, I plead that I have an interest as well.

Although the intention of the Bill might be good, I am sure that its aims would not be achieved. There is a lack of teeth and a lack of back-up, which would ensure that the intention would not be served. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said that he intended to see that the cost of the Bill would be small. We have a duty to see that the costs are not over-burdensome in the provision of local legislation. We have a duty to ensure that the bureaucracy of government is reduced. We have a duty to see that we do not duplicate any register or record that already exists.

Let us look at the efficacy of existing registers, some of which even I have helped to bring into existence during my membership of this House. One of those registers dealt with land in the ownership of statutory bodies. When we introduced that register we believed that there would be an ability to reduce dramatically the amount of land in public ownership because that land had been brought to the attention of the public and because the public had a right to examine the register. However, no such thing happened. There was a slight reduction but no suggestion that the total amount owned by statutory authorities would have been any different if the register had not existed. Indeed, that register had no teeth. We introduced a mechanism that did not have the desired effect; it merely increased bureaucracy.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

The hon. Gentleman should have the courage of his convictions. Put it to the vote.

Mr. Bevan

I have the courage of my convictions. The Bill could not have the desired effect.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Does my hon. Friend agree that those late-night Charlies who have just walked into the Chamber should keep quiet and let him get on with his speech?

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Debate to be resumed, what day?

Mr. Chris Smith

As there has been a deliberate attempt to talk out my Bill, I nominate Friday 15 April.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 15 April.