§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lightbown.]
§ 10.1 pm
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
I am very pleased to have the opportunity in such distinguished company to raise the issue of the powers, authority and work of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. I do so following a vast series of accidents, each one of which has occurred in an area outside the powers and supervision of the Health and Safety Commission, each one of which has led to an inquiry, has caused death and misery and many of which would have been avoided had the Government ensured that the commission and the executive had powers over those areas.
I will list some of the incidents and state which Department had responsibility. They include the Marchioness pleasure boat accident on the Thames, the Clapham train disaster, the King's Cross fire, the Lockerbie air disaster, the Kegworth air disaster and the Herald of Free Enterprise Zeebrugge ferry disaster, all of which were the responsibility of the Department of Transport and the Piper Alpha oil rig fire which was the responsibility of the Department of Energy. That litany of disasters was outside the responsibility of the one body in this country capable of ensuring, in so far as is humanly possible, that accidents are prevented instead of simply being investigated once they have occurred.
It is an oddity that in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 the Health and Safety Commission and the executive were created to look after health and safety, but the Government could require the contracting out of functions to specific Departments—in particular the Department of Transport and in the case of offshore oil, the Department of Energy.
It is remarkable that the Health and Safety Commission and executive have achieved so much success with the resources that they still have—resources which, unfortunately, are being reduced. There are not enough inspectors, of course, and I am not asking that their jurisdiction be increased while their numbers decrease. I pay tribute to Dr. John Culler, the energetic and excellent chairman of the commission, for the work that he supervises and leads, and to his colleagues.
I ask the Government to say that we should stop farming out work that should properly be carried out by the commission and executive to Government Departments that are ill-equipped to deal with it. It is no coincidence that almost every disaster that has occurred, with massive loss of human life, has been outside the purview of the commission and executive, and no coincidence that the Departments of Transport and of Energy have been the ones that have had to set up investigations in almost every case.
Nor is that quite the end of it. We also have the horror of the Hillsborough football tragedy, where the local authority is responsible. In the county of Leicester—part of which I am proud to represent—we have seen the misery of the Donnington race track pop concert, where two youngsters were trodden underfoot and died. With the help of Mr. Fertleman, my researcher, I have gone into the details of that tragedy. Last week I saw Earl Ferrers, who 572 did not know much about it, because it does not seem ever to have been brought to the attention of the Home Office in a way that would sink in. He had not seen the awful video taken by the police, showing a crowd of 100,000 youngsters on the race track listening to the music. As people were trodden underfoot, others lifted them up and passed them over their heads as they surged forward with the music. It is a miracle that only two people were killed.
When we asked who had been responsible for safety, it turned out not to have been the Health and Safety Commission or the Health and Safety Executive: the operation was licensed by the local authority, the police carried out their function and the ambulance and security people carried out theirs. The promoters did their best, but no one was in command. No single authority had the power to say to that group of performers, "Stop: there is a danger." No one had the chance to co-ordinate the people who were looking after those 100,000 youngsters.
The miracle is not, of course, that there were deaths, which, judging by the video, were an absolute inevitability. The wonder is that there were not more. How many more death will there have to be before the Government say, "We must stop the nonsense of leaving crowd safety to local authorities"? When will they stop allowing major events attended by 100,000 to be left to the whim, almost, of people who are not trained or co-ordinated, and who do not know how to handle crowds?
I inquired of the Minister, "What are you going to do?" His answer was, "Well, we have not seen the video." I obtained it from the chief constable of Leicester, and the Minister will have received it today: he will see on it a sight that I had never believed possible.
We have a sorry arrangement—or disarrangement—in this country. Instead of all safety co-ordination being in the hands of experts, it is spread out. Experts have their own areas of expertise but, of course, there will still be miseries. Indeed, there was a disaster in Leicestershire only today. There was an explosion and people were injured. There will always be problems, carelessness and risks and alas—there will always be deaths. However, the Government should be minimising those risks by ensuring that prevention is carried out under proper supervision by those who are skilled, equipped and trained to do that job. That means making use of the organisation that was set up by the House in the 1974 Act. It was an all-party effort and a statute that everybody supported. To me it seems crazy that, when there is such a set-up, proper use is not made of it.
I ask the Minister to be good enough to consider whether he should say to the Department of Transport, "Stop setting up inquiries after tragedies." That is not good enough to deal with tragedies such as the Marchioness, the Clapham train crash and the King's Cross fire. Indeed, Which? magazine reported only today:Large numbers of passengers could be trapped if London Underground is faced with another emergency like the King's Cross fire . … Despite the disaster, some of the busiest stations still have plastic fittings which can give off black toxic smoke in a fire.The consumer watchdog said that safety had improved since the tragedy two years ago this month in which 31 people died, but added that some of London Underground's improvements will take a considerable time. How long do we have to wait? How long do hundreds of thousands of people have to travel in unnecessary danger?
573 I should like to inquire of the Minister why there were no prosecutions after the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. Why did it have to be left to individuals to take action? How is it conceivable that there were no prosecutions when the ferry sailed with its back gate down? Who is supervising the Department of Transport? It is not doing its job. This is not a party political matter; it is about people's safety. I do not understand why action was not taken.
Why should crowd safety be left to local authorities? Why should not somebody co-ordinate? Why should that individual or body not be organised and equipped to do the job? Why must we always wait? Why should we wait until there is a crash or until something happens as was the case at Donnington? Why can action not be taken now before there is another complaint?
As chairman of the all-party industrial safety group, I remember people asking me. after the Marchioness pleasure boat sinking, "Why did it happen?" Of course, it was a terrible error and it might have happened anyway, but one reason is that nobody bothered to take the necessary steps until after dozens of youngsters died.
Therefore, I ask the Minister to carry out a census, survey or audit of the safety arrangements under his control. The Department of Employment is in charge of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. Therefore, it is his responsibility. There is no reason why the Departments of Transport and of Energy should not hand back to the Department of Employment the functions that they should never have been given in the first place. However, the Government are not prepared to take that action. Their responsibility is a heavy one, because there will be another disaster. We do not know where or when, but we do know why—because we are waiting for disasters to happen before we take action to prevent them. Therefore, I ask the Minister to give a positive response to my real plea, which is made on behalf of the relatives of the people who have died in these tragedies.
We know what happens with each individual inquiry, but what is the Minister going to do to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future? In the spirit of co-operation that has always existed in the House on matters of health and safety, I ask the Minister to give a positive answer, some hope and at least an undertaking that he will consult, consider and take the steps within his power to strengthen the Health and Safety Commission and Executive to try to prevent such accidents occurring in the future.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls)
I thank the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for giving us the opportunity to discuss health and safety matters. I also compliment him on the way in which he opened the debate. Even if I cannot agree with every conclusion that he draws and accept every nuance of what he said, it is right that I should remind the House that he has a long-standing interest and passionate devotion to this cause. He introduced the subject this evening with his customary eloquence.
The Government are committed to seeing that workplaces enjoy the highest standards of health and safety that are reasonably practicable. That is why we met in full the Health and Safety Commission's requests for the 574 resources it judges necessary to do its job. That point must be stressed as it is the main area in which I must disagree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, particularly on what he said about resourcing. If time permits, I shall return to that subject. It follows naturally that we also wish to ensure that work activities do not affect the health and safety of members of the public.
Health and safety is an area where a degree of common ground should, and I believe does, exist between all parties, and the hon. and learned Gentleman was right to remind us of that. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is an outstanding example of that common ground. The legislation was drawn up by a Conservative Goverment and put on the statute book by an incoming Labour Government.
Before responding to some of the interesting points which have been raised this evening, I would like to explain in broad terms how the Health and Safety Commission and its Executive operate. Both are, of course, statutory bodies, created by Parliament through the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Their powers and functions flow from that Act and related legislation.
The commission is appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and is responsible for advising Ministers on matters of policy relating to health and safety and for proposing new regulations 1:0 Ministers. The commission's area of responsibility is thus extremely wide. It is concerned not only with health and safety in the workplace, but with the protection of all those who may be affected by workplace activities. In some areas of health and safety, the commission is answerable to Ministers outside the Department of Employment. For example, the commission oversees nuclear safety and is answerable to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
One of the commission's major statutory objectives is the modernisation of earlier health and safety legislation 1 o produce a new integrated system of regulations and approved codes under the 1974 Act. Recent important regulations include the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, which replaced more than 40 pieces of earlier outdated legislation. All were developed following in-depth consultation with interested parties, including both sides of industry.
The commission's major instrument is the Health and Safety Executive which, through its inspectorates, enforces health and safety law to protect both work people and the public. The executive advises the commission in its major task of laying down safety standards through regulations and practical guidance. It has been fully involved in Europe, helping to mould directives to ensure they reflect domestic legislation which meets the needs of modern industry, while at the same time protecting health and safety without detriment to competition.
Having set out the responsibilities of both the commission and the executive, I should like to describe how they exercise those responsibilities with specific reference to public safety. The executive is responsible for enforcing the 1974 Act. Section 3 of that Act is wide ranging in that it places a duty on an employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to protect, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of non-employees. Section 4 of the Act also places certain duties on persons in control of non-domestic premises towards members of the public. "Undertaking" covers an 575 infinitely wide range of premises and activities such as factories, railways, airlines, fairgrounds, and sports stadiums, to name but a few. It is therefore inevitable that section 3 will cover activities for which there exists specific legislation which is the responsibility of other enforcing authorities and, therefore, other Government Departments.
For this reason, the commission has adopted the policy that, as a general principle, HSC and HSE will wish to avoid duplication with other enforcing authorities. But in deciding its approach to any hazardous area, HSE's main concern would be the health and safety of employees, the self-employed and the public. It aims to achieve this efficiently, effectively and economically, with fair and consistent policies responding to legitimate public concerns. That sometimes means an area being dealt with by HSE alone, sometimes by another authority or authorities, occasionally by a mixture of the two. When the general provisions of sections 3 or 4 of the Act overlap with other, more specific legislation enforced by other authorities, the executive seeks to agree demarcation lines with those authorities, in the light of health and safety expertise, economy. efficiency, effectiveness and suitability.
In many areas of overlap, agreement has been reached that the executive should not generally attempt to enforce the requirements of sections 3 and 4, because public safety will be adequately guaranteed by the enforcement of other legislation covering the risk in question. An example is the use of vehicles on the public highway, which is subject to the Road Traffic Acts and the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations. There are similar agreements over general fire precautions, which are the responsibility of fire authorities, over consumer safety, over the structural safety of buildings and many other areas of potential risks to the public. In its demarcation discussions with other authorities, the executive seeks to avoid needless duplication of enforcement, while ensuring that no area of risk remains uncovered.
However, it should be remembered that the executive is not the sole enforcing authority under the Act. The commission can appoint agents and it works in conjunction with local authorities, which enforce the Act in a wide range of non-industrial premises, such as offices, shops and warehouses. The commission has made a number of agency agreements with other expert bodies to enable them to enforce the Act in place of the executive, where this fits well with those bodies' other responsibilities. Some agreements have been made, for example, with the Department of Energy in respect of the offshore industry and with the Department of Transport in respect of railways. In these areas, the commission retains its overall policy responsibility for advising Ministers.
Similarly, agreements can and have been made for the executive to enforce other legal requirements where the executive has the relevant expertise and the new duties are consistent with its basic responsibilities. For example, the executive enforces part III of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and the associated Control of Pesticides Regulations, under an agency agreement with several Government Departments.
I turn to some of the specific points raised by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West tonight, in 576 particular the existing arrangements between the commission and various other Government Departments. In the time available, I shall highlight a couple of them.
HSE inspects sports grounds to ensure that employers are complying with their duties in relation to their employees. However, they do not seek to enforce section 3 with respect to spectators because there is more specific legislation in existence—the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. The Act is the responsibility of the Home Office and it sets out the safety controls at sports grounds. For that reason, the Home Office has been the lead Government Department in the investigation of the Hillsborough disaster. However, the HSE assisted the inquiry with technical issues concerning, for example, crash barriers and the means of entrance to, and exit from, the ground. However, the HSE has responsibility for sports grounds not covered by the 1975 Act.
Currently, the HSE has overall responsibility for the enforcement of the 1974 Act. However, many local authorities have taken powers under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 to license pop concerts and put crowd safety and control conditions into any licence which is issued. The executive works with the local authority issuing the licence, as do others such as the police.
In the Donnington tragedy of 1988, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred so well and in which two people died when the crowd surged forward and lost its footing on soft ground, the local authority were the licensing authority for the event and so undertook the investigation. The executive gave advice to the local authority about staging the 1989 festival, and I believe that it has responded that way again to a request about the 1990 festival.
The establishment of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive has demonstrated, I believe, that there are advantages in having a central body which covers a wide range of health and safety matters. But it does not necessarily follow that the coverage of such a body has to be universal. While there was general agreement when the HSC and HSE were set up as to which inspectorates should become part of the executive, it was more difficult to draw the line in relation to some industries. It is therefore understandable that from time to time questions should be asked about the suitability of current arrangements.
What I believe is important—this has been recognised by the commission—is the need to have the boundaries between commission responsibilities and those of other authorities clearly defined to avoid duplication and perhaps even more fundamentally to ensure that there are not areas which fall between various authorities. The commission keeps this matter under continuing review.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has criticised the sponsor Department having responsibility for the regulation of safety matters. I do not believe that such arrangements are in themselves detrimental to safety. Some industries—for example, marine and aviation transport—demand very specialist expertise which usually is only found in those working in the industry. The Departments are well placed to draw on the specialists from those industries. For other industries such as railway transport and offshore oil, the agency agreements allow the commission to exercise some general oversight of the policy pursued.
577 The hon. and learned Gentleman has also made out arguments for transferring some outside inspectorates back to the commission. We are aware of the arguments, and as with any question of how best to fulfil our responsibilities in any area of Government activity, we keep the matter under review.
Health and safety are vital. They concern us all, whether at work or as members of the public going about our normal business. I am pleased to note that through their commitment to health and safety and their professionalism the commission and executive have won the confidence and respect of both industry and the public. I am sure that that is common ground between us.
The Government have sustained health and safety by ensuring that the commission is properly funded and operates in an efficient and effective way. We have also gone out and put over the message that health and safety are vital. However, it must never be forgotten that the prime responsibility for health and safety lies with employers and that their responsibilities include the protection of the public.
I said that in the time available I would try to deal in more detail with the hon. and learned Gentleman's point about resources. They are vital, because without proper funds the commission and the executive could not discharge their obligations. Contrary to what has been claimed on several occasions, this Government's funding of the commission and the executive has been at least as good in real terms as that of the last Administration. At constant prices, the figure for 1978.79 was £100 million against £109 million for 1988.89. The executive has a I April 1990 target of 160 nuclear installations inspectors —up 30 per cent. in two years—and more than 800 factory and agricultural inspectors—up 9 per cent. in two years. In the public expenditure survey negotiations of the past two years, the commission has received in full the funds that it has bid for.
I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman that we shall consider what he has said. He has an acknowledged expertise and interest in this area, but it must be stressed time and again that ultimately it is not merely a question of throwing money at the problem. There is more to it than that, but the situation must be kept under review.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Unusually for a debate of this nature, I am glad to give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
§ Mr. Janner
Will the Minister be good enough to undertake that he will discuss with fellow Ministers in the Departments of Transport and Energy the possibility that they should transfer the powers that they have in safety matters back to the Health and Safety Commission, in view of the awful disasters that have occurred in the areas of responsibility contracted out to them and of the fact that many people believe that at least some of those disasters could have been avoided had there been proper central control?
§ Mr. Nicholls
I should like to make two points in reply to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope that I have made it as clear as I possibly can that the common ground between us is the need to see legislation working effectively. The hon. and learned Gentleman was fair enough to say that accidents will happen, but we have to do everything in our power to minimise their number.
I do not accept the slightly too easy conclusion drawn by the hon. and learned Gentleman that if everything was dealt with centrally there would be no problem. The conclusion implicit in what the hon. and learned Gentleman said was that the matter was not properly centralised under the Commission. He repeated the word "transport". I will not quibble with the hon. and learned Gentleman about whether the word that he used was "many" or "most", but, it was central to his theme that the matter should be centralised. I am glad to see that the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that summary. On the evidence that I have, I do not accept that that would be the answer. It is well known that the arguments are in the public domain. It is implicit in everything that I have said in the debate that we are listening and want to see the situation improving. I suspect that the solutions may not be as easy as the hon. and learned Gentleman would want, but I promise him that the matter is kept under constant, real and active review.
§ Question put and agree to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.