HC Deb 16 January 1990 vol 165 cc150-1
10. Ms. Mowlam

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what plans he has for increasing the number of Health and Safety Executive construction inspectors.

Mr. Howard

The Health and Safety Executive has exceeded its objective of having 100 inspectors regularly engaged on the inspection of construction activities nationally by 1990. That number will be maintained. The House has no plans to increase the number in 1990, but the position will be kept under review.

Ms. Mowlam

As we have had a 22 per cent. increase in the number of fatal and major accidents in the past eight years, does the Secretary of State consider that the target of 100 inspectors is adequate?

Mr. Howard

One must look at the figures in perspective. There has been a substantial decrease in the number of fatal accidents in the construction industry. In the 10 years ending March 1988 there were 1,195 fatalities compared with 1,968 during the previous 10 years. The objective was set by the HSE and I have no reason to gainsay it.

Mr. Ward

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the key to safety on construction sites is good training in site safety practices and good supervision by enlightened and progressive firms?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and he will know that we are awaiting the results of the consultation document that was issued by the Health and Safety Commission proposing new regulations on the management of health and safety on sites.

Mr. Leighton

1, too, add my welcome to the Secretary of State. I am sure that he will not want to underestimate the seriousness of the situation in the construction industry where about 150 people are killed and tens of thousands injured every year. That is on a rising trend, perhaps because of the number of sub-contractors, many of whom ignore safety regulations, and because there are only a little more than 100 inspectors for nearly 700,000 employees. There are very few prosecutions because there are not enough inspectors to bring them and, when they are brought, the penalties are derisory. What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman doing to increase the number of inspectors and to see that the penalties are an effective deterrent?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Employment Select Committee for his kind words of welcome. There has been an increasing number of prosecutions and the hon. Gentleman will know that the HSE is increasingly seeking to persuade the courts that such matters should be dealt with in the Crown courts where the court's ability to make decisions and to levy punishments that are more in keeping with the offences is much more widely available.

Mr. Simon Coombs

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there has been an increase of about 10 per cent. in the number of health and safety inspectors working on construction sites in the past two years? Do vacancies still exist in different parts of the country and, if so, what does that tell us about the level of pay that those inspectors enjoy?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend's figure for the increase is correct and the number of inspectors on inspection of construction activities is now more than the complement that the HSE has set.

Mr. Heifer

As there have been six deaths on this side of the Channel tunnel and only one death on the French side during its construction, will the Secretary of State pay special attention to the health and safety of those who are working on the tunnel? Will there be an increase in the number of health and safety inspectors on this side of the Channel?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point which requires attention. He will be aware that the latest unfortunate incident is being investigated by the HSE and we should wait and see what emerges from that investigation.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Is the Secretary of State aware that when the Under-Secretary of State was challenged about the Government's scandalous record in terms of death and injuries on construction sites, he said that people on building sites had the right to walk out if a site was unsafe, in effect asking them to take unofficial action? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House clearly whether the Employment Bill's provision on unofficial action will make it easier or more difficult for union officials to take such unofficial action on unsafe construction sites?

Mr. Howard

As I recall my hon. Friend's words, his point was that employees have an important role in drawing breaches of the safety regulations to the attention of the HSE. That is an important contribution which employees can make, and I hope that they play their full part in drawing such breaches to the attention of the executive.