HC Deb 17 May 1990 vol 172 cc1048-72

'An industrial tribunal shall have jurisdiction to entertain a claim for unfair dismissal by an employee dismissed for taking part in unofficial industrial action where it finds that the reason for the action was a genuine and reasonable belief by the employee that the employer was acting in breach of statutory duty whether in respect of health and safety matters or other matters connected with the terms and conditions of the employees of the employer.'.—[Mr. Tony Lloyd.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

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

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this, it will be convenient to take the following: amenclment (a) to the new clause, at end insert `or because the employee or employees were genuinely unaware of action being taken by their union to try and resolve the dispute.'. New clause 4—Health and Safety'An employer has no right to dismiss selectively any employee who refuses to work on any site, location, or job which the said employee considers to be dangerous to his health, or involves contact with any substance he has grounds to believe is hazardous to health.'. Amendment (a) to new clause 4, after 'right' insert 'without seeking the advice of the Health and Safety Executive'. New clause 7—Involvement of Health and Safety Inspectorate 'In circumstances where an employee refuses to work on any site or job in which he believes there is a danger to his health, a Health and Safety Inspector must be called under such circumstances to inspect the site or job, from whom a formal safety declaration will be required before any work resumes.'. New clause 8—Safety Committees'(1) Every employer shall be required to establish a safety committee at his place of work to which his employees shall elect representatives. (2) The safety committee, which shall comprise equal numbers of employer and employee representatives, shall, by majority vote, have the authority to suspend work where it believes there is a risk of harm or serious injury to employees or to ancillary workers. (3) The suspension of work shall remain in force until the alleged hazard has been inspected by a Health and Safety Inspector and a formal declaration by the Health and Safety Inspector that the hazard has been removed.'. Amendment No. 19, in clause 7, page 7, line 26, after `(1)', insert 'save where matters of health and safety are concerned.'. Amendment No. 24, in page 7, line 37, at end add— '(c)) The action is being taken by employees who genuinely believe that their employer is in breach of statutory duty in respect of health and safety matters.'.

Mr. Lloyd

As the Minister of State knows, because the pattern is familiar to us—and I believe it would be fair to say that he has no reputation to lose—the clauses in the Bill to which we took the strongest exception are those dealing with unofficial action. We particularly object to the concept of selective dismissal for the crime, in the Government's eyes, of taking unofficial industrial action. The Government also seek to take away any protection whatsoever from a person sacked for that reason in respect of recourse to an industrial tribunal. That represents a further significant move away from any semblance of fairness.

We have raised that issue on a number of occasions but received no satisfactory answer. Employees who felt compelled, in order to maintain a health and safety regime at their place of work, to take a form of industrial action might find themselves threatened with the loss of their jobs, and would have no protection under present law.

We have already established in general terms that the very interests that the Government prayed in aid as in need of protection against such action have said that they do not want it. I refer in particular to the reaction of London Regional Transport. The strikes on the underground were one motive for the Government's rush into this legislation. LRT made it clear that it felt that this part of the Employment Bill was useless and would be counterproductive to good industrial relations.

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On numerous occasions we told the Government that people had been forced to take industrial action in defence of health and safety. One illustration that I gave to the Minister was the strike on the Isle of Grain site in the Thames estuary, when people producing concrete linings for the channel tunnel project took industrial action because the company refused the request for a permanent staff nurse on site. Although there was industrial action, there was no interruption of the contract of employment by management and nothing that the Minister could use in his defence to say that management were outside the scope of the legislation. The workers who took strike action in February 1989 would have been liable to selective dismissal had the rules in the Bill been in force. The Bill would have allowed management to pick off the ring leaders of the strike.

In Committee, the Minister's defence was that people wishing to take unofficial industrial action already had legal rights if management operated an unsafe health and safety regime, as it had therefore abrogated its contract of employment with the work force; therefore, the clauses Nos. 1 and 4 would not have any impact.

The Opposition has taken a considerable amount of advice on the issue, and the Minister has already seen some of it. He knows that there is no reputable legal argument to sustain the view put forward by the Government in Committee. The Minister may want to pray in aid other sources of information, but I think that legal opinion is unanimous in the view that the law is clear about what constitutes unofficial industrial action.

In Committee, the case of Power Casemakers Limited v. Faust established that when judging unofficial industrial action as defined in the two new clauses, the employers' or employees' motivation does not need to be taken into consideration. What is relevant is whether the employer was in breach of his contract with his employees when unofficial action was taken. The Minister looks puzzled, but we have pointed this out on a number of occasions, and I am surprised that the arguments still puzzle him. This issue is central to the Minister's case and it is central to our case, because he is wrong, and that exposes people in their workplace to injury and to losing their jobs if they seek recourse to industrial action to protect themselves.

At the moment, much attention is focused on the channel tunnel. It is a pity that the Secretary of State has chosen to absent himself from the debate. I was pleased to see him driven from his inertia on health and safety last week. He did something positive about the disgraceful accident rate in the tunnel. If Conservative Members feel that that is not the case, perhaps they would like to say what the Minister has done in the past when people have been dying. I do not think that Conservative Members are in any position to argue that case, because the Minister did nothing until he was driven to it by the considerable criticism of the tunnel company in the press.

I have been asking about this issue for some time. I wish to draw the House's attention to a log book for locomotive drivers working in the tunnel. One driver's comment was: The warning beacon obstructs the view to the rear. If somebody is killed as a result of poor visibility to the rear it will be blamed on the driver. These beacons are put in a ludicrous position right in the driver's field of vision…Move them before somebody is hurt or killed". The same point is made time and again in the log books. They are available to the company; they are the company's log books. However, nothing is done.

Ironically, one of the locomotive drivers was sacked yesterday by Transmanche Link. He drove one of the vehicles which are considered to be unsafe. The company claims that he had refused to take instructions about where he was to work and it suspended him. He went through a four-stage disciplinary hearing, which found him guilty of indiscipline. That may be the case, but he claims that he was dismissed because he was a safety representative and because he had refused to work in conditions which he thought to be unsafe.

The point at issue is that, as the law stands, that man has the opportunity to claim that he was unfairly dismissed, but once the Bill comes into force, if the company can argue that he was taking industrial action or refusing to work, because it would be classed as unofficial action, he could be dismissed without recourse to a tribunal. There would have been no examination of the rights or wrongs of the case.

We know that work in the channel tunnel is unsafe. Even the Secretary of State is concerned about that now. One reason is there is considerable pressure on workers to put progress before safety, with the result that there has been a high accident and death rate.

If we take away workers' rights to defend themselves by having recourse to some form of industrial action, the Minister will once again put lives at risk in the tunnel. I insist that the Minister deals with that issue when he responds to the debate.

Legal opinion is firmly on our side in this matter. In Committee and on Second Reading the Minister said that it was not his intention to make life more difficult for people in the workplace as regards health and safe working conditions. If that is the case, the modest amendments that we have tabled would not undermine the two clauses dealing with unofficial industrial action but would give recourse to an industrial tribunal—in new clause 1—so that it could decide whether health and safety issues had been a factor in dismissals. We are not asking the Minister to rip up the Bill or that part of it which deals with unofficial action. We are building into the Bill a simple defence so that workers will not feel that the only way that they can protect themselves is by using industrial action to guarantee that they and their workmates are not put at unnecessary risk.

It would be simple for the Minister to accept the new clauses as a minimum form of safety standard. If he does that he will have the support of the whole House, but if he does not, he must examine the consequences for people at work. He will be jeopardising their position and putting them at risk of injury or ultimately, as we have seen in the channel tunnel, of death.

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I agree implicitly with my hon. Friend's argument about people at work. This issue could also affect the public in some circumstances. Earlier he referred to London Regional Transport and British Rail. The increase in the number of near misses and cases of overshooting red lights reported by British Rail is worrying. Train drivers involved could take action to improve the situation. I am not saying that they will have to do that, but I can see that sometimes there is a need for them to do so, and that would benefit the public. By introducing a restriction on such workers, we put the public at risk.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is not only workers who can be involved in accidents. Last weekend, two young children in my constituency got on to British Rail property and were electrocuted by touching the overhead line. The question now is whether British Rail was negligent, but that has to be established. However, my hon. Friend is right: had an employee taken action to protect those young children, he would have acted in a socially responsible way but, without the addition of the new clauses, it would have put him outside the provisions of the Bill.

Amendment (a), tabled by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel), to new clause 1 seeks to extend the scope of the new clause. It provides for recourse to an industrial tribunal if the employee or employees were genuinely unaware of action being taken by their trade union to try and resolve the dispute. There is merit in the amendment. It is a reasonable defence. If the Minister were to say that he is prepared to accept the new clause but not the amendment, we should have to reconsider our position. However, I hope that the Minister will recognise the logic of accepting both new clause 1 and amendment (a).

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Tim Eggar)

On Second Reading and in Committee we made it clear that we accept some of the concerns that have led to the tabling of the new clauses and their related amendments, since they are inspired by a genuine desire to ensure that health and safety standards at workplaces are maintained or improved. The Government fully share that aim. We would not propose legislation that we believed would in any way undermine those standards. We are totally committed to the health and safety arrangements that have been established by law. It is a non-partisan matter. We agree entirely that nothing should put those arrangements at risk.

A degree of common ground should exist and, I believe, does exist over health and safety matters. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, governing health and safety matters, was drawn up by a former Conservative Government and enacted by a subsequent Labour Government. The Act placed the prime responsibility for health and safety fairly and squarely on the shoulders of employers, with the co-operation of their employees. That legislation was rightly recognised to be a milestone in helping to secure and improve health and safety standards in this country, and it is generally well regarded internationally.

The Act is kept under review by the tripartite Health and Safety Commission, which can propose improvements if it decides that they are needed. It is, and will continue to be, unlawful to work or to be asked to work in unsafe conditions. No employee, by definition, can be required by his employer to do something unlawful. The Bill does absolutely nothing to change that. At times in Committee, and during the hon. Gentleman's speech, it was implied that the effect and purpose of the Bill was to undermine the high standards for health and safety standards at work. That is not the case.

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

The Minister has uttered fine words about the 1974 Act. He says that he appreciates the concern expressed by the Opposition, particularly in Committee. Will he accept the intention behind one of the amendments and incorporate it in clause 7? If he does not accept the intention which underlines one of the amendments—the Minister can choose which one to accept—his fine words will be meaningless, and events in the next two years, as cases come to light, will show that his words were meaningless.

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Mr. Eggar

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I hope to deal with the effect of the new clauses. These are serious and difficult matters. I hope that, by the time I sit down, I shall have explained to the hon. Gentleman why the Government have difficulty with the proposals.

The issue debated in Committee was technical—whether simple refusal to do unsafe work could be regarded as taking industrial action. We have considered that question carefully, and our conclusion is clear and unequivocal. The Government are absolutely confident that no court or tribunal has found, or would find, that simple refusal to do unsafe work amounts to taking industrial action. It follows that, if an employee simply refuses to do work that he believes to be unsafe and is dismissed, an industrial tribunal has, and will continue to have, jurisdiction to determine whether that dismissal was fair or unfair.

The legislation on unfair dismissal was enacted by the last Labour Government. That legislation, which made the dismissal of strikers fair in certain circumstances, made no special provision for refusal to work on grounds of health and safety. If there was no need for such a provision then, there is no need now.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Leaving aside the last Employment Bill, now an Act, that made provision for deposits to get into the industrial tribunal system, industrial tribunals cannot order a company to take a worker back into employment. If a worker knows that, although he can find his way through the maze of industrial tribunal legislation he will not get his job back, he will still knuckle under, believing that he must do as he is told if he is to keep his job. That is happening now on the Channel tunnel project.

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman is not dealing with the point at issue, which has been discussed at some length—whether simple refusal to do work in unsafe conditions amounts to industrial action. That is a critical question. If it is held to be industrial action, the Bill will affect the right of referral to industrial tribunals. If—as is our position—a simple refusal to do work is not industrial action, the position will be as it has always been and it will be totally unaffected by the Bill.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

The Minister has chosen his words carefully. He says that he is sure that a simple refusal to do work would not constitute industrial action. That, as he knows, is a contentious statement. There are those who disagree with his view. As there is doubt, it is incumbent on the Minister to ensure that the law says precisely what he claims that it says. He ought not to allow the matter ultimately to be tested in the courts.

The Minister must also define what he means by simple refusal. For example, would an overtime ban in support of a health and safety measure constitute simple refusal to do work, or would it constitute industrial action? The overwhelming legal opinion is that it would constitute industrial action. If the Minister is saying that in those circumstances he believes that people should lose their jobs, he should make it clear at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Eggar

The case that the hon. Gentleman has postulated would have to be decided on the facts. He quoted the Faust case, but the Faust judgment made it clear that people would know industrial action when they saw it—in other words, it would have to be decided on the facts.

Mr. Wallace

My point follows the question raised by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd). Is not the effect of not accepting the amendments and not clarifying the position to put another barrier in the way of an employee who is dismissed and who then has to take the case to a tribunal to determine, first, whether the tribunal has jurisdiction before it can decide the fairness or unfairness of the dismissal? The fact that the law as it stands gives the tribunal no automatic jurisdiction must be a disincentive to test the system. I know that the Minister's concern about health and safety at work is genuine, but the Government would lose nothing by accepting the new clause, at least in principle, and getting rid of the doubt.

Mr. Eggar

I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not give way again. That is not meant in any way as a discourtesy, but I am aware of the time. I hope that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will bear with me as I develop the argument.

In practice, the difficulty revolves around the problem of how one defines industrial action. It has been the view of successive Governments—the last Labour Government and the present Government—that it is extremely difficult to define industrial action and that the best solution is to leave it to industrial tribunals, and if necessary the Court of Appeal, to decide in the light of the facts of any particular case. I understand the appeal of seeking to define industrial action and we have considered the matter in considerable detail, but we do not believe that it is necessarily the right course.

Mr. Blair

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Eggar

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I said that I would not give way again. I hope that he will have a chance to make his point, and I shall be happy to answer it.

It is far from obvious that simply stopping work is always the right course for an employee who genuinely believes that working conditions are unsafe. Except in a minority of cases in which there is or is believed to be some real, immediate and serious risk of personal injury, there are other options—for example, employees can take matters up with their local health and safety inspector.

The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) referred to a conflict of legal views. Earlier this afternoon, the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) was kind enough to let me have a legal opinion. I do not consider that that strengthens his case. If he looks at the questions that were asked of learned counsel in that opinion, he will realise that he asked the wrong questions. Question 3 relates to industrial action, but the issue is whether a simple refusal to carry out unsafe work constitutes industrial action. I can only recommend that Opposition Members read the first page of that opinion and the third question that was asked. They will find that they asked the wrong question. It is not surprising that, the wrong question having been asked, the answer does not address the issue before the House—that is, whether a simple refusal to work on health and safety grounds constitutes industrial action. Our view is that it does not.

Mr. Blair

We have to clarify that. After all, most hon. Members consider that if there is a serious difference, the sensible course would be to remove any area of doubt instead of leaving it to someone to go to a tribunal some time later. Our adviser was asked whether a stoppage of work for health and safety reasons would constitute unofficial industrial action, and the answer was that it would be unofficial industrial action irrespective of the reasons or motivation behind the stoppage.

Mr. Eggar

That exactly proves my point. That is not the question at issue between us. I am perplexed that the hon. Gentleman has not yet focused on whether a simple refusal to carry out unsafe work would be industrial action. Our view—it was clearly and explicitly stated in Committee and I have explained the matter to the hon. Gentleman in person—is that a simple refusal to do unsafe work would not be industrial action. That is the issue that we have been debating.

Mr. John Evans

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Eggar

No, I must address the new clauses and amendments proposed by the Opposition.

The new clauses and amendments go well beyond the essentially technical issues discussed in Committee. As I have already said, a simple refusal to work in unsafe conditions will not make employees liable to selective dismissal without the right to have a tribunal determine the unfairness of any such dismissal, but new clause 1 and amendments Nos. 19 and 24 seek to go very much further. In a nutshell, those Opposition amendments and new clauses seek to carve out some special protection for unofficial strikers, and the net result would be a charter for unofficial action.

New clause 1 gives the game away by stating that industrial tribunal jurisdiction to determine the fairness of dismissal is to remain even if unofficial strikers are selectively dismissed for taking action about other matters.

Clearly, that goes well beyond health and safety concerns, and the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

Amendments Nos. 19 and 24 would undermine the intended effect of clause 7, as they would allow any unofficial striker who was selectively dismissed to get round the law simply by claiming that he had some health and safety concern. New clause 4 would mean that any employee who refused to work and subsequently claimed that he considered his work to be unsafe would have a right not to be selectively dismissed. That would apply even if it were patently obvious that the employee was taking industrial action, even if it was unofficial action, at the time of his dismissal. In other words, the amendments—individually or collectively—would drive a coach and horses through the present law on dismissal, let alone the new law on unofficial action in clause 7.

Similarly, new clauses 7 and 8 seek to upset the well established and effective balance of responsibility set out in the Health and Safety At Work, etc. Act 1974. Those new clauses would unduly direct responsibility away from employers and employees and on to inspectors, which would seriously damage the effectiveness of inspectors in ensuring compliance with health and safety law.

We believe that health and safety problems should be resolved by employers, who have the primary legal responsibility in co-operation with the employees who may be affected. Leaving everything to be decided by the inspectors, as is proposed, would remove the employers' incentive to assess and deal with workplace risks. If employers do not deal satisfactorily with health and safety problems, employees are and will remain free to contact their local health and safety inspector—in confidence, if they feel that that is appropriate. I need not remind the House that inspectors can visit without warning and can order work to be stopped if there is a risk of serious injury.

A proliferation of committees, as proposed by new clause 8, would not work in this role, and such committees would inevitably conflict with the joint committees, statutory and voluntary, which already exist to monitor health and safety measures in individual workplaces.

The key points of our concern about the new clauses and amendment No. 19 are that it is, and will continue to be, unlawful to work or to be asked to work in unsafe conditions, and no employee can be required by his employer to do something unlawful. If an employee simply refused to do work that he believed to be unsafe, he would not be taking industrial action. Thus, an industrial tribunal would have jurisdiction to determine whether dismissal was fair or unfair.

No court and no tribunal has ever found that simple refusal to do unsafe work amounts to industrial action. Legislation on unfair dismissal enacted by the last Labour Government which made dismissal of strikers fair made no special provision for refusal to work on grounds of health and safety.

This has been a useful exchange on a complicated and technical matter. I remain convinced that there is nothing incompatible between our commitment to maintaining high health and safety standards and the measures in the Bill to provide effective remedies and to deter unofficial industrial action.

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Mr. John Evans

The Opposition amendments seek only to ameliorate the impact of clause 7. Like my hon. Friends, I regard the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) as helpful and I support them.

This is an obnoxious Bill, and clause 7 is the offensive part of it. Indeed, the measures that the Government are introducing are the type of trade union legislation that is being swept away by eastern European countries as they find their freedom. The Minister knows as well as I do that legislation of this type was inflicted on the workers by dictator Ceausescu of Romania and is being cast aside as the Romanian people attain freedom.

Clause 7 would remove the right of workers participating in any unofficial action to appeal to a tribunal on the ground of unfair dismissal. It would also remove their statutory rights to, for example, redundancy payments and pregnancy leave. The Government have become muddled. They continually confuse unofficial strikes with unofficial action. The Green Paper entitled "Unofficial Action and The Law" referred in paragraphs 1.2, 1.3, 1.5 and 1.14 to unofficial strikes and unofficial action in almost the same breath.

Hon. Members, particularly on the Opposition Benches, with experience of industrial affairs will be aware that unofficial strikes are generally spontaneous acts, such as walking off the job, whereas unofficial action can take a variety of forms, including a sit-down strike, a ban on overtime, a work to rule or a refusal to work in dangerous or unsafe places, with unsafe tools and equipment or with unsafe or dangerous materials and substances.

I am particularly worried to note that a senior Minister believes that no worker in Britain is ever asked to work in unsafe conditions or with unsafe tools or materials and that no arguments ever occur over such matters. I assure him, having spent my working life in shipyards and ship repair yards—the Minister seems to be indicating dissent; he has never worked in such places—that people do work in conditions that are highly dangerous and often unsafe.

The weakness in the Minister's argument lies in the question of who is to decide when there is a dispute between the work force and the employer over whether a practice, tool or substance is safe or dangerous. Frequently in those circumstances the argument is resolved by the workers simply walking away from the material or job.

I am particularly worried about a situation that occurs frequently. When asbestos is found in a place of work where, for example, maintenance work is being undertaken, any worker would immediately walk off that job. Irrespective of the assurances given by the Minister, a worker taking such a step would immediately be at risk of losing his job because of the way in which clause 7 is drafted.

That clause enables the employer to choose who to dismiss, and, once dismissed under the terms of clause 7, the employee would have no right to go to a tribunal. A tribunal would not have jurisdiction in such a case. The worker would have been dismissed because he participated in industrial action, and the clause makes it clear that a tribunal would have no jurisdiction in that case. As I said in an intervention, the Minister could remove all our fears by including a provision, similar to that which we recommend in our amendments, relating to health and safety.

We appreciate that the best employers would never find themselves in such a situation, but there are rogue employers who might push workers in certain directions and who in some circumstances would be prepared to do so provocatively, seeking to create a confrontation. That would give an employer the opportunity to sack, for example, shop stewards or people with long service and considerable redundancy rights. An employer would have the right to get rid of pregnant women, who would then lose any rights that had accrued to them. One can envisage circumstances in which companies in financial difficulty would take action to reduce their compensation liabilities.

Is it fair or just that workers should be put at risk in such circumstances? Opposition Members have done their best to concentrate their remarks on health and safety issues, although many other subjects could be discussed as we debate clause 7.

The Minister repeated what the Under-Secretary of State said in Committee: To reassure Opposition Members, I have tried to find out whether, since the unfair dismissal legislation was first introduced in 1971, there have been any recorded cases of industrial action being taken solely on the grounds of health and safety that have led to people being dismissed. Inevitably, it is rather hard to prove a negative, but I have found no instance of it".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 15 March 1990; c. 353.] That is hardly surprising because until now, the individuals concerned would have had the right to appeal to a tribunal on the ground of unfair dismissal. Any employer, even a rogue employer, would have known that he would be derided and laughed out of court the moment it was recognised that health and safety was the issue.

Unless the Minister amends the legislation, either here or in another place, to protect workers by statute in health and safety cases, clause 7 will cause the Government considerable problems. The clause is specific. Any individual taking part in unofficial industrial action immediately exposes himself to selective dismissal. That will happen, as the Minister knows. I only hope that in the Lobbies tonight, Tory Members know what they are voting for.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

I wish to address my remarks to amendment (a) to new clause 1 and amendment (a) to new clause 4. I assume that my hon. Friend the Minister will have a few words to say about them. He said that there had been an interesting exchange: Front-Bench Members may have had an interesting exchange, but we are only now getting going on the group of amendments. I shall not take up too much time, as I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak.

New clause 1 states: An industrial tribunal shall have jurisdiction to entertain a claim for unfair dismissal". That does not necessarily mean that such a claim would be successful. If new clause 1 is passed with amendment (a) tacked on to it, industrial tribunals will take on a somewhat new role with a pre-hearing capacity. However, there is nothing strange or unusual about changing the nature and function of industrial tribunals.

Industrial tribunals have been with us since 1964. There was a major change in 1971 and there may be major changes in the future. The first advantage of accepting amendment (a) would be that there would be encouragement for trade unions to get closer to their members if unofficial strike action was taken. Amendment (a) is designed to try to stop unofficial action getting out of control and to reduce to the bare minimum the danger of misunderstandings between trade unions and their members. It is also designed to encourage trade unions to intervene quickly and to let their members know that they are so intervening if unofficial action takes place or if it appears to members of the trade union that a grievance has not been dealt with quickly. It is also designed to try to put a brake on rash and hasty decisions by management which could occur if the Bill is passed unamended.

I do not wish to rehearse all the arguments that I made in Committee. I have already drawn attention to the wording that must be used in the letter from a trade union to its members. I remain opposed to the way in which the words are written down, and to their tone and content. The letter must say: Your union has repudiated any call for industrial action … If you are dismissed … you will have no right to complain of unfair dismissal. That is not the language of industrial relations in the 1990s. It is too far removed from reality and too much like first world war generals barking orders to those on the ground. It would have been perfectly possible to change those words and still put the onus on the trade unions to intervene quickly to settle the grievance and on those taking unofficial action to cease taking it while the trade union tried to sort out the problem.

The most serious problem about new clause 1 is that it would take away the right of an individual to go to an industrial tribunal and for his case at least to be heard. In the often confused situation of an unofficial strike, there may be sudden dismissal of one or two people. To take away the right for a case to be looked at is neither reasonable nor correct. The Government have lost a sense of balance on the matter. I urge them to accept amendment (a) or to draft a provision similar to it in the other place.

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New clause 4, as at present drafted, could lead to misunderstandings, and it gives a great deal of freedom to the individual employee. It uses the words: which the said employee considers to be dangerous to his health". It is common sense that we should put on some brake before people walk off the job because they consider the conditions to be unsafe.

The channel tunnel and the accidents there have already been mentioned and the Opposition have already said that they propose to raise the matter further. Amendment (a) would lead to an avoidance of unnecessary confrontations between management and unions on the most important aspect of work—health and safety conditions. Under new clause 4, unofficial action would still be possible. The new clause could refer not only to one, but to two or three people whose selective dismissal could lead to widespread unofficial industrial action, and matters could soon become out of control.

Amendment (a) is designed to achieve three objectives. First, it is designed to ensure that when there is an argument between employers and employees about safety at work, the advice of the Health and Safety Executive must be sought at once. That does not mean that the employer necessarily has to accept its advice, although it is hard to imagine that, if there was clear advice that the conditions were unsafe, an employer would be likely to brush aside the advice of the Health and Safety Executive. For that reason, it would be up to the employer to say to the employee, "You are dissatisfied and you consider that the working conditions are dangerous—I am seeking the advice of the Health and Safety Executive now and I expect that there will then be tripartite discussions between the Health and Safety Executive, the employer and the employee."

Secondly, amendment (a) would give greater reassurance to employees who feel that they may be working in dangerous conditions that their anxieties would be dealt with quickly. Again, that would calm down industrial relations and give individual employees a greater sense of security in their work. Thirdly, amendment (a) is relevant to young people in their first job. Such people are reluctant to start an argument with an employer about whether conditions are safe or not.

Amendment (a) would give greater protection to young employees. It would also give greater protection to female employees who might be equally unwilling and afraid to start an argument with an employer about safety conditions at work. More and more employers are seeking more and more women employees today. With the change to separate taxation, more women will seek employment. That puts an extra responsibility on Parliament to ensure that the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 is carried out properly and that there is no deterrent for women employees if they are concerned about conditions at work.

Science and technology change all the time. New substances constantly appear and there is a whole mass of information on new substances at work. Again, that could lead to somebody saying, "I am sorry, I am not satisfied with the handling of this substance—I must ask that the Health and Safety Executive look at it before I go on with my work." Amendment (a) to new clause 4 would strengthen the Health and Safety Executive and health and safety committees. It would make employers go into more detail in their annual reports about what they had done about health and safety conditions, which would be all to the good. It would also improve contact between management and employees about a vitally important part of industrial relations.

I have tried to turn a stumbling block into a stepping stone towards better industrial relations. I hope that Ministers will accept the amendments, but if they do not, it will be one of those days on which I must disagree with the Front Bench. The Conservative party is a centre-right coalition—a broad Church—and if there are disagreements between Conservative Members, that is par for the course and something which sometimes happens in Parliament.

My amendments seek to clarify the position for individual employees. We should reduce the danger of misunderstandings at work to a minimum, as they can lead to unofficial industrial action, and once that starts it is difficult to control.

Mr. Leighton

It is a great pleasure to follow such a thoughtful speech as that of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel). I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) made a persuasive case for the new clause. I also congratulate my hon. Friends on the first-class job that they did in Committee.

If employees find that they are in danger and take certain actions, are they protected? I have heard what the Minister has said, and the different legal opinions. At best, this is a grey area: the reasons why employees had taken certain actions could be disputed. For example, an employer could say that they had acted for one reason, while they could say that they had acted for health and safety reasons. Who is to decide?

The new clause says that an industrial tribunal should have jurisdiction to decide whether those employees had a genuine and reasonable belief. Surely that could be accepted by the House for the avoidance of doubt, for it would make matters clear to everyone. If the Minister accepts that people in such circumstances should have the right to a defence, why does he oppose the new clause?

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) has said that, in his experience, disputes often blow up unexpectedly. I could cite an example from my own experience. In a previous incarnation, I was a health and safety representative on a national newspaper. I was a member of the mechanical committee, on which there were trade union and management representatives. It did not deal with pay or conditions; it dealt with the state of the machinery, and with such things as the ventilation system.

On one occasion, we had a problem with the plates on a machine. Hon. Members will be familiar with the term "hot metal"; in those days there were hot metal plates on rotary presses, made of lead and other metals. The problem occurred when the plates started to break up on the print run. That was dangerous, as the plates were clamped on to the cylinders of high-speed rotary machines. If the plates broke, the centrifugal force sent the pieces of metal flying like shrapnel. As hon. Members can imagine, it was extremely dangerous.

The technical director did not know why the plates were breaking up. Tests were made, and he genuinely tried to find out the answer. We worked at night; he worked during the day, and at night was lucky enough to be in bed. He said that if the problem recurred we should shut down the unit on the press and not touch it until he returned in the morning, so that he could investigate what had happened.

There were many units on the press, including spare units. One night, as I was sitting in my office, I had a message that a plate had broken up again. I went to the machine room and told the machine operators that they were not to touch the unit, but to leave it until the technical director returned in the morning to examine it. However, a new junior member of the management came on to the scene and told the men to strip the unit, to put another load of plates on to the same unit and to continue with the job. I told him to hang on: we were following the technical director's instructions and leaving the unit as it was. He then got stroppy, and told us to get the unit stripped and to put new plates on.

Obviously we were in something of a dilemma, but the machine operators did as I had suggested. The junior manager took umbrage, saying that we were to finish for the night and that there would be no paper. He then stormed off. I chatted with the men and we decided that his reaction had been over the top and silly, and we produced the paper that night without any management. We got on better than usual, as there was no harassment from management—we had discovered that they were not really necessary. We even produced the paper for a second night. The Daily Telegraph published an article about the dispute, but it could not understand that we were taking what was considered to be industrial action—although we were continuing to work—for reasons of health and safety rather than money.

I have no doubt that there are many incidents such as the one I have referred to. I shall not mention the channel tunnel—although others may—as the Select Committee will take evidence on the matter. Such circumstances could arise at any time, and the workers should have the appropriate security and protection. The Minister agrees with that in principle, but the position is indeterminate. New clause 1 would provide the clarity that we need. People who decline to work in dangerous conditions should be protected. The Government should accept the new clause, or explain why not.

Mr. Wallace

My speech follows the remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton)—the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment—who expressed misgivings about clause 7. The speeches of the hon. Members for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) and for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) showed that hon. Members on both sides of the House feel that clause 7—the effects of which the new clause tries to mitigate—is serious, as it goes to the heart of individual rights. When I examined the Bill before it went into Committee, my initial reaction was that it was not worth trying to amend it, as that would give it some respectability. I considered it fundamentally unjust and unfair. However, some effort must be made to mitigate its effect.

Questions of health and safety dominated our Committee debates, and I believe that new clauses 1 and 4 and the amendments of the hon. Member for St. Helens, North have tried to address the matter. Without some mitigation, we have what is tantamount to a victimisers' charter. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West drew some parallels with first world war generals in the way that clause 7 is drafted.

The scenes that I fear are more reminiscent of the second world war. One can imagine an unscrupulous employer faced with unofficial action saying, "I shall select five workers at random each week and dismiss them unless you go back to work." The Bill opens up such opportunities to unscrupulous employers.

7 pm

The Minister has been generous in giving way, but he has not shown that he has grasped our argument. I believe that he genuinely wants improvements to be made in health and safety, but he did not say anything to suggest that he would take action to give substance to that desire. He seemed also to think that we were talking about defining what is and what is not an industrial dispute. If that were so, one could imagine a tribunal having to decide whether an industrial dispute was taking place on matters quite unrelated to health and safety. That may well happen, but we are talking about cases in which it is beyond doubt that an industrial dispute has been occasioned by the fact that employees are no longer prepared to stand for circumstances that they believe put their health and safety at risk.

We are not talking about one individual who—to use the Minister's words—simply refuses to do something because a health and safety issue has arisen; we are talking about circumstances in which a group of employees in a workplace have been becoming more and more frustrated over a period of weeks, or perhaps months, with what they regard as their employer's failure to observe health and safety regulations. One incident may spark off that collective action. That is the sort of action that Opposition Members and, I think, the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel), are trying to address. We are talking about employees using collective action to pressurise their employer to come up to scratch and provide decent safe conditions in the workplace.

The Minister argued that the provision might open up a can of worms—a large loophole. With respect, he does not seem to have considered in detail the terms of new clause 1, which demands that the employee has a genuine and reasonable belief that the employer was acting in breach of his statutory duty. Clearly, if a spurious belief were used to try to justify unofficial action, that would not be covered by the new clause, as the test that it involves is a demanding one.

The Minister also said that the new clause had a sting in its tale because the words other matters connected with the terms and conditions of the employees of the employer Could refer to so many other matters. But that phrase does not stand on its own. The new clause refers to a breach or perceived breach of statutory duty with regard to terms and conditions of employment. We are not, therefore, talking about any other matter. The definition is a narrow one. If the Minister wishes to give substance to his oft-repeated claim to be genuinely interested in health and safety, he should accept that this is one very narrow area and that those who participate in unofficial industrial action from the best motives connected with their own health and safety should not be subjected to possible victimisation by an unscrupulous employer.

Mr. Cryer

I shall he brief, because I know that we have a number of other subjects to cover.

New clause 1 has extremely modest aims and ambitions and any reasonable Government would accept it, but I shall speak principally in support of new clauses 7 and 8, which concern the right of workers to call in a health and safety inspector if they believe that safety standards are being jeopardised and to obtain that inspector's approval of the safety standards of the operation before the work recommences. That is an eminently reasonable request, as any serious and objective study would recognise.

If I said that 413 people had been killed in nine years as a result of terrorist outrages, the House would be crowded, there would be expressions of horror and the Government would be agreeing to introduce legislation to prevent a recurrence. But 413 people in the mines and quarries industry died between 1979 and 1988. Each year, accidents take their toll of life and limb, and several thousand people are seriously injured. If workers had the right to question safety standards and to take action if they thought that those standards were being prejudiced, many of those fatalities would have been avoided.

Let me give an example. Scotch derrick cranes have been used extensively in quarries. They have fixed jibs. The Health and Safety Executive sent round a note saying that, if the pull holding the drum was made of cast iron, it should be replaced by a steel pull, because cast iron breaks. At Hungergantick quarry, the pulls were not replaced as had been recommended. The inspector from an insurance company could not tell the difference between steel and cast iron. One fateful morning, two workers got into the bucket and were lowered halfway down a quarry face. The pull broke, they plunged to the bottom and both were killed. Perhaps the workers would not have known about the difference between steel and cast iron, but they probably would.

The crane was not well maintained. In works operations, people are always pressing maintenance men to do odd jobs and get things working. If the workers had had the right outlined in the new clauses, it is likely that that Scotch derrick crane would have been properly maintained, according to the requirement that the HSE had circulated to employers. Accidents of that sort could be avoided. We should realise that people who operate cranes or other dangerous machinery and who are lowered halfway down a quarry face or into the bowels of a mine in the course of their duties will have safety at the forefront of their minds, because they are the people who will be imperilled most if there are hazards at work.

The Government are obsessed with trade unions, and the Bill contains many provisions dealing with balloting. But every year, bar exceptional years, we lose more working days as a result of industrial injury than from strike action. That being so, why do not the Government do something about the daily toll taken on life and limb and reduce the number of days lost through industrial injury?

I should like to draw the House's attention to some peculiarities and to emphasise the fact that new clauses 7 and 8 might do something to hurry up the production of clearer standards. For many years, there have been discrepancies between the lifting of heavy weights regulations in the wool textile industry and in agriculture. For agricultural workers, the limit is 175 lb but for textile workers it is only 120 lb. That is absurd. Agricultural workers cannot necessarily lift heavier weights than textile workers, but that is the implication that the regulations carry. Other workers have to lift more reasonable weights.

In 1976, the then chairman of the Health and Safety Commission assured me that the commission would be producing guidance on manual handling. That guidance is still awaited. If workers who daily have to lift heavy castings off a production line had the power to question safety standards and seek the assistance of health and safety inspectors, we might get some sense out of the arrangements and improve the regulations—and there are not many—that have been crying out for reform for many years.

I should like to give the Minister some figures. In the nine months commencing 1 April in the year 1986–87, almost 30,000 people were off work for three or more days because of back injuries. For the same period in 1987–88, the figure was 30,002 and in 1988–89 it was 29,783. If we take an average full year, the figure for 1979 was 44,000; for 1980 it was 37,000; for 1981 it was 74,000; and for 1982 it was 66,000. I stress that I am talking about thousands of people being affected by serious injury.

If we are serious about health and safety at work, we should give people the right to plead in an industrial tribunal that the reason for their course of action was the lack of decent health and safety standards. However, I would go further than that. I would give people the right to say, "We believe that these health and safety standards are not safe and we should like to call in a health and safety inspector to ascertain whether or not they are safe." Most decent employers would endorse that because most decent employers want proper standards of health and safety at work because they know that poor standards lead to all sorts of problems such as bad industrial relations and insurance companies wanting information when claims are made. It is a nightmare when serious industrial injuries occur.

Therefore, I urge the Minister seriously to consider the new clauses and, even if he cannot accept them now, to have a word with his colleagues to ensure that amendments to their effect are tabled in another place.

Mr. Nellist

Unusual though this may seem, I fully agree with the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans), not only that this is an odious Bill, but that clause 7, which the Opposition amendments and new clauses seek to amend, is probably the worst aspect. That is why, during this Report stage, I an) restricting my comments to this matter although I am no stranger to the Committee stages of the Employment Acts that the House has considered in past years.

The Bill is anti-working-class and anti-trade-union. It is designed to restrict the ability of trade unions to do the job that they were set up to do, which is to defend the rights and working conditions of their members and, through them, of their members' families.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that the new clauses represent the minimum. It was wrong of the Minister to try to dismiss them as unworthy of consideration. I repeat that they represent the minimum that the House should accept on this matter.

I should have preferred the House to debate stronger moves tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South seemed about to suggest that workers should have a legal right to stop unsafe jobs without having to worry about whether they were taking unofficial or official action and about whether they could or could not use an industrial tribunal. I believe that the legal right to stop an unsafe or dangerous job should be enshrined in our legislation but, unfortunately, that is not the road down which we are travelling.

I also wish that we were talking about the mandatory use of prison sentences for employers or directors who are found to have been grossly negligent after a death or serious injury has occurred. I raised those points with the Prime Minister last Thursday but characteristically, she ignored them. As a result, 40 of my hon. Friends and I have tabled our points in early-day motion 969.

I rise to speak on this group of amendments and new clauses especially because of the renewed interest in health and safety in recent days following the tragic death 10 days ago of Billy Cartman at the channel tunnel site. That death and that site encapsulate much of what is wrong with this country's health and safety legislation, especially in relation to construction sites. It is not only I who think that—the Health and Safety Executive has estimated that working on the channel tunnel is three times more dangerous even than working on a building site, and building sites are bad enough.

The House and working people outside the House rightly get angry when a Piper Alpha, a Zeebrugge or a King's Cross occurs. We rightly feel anger about the tragic and useless waste of life in those major incidents and accidents. Yet the same number of people—about 160—are killed every year in the construction industry, but because the loss of life is diffuse, spread over the year and not concentrated in one incident, if does not attract the same attention.

Therefore, I make no apology for speaking in these terms. It is not as though I have previously been accused of shroud-waving in the House. That is why I say that perhaps the only good that can come from useless and tragic accidents, such as the recent accident at the channel tunnel site, is that the minds of the people who should be in a position to do something about that—the legislators in this place—are concentrated wonderfully, albeit briefly

7.15 pm

There have already been six deaths on our side of the channel tunnel and three on the other side. As I said last Thursday, that is almost a man per mile. Like others outside the House, especially those who have to work on the channel tunnel, I believe that the workers there are being asked to work far too fast and far too hard because of the escalating cost of the project. The contractors have received warnings in the past, but it took that sixth death before the Secretary of State for Employment called in the senior management of Transmanche Link.

I tabled a written question a few days ago about the outcome of that meeting with Jack Lemley, the chief executive of TML. The Minister on the Treasury Bench now, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), answered on behalf of the Secretary of State that Jack Lemley had assured the Secretary of State that the highest priority would be given to ensuring the health and safety of workers employed on the construction of the channel tunnel". That answer does not sit easy with other reports. I could quote interviews reported in Militant with channel tunnel workers who do not wish to be named, but instead I will quote from a newspaper which is such that, I hope, even Conservative Members will not accuse me of choosing partial sources of information. I refer to The Independent of Wednesday 9 May. The workers interviewed by that newspaper refused to give their names precisely because of the clauses that we are debating and the fear that they might be dismissed for raising such points. The Independent reported workers as saying: '''It's push, push, push all the time.' Staff allege that: locomotives used in construction were regularly derailed; fires underground often went unreported; visibility in many areas was dangerously low; carbon dioxide fumes often rose above safe levels; injured men, including workers with broken legs, were left untreated at the tunnel face until the shift ended and workers who complained about lack of safety were threatened with disciplinary action or demoted to lower-paid work. One locomotive driver who refused to drive over a section of track which he felt would derail his train was sent out of the marine tunnel south and restricted to working in the service tunnel. 'You're not allowed to complain. If you complain, you're out. It's like being in a military camp, you do what you're told,' he said. That is the sort of atmosphere that has been engendered in some construction projects, especially in the south-east where, because of the pressure of escalating costs and profit margins being ever tighter, the work is push, push, push. That is the atmosphere that the new clauses seek to address. They seek to give workers a safety net so that they can escape the sword of Damocles hanging about them and the fear that they can be dismissed for having taken what can be described as "unofficial action" if they complain about health and safety matters.

Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, I have spoken to people who have campaigned both at the channel tunnel and elsewhere, such as in my own region of the midlands, and know workers who are afraid to put their heads above the parapet. One reason is that there are people and firms in the construction industry who are heavily involved in and are financing bodies such as the Economic League, which keep lists of workers who complain. Then, when they are dismissed—usually on the pretext of being late for work or for some other reason unconnected with health and safety matters—they are unable to get another job.

I shall limit my remarks because other hon. Members wish to speak and other issues need to be raised before we complete our consideration of the Bill today. It is no good the Minister saying that there are mechanisms such as fines to deal with breaches of health and safety rules. The five TML companies have been fined a maximum of £10,000 each for one death which occurred last February and were previously each fined £1,700. That does not concentrate the minds of directors of companies which are making millions of pounds of profit, but a prison sentence of between six and 24 months, if not longer, would certainly do so. The prospect of a prison sentence at the end of their tunnel if gross negligence was proved might lead directors to take their jobs more seriously and concentrate their minds on health and safety matters.

The Minister and other Conservative Members have said that the aim of their provisions is to limit unofficial action. I warn the Minister that such is the mood among many construction and other workers in dangerous jobs that I can foresee a time—it may well be this year—when there will be a one-day strike about health and safety issues on projects such as the channel tunnel. It may well be an unofficial strike—I do not think that workers will worry about that if so many of them take part, and they will certainly have the widespread support of other workers in other trade unions around the country.

The Minister has the chance today to prevent such things from happening. He should accept the minimal demands of my hon. Friends and our new clauses. If he does not, that will be on his conscience. He will know that he could have done something today to prevent the loss of life and limb and to avert the need for action, official or unofficial, in protest at the carnage occurring in industry today.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

I wished to make many points in the debate tonight, but I shall not make them all because there are restrictions on time, which I understand.

I wish to take up the Minister on what I consider to be some bland statements that he made about the way in which industrial law as it stands will enable people to take cases to industrial tribunals. Like many people—on both sides of the House, I am sure—I come from industry. I know that the nuances, subtleties and interpretations of which he spoke earlier are so much hogwash. The day-to-day basis of most people's experience in industry is different. In my experience, when people try to defend themselves before industrial tribunals, the charge on which they have been dismssed from work is never a refusal to do a job because it is dangerous. The major charge is always different. The full force of the empoloyers' argument is always spent on undermining the employee's case that he or she did not wish to go into a dangerous place.

Health and safety has dogged industrial relations ever since industrial relations began. In industry we are often working on the frontiers of technology. Changes may occur which simply cannot be legislated for in a general way as the Bill attempts to do. I remember when roof bolting was introduced into pits. Men would say, "Those roof bolts are not safe." The employer believed that they were safe and time and again they would argue that experience in America showed that roof bolting was perfectly safe. I have no doubt that in many geological circumstances that is true. But to men venturing into dangerous areas of mines who were used to working under steel arches the sight of a coal face or area of a mine supported only by roof bolting militated against everything that they understood about mining safety.

When men refused to go into such areas, they were threatened with dismissal. That happened on many occasions. I know for a fact that that was used after the miners' strike as a means of getting rid of undesirable teams, as they were considered by management, in an era of industrial relations when fear stalked many pits and there was no sense of self-confidence about industrial relations.

The other extreme is areas where the dangers do not seem great, such as a large office where there may be people using computer visual display units. We are only now beginning to understand the effect on health and safety of working on VDUs. If people walk out of an office saying that they do not believe that their work is safe in the long term, who is to rule in favour of one party or another? Under the Bill it would constitute an unofficial action, a walk out, rag out, call it what one will.

Who is to say to workers in the nuclear industry, after the findings of the Gardiner report are published, that they must go into an area about which they harbour great fears even though they worked there previously? At the innovative edge of technology there will be many problems that the Bill does not address. There is no room for ambiguity or vague promises of interpretation or subtleties. Health and safety provision must be included in a way that people can understand. It must be simple enough for both employers and employees to understand. Employees must have confidence in the legislation. If not, the trade unions will lose another function—the policing of their own work forces. There will be a degree of anarchy in industry which neither employers nor trade unions want. I fear that the Government do not understand that point. We shall end up with worse industrial relations and health and safety than we have now.

Mr. Eggar

We have had a useful debate and I shall try to respond briefly to as many as possible of the points that have been raised.

I fully understand the anxieties of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel). We cannot take employees' health and safety seriously enough. As I said in my opening remarks, that is common ground on both sides of the House. I certainly share my hon. Friend's wish that trade unions should do all that they can to resolve industrial disputes and get their members back to work. Trade unions should always have that objective in mind.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that employers should seek advice from the Health and Safety Executive whenever it may be helpful. In our view, his amendments would not achieve those common objectives, but we are prepared to consider whether the proposed words for the union's repudiation statement are the best and most apt in all circumstances. I know that that has been a matter of concern to him both on Second Reading and in Committee, and I assure him that we shall not close our minds on that issue.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) postulated an example of an industrial dispute. I am somewhat wary of following up such examples, because each case must be decided by an industrial tribunal. He postulated an example of a long-term health and safety worry, as did the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). If employees are worried about either imminent or long-term health and safety issues, they are always free to call in an inspector. As I said earlier, that can be done on a confidential basis if that is appropriate.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has had a long-running interest in health and safety regulations with regard to manual handling. We hope that all European Community member states will shortly agree unanimously a directive on manual handling. He will be interested to know that much of that directive is based on a consultative document issued by the Health and Safety Commission.

The hon. Members for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) and for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) slightly misconstrued what we have said. We have never said that employees who take unofficial industrial action are protected against selective dismissal. The issue is whether there is any industrial action at all. If not—and we say that there is no industrial action where employees stop work because of fears for their safety—those dismissed have the right to complain of unfair dismissal. Their position will be the same as before the Bill.

In response to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), let me say that section 36 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 provides for industrial managers and directors to be prosecuted for breaches of health and safety. Indeed, in certain circumstances, that Act allows for imprisonment. It is not correct to say that that section has never been applied. A company director was successfully prosecuted for manslaughter following the death of an employee in May 1988. He received a suspended prison term of two years.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment, suggested that it might be appropriate to explore the root of an avoidance of doubt provision. We considered that in some detail, but we came to the conclusion that the present position was preferable. It is not something that we have simply overlooked. We have explored that possibility.

The hon. Members for Stretford and for Coventry, South-East asked about the situation on the channel tunnel. We are unaware of any industrial action about health and safety issues on the channel tunnel site. Although there is widespread anxiety about health and safety on the channel tunnel site, the precise area covered by the Bill has not arisen in that context. Rather than choosing his newspaper, Militant, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East quoted from The Independent. I shall quote from The Independent on Sunday of 13 May, which quoted a senior TGWU shop steward as saying: The Channel tunnel site is well disciplined with an excellent industrial relations team and there is no evidence of production being put before safety.

Mr. Nellist

Will the Minister give way?

7.30 pm
Mr. Eggar

I will not give way. I gave way earlier to the hon. Gentleman.

We have had a useful debate on what is essentially a technical matter. The Government are every bit as committed to maintaining and improving health and safety at work as the Opposition. We are convinced that clause 7 does nothing to undermine the excellent health and safety record that the country has achieved as a result of the bipartisan policy following the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Although this may be a technical issue for the Government, it is a matter of life and death for the people whom my hon. Friends and I and, indeed, Tory Members represent.

Whereas the Minister uses legalistic sophistry to argue whether action is industrial action, we are anxious that people should have a legitimate opportunity to withdraw their labour and protest in that form if their lives are threatened, for example, on the channel tunnel site. If the Minister accepts that they will be prevented from doing so by the provisions of the Bill, he fails to understand how dangerous working conditions are in the tunnel.

The Minister believes that there is something to be undermined in our wonderful health and safety structures. I remind him that his Government are underfunding the Health and Safety Executive to the extent that it is having to make cuts. They have consistently run down the executive so that it is unable to do the job that Parliament asks of it.

Mr. Eggar

That is a disgraceful comment.

Mr. Lloyd

I invite the Minister to have a debate on health and safety at any time in the House. We shall be delighted to put the Government on the spot.

Mr. Eggar


Mr. Lloyd

The Minister will understand why I do not give way. He has had his say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) was right in his comment about the construction industry. It has a terrible record. If the Minister believes that the position is satisfactory, and if his only defence is that one employer was given a suspended prison sentence, putting that forward as evidence that the law is applied, he does not understand that people are being seriously injured and killed at work. We will do everything that we can to prevent that.

As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we have tabled minimal new clauses and amendments to give the narrowest of protections to people at work. The fact that the Government are not prepared to accept even those minimal demands shows that they do not care about health and safety. For that reason, we shall vote for the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 139, Noes 176.

Division No. 214] [7.33 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Allen, Graham Buchan, Norman
Anderson, Donald Buckley, George J.
Armstrong, Hilary Caborn, Richard
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Callaghan, Jim
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Battle, John Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Beckett, Margaret Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Clay, Bob
Bermingham, Gerald Cohen, Harry
Bidwell, Sydney Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Blair, Tony Corbett, Robin
Boateng, Paul Corbyn, Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E) Cryer, Bob
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Cummings, John
Cunliffe, Lawrence Marek, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Dixon, Don Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Doran, Frank Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Martlew, Eric
Eadie, Alexander Maxton, John
Eastham, Ken Meale, Alan
Evans, John (St Helens N) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Morley, Elliot
Fisher, Mark Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Flannery, Martin Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Mowlam, Marjorie
Foster, Derek Murphy, Paul
Foulkes, George Nellist, Dave
Fyfe, Maria Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Galloway, George O'Brien, William
Garrett, John (Norwich South) O'Neill, Martin
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Golding, Mrs Llin Patchett, Terry
Gould, Bryan Pike, Peter L.
Graham, Thomas Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Primarolo, Dawn
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Quin, Ms Joyce
Grocott, Bruce Redmond, Martin
Haynes, Frank Richardson, Jo
Henderson, Doug Robertson, George
Hinchliffe, David Robinson, Geoffrey
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall) Rogers, Allan
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Ruddock, Joan
Home Robertson, John Salmond, Alex
Howells, Geraint Sheerman, Barry
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Short, Clare
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Skinner, Dennis
Illsley, Eric Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Ingram, Adam Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Janner, Greville Snape, Peter
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Soley, Clive
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Turner, Dennis
Leighton, Ron Wallace, James
Lewis, Terry Walley, Joan
Litherland, Robert Warden, Gareth (Gower)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
McAllion, John Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
McAvoy, Thomas Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
McFall, John Winnick, David
McKelvey, William Wray, Jimmy
McLeish, Henry Young, David (Bolton SE)
McWilliam, John
Madden, Max Tellers for the Ayes:
Madel, David Mr. Allan McKay and Mr. Frank Haynes.
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Aitken, Jonathan Budgen, Nicholas
Alexander, Richard Burns, Simon
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Butler, Chris
Amos, Alan Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Arbuthnot, James Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Carrington, Matthew
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Carttiss, Michael
Atkins, Robert Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Atkinson, David Chapman, Sydney
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Chope, Christopher
Baldry, Tony Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Benyon, W. Conway, Derek
Bevan, David Gilroy Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Curry, David
Body, Sir Richard Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Davis, David (Boothferry)
Boswell, Tim Day, Stephen
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Dickens, Geoffrey
Bowis, John Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Dover, Den
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Dunn, Bob
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Durant, Tony
Eggar, Tim Mellor, David
Evennett, David Meyer, Sir Anthony
Fallon, Michael Miller, Sir Hal
Farr, Sir John Mills, Iain
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Miscampbell, Norman
Fishburn, John Dudley Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Forman, Nigel Moate, Roger
Fox, Sir Marcus Monro, Sir Hector
Franks, Cecil Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Freeman, Roger Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Gardiner, George Morrison, Sir Charles
Garel-Jones, Tristan Moss, Malcolm
Gill, Christopher Moynihan, Hon Colin
Glyn, Dr Sir Alan Neubert, Michael
Goodlad, Alastair Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Nicholls, Patrick
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Gow, Ian Norris, Steve
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Oppenheim, Phillip
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Ground, Patrick Patnick, Irvine
Hague, William Pawsey, James
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hanley, Jeremy Portillo, Michael
Hannam, John Powell, William (Corby)
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Raffan, Keith
Harris, David Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hawkins, Christopher Redwood, John
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Hayward, Robert Rhodes James, Robert
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Riddick, Graham
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Rost, Peter
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Rowe, Andrew
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Ryder, Richard
Hunter, Andrew Sackville, Hon Tom
Irvine, Michael Sainsbury, Hon Tim
Irving, Sir Charles Shaw, David (Dover)
Jack, Michael Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Jackson, Robert Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Janman, Tim Shelton, Sir William
Jessel, Toby Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Key, Robert Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Kilfedder, James Soames, Hon Nicholas
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Speed, Keith
Kirkhope, Timothy Stanbrook, Ivor
Knapman, Roger Steen, Anthony
Knight, Greg (Derby North) Stevens, Lewis
Knowles, Michael Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Knox, David Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Latham, Michael Sumberg, David
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Lilley, Peter Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Thurnham, Peter
Lord, Michael Tracey, Richard
McCrindle, Robert Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Maclean, David Watts, John
Malins, Humfrey Widdecombe, Ann
Mans, Keith Young, Sir George (Acton)
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Maude, Hon Francis Tellers for the Noes
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Timothy Wood.
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick

Question accordingly negatived.

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