HC Deb 08 February 1991 vol 185 cc547-85

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.39 am
Mr. Simon Hughes

Before the private notice question—which I am grateful to you for allowing, Mr. Speaker—we were debating the Public Safety Information Bill of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis). I had completed the acknowledgement section of my speech; I now want to come to the substance.

The most important philosophical and political issue raised by the Bill is the overriding and in some ways uniquely British attitude to safety. We have an almost pathological belief that matters should be kept secret. The number of matters that are still kept secret in Britain would surprise even the informed observer. Minute pieces of information held by Government Departments, of absolutely no security relevance, are still secret information.

It is a paradox that on transport matters, it is possible to learn more from abroad than at home about events that take place here. One can obtain more information about British Rail and reports compiled by it if they end up in the United States, because of the rights under the American constitution and legislation. That is unacceptable. The Bill seeks to make it obligatory that information about safety information produced by someone with authority, which comes into the hands of someone with authority, is put in the hands of the public. What the public do with it is a secondary issue.

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) rightly said that there is not even parallel response or duty. I and, I expect, other London Members receive regular reports from the local fire and civil defence authority and London Underground when inspections are carried out on underground stations in our constituencies or those in which we have an interest. London Underground and other elements of London transport produce that safety information. British Rail does not, as the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford rightly said. There is not logical reason why the same standard of provision of information should not apply to public transport—whether underground, bus, railway, ferry or aeroplane—and public venues such as night clubs, football grounds, cricket grounds, sports stadiums or any other venue.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind what the Bill says? I have followed his remarks closely, and I have a feeling that there is a danger that he might have misunderstood the Bill, at least as I understand it—my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) may wish to correct me. The Bill refers to statutory authorities. In cases where such authorities have identified a substantial threat, the information must go through the process in the Bill. Some of the examples which the hon. Gentleman gave would not come into that category and would not be covered by the Bill.

Mr. Hughes

They would come into the category if the information relating to the football ground or bus came into the hands of the relevant statutory authority. The hon. Member for Battersea quoted the former leader of Bradford city council, who came by information about the ground which never came into the public domain.

I accept that the Bill is limited. Many of us would have preferred it to go further. I expect that the hon. Gentleman would have preferred to make it go further. We all know that for private Members' Bills to have a chance of becoming law there must nearly always be a compromise. There is always a Government Department, like a black cloud, saying, "We shall allow only this much to go through. If you go any further, we will bring in our troops on a Friday afternoon." Whether the Government could have done so today in sufficient numbers, I do not know. The Bill has that limitation. It requires that the information percolate through to the relevant authority. It would then go on to be publicised. Even so, it is welcome that the Bill covers a whole range of activities. There is no logical reason for inconsistency.

I wish to cite two examples in support of my case. I shall be explicit, critical and even rude about the Department of Transport and British Rail. My first example is inevitable. It is the case of the Marchioness, which sank, as the House will remember, on 20 August 1989 in the Thames.

After that incident, which caused the deaths of 51 people, a copy of the then draft report on the Marchioness compiled by the statutory body, the marine accident investigation bureau, came into my hands. For the first and so far only time in my life, I decided to leak parts of an unpublished report, because a substantial burden of the report was critical, not of individuals such as the skipper of the Marchioness or the Bowbelle or any other vessel on the river, but of the public authorities and in particular the Department of Transport, which failed to take heed of warnings which it had been given.

In March 1990, almost a year ago, I released excerpts of that draft report. I did not release the whole report, because I was conscious as a lawyer of the duty not to prejudice individuals' rights and the right to defend of anyone who might be taken to court as an individual to defend himself. In the event, one person has been taken to court and the trial is pending. That matter is sub judice.

The report was clear. Written by the proper investigative agency, it said, among other things, that poor visibility on passenger launches and the inadequacy of warning lights were recognised following a series of minor accidents between 1981 and 1983. The draft report went on: The general consensus of opinion, especially among those who operated the larger vessels, was that something had to be done quickly to prevent a major accident occurring between their craft and a passenger boat. Those incidents were recognised at the time as providing a warning of the possibility of a major accident … as time passed the perceived need for special caution gradually relaxed. It is not considered that, in all respects, action taken by the Department in the last few years has gone as far as it should have. It is paradoxical that, as a result of some of the accidents in the 1980s–48 collision accidents were recorded by the Port of London authority on the Thames, and there were nine previous accidents involving the Bowbelle—Ready Mix Concrete, the owner of the Bowbelle, had written in 1983 to the Department of Transport about its worries on safety on the river. That information came into the hands of a public authority. The Department of Transport chose not to take action—or at least, not sufficient action. It is notable that once the Marchioness collision occurred and 51 people died, speedy action was taken—which I recognise and for which I was grateful—by the then Minister for Public Transport, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) and the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson) and others to implement measures, many of which could have been implemented earlier.

I have absolutely no doubt that, for example, keeping passenger lists, controlling sound systems so that the people on the bridge could hear more clearly what was going on, displaying notices which make clear where the exits are on vessels and dealing with inadequacies of design —which still have not entirely been dealt with—would have increased the probability either that the collision would never have happened or that the number of dead would have been lower. You do not have to have been with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at the Southwark cathedral memorial service for the victims to know what grief, pain and anguish are caused to people, especially if they feel, with justification, that it need not have happened at all.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who knows of my interest in river matters and in this tragedy especially. Is he telling us that there was notification to the Department of Transport, or to a public body within it, that there had been as many as nine incidents relating to the Bowbelle and that that was recorded and known by the Department? Can he tell us, within the constraints of the sub judice rule, which he and I both respect, whether action was taken consequent on those nine incidents?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have to be careful. My understanding is that the PLA kept a record of the incidents, which was available on request. I requested it myself and was grateful to receive it. I understand that the Department of Transport would have known of those incidents and of the concern expressed by users of the river from 1981 to 1983. I understand that no specific action was taken on any of those matters from 1981 until the implementation of the regulations in the autumn of 1989, after the Marchioness sank.

I must concede, as it is right to be correct, that some of the regulations passed in 1989 covered or overlapped with some of the concerns expressed in 1983 and were a result of general European initiatives. However, the regulations did not deal with the incidents explicitly, they did not appear to respond to the concerns of 1983 and they did not deal explicitly with the sequence of collisions, some of which involved these vessels, and some of which involved others. Collisions had been a persistent fact of river life. Some were serious, whereas others involved only glancing blows and were not of great importance. However, the collection of incidents should have given proper cause for concern about navigation on the Thames.

My other target is British Rail. A constituent of mine, Paul Elvin, died in November two years ago having been electrocuted when working as a fitter at Euston station. I knew him and his family before he died. In 1989, Kevin Doherty, the brother of a friend of mine, died while working at Epsom station. Those two people died on British Rail property. In the first case, a prosecution was eventually taken out against the sub-contractors. I was grateful to the Attorney-General and his officers for investigating whether the Director of Public Prosecutions should take out a prosecution for corporate manslaughter against British Rail or others. In the event, the charge brought was a health and safety charge against the sub-contractors and a conviction was secured.

Before the trial, the case was, quite properly, the subject of an investigation by British Rail. However, as in the case of the Marchioness, the report, which was produced a long time ago, is still not in the public domain. Even recently, the family of Paul Elvin have been told that they cannot now get the report, even though no criminal proceedings are pending and the case has been dealt with, unless they start civil proceedings. Only then, on discovery, will the report be released.

Mr. Forth

So that we are all on the same ground here and in the spirit of trying to be helpful, may I remind the hon. Gentleman again that the Bill deals with matters of public safety? I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is very much on the ground of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which is concerned with health and safety in the place of work. I have ministerial responsibility for that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be fair with the House and make it clear that the cases he is mentioning would not be covered by the Bill.

Mr. Hughes

The last two cases I have mentioned are, of course, health and safety at work examples. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and I have acknowledged the fact that private contractors on a private building site would not be covered by the Bill. However, someone on a public transport site such as Euston station, who may be going to use a train owned by British Rail, or someone who may be going to use a bus owned by London Regional Transport is in the domain of public safety because the public have access. The Minister seems to be nodding his head.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hughes

The Bill would govern the publication of information. I hope that the Minister will bear with me for a second. The Bill would have had a material effect on the fate of my constituent and of others in the future. I want to tie the two points together.

If the report on the Marchioness had been published immediately it had been finalised, the public at large would have been able to judge whether they felt that the safety of boats on the river was such that they could use them. The publicity about the report in the press, in the House and at places of embarkation would have made that information clear. Information would have been displayed for prospective users to see.

There is no excuse for the report still being secret. If the report is kept secret, things may not be done that should be done and the public will then be at greater risk. As representatives of the public, we have no assurance that public safety has been guaranteed.

The Paul Elvin case gives a similar example. The British Rail report, of which I have not seen even a draft copy, may have identified a failure. It may have confirmed that there was no publicly available sign to show that the overhead wire was an electric cable and that people had to stay safely away from it. There was also no warning sign telling people to keep away from the building works, as I saw for myself.

I went to the station with Paul Elvin's cousin a couple of weeks after he died. We were able to go on to the site and there was no warning sign telling people to keep out. We were able to go on to the site, to climb on the scaffolding and to walk around the site without let or hindrance. If such incidents can be avoided by a Bill such as this, which will ensure that the risks are made clear and that what reports have said is made public, we shall have achieved our objectives.

Mr. Bowis

I hope that we can clear up any misunderstanding between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Minister. The Bill, as I understand it—I hope that I understand it—deals with areas to which the public are admitted. An employee who was injured in one such area, at Euston station or anywhere else, would be a beneficiary of the measure. However, if he was injured while working on the tracks, he would not be covered by the Bill, because the public are not legally entitled to walk along the tracks.

Mr. Hughes

Paul Elvin was electrocuted on the platform at Euston station. He died the following day in University College hospital. Kevin Doherty was killed as a result of having come in to contact with a live rail, in a slightly different case. In the second, it was in an area to which the public could have access, although they should not. At Euston, there is no doubt that it was a public platform.

We need the Bill. I hope that we shall then go on to make four other changes. First, the present law must be properly enforced. If there is meant to be a sign saying, "Danger—Keep out"—if there is meant to be a warning sign—whether it's at Euston station or elsewhere, it should be there. There is no excuse for it not being there. I believe that Paul Elvin would not have died if the proper precautions had been taken on Euston station.

Secondly, we must change the order in which events are investigated. Official reports should be published as soon as they are available. The argument against that is that they might prejudice a trial. Let the authors of the report be able to be called in the trial and to be cross-examined. Let us have the report first, so that we have all the information when we decide whether somebody should be prosecuted.

Thirdly, let us make it clear that the system of inquests will be changed, so that those who are bereaved or who represent the deceased have a full right to have any questions they want aired at the inquest. In that way, all the prospective evidence about the cause of death will be placed before the coroner.

Finally, it is a great grievance of people who are bereaved that, when a prosecution takes place or is considered in relation to anyone or any firm that might be guilty—for example, British Rail, the owners of the Marchioness, the owners of the Bowbelle, or Townsend Thoresen which is the owner of the Herald of Free Enterprise—the relatives should have a chance to have their say. They should have a right to at least an interview with the prosecuting authorities and to place the questions they want answered on the agenda. Therefore, when the trial took place they would feel satisfied that their interests were being looked after and could feel that the people who had died had not died in vain.

The people who know most about the circumstances of an accident that causes death are the families of those who died. They make it their business to find out. People are often interested only when motivated by tragedy or personal crisis. We should use that experience. Such people would say that the best way forward was for any available, authoritative information to go into the public domain, so that the public can make it clear that they will not accept the answer, "We should have known better—we could have done it another way."

12.3 pm

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) on doing so well in the ballot and on bringing before us the subject of public safety information. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that it is important to be properly informed in the interests of public safety.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke of finding out more about what happens in this country by listening to those from overseas. On defence, we can learn a lot more from the Americans about what is happening in this country than we know ourselves. As a nation, we have been inclined to be secretive about such matters. Perhaps politicians and those in authority thought that they knew best, but that is not always so. In this day and age, with universal education of a high standard, we should involve ourselves much more in the process.

I am concerned about one or two aspects of the Bill. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea because I have to attend a constituency engagement—the same one that my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) mentioned earlier. He has already departed and I shall have to chase after him to catch up. It is a local authority commitment and we both represent the same local authority district.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea will consider my worries and give them proper attention in Committee. I have two specific anxieties related to practicalities and my fear that there may be so many notices that their importance will be cheapened. In the King's Cross fire, the escalators were made of wood that was thought to be incombustible, although nothing, including steel, is absolutely incombustible. In that case, would we have to notify everyone that there was a problem at King's Cross because the escalators were made of wood? If polystyrene tiles were used on the ceiling and painted over—which many people acknowledge is a recipe for disaster—they would become a dangerous fire hazard, but apart from taking them down and starting again, there is not much that we can do about such a product. Would it mean that, at every station where anybody could join the network and finish up at King's Cross, it would be necessary to have a statement that it could be hazardous to alight at King's Cross? That could be a problem.

I am anxious about that, because many other such problems could be identified on different parts of the network and there could be many notices—all using metric units rather than imperial ones, about which I, too, am sorry. If there were too many notices, people would have to arrive at the station 10 or 15 minutes early for their journey to examine them, which could be a disadvantage. Familiarity would breed contempt and people would not bother to read the notices, so the whole point would be missed. That issue must be addressed.

I am also worried about manpower. When a new process is introduced, although the general cost may not be high, the fact that people are involved in it means that other people have to be diverted from different tasks or more people have to be employed. If the job is to be done properly, we must address that problem. There should be sufficient manpower in local authorities. I am already worried that planning enforcement in my district is not carried out as well as I would wish.

I have many constituents who say that their complaints are not dealt with quickly enough. When industrial sewing machines are used in a terrace of houses and disturb the immediate neighbours, investigations are carried out to establish whether there is a legitimate case for complaint —that involves manpower. The same is true with complaints about noise nuisance. People have to be sent from the local authority to check whether there is a noise nuisance. Other ways of dealing with such problems can be expensive in terms of time and employing professional advice. Therefore, the local authority is the natural authority on which people rely for help. We do not want people to be diverted to other jobs when we are already short of staff to deal with existing problems.

Mr. Bowis

I entirely accept that there is a specific problem in terms of the number of notices along the transport system and we must consider that problem in Committee. The report on King's Cross related specifically to risks due not merely to the materials in the lift, but to the gaps that led to the collecting of rubbish underneath.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) referred to local government manpower. No additional local government manpower will be used except where the local authority is the safety authority, which is not the case in transport facilities. They are linked to health and safety and the Department of Transport. London Underground Ltd. has set up its own authority. Therefore, the proposal should not involve manpower implications. My hon. Friend should compare the cost of checking that the report on King's Cross is effectively monitored with the cost incurred after the fire, the renovations and the new staffing arrangements that had to be made.

Mr. Thorne

Local authorities are responsible for issuing licences for a considerable number of sites, including places of entertainment and football grounds.

I accept that local authorities have no direct relationship with transport nationwide; certainly some of them are involved with transport although not in London. However, they are engaged in licensing entertainment premises, for instance. A disco redecorated with oil-bound paint and polystyrene tiles would become a fire hazard, and that would be a matter for the local authority. Under the Bill, would that involve the authority in extra investigations and inquiries and in ensuring that it had enough staff to check every time premises were redecorated? I fear that local authority staff will be diverted to such tasks and away from dealing with other problems.

I do not say that this is not an important function: it is. I should like the responsibility for such matters to be vested in the people who take the action in the first place. Architects or owners of buildings who allow combustible materials to be used should be made responsible for any resulting hazards to life and limb—that is better than making the local authority check. Local authorities must not become more bogged down in the process.

Mr. Bowis

I repeat that we are discussing only cases in which a substantial danger has been perceived by local authorities that are safety authorities. Under their present licensing and monitoring arrangements I assume that they do no less, and if they need more staff to carry out inquiries they should already arrange their financial affairs so as to be able to afford them.

Mr. Thorne

Is my hon. Friend saying that when a licence comes up for renewal a local authority will have to carry out a full inspection before it issues another licence—

Mr. Bowis

I am saying that if that already happens and will continue to happen under the present law, the Bill will not affect the process. The Bill will be triggered only if, in the course of such an inspection, a substantial threat to the public is perceived. There should be no great manpower implications or shifting of resources beyond what a local authority should engage in anyway if it perceives a threat.

Mr. Thorne

So the legislation will be activated only if such a threat happens to come to a local authority's notice and no additional burden on it is implied?

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I have been following this discussion all morning. If a safety authority sees a danger that needs to be eliminated, such dangers are already prohibited and the Bill will not be triggered. But if a safety authority for any reason perceives a danger about which it believes people should know—a danger that is not the subject of prohibition but is not insignificant—notices should be displayed and the local authority should add the incident to its register. Is that correct?

Mr. Thorne

Indeed. So may I take it that there is no additional pressure on local authorities to discover such information? If dangers come to their notice they are required to notify the public under the Bill, which I hope will become an Act. But if dangers do not come to their notice they will not be infringing the law and everything will be the same as now—

Mr. Bowis

The only person who would be infringing anything would be the occupier of the premises who permitted a risk to the public to continue, assuming that he knew about it. Once the matter had been drawn to the attention of the safety authority it would be expected to look into it and, if it considered that it constituted a substantial danger, that would trigger the mechanism of the Bill.

Mr. Thorne

I am grateful to hear that no extra burden will be placed on local authorities. They are very busy and carefully watching their community charge bills, and we do not want to add to their responsibilities.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said that removing guards from trains detracted from safety standards. I disagree. There are other ways in which to improve safety on the railways. Instead of employing additional staff, the railways would be better advised—the hon. Member for Newham, South, should support this idea—to move to the system being so effectively used on the docklands light railway, where electronic equipment takes over driving the train and opening the doors and the train captain can devote his or her attention to the safety and comfort of the passengers. We should explore that idea in the context of the underground and elsewhere.

No less than £1 billion has been earmarked over the next 10 years for London Underground. The money will be used for leaflets, staff training, heat detectors, fireproofing and construction on the underground, much of which was built so many years ago.

One of the good results of the sad events at King's Cross was the complete ban on smoking on the underground. That has considerably improved the safety, comfort and convenience of passengers.

The hon. Member for Newham, South talked about Southern region disposing of guards on all lines. The region is extremely congested, having more junctions than any other comparable network in the world. We should spend the available money on sorting out those junctions and grading them to reduce the great number of potential causes of accidents, not on unnecessary guards. The hon. Gentleman suggested that passengers on Southern region write to Members of Parliament demanding that guards be reinstated throughout the network, but we should remember that when a crew member fails to turn up because he is ill, say, that can often mean that a train does not go out; whereas with single-manning that does not happen, and it is hoped that there would be enough reserves to provide adequate services for the long-suffering commuters on Southern region.

When this matter is discussed in Committee I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea will tell us how his Bill would cover incidents such as the Zeebrugge disaster. Much of the information that came out of that was dealt with only within the company and never entered the public domain. If the Bill deals only with matters in the public domain, incidents such as Zeebrugge will not be covered by it, unless a mole in the system leaks the information to the public.

Mr. Bowis

Perhaps my hon. Friend did not hear my speech. I referred to the indirect benefits of the Bill in incidents such as Zeebrugge. It would not be a mole, but the captains of the vessels, who had warned the company about the need for lights on the bridge to show whether the bow doors were open. If they believed that they were getting no satisfaction from the company about putting it right, I have no doubt that, were such a channel available for information to reach the safety authority, which could investigate whether there was a substantial risk, it would be used.

Mr. Thorne

I assure my hon. Friend that I have been here throughout the debate. It was not clear from his speech whether he appreciated that it is not easy for staff to put private company matters into the public domain. Employers consider these matters to be private and if they are drawn to the attention of the public the employee will not attract the accolade of the employer, especially if a programme to put the matter right is expensive.

I am worried that such internal matters may never enter the public domain unless a captain or a steward, or a mole in the system, draws them to public attention. That frequently happens in Government Departments. Moles sometimes appear, but they are rarely from the civil service. It is disgraceful that it happens. If such matters reach the attention of the public I am sure that a reporter, if he felt the matter was of public interest, would make it an issue for debate.

It is important for people not to be besieged by notices of one sort or another dealing with all the affairs in which they become involved. People could become so confused that they would not take the matter seriously. The Bill must separate important and unimportant matters. We must not allow people to be so deluged with unnecessary information that it loses its usefulness. I certainly hope that we can promote and improve public safety information.

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows of my considerable interest in the St. John Ambulance and of the amount of work that I have tried to do by drawing attention to the need for adequate safety provision at sports grounds. That is a considerable problem because while some football clubs, for example, are extremely helpful and readily provide facilities, others are extremely reluctant to make funds available for adequate public safety. Publicity tends to fall on deaf ears.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford said that no one really expects a catastrophe to happen to him. People think that catastrophes happen to others. At Hillsborough, Bradford and other places, matters could have been vastly improved if the first-aid facilities made available for the use of St. John Ambulance and others had been much better. I hope that we can properly look into and advance the cause of public safety in all walks of life.

12.24 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

In his interesting speech my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) spoke about St. John Ambulance and its services. I am in the middle of correspondence with the Ministry of Transport and British Rail about first-aid facilities for passengers at Victoria station. We need to be aware that in some areas where provision might be expected there is no statutory responsibility. I would not argue that we should do only those things required by statute, but where large numbers of people are gathered together, such as at rail and other transport terminals, we should consider what the provision ought to be, either directly or through the St. John Ambulance or others, so that those who find themselves in need can receive immediate attention rather than waiting for an ambulance to be taken to hospital. Thousands of people passing through Victoria station do not seem to have the provision that is found in many places of entertainment and sports stadiums. I do not ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give an immediate answer to that, but I use it to link my speech to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South.

We need to distinguish between risk and casualty reduction on the one side and the improvement of safety on the other. It is easy to increase safety without bringing about any reduction in the numbers of people who are killed or injured. That comes out most obviously in one area with which I have had an association—reducing casualties on the road. It also links to the work of the Health and Safety Executive when I served in the Department of Employment about six years ago.

With relatively small numbers of inspectors and a large number of establishment, it is easy for an inspector to spend all his time without having any impact on casualty reduction. Inspectors could make sure that the right notices are displayed and try to ensure that they visit all the premises for which they are responsible, if that is possible, but that would not necessarily focus on the issues that matter most.

Much of the garment trade is located in the east of London and there the inspectors are right to concentrate on matters likely to lead to catastrophes. There may be people working in premises in which the fire door is padlocked, and there can be even greater danger if the person who has the key to the padlock is off somewhere else. Inspectors are right to concentrate on inspection systems for boilers, because an exploding boiler could have the same impact as a mortar bomb landing in the garden of No. 10 Downing street. It may not get the same attention, but it could be just as disastrous.

The Bill does not include the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) not only on raising this subject but on the work that he has put into the Bill and his speech. However, I counsel him that if he is advised to incorporate the provisions of that Act into the Bill, he will end up with a huge computer print-out. There are many provisions in that Act and when piled up, they would probably be about 1 m—or 3 ft 3 in, to use the old imperial measure—deep.

As my hon. Friend said, information would probably have saved the lives of people at Bradford. There were warnings about a specific potential cause of a dangerous fire. No one could have predicted that the fire would lead to so many deaths, but the Bill would have led to action being taken. We would then not have known that lives had been saved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea mentioned the Clapham crash and other hon. Members mentioned the Marchioness. By itself, the Bill would not have affected either of those tragedies because nobody could have said in advance that a specific risk was evident.

Having a culture of risk reduction, and giving people more opportunities to make a fuss—even if they are accused of having bees in their bonnet, as I often am—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Bottomley

My hon. Friend is too kind. Some people want to whistle blow because they are concerned about their responsibility to their passengers who are their fellow human beings. Here, I am thinking mainly of transport, although the Bill applies to other sectors. People who make their views known achieve results.

One way to achieve results is to realise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea does, the importance of trade union membership. The trade union health and safety representatives do a great deal of unsung work in this. They co-operate with employers as well. Trade unions, together with organisations such as the Industrial Society and training boards, deserve credit for what they have done in this sector. They are a bit like the people teaching in primary schools. Their achievements are not noticed until some years afterwards when the statistics make them clear.

In organisations large and small, a positive approach to trade unions is important I say this with some force because my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea was the national organiser for the Conservative trade unionists before he came to the House. I hope that more people will follow his footsteps so that the interests of people at work are represented by both sides of the House. People's interests are served by more than just giving them more money or extra skills. Safety at work is part of the unsung, unpaid work of 200,000 shop stewards and safety representatives in every industry.

More attention to detail might have helped in the Clapham and Marchioness disasters.

Much of the support for the Bill comes from people who have been involved in tragedies. My experience has been mainly of road casualties. Every day, 14 people die on the roads. Those who suffer from the results of such tragedies and not organised, apart from the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving. I say to anyone who would ignore the interests of those who have been involved in disasters, whether Lockerbie or the Marchioness, or of those who have been bereaved by them, that they should try the experience of sitting in a room with 300 people who have nothing in common except that, for each of them, a member of his family has been killed in such a way. That provides a focus for what too many of us ignore because we take it for granted that someone else will deal with it.

Information, especially if it is given in public, or more often if it is given by a public authority, is ignored. When I was a Minister in the Department of Transport I was concerned about the risks to railway passengers if a bridge over a road was carried away by an oversized vehicle. In co-operation with many others, the Department produced a report called, in plain English, "Bridge Bashing". It dealt with how we would cope with the one in 10 chance that, over the next 10 years, there would be a major disaster when a bridge over or under a railway is carried away, with the result that a train with 400 people on board will come to an abrupt halt. It will not be like Cannon Street—it will be an even greater tragedy.

We set out to halve the risks, but that still leaves some risk. Some bridges are too low to allow the passage of an articulated lorry with a container. We put up signs by these bridges, but still people crash their containers into them and leave the container behind. So far, a bridge has not been carried away. There is information about that risk and there has been a public approach to reducing the risk in a cost-effective way, but we know that such behaviour continues, with the certainty of injury which increases with every day that passes.

The Department also endeavoured to bring to the attention of highway authorities the desirability of making roads as skid-resistant as possible. It calculated that by spending a relatively small amount of money each year—not just on national roads, but the 96 per cent. of highways that are the responsibility of local authorities—to raise their level of skid-resistance to a cost-effective, appropriate level, there would be a significant return on that investment, in terms of the number of casualties that would be avoided.

By using a monitoring machine, it is possible to determine roads where the coefficient of friction is too low according to the standard. However, what was to be done where local authorities could not immediately arrange for contractors to undertake the necessary resurfacing? The answer, which is roughly in accordance with the provisions of the Bill, was to require an authority to erect a sign warning of a slippery road ahead. However, that has led to a rash of such warning signs, which I fear some people might tend to ignore.

When road conditions are as bad as they are at this moment, everyone drives more cautiously—but I hope that road users will respond more to warning signs even in normal circumstances. That is one example of how public safety information can allow an individual to modify his or her behaviour and to reduce the risk to which they and others are exposed. There are some elements of public information already enshrined in law, such as that relating to the limit on the number of persons who can travel in a lift, and the legal obligation on places of entertainment to publicise that they are licensed by the fire authority to accommodate only a certain number of people. One might think also of the notices displaying the prices in bars or restaurants, but that is to move away from the serious issue of reducing casualties.

I will not speculate on the causes of the Cannon Street disaster because it is the subject of an inquiry. All railway and plane crashes should be the subject of an open inquiry as quickly as possible, so that their cause can be identified. I take the view that prosecution is a secondary issue and that the matter of first primary importance is to determine how and why a disaster occurred.

One reason why buffer crashes cause a large number of injuries and, sadly, sometimes death, is that passengers have the freedom to open the door of the train while it is still moving and to stand in the door frame. If the train comes to a sudden halt even when it is travelling at only 5 mph, any person who does that is at serious risk of suffering extra injury. I shall not cross-question my hon. Friend the Minister about whether he thinks that train doors should have a sign warning of that danger, but even general awareness of the risk does not stop people taking it. Therefore, we must respect my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea for taking a limited approach.

It is not meant as an all-singing, all-dancing Bill; it is aimed at filling gaps in the provision of information to the travelling public. It is part of the nature of life that people may eventually take such information for granted. One reason for having parliamentary debates of this kind is not just to give guidance to public administrators, safety inspectors and others and to attempt to change the law, but to educate the media, which are the source of information for the majority of people. That is illustrated by the importance of advertisements and editorial publicity relating to product recalls for safety reasons, whether the product be an anorak or a motor car.

It is the unusual which gains most attention. Disasters such as King's Cross or Kegworth, both of which I attended with sadness, are unusual, but if they have the effect of prompting people to travel by road instead of by rail or plane, that will lead to more rather than fewer casualties.

While we are giving illustrative examples about some of the crashes and disasters in the air and on the road, we need to recognise that if the distance travelled on the roads were switched to the airways, instead of 5,400 deaths there would have been 650, and if all the miles travelled on the roads were switched to the railways there would have been only 150 deaths last year.

Sometimes we spend our time considering how to spend hundreds of millions of pounds to try to save a few lives and turn our back on issues that will predictably affect hundreds of thousands of people this year, and which we could change at virtually no cost.

As a public authority, we should put a sign outside the Palace of Westminster saying that if people cycle out of here without a cycle helmet, they have a 60 per cent. greater chance of dying if they are in a crash, because 80 per cent. of cyclists die in crashes in which only their head is injured. Medical research has shown that in 80 per cent. of those cases, their lives could have been saved by wearing a crash helmet. I shall not make this point directly to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who I know is a cyclist, but I think that we have some responsibility when we know that people leave here relatively unprotected. Wearing a helmet is an example of how people can reduce their own risk. Often that is less exciting than having arguments in our professional lives about our responsibility to others. If we are to have a culture of hazard reduction we need to consider all aspects of safety issues.

I would make a similar point to authorities that provide cars for people to travel in. One of the curiosities about my move from the Department of Employment to the Department of Transport was that at the former I was driven around in cars with rear seat belts, whereas when I was at the Department of Transport and was supposed to be exhorting people to wear seat belts, my replacement car had no rear seat belts and it took two weeks to have them put in.

Rear seat belts provide protection and can cut out two thirds of the risk of injury to the wearer. Under the provisions of my hon. Friend's Bill, the Government car service should put a sign in every Minister's car stating that the rear seat belt provided will reduce the wearer's risk of injury in a crash by two thirds and will halve the passenger's risk of injuring the driver. As an unrestrained projectile hitting the driver, who will be wearing a seat belt, the passenger is unnecessarily adding to the risk to someone else at work. However, that provision is not likely to be made in the Bill because it is unfashionable to be concerned with practical, low-cost measures to reduce casualties on the roads, although that is as important as some of the other issues that have been mentioned.

I support my hon. Friend's intentions in the Bill, although I do not know whether it is the right way to achieve them, but that can be considered in Committee. My hon. Friend rightly wishes to let people act and behave in the full knowledge of what is happening. He is providing that people will not be unnecessarily ignorant. A journalist in the Financial Times, Christian Tyler, who was describing an Austrian scientist, quoted him as saying that the biggest problem is not AIDS—although that is important—but AIGS, which stands for apathy, ignorance, greed and stupidity. My hon. Friend's Bill is aimed mainly at the apathy, and provides that if a risk is known to some people it should be made known to other people, if there is a substantial threat of danger to the health or safety of a member of the public. The Bill will affect many Government Departments. From my experience of studying the responsibility map of the Health and Safety Commission, let alone the Health and Safety Executive and the various Government Departments with an interest in such matters, I doubt whether there will be unanimity that the provisions in the Bill are a good idea or that it is a good idea for information to be shared by everyone. Fortunately, at the moment I do not have to concern myself with that, because I am a supporter, rather than a member, of the Government.

If the Bill is successful this year, people who have been less than enthusiastic will recognise that it has no dangers for them and has some benefit for the public. If the Bill does not manage to progress instantly, I hope that Ministers who believe that it is either of neutral or positive benefit will see whether it is possible to incorporate it in the general programme of work of the Health and Safety Executive.

A clause was inserted in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). One cannot use the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act to reduce the level of safety available to people. I suspect that where information is known, it could be caught by the Act, although it would be a rather more administratively cumbersome way of making progress. Most of the regulations in the Act could incorporate some of the responsibilities that my hon. Friend would put on others.

People look for comparative information. That applies to product liability just as much as to safety. I shall not speak for too long about product liability, because it is not relevant to the Bill. However, I am still trying to persuade motor cycle manufacturers to make leg protectors available on their bikes, especially those ridden by people in their early years of motor cycling. That would cut out two thirds of the risk of serious leg injury in crashes with cars. It would also probably eliminate two thirds of cycling injuries. Yet not one motor cycle or moped manufacturer makes that equipment available even as an option, although it has been demonstrated by the transport and road research laboratory to be effective. I hope that—if not under this Bill, under a similar Bill—every motor cycle will carry a notice stating, "It is known that it is technically possible to reduce the risk of injury in crashes but we have not chosen to make that option available."

Safety is not just about notices; it is about people's dedication to carrying out their duty not to go beyond precise regulations and the requirements of their contract of employment to help people to move around safely. The hon. Member for Newham, South was right to say that it is necessary to stick to regulations in a positive sense.

I pay tribute to the staff on the railways and the roads. In the past two or three days, they have been doing all that they can to help people to move around safely. In these Siberian conditions they have not been fully successful, but hon. Members in the warm House of Commons Chamber should recognise the work of those who, probably through the hours of darkness, worked hard so that we could move around safely and make these points.

12.47 pm
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

I thought that there was interest in this Bill from other quarters. Perhaps I am wrong.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) on his Bill. The official Opposition are not opposed to the Bill and we shall do everything we can to ensure that it makes progress. I hope that it will receive unanimous support, but I am beginning to doubt whether it will.

We do not regard the Bill as a panacea. It is a necessary part, but not the major part, of several measures that are needed to ensure safety in the public domain. I shall refer later to some concerns that arise out of the Bill. In its recent policy document, the Labour party made it clear that it will fully support the concept of the right to information and that Labour will give the travelling public the right to basic information about safety and security matters. This will complement Labour's proposed Freedom of Information Act. The Bill will at least save us some trouble if it is passed. It is important to recognise the role of information.

We have already heard accounts of many disasters that have taken place in recent years. We have just had the decade of disaster, central to which has been the role of central Government, who have underfunded public bodies, whether they be the Health and Safety Executive, various inspectorates or whatever else.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman said that the Health and Safety Executive is underfunded. On what basis does he make that serious charge? He must know that Dr. John Culler, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, is on record as saying recently that it has all the resources that it requires to carry out its responsibilities. How does the hon. Gentleman's serious allegation fit with that?

Mr. Lloyd

It fits because the Minister's quotes are wrong. Dr. Culler said that its resources are sufficient for it to carry out its programme of works, which is not the same as carrying out its responsibilities. I have said in this place and elsewhere that I do not believe that the Health and Safety Executive or the Health and Safety Commission are fulfilling the obligations that the Government have set them.

The director-general of the HSE recently made it clear that it can no longer respond to all complaints from the public. The Minister's claim that the standards of the HSE and the HSC are higher than in the past is not true.

I invite the Minister to arrange a debate on health and safety in Government time. It would be helpful for him to put the case as he sees it and for me to put the Opposition's case. I say that because I am conscious of the fact that it would not be right and proper to take up time in this debate, although those matters are of critical importance.

The Government have underfunded other public sector bodies, such as British Rail. Some disasters on British Rail have been a direct consequence of old and outdated rolling stock and equipment. At least part of the cause of the King's Cross disaster was that cost pressures bearing down on management were so tight that they were unable to make safety a priority. That was more than regrettable, and it was condemned by Labour Members. The Government are central to that series of disasters.

The House must recognise that the Government cannot run away from their responsibilities. I say that because, today, they will once again refuse to play their part by allowing even this fairly small measure. They will attempt to kill it off, by stealth possibly, as they did two years ago, when my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) introduced a Bill. He was successful only because he was able to prove the dishonourable role that the Government had played.

Provision is made in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 for some of the measures that the hon. Member for Battersea is trying to introduce. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. Section 3(3) says: In such cases as may be prescribed, it shall be the duty of every employer and every self-employed person, in the prescribed circumstances and in the prescribed manner, to give to persons (not being his employees) who may be affected by the way in which he conducts his undertaking the prescribed information about such aspects of the way in which he conducts his undertaking as might affect their health or safety. That rather complex parliamentary language means that the Health and Safety Executive could impose on every employer a duty to ensure that members of the public are aware of when their health and safety may be affected by what happens at a place of work. That would clearly cover the tragic and disgraceful case of Paul Elvin, which was cited by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

That specific power was provided in an amendment to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Bill. The amendment was tabled by Lord Whitelaw, who was leading for the Opposition. I understand that he persuaded the then Minister of State, Department of Employment, who is now the Chairman of Ways and Means, to accept the amendment, because it was agreed on an all-party basis that the provision of information was central to safety at the place of work and to providing a safe place of work for employees and for the general public. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and agree that something that was acceptable to Lord Whitelaw all those years ago should now be acceptable to him when he addresses the wider issues involved in this Bill.

I have some concerns about the way in which the Bill would operate in practice. I do not say that with any hostility. I recognise that, in order to have safety, we need more than just the provision of information. Information is vital to the structure, but we need more than just information.

I dealt with a problem in my area not so long ago, involving the traffic commissioner in the north-west. I will not mention the name of the bus company concerned, but I can say that, after a time, it got its act together and began to put safer buses on the road. The traffic commissioner became aware that that company was operating unsafe buses which presented a danger to the travelling public. He decided not to prohibit the operation of those buses; he allowed those dangerous buses to run. I entered into lengthy correspondence with Mr. Albu, who was the commissioner concerned, and with Ministers. They all seemed to think that it was perfectly reasonable for unsafe buses to ply the roads of Manchester.

I believe that Mr. Albu had been frightened off when he lost, on appeal, previous attempts to restrain the activities of a particular bus company. I place that on record, because, like the hon. Member for Battersea, I believe that it is important that we scrutinise our public officials. Those officials should be aware that if they make decisions that are open to criticism, they will rightly deserve that criticism when the decisions become public. The traffic commissioner to whom I have referred failed in his responsibilities to the travelling public.

If we apply the powers under the Bill, that same traffic commissioner could decide not to move on to the public notice stage. In effect, he could decide that his decision not to prohibit the running of the buses could be open to such criticism that he would be foolish to signal that he had taken that decision by insisting that the operator gave public notice of the fact that its buses were less than safe.

I hope that the hon. Member for Battersea will accept that that analogy applies not just to transport undertakers, but across the range. At the margin, such action could constrain the behaviour of safety regimes if they are left to operate as they do now—underfunded and demoralised.

We must consider the relationship between central Government and the statutory bodies that are designed to ensure safety in Britain. We do not have a safety culture and safety is not deemed to be automatic. For example, Which? recently published a survey of ferries. I was involved from the Opposition Front Bench in the Herald of Free Enterprise affair. That massive tragedy caused the deepest agonising among hon. Members on all sides of the House. It should now be impossible for a passenger-carrying ferry operator to operate ferries that are not completely safe.

However, the Which? report made it clear that six ferries using British ports still rely on passengers climbing down rope ladders to life rafts as a primary means of evacuation. Which? points out that those companies are operating within the letter of the law; they break no laws by using that mechanism. It is not a procedure which would allow the publication of a notice such as that enshrined in the Bill. The ferry operators breach the principle of safety but no other principle.

As long as the Department of Transport is prepared to conspire with the ferry operators to allow them to operate ferries in an unsafe way, no provision of information will get over that immediate hurdle. That is central to safety in Britain. At present, we simply cannot trust the regulatory agencies. That is a serious challenge, which I make in full knowledge of what I say. The regulatory safety bodies now in existence simply are not doing the job that the travelling public and other people are entitled to demand.

Until we begin properly to resource regulatory safety bodies and make safety paramount at the place of work and wherever the public confront potential danger, we shall not have the climate and culture of safety which the House should demand. If we do not have a structure, especially in the Health and Safety Executive, within which reports on disasters or even accidents that do not lead to tragedy are monitored, the safe working practices which we are entitled to demand will not be translated into practice.

The attention of the House has already been drawn to the Clapham disaster. There is no doubt that faulty wiring had occurred previously on an almost outrageous scale. The attention of British Rail had been drawn to those faults on several occasions. It was not a new problem. It is also clear that safety reports had been examined by British Rail. The inquiry made it clear that the problem was a failure to disseminate the information sufficiently widely.

A secondary, but equally important, problem is that there was no mechanism or public body within either the Health and Safety Executive or the Department of Transport that could ask British Rail precisely what it had done to implement the conclusions of previous safety reports. That is fundamental.

The Minister could come to the Dispatch Box today and do two things. First, he could say that he intended to implement section 3(3) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and make sure that information is made available to the public now. There is no need for today's Bill to be passed for him to do that. He could do it today.

Secondly, the Minister could tell the Health and Safety Commission that he expects it immediately to set up within the HSE a mechanism for monitoring previous safety reports. If he does that, he will take a significant step forward for the safety of people both at work and generally. I challenge him to do that.

If we are to create a climate of safety it is important that we have in place penalties for those who transgress safety regulations. Reference has been made to various disasters. It is clear that those who were culpable in those disasters were not brought before the courts in a way that exposed them to penalties that would serve as a warning and a sanction to others, and would show the severity with which the House and society treat transgressions of regulations which put health and safety at risk.

During a recent Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) referred to Holts Plastics. My hon. Friend said that the case had gone as far as the courts allowed. The judge made some condemnatory statements about one of the partners. The transcript shows that the judge made it clear that he found himself unable to pass the sentence that he wished to pass because the wrong person was before the court. He gave a prison sentence but suspended it for a considerable time.

There is still no case of any individual serving a custodial sentence for breach of health and safety legislation. I am not one to argue for long prison sentences for the sake of them, but, as in other areas of criminal law, custodial sentences show the sincerity and seriousness of the attitude of the House to those who break the law. Health and safety and placing someone's life or health at risk should be treated sufficiently seriously that those who transgress face long prison sentences. I make it clear from the Dispatch Box that the Labour Government will make sure that such penalties are used.

There is much in the Bill that we welcome. I do not intend to continue at length, although there are more points worth putting on record. My hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Battersea, and his hon. Friends have already made some valuable points. I am concious of the fact that there may be an attempt to kill the Bill by stealth today. I hope that the Minister will consider long and hard before he takes part in such an attempt.

I remind the Minister of the role of his predecessor, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who was caught with his hand in the till, so to speak, two years ago, when my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) introduced a similar Bill. The then Under-Secretary of State for Employment wrote a letter to the Leader of the House which made it clear that his Department intended to frustrate both the House and the Bill.

I see that the Minister is now receiving something that will enable him to respond properly. The letter made it clear that the then Minister intended to frustrate that Bill, which dealt with safety and, ironically, as a result allowed my hon. Friend to push through his legislation.

I remind the Minister of the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. As a former Trade and Industry Minister, the hon. Gentleman may have some sympathy with them. In the foreword to the 12th annual home accident surveillance system report, the Under-Secretary wrote: The starting point for working to prevent consumer accidents is good information. What is essential to one Under-Secretary—a willingness to insist that information is central to providing a safe and healthy working regime and safe and healthy access to public facilities—should be taken on board by another. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that he does not intend to talk out the Bill by drawing the debate out to 2.30 pm. The Opposition support the Bill and wish the hon. Member for Battersea all speed with it.

1.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

The concern for the important subject matter of those who have participated in the debate is obvious from the tone of the debate. I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) for using the privilege of his place high in the ballot to bring such an important issue before the House. The contributions that we have heard from hon. Members of all parties show that he has done no more than reflect a view that is widely held among all hon. Members. It has been demonstrated that he was right to reflect that concern in such a Bill.

I am stating the obvious, but it is worth noting that in many cases the contributions of hon. Members have reflected their direct involvement, at different times and in different ways, in disasters and catastrophes such as those described to us. It is understandable that for those who have been involved, whether as Members of Parliament or, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), as a Minister, with people whose lives have been touched by disaster, the emotions generated are that much more powerful. That has been apparent in the speeches that we have heard today. Anyone who reads the report of today's proceedings will have no doubt of the extent to which the tragedies and losses felt by so many people have been expressed in this place. That is as it should be.

In that spirit, I will as carefully as I can pick my way through what is a very difficult proposition for the Government—to respond properly to my hon. Friend's Bill and the issues that it raises. Before doing that, I want to do something that may seem rather tedious. I want to read out some short extracts from the Bill so that they are on the record and so that we can relate the contributions that have been made today to the Bill. Many hon. Members who have spoken, including some of my hon. Friends, have not fully understood what the Bill seeks to do. Many of them have expressed concerns and suggested that the Bill, once on the statute book, would resolve the problems that they have presented to the House. I believe that they are wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea may wish to correct me. Clause 1(2) states: This Act applies to premises, being—

  1. (a) land or buildings other than nuclear installations … or
  2. (b) any means of transport,
to which members of the public are admitted, either on payment of a fee or otherwise. The Bill operates primarily on premises and means of transport. It continues: In this Act information on a matter of public safety … is information identified by a relevant statutory authority concerned with matters of public health and safety". Many hon. Members who have spoken today have suggested that, in some way, information that is already available, in almost any form, will be dealt with by the Bill, but that is not so. The Bill refers to information identified by the relevant statutory authority. I hope that hon. Members present today will bear that in mind when they contemplate the Bill and decide how to react to it.

Clause 2 states: Where the authority"— —the relevant statutory authority— has determined that there is a substantial threat or danger to the health or safety of the public, it shall serve upon the occupier of the premises concerned a written warning The Bill then sets out the detailed provisions.

I shall return later to the tragic case mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), involving a constituent of his at Euston station. I want to give the House a little background information to that case. I am convinced that the Bill would not have made any material difference to that case, had it been in force at that time.

Mr. Lloyd

Will the Minister comment on my earlier point that section 3(3) of the existing Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 would have covered precisely the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey? Could not the Minister bring that section into effect immediately?

Mr. Forth

I do not believe that that section would cover that case. I am advised by officials in the Health and Safety Executive that it would not. This is neither the time nor the place to be diverted into the esoterics of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act, although I realise that it is of prime importance. However, I shall undertake to consider the matter again, as the hon. Gentleman asks, to see whether there is any scope within that Act to do what the Bill seeks to achieve. I am advised at present—I will consider the matter further—that it will not have the effect that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Lloyd

Will the Minister undertake to place that advice on the public record if the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey asks for it in a written question?

Mr. Forth

It goes without saying that, whenever any hon. Member puts down a written question to me or to any other Minister, he receives a full, prompt and direct answer, as would be the case here. I do not wish to be diverted into that case, because, although it is important, I am not sure that it is germane to the provisions of the Bill as laid before the House today.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea and I will not fall out over the Bill at this stage. As I understand the procedures of the House—I am open to correction—the purpose of today's debate is to consider the text of the Bill as printed and to decide whether to give it a Second Reading.

My hon. Friend told the House in his excellent opening speech that in discussions with me and others he has already identified areas in which the Bill might be improved, and that is certainly true. It can indeed be improved. Today I intend to stick to the Bill as printed, despite our discussions, because that is the only basis upon which we can proceed. We all know the fragile nature of private Members' legislation. Whatever Members may say about the Whips' role, at least they impart a certain degree of predictability to what may happen to legislation. I do not want to go into details that might embarrass my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), but I can reveal that with effective whipping we can at least structure the progress of legislation and give it a certain predictability—too much predictability, Opposition Members might think, but they would not think like that if our roles were reversed.

The difficulty with private Members' legislation is that once a Bill goes into Committee it is subject to the free will of Members of Parliament, acting as individuals, representing their consciences and constituents. That sounds good—at least I hope it does—but it renders unpredictable what may happen to a Bill.

I cite as evidence of this what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey said. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed how carefully I listened to his speech. He expressed a wish that the Bill should go further than it does. If the Bill goes into Committee by decision of the House there will those on the Committee, like the hon. Gentleman, who want to go further—

Mr. Bowis

Just as my hon. Friend has said that he will follow the usual rules and not consider amendments that I have announced, I hope that he will not dwell too much on admendments that no one has announced or claimed that they want to table. After discussions with my hon. Friend and his colleagues about the amendments that I have in mind, I offer the Minister my pledge that if I do not table them in Committee, he will do so and I will support him; and if the Committee overrides them, I will support my hon. Friend on Report.

Mr. Forth

As ever, my hon. Friend is kind and generous. Of course I will not talk speculatively about amendments which may not be made to the Bill; I shall talk about the Bill as printed. I cannot acknowledge what my hon. Friend has said about amendments to the Bill today because we cannot be certain that the Bill would emerge in that form, even given my hon. Friend's undertakings. He might table amendments in Committee, and I might want to support them, but we can only act as individuals there. But other hon. Members can do as they please and judge best in Committee—

Mr. Peter Bottomley


Mr. Forth

I thought that I might tempt my hon. Friend.

Mr. Bottomley

The Minister has indeed tempted me. In my experience, many private Members' Bills leave Committee with much less in them than they they go in as a result of the careful ministrations of the Ministers and Whips surrounding the hon. Member bringing in the Bill.

Secondly, next time a Government Bill returns from Committee dramatically altered from its shape on Second Reading, I shall assume that I can go home at 7.30 pm and not wait around, whipped, to get through 400 amendments in an hour and a half at midnight.

Mr. Forth

I must leave that to my hon. Friend and the Whips Office. I am not sure whether he was talking about a private Member's Bill or a Government Bill in that case—

Mr. Bottomley

It does not matter.

Mr. Forth

The two are not the same. The key difference between Government Bills and private Members' Bills is that Government Bills—let us give them the benefit of the doubt—have been carefully thought through and have perhaps been the subject of commitments in a manifesto or in the Gracious Speech or of examination by officials and civil servants in one or more Departments. They are subject to the scrutiny of committees that I am not allowed to mention, the existence of which we normally deny. All those things happen to a Government Bill. Unfortunately, private Members' Bills do not go through this process. Some people might say that they are the better for it, but in many cases private Members' Bills suffer from not going through it. This Bill has suffered in that way.

The Bill has a number of defects, some of which are due to the fact that it has not gone through the process for Government Bills. That is my cue, lest people think that I am speaking over-long, to deal with the substance of the Bill. First, we have a number of objections to and difficulties with the Bill and they extend over broad areas. Current arrangements about public safety and access to safety information are adequate in most areas. Some provisions have been brought about as a result of the disasters about which many hon. Members have spoken. I shall return to that, because in a number of cases we have legislated or changed the law in response to the tragedies that have been mentioned.

Secondly, the procedures envisaged by the Bill are overly long and bureaucratic and I shall go through them in some detail. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has said that he is prepared to consider changes, going through the Bill's provisions will illustrate some of the dangers that still exist. The Bill will place burdens, which many hon. Members have underestimated, mainly on statutory authorities, certainly on local authorities, and even on the private sector. Those have been somewhat glossed over, although my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) rightly dealt with them in his speech.

Finally, there are some small technical difficulties in the Bill of the kind that would certainly need to be examined in Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has said, London is omitted from the Bill and he, as a London Member, will want to correct that and has said so. We would have to look at certain Northern Ireland dimensions to the Bill. Some other relatively detailed matters would have to be examined if the Bill reaches Committee.

I shall outline the current arrangements to see whether I can satisfy the House that what the Bill seeks to do would in most senses be superfluous. First, the Government and all the Departments that have looked at the Bill's provisions think that there is already adequate provision for public access to information about safety hazards.

The Government are committed to the principle of openness about health and safety, which several hon. Members have mentioned. In that context many of the criticisms in the debate have been levelled at bodies that are not Government bodies but either independent public bodies or nationalised industries, over which the Government do not have day-to-day operational and management control. There must be a limit to the extent to which the Government, even by legislation, can guarantee that in day-to-day operational matters, things are made as public as many people should like to see.

Therefore, it is apparent that the primary responsibility in this area lies with managers, owners or employers to ensure the safety of the public in and around the premises in which they work or which they visit. If they fail in that responsibility, they may be prosecuted. However, I do not share the apparent desire of the Opposition for prosecutions in as many cases as possible. There was reference to a recent question in the House about a particular case. Although there is a role for prosecution in these matters, I am not sure that it is the overriding role, as is sometimes suggested; nor do I think that in some sense prosecution should be seen as persecution. We want to get this in context, so while there should always be the mechanism for bringing prosecutions, it should be not the first call but the last resort, after all the other techniques have been brought to bear.

The Health and Safety Executive has always made it clear, and I support it, that before deciding on prosecution, it goes through a number of different procedures, mainly to do with the provision of advice, guidance, help and support. In its judgment, all these are much more effective in making sure that the myriad undertakings for which it is responsible in both public and private sectors make progress in health and safety. There is a difference of emphasis, if nothing else, between the approach taken by Opposition Members and by the Government.

Mr. Butterfill

There was considerable sympathy from both sides of the House and from the general public for the plight of the train driver in the Purley crash. Many thought that he should not have been sent to prison. Surely we should not seek retribution but merely address what has gone wrong.

Mr. Forth

That is an important point. We should make a distinction between, for example, the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), in which the people involved were employers and had an employer's responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, and the hon. Gentleman was not satisfied that they had been sufficiently pursued by the authorities, and that mentioned by my hon. Friend. I see that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) takes this point. The individual involved in the latter case was an employee, albeit one in a responsible position, and I am aware that many doubts were expressed about whether he should have been pursued in the way he was. That case illustrates the difficulties. Under the existing provisions, which in most cases are adequate, what action should be taken is always a matter of judgment for the authorities involved. No matter what they do, they are open to criticism. The hon. Member for Stretford criticised them for not taking enough action and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) criticised them for taking too much action. That usefully emphasises a point inherent in the Bill; that no matter what provisions we make—I argue that the present provisions are adequate and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has argued that the Bill will improve them—it will be up to the statutory authority to make a judgment about the appropriate action to take.

We have heard two different suggestions today. One is that the Bill will deter people from taking the action for which many hon. Members have asked. In other words, confronted with the responsibilities that the Bill will give them, statutory authorities might draw back from giving the public the warning required by the Bill, and thereby notifying the public. It has also been suggested that the effect will be quite the opposite and that, to cover themselves, the authorities will issue a large number of notices and go out of their way to find as many threats to the public as possible and issue notices about them to ensure that they cannot, in any conceivable circumstances, be accused with hindsight of being less than diligent.

Mr. Bowis

It sounds to me as though the balance that my hon. Friend is striking, with those two pressures on the safety authorities, will ensure that they get their judgment about right.

Mr. Forth

My argument is that they do that now. I have yet to be convinced that the Bill would materially change that position.

Mr. Bowis

Hon. Members have repeatedly said that one of the benefits of the procedure in the Bill is that in practice it will never be used because the additional weapon that the safety authorities will have will ensure that occupiers will remedy the threat to the public before the authorities have to go through the procedure.

Mr. Forth

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will address that point when I compare the existing position with that which would obtain under the Bill.

The statutory authorities covered by the Bill—it relates only to statutory authorities—already have extensive powers to protect the public where there is a perceived danger or where, in the words of the Bill, they identify a substantial threat or danger to the health or safety of a member of the public. In the case of a serious or imminent threat, the authorities may, under the existing provisions, issue a prohibition notice or order to close down parts or all of a building, or stop a particular type of work or activity, until the hazard has been removed. In such cases, the public will be banned or removed from the area or activity that is the source of the hazard until such time as the situation is remedied. The actual requirements imposed will vary across different areas of responsibility—depending whether one is dealing with sports stadiums, transport undertakings, buildings, or whatever—but they must be observed by the occupier, owner or operator of the premises and the public will not be allowed to re-enter until the area is safe.

Under that type of notice or order, the manager or owner of the business affected is likely to be losing money while work is slowed down, or stopped, or parts of the building are shut or made inoperative. In the case of a fairground, a ride would be out of action until made safe, and the owner would be losing money until that was done. In such instances, business people are likely to act quickly, so that their business can resume as normal and to ensure that the circumstances that led to the enforcement action do not recur. Pressure is built into the existing system of prohibition notices and orders because statutory authorities can already close premises or cause activities to cease and are thus empowered to exercise the same kind of coercion that is embodied in the Bill.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

My hon. Friend's remarks are helpful, but they rather go outside the scope of the Bill. I thought that the exchange involving my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) covered the prohibition power, so perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will leave that aspect and the other de minimis issues to one side and stick to the ones in between. I refer, for example, to the situation in which the statutory authority warns the operator that action must be taken because of a significant or substantial risk of danger to the public of which the public themselves are unaware. That may be a more fruitful area for my hon. Friend the Minister to explore.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his guidance, as always. However, in view of some of the speeches that have been made—my hon. Friend has been present for the whole debate—it occurred to me that some hon. Members do not understand the purpose of the Bill, and are under the impression that it would materially affect some of the matters that have been mentioned this morning. My contention is that, even in its amended form, the Bill would not do so.

Perhaps I may press on with the point that I was making because it relates to arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea and I do not want to short-change him.

Another option is provided by the improvement notices issued by the Health and Safety Executive, fire authorities, or local authorities, which can insist that improvements are undertaken by a certain date. It is unclear whether the Bill covers them.

Mr. Bowis

It is clear that it will not be covered. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) rightly pointed out, if there is a prohibition or a detention notice, the public are not admitted, and therefore the Bill cannot operate. Equally, if there is an improvement notice—as helpful officials in the Minister's Department who deal with marine safety have informed me—it means that there is such a low level of risk that it would not in any circumstances be deemed to be substantial. We need to concentrate on times when there is substantial risk. It would be helpful if the Minister would take the Bradford fire as an example, show his concern in that case and say how the Bill would not help.

Mr. Forth

In that case, as my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea and for Eltham have requested me to do so, I shall immediately come to the analysis of the Bradford fire case, which I had intended to mention later in my speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said that the Bill would have saved lives at Bradford, but that is not the advice that I have been given. I shall read carefully the advice that I have been given about Bradford, because it is important that we all understand where we are.

Mr. Justice Popplewell's interim report on the Bradfod event, which was published in 1985, said that on 18 July 1984, as a result of a visit by an engineer from West Yorkshire county council, a letter was written to the secretary of Bradford City football club about the state of the ground. Two fire risks were mentioned, and they were as follows. As regards the main grandstand, The timber construction is a fire hazard and in particular there is a build-up of combustible materials in the voids beneath the seats. A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk … Egress from the grandstand should be achievable in 2.5 minutes. The Popplewell report explains that the Bradford City football ground was not a designated football ground, for which a safety certificate was required, and West Yorkshire county council had no statutory authority to restrict or prohibit the use of the ground. Therefore, the county council sent a copy of their letter to the fire service. The fire service took the view, which is crucial to the whole case, that it was a matter of good housekeeping for the occupiers of the football ground to deal with and saw no reason to take the matter any further.

My conclusion is that the position that existed in 1984 was that the first authority had no power to take any action and the second authority—the fire service—decided not to do so. Had the fire authority decided to take action, it would not have been able to issue a prohibition restriction order without first going to the courts. The key to this part of the argument is that, as a result of the Bradford tragedy, the law was changed in 1987 and a local authority with responsibility for safety at a sports ground can now issue a prohibition or restriction notice, whether or not the ground is required to have a safety certificate and without first applying to the courts. I therefore make two points. First, it is our analysis of the Bradford case that the Bill would not have made a substantial difference. Secondly—and equally important—changes to the law resulting from Bradford, and since, mean that much greater powers are now available to authorities than those contained in my hon. Friend's Bill. For those two important reasons, it is not correct to tie Bradford into this argument.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The story that my hon. Friend the Minister has rehearsed, which was familiar to me at the time of the incident, is accurate but omits the suggestion that the statutory authority inspectors could, if the Bill had been law, have required a notice to be put up. I am sure that the fire service would have supported that, because it was a matter of good housekeeping to clear the rubbish away and thus prevent a fire. We all accept that one could not predict the number of casualties in the tragedy.

Secondly, if my hon. Friend the Minister is saying that there is no circumstance in which putting up a notice, as provided for in the Bill, could help, it would require a speech lasting about one and a half minutes. However, if he is saying that a notice could help but might not be right, or that other factors must be taken into account, that is fine and we can continue listening in good cheer. One ought to recognise that that provision could have been appropriate at Bradford. Instead of prohibition, there would have been warnings so that the local authority, the fire service and the owners of the ground would know.

Mr. Forth

It is a matter of judgment whether that would have been the case. Perhaps our judgments must be different on this matter. Interestingly, what my hon. Friend has outlined could have been interpreted as an improvement-type warning which, according to what my hon. Friend said a few moments ago, might not have been covered by the Bill if one looks at it from that point of view.

On the second point from my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham, of course I would not say that if we could wave a wand and have the Bill nothing would be improved. I should be ill-advised to say anything like that. Nevertheless, we believe on balance that whatever benefits may accrue from the Bill—they are fewer because of the improvements that have been made since Bradford and the like—the cost that will be incurred or will be likely to be incurred by undertakings, by statutory authorities and by local authorities will probably far outweigh the likely benefits of the Bill. Again, that is inevitably a matter for judgment.

I want to demonstrate that the costs of tragedies are greater than many hon. Members have suggested. I have listened to the argument that the costs of tragedies are so monumentally great in terms of human life and material loss that they would surely outweigh the on-going cost of such a Bill, and it is a tempting argument, but it is very difficult to sustain, as my hon. Friend and others are probably aware. In that broad sense, cost-benefit is something with which we are not familiar, not very good at, and have not yet brought into the way in which we determine such matters. That is an argument for another time and another place. I do not think that the House would agree that we should get involved in it and I am not sure whether it would be very fruitful so to do.

Mr. Bowis

Of course measures have been taken after disasters. It is because the public have become aware of the causes of disasters. They have become aware of secret reports hidden in drawers and filing cabinets and have demanded action. This measure will enable that demand to take place before a disaster. There was clearly a substantial fire risk at Bradford, but there was no improvement order. This measure would have prevented the fire. We are talking not about the cost of putting right unacceptable risks—that should be in the budget anyway—but about the costs of this small measure compared with the enormous costs post-disaster to the people involved, the premises and the local community.

Mr. Forth

I must disagree with the first part of what my hon. Friend said. The House should not get the impression that we are talking about a large number of cases in which problems have been identified by statutory authorities of the kind that the Bill is addressing—substantial threats or danger to the public—and have been hidden in drawers and nothing has been done about them. I am not qualified to say that that has never happened and I should not want to suggest that, but I do not think that it is right to leave unchallenged the suggestion that, time and again, statutory authorities or responsible authorities have identified a substantial threat or danger to the public but have simply hidden the information away in a drawer and done nothing about it. In many of the cases in which it is alleged that that has happened, it was not the statutory authority which identified the problem, so it would not have been covered by the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea suggested that as a result of the Bill, it is much more likely that the kind of information that is out there somewhere—or, more properly, in there somewhere—will be brought to the public's attention. I am not sure whether that would be so either.

On costs, the difficulty is that if we embarked on cost measurement we should have to measure the continuing cost of the procedures in the Bill, day by day, up and down the length and breadth of the land, cumulatively, as against the highly identifiable cost of occasional large tragedies and disasters. I have not made that cost calculation and I am not in a position to do so, but the balance of cost would be more even and would probably tip in a direction other than that which my hon. Friend is suggesting. That is as far as I can go without doing the arithmetic, but when I deal with the burdens that the Bill would place on local authorities, and related weaknesses in it, hon. Members will see that the dangers and difficulties are greater than we thought.

The Environment and Safety Information Act 1988 has been mentioned. That established registers of certain notices served concerning health, safety and environmental protection to be easily accessed by interested members of the public. Under that Act, all statutory authorities, including local authorities, must keep a register of all enforcement notices issued that concern the safety of the public. That register must be indexed and readily available to the public on request and those provisions are considered more than adequate to ensure public access to safety information. That is a major part of my hon. Friend's Bill.

Experience so far, albeit in the short period during which that Act has been on the statute book, suggests that those registers are rarely consulted and that there is little demand for the information on them. That is somewhat at odds with the vision of eager-beaver journalists consulting registers regularly and writing stories on the basis of them. Significantly, no hon. Member has offered the House examples of journalists using the procedures already on the statute book, which are rather similar to those envisaged by my hon. Friend, to bring to the attention of a concerned, eager and anxious public the information that the Bill seeks to offer. Therefore, the limited example of how these mechanisms might work shows that there is not much evidence—nobody, including my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, has offered very much evidence—that such information not only would be sought but, more importantly, would be used were we to pass the Bill.

Mr. Bowis

That is the point of displaying notices where the public and the press will see them. People are not aware of the registers and do not go to the public library on the off-chance of seeing something interesting. If a sports journalist saw a notice at a football ground he would immediately spot a story with a public safety angle, which he would then pursue.

Mr. Forth

The new provisions on sports grounds contain powers to close them, or parts of them, if a substantial threat of danger to the public is perceived. Those considerable, if not draconian, powers are already available to the authorities. I am not yet convinced that the addition of a notice or the provision of a register would add materially or substantially to public safety, health or well-being. We shall return to that when I consider the argument for registers.

As part of its drive to make the public more aware of possible dangers, the Health and Safety Executive keeps its own register of possible hazards to the public. Many firms and undertakings are required to notify it, because their activities are subject to certain legislative provisions, such as the Explosives Act 1975 or the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983. Each executive area office has a publicly available register of local undertakings which have been notified under such legislation.

I will say before anybody else does—I concede this immediately to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea—that the Health and Safety Executive has a relatively limited number of area offices—20, if my memory serves me right—whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea is suggesting that more than 300 district councils would hold the registers.

I have conceded to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea that one important element of the Bill is to try to find a way of making available to the public through the registers at the local town hall the information that would flow from the procedures in the Bill. That is obviously one of the Bill's most important provisions and it is one of the main differences apart from the warning notices, between the existing provisions and the Bill.

I want to ensure that the House understands that under provisions in the Environment and Safety Information Act 1988 and the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1984 there is some degree of warning for the public and the possibility of notices for the public.

One of my main arguments about the Bill involves the bureaucracy of the procedure. I want to tie into that argument the delays that exist, even under the streamlined procedure that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea and I have discussed.

In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said that he believes that the Bill is a simple solution to the problems of threats to public safety. I want to explain in detail—

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Oh, no.

Mr. Forth

If the hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to the details, he does not have to sit there. I am going to give the details to the House anyway because they are relevant to the consideration of the Bill and the way in which it would work.

Several hon. Members have said that they do not believe that the burdens on local authorities would be substantial. I do not agree. All of us who have at heart the desire to keep the burdens on local authorities and the cost burdens on authorities and community charge payers as low as possible will be interested in my arguments.

Under the Bill, a statutory authority that has discovered a substantial threat or danger to the health or safety of the public to such an extent that an enforcement notice will usually have been issued has 14 days in which to notify the district council. The local authority then has a further 14 days in which to issue a public safety notice to the offending occupier and place the warning issued under the enforcement notice on a register available to the public. The notice as specified in clause 2(5) and 2(7) must contain certain detailed information, some of which the public may not fully understand, for example, if the fault was fairly technical. We may want to simplify that in Committee.

Let us consider the way in which the mechanism would work. If the danger to the public is serious enough to warrant a prohibition notice and the occupier of the premises is not able to run his or her business as usual, the cause of the problem would be remedied as quickly as possible to prevent further damage to the business. I suggest that that would often happen in a matter of days or even hours so that, in the occupier or operator's interests, normal business could be resumed.

However, the procedure envisaged by the Bill paints a different picture. The statutory authority observes a potential danger to the public. Let us assume that the officer concerned is extremely efficient, as he would be, and he deals with the paperwork that evening and posts the notification to the local authority the next day. Let us also assume that the postal system is as efficient as ever and it delivers the notification the next day. The very efficient local authority immediately sends the occupier the public safety notice which is received one day later, and enters the details on the public register immediately.

I concede, in fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, that were the Committee to make the changes that I believe he has in mind, at least part of that process would be short-circuited. However, it leaves the possibility of a delay being built in between the initial identification of the problem and the communication by the statutory authority of that problem to the local authority.

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend the Minister began this point by saying that he intended to show how the Bill would be an additional burden of cost to local authorities. As we know that the procedure in the Bill as drafted will not be the eventual procedure but will be the subject of an amendment in Committee with, as far as I am aware, the support of the whole House, will my hon. Friend remember that this is a Second Reading debate on the principle, not the detail, of the Bill and keep his remarks for Committee?

Mr. Forth

I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would pull me up if you thought that I was not addressing the Bill directly. I took care at the beginning of my speech to say that I wanted to refer to the Bill. I have even read out parts of it. I hope that I am being careful to stay in order. I believe that I am right to draw the attention of the House to the provisions of the Bill. In a moment I shall strengthen my argument about the burden to local authorities. The burden will increase in ways which my hon. Friend may not have foreseen. I may yet have a surprise for my hon. Friend. It may not be a great surprise, but it will be a surprise none the less.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

My hon. Friend may not be aware that he is illustrating the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowls) in introducing his Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister responded to the previous intervention by saying that he was in order. That seems similar to the legal approach which is taken at present to safety in public places. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea seeks to share useful information with members of the public who have an interest in it. That seems roughly what my hon. Friend the Minister is turning his attention to, after a speech of three quarters of an hour in which he has given way several times to those who sought to make him focus on the purpose and the short title of the Bill.

Mr. Forth

As ever, I am grateful for the guidance that I am receiving from behind me. It is almost like being under the tutelage of a back-seat driver, to use a recent analogy. I shall do my best to please my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham, but I hope that he will allow me to approach the matter in my own way. I wish to make several points. I will speed up my delivery, if that will help him. I have a great deal of ground to cover and—good Lord!—time is getting on.

Even assuming that the procedure to which I have just referred—I shall not repeat it because that would be regarded as—

Mr. Spearing

Tedious repetition.

Mr. Forth

I thank the hon. Gentleman.

We have established that when the hazard was discovered, two days would pass before the information was put on the register. Three days would pass before the public safety notice was displayed, but in the meantime the conscientious occupier or operator might have remedied the problem. So the register might say that there was a hazard when the premises had been put right.

The Bill says that the occupier could not remove the notice until the authority had given permission in writing. That implies that there would be a mechanism to make sure that the entry had been corrected. Already we can see the problems that would arise, even from the streamlined procedure which my hon. Friend suggested. There must be a process whereby a serious threat would be identified arid notified to the local authority directly or indirectly. The local authority would then put it on the register. A monitoring procedure would be necessary and the statutory authority would have to satisfy itself that the threat had been lifted. I suggest that in many cases the threat might be removed quickly—perhaps the same day or a day or two later.

A procedure would have to be in place to make sure that the register was maintained up to date. Once it was established that the threat had been removed and the notice could be lifted, the register would have to be purged of that entry. It is possible that there would be problems of discontinuity between the threat to the public arising, and being identified, notified and corrected. In the meantime the local authority would be struggling to maintain the register sufficiently up to date so that it was not positively misleading to the public, not to say damaging or dangerous to the business affected.

Mr. Bowis


Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend wish to guide me?

Mr. Bowis

If I may. The safety authority, as it already does every day of the week, would perceive risks, draw them to the attention of the occupier and make sure that action was taken. The only difference that the Bill would introduce is that the public would be alerted to the risk. No great bureaucratic machine would be added to the health or safety authority. The Bill is simply a request that the authority informs the public and the council.

Mr. Forth

That part of my hon. Friend's argument is correct. I am concentrating more on what would happen at the local authority end. A number of hon. Members have said today that they dispute whether the additional burden on local authorities would be significant. I am trying to make suggestions about the phasing of the operation. I have already conceded his streamlined procedure to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. I broke my own rule because I said at the beginning that I would talk about the Bill as printed. If I were to dwell on my hon. Friend's point, that would be an even lengthier and rather tedious procedure. However, in the generous mood in which I now find myself, we can leave that to one side.

I do not wish to let slip a point about the maintenance of the register if it is to be of any use to the public or to have any effect on them. We should need to ensure that information was recorded accurately. More importantly, we should need to ensure that when the information was no longer appropriate, it was removed from the register. That part of the burden on local government would he substantial and there is no getting away from that.

In the privacy of the Chamber, I must say that, although my admiration for officials is second to none, I suspect that with the ingenuity of officials in local government, they would find a way to make this a pretty heavy-handed and bureaucratic procedure one way or the other and that we should end up with something quite elaborate and rather Rolls-Royce when maintaining the register, if it is to have the importance that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea suggests.

There is another important matter about which the House should know. No hon. Member has mentioned the subject of appeals this morning. Under similar legislation covering similar areas, there is an appeals procedure. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 is an example. Under that Act, where a notice is served because of a serious risk of personal injury, appeals can be lodged within a set time span of the notice being served, although that appeal has no effect on a notice that remains valid during that period.

The question that arises is whether we envisage an appeals mechanism under the Bill. Such a procedure is not contained in the Bill at present. I think that I am right in saying that in his introductory speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea conceded that there should be such a procedure. I welcome that, but I must say that if we now build into the Bill an appeals mechanism, it raises other questions of delays and resources—or it may do. That is properly a matter for the Committee to consider.

However, it is right on Second Reading that the House pauses and considers whether we envisage that an appeals procedure would be appropriate, with all the effects that it might have on the public and on business undertakings. No hon. Member has picked up that point. I do not know whether they accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea suggested and we have no means of knowing. However, it is important for us at least to acknowledge that the Committee might decide to build an appeals procedure into the Bill, so we should have to identify the way in which it worked, which body would hear the appeals and the time scale involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea is about to help us.

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend may not have heard me earlier. I said, and I based my remarks on the helpful advice of his officials, that we would use the appeals procedure in relevant Acts that relate to the statutory authorities that would be listed in the Bill. The procedures are all there. If there were unreasonable delays, it would be because there are unreasonable delays now.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying the matter to the House. He has also helped us because he has said that he wants to look positively at the suggestion that the Bill should include a schedule of authorities to be covered. He and I discussed that and we felt that it was an area of doubt in the Bill. My hon. Friend's remarks will give the Committee some guidance.

I do not want to dwell on the appeals procedure. The enforcement of the procedure is also important. There would have to be enforcement of the terms of the public warning notices either by the statutory authorities—I presume that they would take on most of that role—or, in some cases, by the local authorities. There would have to be a procedure, although I am not sure that it would be very different from those that exist at present. As the existing procedures cover most of what we want to do, I should have thought that that point would be covered fairly adequately.

We must not forget to mention the burdens on the private sector—the business and wealth-creating sector. I have responsibility for small businesses as well as responsibility for health and safety and other matters at the Department of Employment and I have a passing interest in the effects that some of the Bill's provisions might have on small businesses. I do not want to over-emphasise that, because many of the existing provisions and procedures already in force probably have similar effects, but I thought that the House would want to be aware of that issue before deciding whether to give the Bill a Second Reading.

I have already mentioned briefly that we should have to return to other matters when considering the Bill further. Those issues include the definition of the enforcing authorities, coverage of the local authorities, whether or not the security provision in clause 1(4) would need to be redrafted, which it probably would, and the difficulties that arise in the detailed provisions of the notices' dimensions and other matters. Those are all matters of detail that would have to be considered subsequently.

There are also some difficulties surrounding the applicability of the Bill to Northern Ireland. I am advised that, as the Bill is a transferred matter, under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 the Bill should not extend to Northern Ireland—as is the case with so many Bills. Therefore, if the Bill were to become law, consideration would have to be given to a separate Northern Ireland Order in Council. I said that almost in passing, although we must never forget the different and unique requirements of Northern Ireland when legislating. The House should be aware that we would have to address that issue.

Mr. Spearing

The Minister has been giving the House considerable detail of the matters that we would need to look at if the principle of the Bill was agreed by the House. Will he help the House by stating whether he will give it the opportunity to make a decision on Second Reading?

Mr. Forth

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not a matter for me. It is for the House of Commons to decide whether to give a measure its Second Reading.

Mr. Spearing

Will the Minister give us the opportunity?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman knows that the House may vote on the substance of a measure on Second Reading, as it did last Friday, or it may be required to show its support for a measure by the requisite number of people being present in the House at 2.30 pm. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House longer than I and knows that.

Mr. Ashton

The Minister has spoken for an hour on a two-page Bill, covering points that could easily have been made and tabled as amendments in Committee. He must be in a position to say whether he will allow a Second Reading or talk out the Bill.

Mr. Forth

I find these questions strange—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are beginning to get slightly agitated. I am delighted to see them coming in to hear my closing sentences. All that they are doing is prolonging my time at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that a telephone call has been received from someone in a village called Dodder Hill in Mid-Worcestershire. A man has rung in to say that his Member of Parliament is called Mr. Eric Forth. The man wanted another hon. Member to get up in the House of Commons and object to the fact that his Member of Parliament was trying to block a Bill that was important to the people of Worcestershire. I wonder whether the Member for that constituency might be prepared to grant this gentleman's wish and give the House a chance to vote on the Bill—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. We have not obtained high technology yet at the Chair; I have no mobile telephone. That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If a man makes the effort to ring the House from a little village in the Minister's constituency, he is clearly very upset. The Minister can respond to his request that he give the Bill the chance of going into Committee. I appeal to the Minister—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that if the Minister were allowed to make progress, he would make his position clear.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is just conceivable that the matter is connected with what happened at 11.30 am, before you took the Chair, when I happened to tell Mr. Speaker, who was in the Chair, that the Minister was going to talk out this Bill. Mr. Speaker was not aware of that, and, since you know no more about the man from the Minister's constituency than I do, it is just possible that he may have heard what I said and wanted to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the debate should be stopped and the Bill allowed to go through—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I call Mr. Forth.

Mr. Forth

Labour Members are trying to prolong our proceedings and I find that disgraceful. I am always interested in views allegedly expressed by my constituents, of whom I have 85,000, and my job as a Member of Parliament is to judge what they think. The gentleman referred to is only one of 85,000 and, although his view is important, I shall make my own judgment in these matters, as the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) would expect.

I was just coming to the conclusion of my remarks before this disgraceful effort by Opposition Members to prolong proceedings. I cannot imagine why they want to do that, but what they have said is on the record—

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Many of us who have been here throughout the debate know that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was here for the private notice question but not otherwise, and the same applies to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is about time we made progress with the proposed legislation.

Mr. Forth

I agree, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Although I well understand the motivation behind my hon. Friend's bringing forward this Bill and although he has been amply and ably supported in a number of heartfelt speeches, I have tried to set out my views and those of the Government. We are not persuaded that the Bill would make the contribution to public safety that is claimed by its supporters. We believe that the costs of introducing the Bill as printed would be heavier than has been suggested, for the reasons that I have given. We believe that existing provisions in the law, which have partly come about as a result of the tragedies described earlier, have led to significant improvements in our ability to respond to such accidents. And we believe that taking into account the Bill's likely contribution to public health and safety on the one hand and the costs and difficulties associated with it on the other, it will not, on balance, be beneficial. Of course, I shall listen to other contributions and then see how the House decides to proceed.

2.13 pm
Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) on his success and on the Bill, in so far as it demonstrates his belief in the value of greater publicity and discussion of safety matters. He has shown that he has considerable faith in the effect of informed public opinion on these matters and that he wants to give greater publicity to the risks inherent in the activities concerned.

The debate has certainly achieved a useful discussion of safety and has drawn attention to a number of statutory responsibilities of which some hon. Members were unaware before this morning. We must look at the mechanism that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has selected for the Bill and ask whether it will achieve the objects that have been canvassed for it. Will it bring about any improvement or does it contain risks of detracting from the clarity of existing statutory responsibility? It is important for the House to bear it in mind that the Bill deals with cases in which the relevant safety authority will have determined that there is substantial threat or danger to the health or safety of the public. When such a situation arises and the authority has given that warning, the Bill contemplates a period of at least 28 days before the notice which is referred to could be exhibited.

Mr. Bowis

I do not know whether my hon. and learned Friend was here when I set out the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Ground

I was.

Mr. Bowis

In that case, my hon. and learned Friend will have heard me say that the Bill does not propose that procedure. We have a much simpler measure. My hon. and learned Friend says that he is concerned to see that the detail is right. I hope that he will join us in Committee and help to get it right.

Mr. Ground

The Bill deals with very serious cases that the statutory authority has upgraded as sufficiently serious to go as far as to say that there is a substantial threat or danger to the public. I am not satisfied from the debate that the Bill's provisions would have avoided any of the disasters about which hon. Members have spoken. Mr. Justice Hidden identified the cause of the Clapham disaster as faulty wiring during signal modernisation. In such a case the Bill would have operated only when the railways inspectorate had decided that there was a substantial threat or danger to the safety of the public. There was no such decision or warning and, therefore, the Bill could not have provided an antidote to that case.

In the case of the Zeebrugge disaster the internal memorandum containing the warning was a company document and dealt with the need for a warning light on the bow door. That would not have come to light under the Bill. The Zeebrugge disaster has been referred to many times in the debate and hon. Members have referred to press comments. The House must bear in mind that a jury has just acquitted the ferry company, all its responsible officers and the ship's officers of manslaughter. That decision must undermine many of the glib comments in the press about that disaster.

Mr. Forth

My hon. and learned Friend emphasises a point that I hope I was able to make clear in my brief contribution. It is to make sure that the House understands that the Bill deals with matters that are dealt with by statutory authorities in the course of their duties. It does not cover and was not designed to cover internal memoranda or other documents of the kind to which my hon. and learned Friend has referred. It is important for the House to understand that before deciding how to deal with the Bill, because much of the support for the Bill may well be misplaced.

Mr. Ground

I am not satisfied that the Bill would effect any improvement in the law and there are some risks about it. If a responsible authority identifies a major danger, that authority should exercise its responsibility and take immediate action to remove the danger or deal with it. We should not be relying on public information.

Mr. Bowis

I should make it clear, as my hon. Friend the Minister made it clear, that the Bill has nothing to do with culpability in law. It is to do with the triggering of a mechanism for public information on a perceived safety risk. My hon. and learned Friend is right to say that the history of the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy would not have been affected by the provisions of the Bill. One hopes that if such a case were to happen again, the captains, the marine unions or some bodies with responsibility for safety would bring the problem to the attention of the marine safety authority, which would then set in train the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Ground

There are statutory authorities with responsibility for safety in all the sectors about which we are concerned. Such authorities have the necessary powers to take action, as the Minister has said. In the case of Bradford, there was a fire authority and now there are other authorities that can take action. I am concerned that the Bill may discourage statutory authorities from taking action under their responsibilities and putting an end to a danger.

If, in certain sectors, there is not a relevant safety authority with the necessary powers to act, the House should provide those necessary powers. I support that in principle, but I do not support the fobbing off of those responsibilities on to the public, who, in most cases, would not know what to make of the warnings.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made a significant point. As he says that he would support a suitable amendment, will he allow us to debate the matter in Committee? I assure him that my hon. Friends will support him if he tables reasonable amendments in Committee. In the light of that undertaking, will he take his place? I understand that his constituents in Feltham and Heston may want the Bill to go into Committee. Will he not respond to that?

Mr. Ground

I shall speak about the effect on my constituency later, because the Bill has potentially far-reaching effects on my constituency and on the airlines and other businesses which operate there. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I was saying that there are bodies with clear statutory responsibilities and duties in all the matters touched on in the debate. The relevant authority has power to take immediate action where there is a significant risk to public health or safety. I do not want to discourage authorities from exercising that responsibility.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

For many decades, the House has accepted the principle that a private Member's Bill could be sent to Committee to be amended, provided that the original central structure of the Bill met the general mood of the House. I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and other sponsors have in mind in the Bill, but I doubt whether that applies in this case.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Dykes

I am being polite. I should not be tempted to respond to a sedentary interruption, but with my characteristic politeness I am using the word "doubt". The Bill's bureaucratic structure is the characteristic which deters even those hon. Members in all parts of the House who sympathise with its ultimate aims.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) and I share many things in common, but we also represent the two largest constituencies in greater London, which means that many of our constituents are very interested—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is tending to make a speech, rather than an intervention.

Mr. Dykes

I did not mean to incur your displeasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I had to make that point, in agreeing with my hon. and learned Friend—albeit reluctantly, and with some sadness—that the bureaucracy embodied in the Bill is unacceptable.

Mr. Ground

I thank my hon. Friend—

Mr. Bowis

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put:—

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 50, Noes 0.

Division No. 62] [2.25 pm
Adley, Robert Cox, Tom
Anderson, Donald Crowther, Stan
Ashton, Joe Dixon, Don
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Dobson, Frank
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Boateng, Paul Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Bowis, John Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Golding, Mrs Llin
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Haynes, Frank Short, Clare
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Soley, Clive
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Spearing, Nigel
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Squire, Robin
Knox, David Stanbrook, Ivor
Lawrence, Ivan Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Livingstone, Ken Waller, Gary
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Ward, John
Loyden, Eddie Wareing, Robert N.
McNamara, Kevin Wigley, Dafydd
Madden, Max Wise, Mrs Audrey
Meale, Alan Wolfson, Mark
Mowlam, Marjorie Wray, Jimmy
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Pendry, Tom Tellers for the Ayes:
Primarolo, Dawn Mr. Peter Bottomley and
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Mr. Gerald Bermingham.
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Hugh Dykes and
Mr. Steve Norris.
Madam Deputy Speaker

Fewer than 100 Members having voted for the Ayes, the Question is not decided in the affirmative.

Debate to be resumed on Friday next.

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

Mr. Ashton

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a tradition of the House that the vote shall follow the voice. The only voice that cried no against the closure was that of the Minister, not the Whip, yet nobody voted no. There must be something wrong with that.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I shall certainly not name the hon. Members who called out no, but they are in the Chamber at present. It was quite clear that they were the hon. Members who opposed.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My copy of the Bill has on it the name of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris). I understood that, from where he was standing, he was a Teller opposing the further progress of the Bill. That seems to be inconsistent.

Madam Deputy Speaker

It is certainly not a matter for the Chair which hon. Members are determined to be Tellers and which hon. Members are supporters of Bills.

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As a matter of personal explanation, I am sure that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who questioned my role in today's proceedings, will appreciate that, had my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) not been able to call a Division, he would not have had the opportunity for his Bill to succeed. As there were no other persons present in this Chamber who were prepared to be Tellers for the Noes, I undertook that obligation to ensure that my hon. Friend had that opportunity.