§ 1. Mr. Kilfoyle
To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what assessment he has made of the effect of the proposed reduction in grant aid to the Health and Safety Executive on charges to industry.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth)
Next year, the grant in aid to the Health and Safety Commission will be increased in cash terms. It is for the HSC to decide how to plan its work within the available resources.
§ Mr. Kilfoyle
Is not the reality that there will be further charges? I refer specifically to the letter from the director to the staff of December 1993, which said that there would be an increase in charges to industry. Will not that add to the burdens that are placed on business generally? Will not there be cuts in the number of Health and Safety Executive staff, which will mean fewer on-site inspections and less access to the professional support and guidance that is required, leading to a further lowering of standards of health and safety?
§ Mr. Forsyth
The position is not as the hon. Gentleman suggests. The Health and Safety Commission has decided for the time being not to increase the range of charges that it levies. The hon. Gentleman is right—there may be a reduction in the overall staffing of about 120 posts, but that will be done by natural wastage. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know, staffing levels reached a record total in September last year and they are something approaching 50 per cent. higher than they were when the Health and Safety Commission was established by the last Labour Government.
§ Mr. Mudie
Does the Minister accept that his first answer, in which he said that the grant was being increased in cash terms, is incorrect and that in real terms a cut of many millions of pounds is being made? Does he agree with the director-general of the HSE that proposals are coming through that will increase the charges on 692 businesses? How can he defend the cuts in services and staffing which could have horrifying consequences? Or does he care?
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Gentleman heard the answer that I gave about charging, which is that this is a matter for the Health and Safety Commission. At present, it is not minded to increase the scope for charging. That is what it has decided. As for the points about safety and the concerns in the workplace, the hon. Gentleman must know that we have had the lowest ever figures for fatal accidents in the workplace. That trend has been sustained through some three years. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the Health and Safety Commission has additional duties as a result of the Government's actions, I would accept that that is so. Even compared with the duties of the Health and Safety Commission under Labour when it was established, there has been a substantial increase in staffing. Any reductions in posts will maintain those front-line functions.
§ Mr. Waterson
Does my hon. Friend agree that once the Government's deregulation Bill has become law, bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive will be able to concentrate on those regulations dealing with health and safety rather than on the unnecessary and pettifogging regulations that are the true causes of unnecessary charges to industry and business?
§ Mr. Forsyth
I absolutely agree with the sentiments that my hon. Friend expresses about the importance of reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy. One of the ironies of this debate is that the Labour party, which established the Health and Safety Commission and wrote into the legislation that it was under a duty to review and modernise the health and safety regulations, now distances itself from that very proposition to make cheap political points against the Government.
§ Mr. John Greenway
Although I appreciate that he may not have personal knowledge of it, will my hon. Friend reassure my constituents in the vicinity of the proposed Kelt UK Ltd. gas-fired electricity generating plant in the vale of Pickering that the changes within the commission will not in any way undermine its ability to regulate that proposed plant, that it will be safe to the public and that there will be no damage to the environment?
§ Mr. Forsyth
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance as part of a general assurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have repeatedly given. That is, nothing that the Government do, or that the Health and Safety Commission proposes, will in any way undermine standards of health and safety. On the contrary, by making regulations more understandable and by removing duplication and red tape we shall ensure higher standards of health and safety in the workplace.
§ Mr. Barron
If the Health and Safety Commission is not going to increase charges, can the Minister assure the House and businesses that no charges will be levied on businesses to pay for the statutory duties of the commission?
§ Mr. Forsyth
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that that is a matter for the Health and Safety Commission. It is for the commission to make proposals and Ministers have made it clear that we shall be guided by its advice. The hon. Gentleman cannot argue that the 693 taxpayer should put in more money while at the same time arguing that a large proportion of the Health and Safety Commission's income, which comes from charging, should not be reviewed from time to time. The trouble with Opposition Members is that they are not prepared to embrace change or to take account of changing circumstances.