HC Deb 28 October 1996 vol 284 cc432-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Lair]

10.4 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Amid the background noise of everyday political life, particularly in this place, it is easy to forget about the relentless drip of economic casualties caused by hazards at work. I initiated the debate to remind us that every day in my constituency a family has to come to terms with a personal disaster caused by an industrial accident that is usually preventable.

One of my constituents fell into a cement mixer which had a faulty safety grille. He was killed by asphyxiation and multiple injuries. A trainee hairdresser fractured her pelvis by falling through an unguarded opening while alterations were taking place in the salon. An escalator engineer was fatally crushed while working on an escalator in the Broadmarsh centre in the middle of Nottingham. A Bulwell warehouseman fell through an unguarded mezzanine floor opening and crushed his ribs. A garage worker was trapped in a car wash and broke his arm. A Nottingham heavy goods vehicle mechanic was crushed to death when the hydraulic arm of a truck he was repairing collapsed on top of him. A 17-year-old Nottingham construction worker recently fell to his death from scaffolding. A 60-year-old man was rushed to the Queens medical centre in Nottingham with a 12 in screwdriver embedded in his chest.

Those are just a few recent local cases in Nottingham. Hard figures are difficult to come by. As Christine Wood, regional secretary of the midlands Trades Union Congress, pointed out to me, One of our biggest problems is that the statistics are compiled on a sectoral basis and that makes it difficult to discern local trends. Will the Minister take another look at how Health and Safety Executive statistics are compiled and see whether they can pinpoint black spots so that action can be taken more readily?

The Conservatives are finally putting the squeeze on the HSE. The highly respected HSE staff have lost 67 inspectors since 1993 and overall staff numbers have been cut by nearly 10 per cent. over the same period. There are now only 30 inspectors covering Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire. In addition, the HSE is losing a large proportion of older, experienced inspectors.

We also know that there is not one medical adviser to the HSE on station in Nottingham and the east midlands, inevitably making the prevention of accidents less likely and advice less readily available.

Much health and safety work is done by the environmental health officers employed by Nottingham city council. While their numbers are constant, over the years they have been given more activities and more premises to cover. As a result, they may not visit some businesses for many years. That has a direct effect on the health and well-being of my constituents.

Local employers would like the HSE health and information service to be developed, but the current Government appear to have a policy of benign neglect towards the HSE and health and safety generally. For example, believe it or not, the European Health and Safety Week began on 7 October. The HSE in Nottingham placed an advertisement in the Nottingham Evening Post but, according to local sources, it was given little encouragement or resources to promote the initiative further. Last week, I called the chamber of commerce and carried out a quick survey of some of the major employers in Nottingham. None of them knew about European Health and Safety Week. A great opportunity was missed for propaganda about health and safety among employees and employers.

Similarly, the Government have done very little about penalties, which are small and getting smaller. The average fine in the midlands region is 40 per cent. lower than it was last year—a paltry £2,087 per prosecuted offence. The Government are flying in the face of the good employers and seem to be telling the worst employers that even serious breaches of safety at work are nothing much to worry about.

Jenny Bacon, director general of the HSE, and Frank Davies, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, said at the launch of the annual report of the HSC last Wednesday that they thought fines were too low. Indeed, they have been disappointed at the response to a letter that Mr. Davies wrote in The Magistrate urging the use of high penalties.

Rather than prosecuting dangerous employers in Crown courts, where large fines or gaol sentences can be imposed, 99 per cent. of all health and safety prosecutions go to magistrates courts. Magistrates can fine companies up to £20,000 but consistently fail to do so. Will the Minister take this opportunity to give the House his view on the greater use of Crown courts for serious offences—I do not want to drown the Crown courts—tougher sentencing by magistrates and the allowance of appeals on small fines? Will he issue some guidance for magistrates or give them some advice?

We have just had a debate on home affairs, during which great play was made of allowing appeals against lenient fines and sentences. Will the Minister consider extending such an approach to health and safety, where injuries and damage can be just as great as those caused by more obviously criminal activity? The Court of Appeal recently called a High Court fine of £100 on British Steel for a safety offence "derisory", but could do nothing about it. Similarly, the HSE has no power to appeal against a fine that it considers too lenient. Such things affect the way in which employers act in my constituency and the fate of my constituents at work.

We will join the Confederation of British Industry and the unions to get tough on the tiny minority of employers who compromise the health, and sometimes the lives, of their employees. We will of course work with good employers to promote best practice through industry and welcome the HSE's "Good Health is Good Business" campaign.

Thirty million working days are lost each year through work-related injuries and ill health—eight times more than are lost through strikes. The bill for workplace accidents and ill health in the United Kingdom totals £16 billion—equivalent to 15 per cent. of all those companies' profits. In the present system, the good employer, properly committed to high standards of health and safety, can be undercut by the bad. From my time last year as shadow Transport Minister, I know of the cowboy trucking firms that push their drivers over the limit. One driver in Newark in Nottinghamshire was taped begging his boss for a rest break. He was refused that rest break and within minutes killed a young man on a moped not far from my constituency. Overwork and stress is a great killer and accident creator at work. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to tell us his latest opinion on the working time directive, which is to be judged by the European Court of Justice towards the end of this month, and whether, despite all the Government's delay and wriggling, he will undertake to abide by that ruling and introduce a maximum working week.

Businesses in my constituency want to comply with the rules and regulations and be competitive on the basis of good workplace conditions and high employee morale, but they need more Government support. The health and safety record in some sectors of Nottingham industry is of real concern—not least in textiles, construction and printing. The Government have all but destroyed the mining industry in my county, but for that which is left, there were 18 per cent. fewer mines inspected last year than the year before and even fewer inspections are planned for the year ahead. The mines inspectorate has lost 18 of its 60 staff since April 1993, and there are now just 22 inspectors of mines to cover the whole of England, Wales and Scotland—when privatisation has created a host of new problems.

Major injuries in the energy industry in the midlands have almost doubled over the past year, yet there is a constant problem of under-reporting of accidents. Union officials from the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers tell me that miners are pressured not to report accidents and are even offered prizes as incentives to keep health and safety records clean. Now, with assorted owners, each mine is considered separately, whereas before good practice in one mine was almost automatically transferred to others.

It is not just the traditional local industries that need attention. Poor health and safety is a many-headed hydra. As industry changes, new health and safety problems arise. There has been a huge growth in part-time jobs and casual labour in Nottingham. Small firms employing fewer than 50 workers now account for 99 per cent. of all firms. New technology helps people to work from home, but instead of support from the Government we have seen cuts in resources exactly when our health and safety mechanisms need to be most responsive to changing demands.

Fatal accidents in service industries in the midlands have doubled since last year. Greater Nottingham business link highlighted the fact that the small business community is particularly at risk, and that community is growing in Nottingham.

Similarly, we must focus attention on working conditions for the self-employed. Most responsible employers provide health and safety training for employees; the self-employed do not. This year's Health and Safety Commission annual report showed that the regional fatality rate among self-employed workers was 50 per cent. higher than among employees.

Awareness of repetitive strain injury is also increasing. The labour force survey puts self-reports of musculo-skeletal disorders at more than 500,000, which is by far the highest of any ill-health category. In Nottingham, 132 calls have been made to the local voluntary RSI helpline so far this year, of which, sadly, 54 were from people who had been sacked or pressured to give their notice. Clearly, some employers in my area merely pay lip service to their health and safety obligations and threaten the livelihoods of RSI sufferers in their employment. Wendy Lawrence, secretary of the Nottingham RSI support group, said that managers told individual RSI sufferers that people like them made firms go bust, and refused requests for appropriate equipment. Only one prosecution this year under the display screen regulations hardly serves as a warning to that tiny minority of bad employers.

In the future, we must act far more quickly to prohibit processes or products whose lethal potential has been clearly established. Without a strong lead from the Government, it often falls to local trade unionists to become the front-line health and safety troops. Statistics prove that a unionised workplace is a safer workplace, despite Government cuts in training grants for safety representatives. In my city, the GMB has created Safety Measures Ltd. to offer a health and safety consultancy to employers. Many unions spend a lot of time on health and safety locally and, sadly, picking up the pieces when health and safety has not been effective. Peter Crowe, district secretary of the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades, currently has 149 active claims for industrial injury. Bernard Rutter, branch secretary of the Graphical, Paper and Media Union in Nottingham, lists 80 active claims, despite massive under-reporting of accidents in the printing business. In 1995, Nick Wright, regional secretary of Unison, instructed solicitors in 699 separate cases of industrial accidents or diseases.

Unseen by most of the population, Nottingham, probably like every other city, has an industrial injuries problem of epidemic proportions. Much depends on employers and employees, but the Government, too, have a role. They should introduce a charter of rights for people at work, giving employees greater protection against dangerous working conditions, including asbestos. They should give safety representatives elected by the work force improved rights, including a statutory right to recognition. They should introduce a new crime of corporate manslaughter to reduce the needless deaths that result from wilfully negligent employers. They should introduce an enforceable code of good practice, which would support sufferers of mental stress at work.

While a woman can still lose the use of her arms at work or a man can come into contact with asbestos or deadly diseases, there will be no room for cosy complacency on health and safety, which we see all too often. For the sake of my constituents and those of hon. Members throughout the land, I call on the Government to take action in partnership with employers and employees. If they do not, they will soon give way to a Government who will.

10.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

I thought for a moment that we were to have an Adjournment debate about horses, but fortunately that did not happen.

Returning to the theme of tonight's debate, I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate and I welcome him to his new responsibilities for health and safety. Unlike his predecessor, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), at least the hon. Gentleman is shadowing the correct Department. However, his newness shows and I do not agree with his approach. The country's health and safety results under this Government must be examined and the hon. Gentleman must put his statistics into perspective.

Any accident or injury at work is a serious matter. In the worst cases, the consequences can be death or long-term disability with all the suffering that family, friends and colleagues then endure. In lesser, but still distressing, cases it can mean pain, poor health and perhaps loss of earnings. We must do anything that we can sensibly do to reduce the number of accidents and their impact.

The hon. Gentleman talked about penalties, prosecutions and prohibition, but that is not the correct working approach, which is very different. I visited Nottingham last year to open the Health and Safety Executive's new area office for the north midlands. I wanted to see some of the HSE's work for myself, I wanted to see how effective the HSE was in Nottingham and, as a deregulation Minister, I was keen to meet people from Nottingham businesses in order to gauge the results of the working relationship between those businesses and the HSE.

The local employers were well represented. The big household names of Nottingham were there—Boots, Courtaulds, Raleigh and Toyota—as were people from small firms. I was encouraged by how positive they were. They sell health and safety in a forward-looking manner and they hold the HSE in high regard. It was clear that the HSE is improving health and safety awareness, while making their lives simpler and easier. The strategy is working: it is reducing unnecessary burdens while improving health and safety. The first phase of the HSE's "Good Health is Good Business" campaign is under way and it has proved to be effective and appreciated.

I also visited the McAlpine construction site at Her Majesty's prison in Sherwood. It is coming to grips effectively with the relatively new Construction (Design and Management) Regulations—a case of safety by forethought. The Nottingham area is full of examples of good health and safety practice and, as the hon. Gentleman settles into his shadow portfolio, I hope that he will realise that the Government's different, successful approach is the way forward.

The Boots site at Beeston employs more than 3,500 people. The company takes a proactive approach to health and safety, which has led to a 28 per cent. reduction in reportable accidents over the past four years. Not content with that, Boots is moving forward and is participating in a major HSE study of accident causation and costs, with the aim of preventing accidents in future.

Courtaulds Textiles, which has a plant in central Nottingham, has launched the seven health and safety principles programme which enjoys the backing of those at the very top of the company. All production managers attend a two-day training course and there is half-day training for all employees. Heightened awareness has brought an increase in accident reports, which has led to prevention and to a clear decline in the number of accidents in the first half of 1996. Investment in health and safety training pays off—that has been the HSE's approach for a number of years.

In Nottingham, October marked the launch of the second phase of the HSE's "Good Health is Good Business" campaign. It coincided with the European campaign, so it was good timing. The hon. Gentleman was perhaps a little too selective in his speech, but he must realise that the combination of the two campaigns is working very well in Nottingham. In addition, inspectors from the Nottingham office have launched regional inspection initiatives on asbestos operations, dermatitis in the engineering industry and on radon. A series of exhibitions and seminars—which I hope that the hon. Gentleman has attended—and media events have been held throughout the area in order to drive home the campaign message. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen to what is being said. Emphasis has also been given to increasing the safety awareness of young people in the area, with events at local colleges and a good health pack directed at young people in the agricultural industry, if the hon. Gentleman has any agriculture in his patch.

We are talking about improving health and safety as a constant attitude so that it becomes second nature. As the hon. Gentleman has said, if proper attention is given to health and safety, business money will be saved. That is apart from all the safety considerations for individuals.

Our approach is working. The Government, employers and employees are working together on health and safety, as our record shows. The record has improved every year. Since 1974, the fatal injury rate for all workers—both employees and the self-employed—has fallen substantially. It now stands at 1.1 per 100,000 workers. That is the lowest ever level on record for the second successive year. The total number of fatalities has fallen in 1995–96 to 338. That is 338 too many, but the number is more than 10 per cent. down on the previous year.

The overall fatal injury rate for the self-employed has fallen again in 1995–96 to the record low of 1.6 per 100,000 workers. The hon. Gentleman should take his own statistics and put them into perspective. He will find that we are succeeding.

The United Kingdom's health and safety record is among the best in the world, and better than most of our major European Union competitors. On a like-for-like basis, the fatal injury rate per 100,000 employees in the United Kingdom was 1.4. In Germany, it was 3.0. In France, it was 4.8. The United Kingdom was at a level of one, shall we say. In Germany, the rate was twice that. In France, it was three times that.

Let us take injuries causing absences of more than three days. In 1989, in Italy, there were over 4,000 such accidents reported per 100,000 employees. In Germany, the figure was 4,700. In the United Kingdom, the rate was less than half at 1,910.

The United Kingdom's performance is due to a different, intelligent and balanced approach. We do not take the heavy-handed approach that is suggested by the Labour party. The HSE's approach has been to ensure that every fatal accident is investigated. Every major incident is investigated. Every high-hazard industrial activity will be visited by an inspector at least once a year. Every new business known to the HSE will be contacted within two months. Every complaint will be dealt with by an inspector.

Investigations, inspections and visits are important but the full effectiveness of our health and safety strategy derives from the total package, and that includes getting rid of outdated and redundant legislation, which is a burden on industry. We laid before Parliament a further 16 pieces of legislation last week. We want a targeted, proportional enforcement regime. We want simple, sensible guidance to employers, employees and the self-employed, and guidance that is understood. We want guidance that is goal based, not rule based. We also want proportionate regulation that assesses the costs of enforcement and acknowledges that no system is entirely foolproof.

The HSE inspectors are responsible for enforcing health and safety regulations in more than 650,000 business establishments. These range from oil rigs to mines, factories, farms and fairgrounds. There are more inspectors now than there were in 1979. There are now 1,443, with a further 30 being recruited. The inspectors work through co-operation, which is something that the hon. Gentleman does not understand. They advise and persuade. Only as a last resort is enforcement action appropriate.

A strategy of targeting inspections on high-risk or poor-record businesses is more effective, costs less money and saves more lives than the hon. Gentleman's uninformed and unthinking procession of visits to all businesses. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that it is a case of new Labour, new regulations and poorer health and safety.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.