HC Deb 20 May 1998 vol 312 cc929-36 1.29 pm
Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

First, I must declare an interest as a lifelong trade unionist—in my previous job as the north-west regional official of the Transport and General Workers Union, health and safety ranked as my greatest interest alongside job security.

Twenty-four years ago, the Labour Government enacted the most important piece of health and safety law—the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. For the first time, all those who worked for a living, with the notable exception of domestic servants—to this day, I cannot understand why they were excluded—were covered by health and safety law. It is timely, under the new Labour Government, briefly to review the success and limitations of that Act.

At first glance, the Act seems to have been a success. In 1974, there were 479 workplace deaths, 161 of which were in construction. By 1996–97, the figure had fallen to 302, 98 of which were in construction. However, that figure represented a rise in workplace deaths from the previous year, when there were 258 deaths, of which 82 were in construction. In agriculture, the death rate has increased by 40 per cent. —from 45 in 1995–96 to 63, eight of which were children. That means that there is more than one death a week.

The director general of the Health and Safety Executive called the recent rise a tragic blip. That sounds like the less-than-sensitive defence of an administrator with too few resources for the job. We do not know how the families and friends of those who died feel, but we know from many HSE studies over the past 20 years that most of the deaths were preventable, which means that they were not true accidents—they were not unforeseen events. The HSE studies also show that, in about 70 per cent. of those cases, positive management action could have prevented the deaths. The relatives and friends of those killed could quite properly have asked the HSE why the deaths were not prevented.

In addition to those largely preventable deaths, 50,000 major injuries were reported to the HSE in 1996–97. When the HSE annual report for 1996–97 was launched in November 1997, the Institute of Employment Rights released figures showing that, of the 50,000 major injuries, only 2,158–4 per cent. —were investigated. However, in 1995–96, 12 per cent. of cases were investigated, and, in 1994–95, 15 per cent. of cases were investigated.

As a more specific illustration, in 1996–97, only six of the 100 blindings—6 per cent. —were investigated. Again, in 1995–96, 26 per cent. of such cases were investigated, and, in 1994–95, 35 per cent. of them were investigated. In 1996–97, only 297 of the 1,158 amputations—25 per cent. —were investigated, whereas, in 1995–96, 42 per cent. of amputations were investigated and, in 1994–95, the figure was 48 per cent.

Although the number of investigations in 1994–95 was nothing to cheer about, the decline in investigations in recent years is alarming. The figures for deaths and serious accidents are bad enough, but the figures on workplace ill health are also worrying. A few weeks ago, the HSE released the results of the 1995 household survey on work-related illness. More than 2 million people—one in 10 of the working population—felt that their health had been damaged or made worse by their work. The major problems of self-reported workplace ill health were backache and repetitive strain injury, stress, chest disease, deafness and tinnitus, skin disease, headache or eye strain, and vibration white finger.

The HSE has admitted that about 20,000 people die from work-related illness each year. Asbestos disease alone—mainly cancer—still kills at least 3,500 people each year, which is more than are killed on the roads. However, the number of road deaths is falling, whereas, according to HSE-funded research carried out by Professor Julian Peto, asbestos deaths will increase for the next 30 years in the United Kingdom—from 5,000 per year now to 10,000 per year in 2025.

Asbestos was first described as an evil dust 100 years ago in the 1898 report to Parliament of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Factories. Members of Parliament know something about asbestos, as, in 1978, most of the asbestos in Parliament was removed in a major operation. The new Labour Government promised an asbestos ban in a debate in the House in June 1997, soon after they were elected—we have yet to deliver on that promise. Ten other European countries—including France as recently as 1996–have banned asbestos. Are we to be the last after Greece?

A major reason for the failure to prevent workplace deaths, illnesses and ill health has been the low prosecution rate, and the pathetic fines for breaking the criminal law on health and safety. In 1996–97, the HSE secured 1,052 convictions, whereas, in 1995–96, it secured 1,451—a fall of almost a third. The average fine for those serious offences—the HSE prosecutes only in serious offences—was £5,421. If the seven largest fines of between £100,000 and £500,000 are subtracted, the average falls to only £3,266.

Alan Dalton, the health and safety co-ordinator of the Transport and General Workers Union, which represents some 25,000 farm workers, had to pay the HSE £75 to find out that the HSE brought prosecutions in only two of the 63 farm deaths last year, and that the average fine in those two cases was only £2,500. Surely farmers will not take seriously their responsibility for work-related deaths if the sanctions are so pathetic. I do not think that £3,000 will deter any employer, however small, from breaking the health and safety law.

I know that, in the June 1997 debate that 1 mentioned, the Minister responsible for health and safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), expressed concern about the low fines for health and safety offences. Moreover, the Lord Chancellor has urged magistrates to deal with breaches of health and safety law more seriously. He recently told the Magistrates Association that people injured as a result of health and safety offences were victims no less than if they had been assaulted. He called on magistrates to fine more heavily.

What can be done to make the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 more effective in preventing workplace deaths, ill health and disease? The HSE was subject to deregulation, constant attack and seven demoralising reorganisations by the previous Government, and it needs more support and funding, as soon as economically possible. That will allow more inspections and prosecutions to take place.

It cannot be right or safe that each of the 750 companies licensed to remove asbestos received on average less than one site visit from an HSE inspector in the whole of 1995; but an increase in health and safety inspectors, more and larger fines and more imprisonments, although welcome, will not be enough on their own. A health and safety inspector from the HSE cannot be in a workplace week in and week out.

The answer lies with more employee participation and awareness about health and safety, and, crucially, the role of trade union safety representatives. Even with whistleblower protection rights, many part-time employees on short-term contracts in small workplaces, who are getting older or who are simply too frightened of losing their jobs, will not complain to their employer or to the HSE about hazardous workplaces.

For that and other reasons, the previous Labour Government introduced the ground-breaking Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, providing for the appointment of trade union safety reps where trade unions are recognised by the employer for negotiating on other matters such as wages, sick pay, holidays, pensions and discipline.

Trade union safety reps have the legal right to workplace inspection at least four times a year; to inspection after accidents or ill health; to set up joint management and union safety committees; to see health and safety information; to independent training; and to paid time off to exercise those rights. Those are rights, not duties. Health and safety reps monitor employers' actions; they do not substitute for them.

There are now about 200,000 trade union safety reps throughout public and private industry and services in the United Kingdom: an excellent achievement in itself. The HSE under the previous Government cited 1995 research by Reilly, Paci and Ho11 that showed that trade union safety reps could reduce injury rates in industry by a third.

After 20 years, the safety reps regulations are clearly due for review. The trade unions report problems with getting time off to carry out their duties—especially in the public sector, where little staff cover is available—and with gaining information and getting employers to act on risk assessment.

The Transport and General Workers Union has called for safety reps' rights to be extended from only health and safety to environmental issues, which are a growing area of concern for both unions and management. There is an even bigger, and growing, problem with trade union safety reps: they can exist only where the employer recognises the union, but, by 1993, 10.7 million of the 21.3 million employees in this country worked in units where trade unions were not recognised for collective bargaining, so 50 per cent. of the work force do not have the right to representation by trade union safety reps.

It can be no accident, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, that workplaces with the highest rates of death, injury and illness—agriculture, construction and small and medium enterprises—are those in which trade union recognition is lowest, or even, as in agriculture, non-existent.

Even with the proposed new guidance on union recognition, it is clear that the growth area of the economy—the smaller workplaces, where most people work—will be excluded from the requirements. One answer is the concept of the roving safety rep. Since 1974, roving safety reps have been working successfully in Sweden, where about 1,500 of them represent 700,000 employees in 170,000 workplaces. The reps are not employees of the workplaces they inspect and provide advice for, but the trade union employing them must have at least one member in the company or workplace that they intend to visit.

In 1995, Swedish roving safety reps undertook 65,000 workplace visits—on average, each rep was responsible for 250 workplaces—and Swedish employers paid £5.5 million, or two thirds of the cost of the scheme, with the unions paying the other third. The cost to a workplace of each rep was about £50, with a site visit costing about £140.

In 1996–97, the agricultural section of the TGWU, with the help of a European Union grant, piloted a UK roving safety reps scheme in agriculture, based on the Swedish model, and 10 T and G agricultural safety reps were trained. In 1997, the HSE funded an independent evaluation of the scheme by Dr. David Walters of South Bank university, who found that the scheme had some success but lacked two vital factors: the right of access to farms, and adequate funding for training, time off and support to the roving reps.

There was total employer hostility to the project, from the National Farmers Union, despite the 40 per cent. rise in farm deaths. In February 1996, in a debate on agriculture, health and safety in another place, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, Lord Lucas, said: The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned the TGWU roving safety representative scheme. That has had active HSE support from the start and will continue to have it. It is an excellent example of what unions can do and something of which the unions should be thoroughly proud." — [Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 1996; Vol. 569, c. 194.] In January 1998, T and G representatives met the Minister responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, to ask for the roving safety representatives scheme to be formally recognised. They pointed out that the principle of roving safety reps already exists in regulation 8 of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, concerning cases in which representatives need not be employees. That allows for the appointment of non-employee safety reps by the actors' union, British Equity, and by the Musicians Union.

The most recent major law on safety was introduced by the Labour Government in 1974. Although the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act is still fundamentally sound, it awaits effective enforcement by means of fines and imprisonment to match the crime of workplace death, serious injury and ill health. More workplace inspectors and inspections are required, but the real advances will be made by the involvement of all working people collectively in improving their own workplace environment, which is an aim of our Government.

Some improvements are still required in the rights of traditional union safety representatives, who exist only where trade unions are recognised by the employer. They need time off and rights on environmental questions. The concept of roving safety representatives is vital for the half of the work force for which there is no trade union recognition. That is the growth area of the economy, and more accidents, injuries and ill health occur in it, especially in agriculture, construction and small and medium enterprises.

The rapid implementation in the UK and the rest of Europe of a scheme such as the T and G's pilot based on the Swedish model would do as much to raise awareness and reduce death, injury and ill health in the workplace as the 1974 Act has done. It would be a lasting memorial to the many thousands of people needlessly killed at work in the UK during the past 20 years. It would be wonderful if the new Labour Government could save lives and give safer working environments to the working people of the United Kingdom.

1.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson) z

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) on raising a debate whose importance was underlined by his chilling litany of statistics. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will tomorrow launch important new guidance supporting the offshore version of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations, so my hon. Friend's debate is fortuitously timed.

Employees and the public have a fundamental right to acceptable standards of health and safety protection. A healthy, well-protected work force is not only right, but good for business and society. The Government are determined to give health and safety at work a much higher profile than it had during 18 long years under our predecessors. We have demonstrated our commitment by providing new resources for the Health and Safety Commission and its executive. An extra £4.5 million has been allocated in this financial year to be spent on increasing the number of HSE inspectors, and therefore their enforcement activity. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome that.

My hon. Friend touched on asbestos, and I want to make it clear that our resolve to ban white asbestos remains unshakeable. We are pressing the European Union to agree a ban quickly through an amendment to the marketing and use directive. We are also contributing to understanding the science surrounding asbestos, so that we can be sure that its substitutes are safer. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that is an important step.

We have freed inspectors from bureaucracy imposed by the previous Government to enable them to concentrate on their primary role of enforcing health and safety law. The cumbersome "minded to" procedure in enforcement practice was dropped on 1 April, and inspectors can now enforce the law as soon as they encounter a breach, instead of having first to put offenders on notice that that might happen later. My hon. Friend will agree that that is a step towards the higher standards that we all want.

We are particularly concerned to get the message across to employers that accidents at work and occupational ill health are neither inevitable nor acceptable. A strengthened HSE is only part of our approach, and we are doing more to prompt higher standards. Breaches of health and safety law should carry tougher penalties, as my hon. Friend said. He rightly pointed out that fines for health and safety offences currently average about £2,500, and fines are often derisory, seeming not to reflect the seriousness of offences. We have begun discussions with the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary on the options available to address that problem. We want penalties to fit the crime, and to act as a deterrent to health and safety law breakers.

We need to create a culture that includes all those with an interest in reducing the toll of accidents and ill health. An approach based on partnership between employers and workers is in everyone's interest. We have seen such an approach at the European level, in our work with the Advisory Committee on Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work, and at national level in the Health and Safety Commission. It can also work at company level.

If records for accidents and occupational ill health are to improve, employers need to manage health and safety effectively. To do that, they must involve their work force. A management system can succeed only if there is consultation with employees. No less than 25 years ago, the Robens committee, whose work led to the setting up of our present occupational health and safety system, identified involvement of the work force as a key factor in better self-regulation by industry. In spite of that, there has been less development and success on worker involvement than on many other aspects of the UK health and safety system.

Safety representatives have a vital role, as my hon. Friend said. Their commitment, and their experience of workplace conditions, enable them to identify potential problems where prompt action could lead to a healthier and safer workplace. It is, after all, those who do a job who know best what the hazards are. Employees, through their safety representatives, have an invaluable part to play in reducing risks in the workplace.

Safety representatives are important to the explanation of safety measures, and to securing a commitment from the work force. Safety procedures are effective only if those involved understand the reason for them; if not, procedures may all too often and all too easily be bypassed. Research carried out a few years ago, using data from the workplace industrial relations survey, showed that workplaces with trade union-appointed safety representatives and committees have up to 50 per cent. fewer injuries than those in which there was no consultation on health and safety.

In recent years, the role of safety representatives has been greatly undervalued, and we intend to redress that. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will hold regular meetings with safety representatives, which illustrates the value we place on their experience and views. As my hon. Friend pointed out, trade unions can offer safety representatives considerable support, such as training courses, information about workplace hazards and safety systems, and in some cases a national structure able to give advice on particular issues. That helps representatives to take an informed, independent role in health and safety issues. I hope that trade unions will appoint safety representatives wherever possible.

The regulations that give trade unions the right to appoint safety representatives are more than 20 years old. Over the past 20 years, the UK has moved away from being predominantly based in manufacturing and construction industries with highly unionised work forces; the service sector now provides 70 per cent. of employment, and workers, especially outside the public sector, are less unionised. Often, they work part time or are self-employed.

Employers who do not recognise trade unions must by law consult employees on health and safety, directly or through elected representatives. The regulations that introduced that requirement have been in force for less than two years, and it is not yet clear how well they are working. Aspects may need to be reviewed, and the Health and Safety Executive plans to commission research this year to examine awareness of the 1996 regulations and their impact.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will launch new revised guidance tomorrow in support of the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1989. That guidance was developed following research by Aberdeen university into the working of the regulations. The study confirmed that the regulations were working well, and that problem areas would be best addressed by strengthened guidance. Revised guidance will play an important part in ensuring that safety representatives offshore are able to fulfil their vital role effectively.

In too many workplaces, employers no longer recognise trade unions. The Government seek to create a fresh approach to industrial relations based on partnership rather than conflict, and that will benefit employees as well as improving competitive performance. We will soon publish a White Paper on fairness at work, containing a framework for a new era of employment relations based on decent standards and partnership.

Arrangements for health and safety consultation must be reviewed. The justification for variations in the law on consultation, such as differences in functions of union and non-union safety representatives, will need to be examined. The review will also consider ways to enhance the role of safety representatives, and whether steps can be taken to improve the effectiveness of consultation. I expect the Health and Safety Commission to carry out that work. My hon. Friend raised a number of interesting ideas, and I will ensure that they are considered in the review.

The review will need to cover roving safety representatives, a point forcibly made by my hon. Friend. I know that the Transport and General Workers Union recently carried out a pilot scheme on roving representatives in agriculture, and the lessons of that will help the review. Industry initiatives supported by employers and employees can help to improve health and safety standards. The practical implications of any proposed change to the law need to be carefully considered, however, and we intend to do that.

It is important that safety representatives should be given appropriate support by enforcing authorities. The HSE will take several initiatives to promote employee involvement, particularly relating to the role of safety representatives. The HSE's guidance to its inspectors on contacting employees or representatives has recently been revised— It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.