HC Deb 04 November 1998 vol 318 cc787-806 9.34 am
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I have been fortunate in securing a debate on an important subject. However, I should begin by congratulating the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on his recent promotion.

Because of the nature of their work, some people are more vulnerable than others; nevertheless, occupational health and safety affects everyone in the world of employment. I therefore welcome the priority that the Government have given to occupational health and safety.

This year, the Health and Safety Executive will receive a £4.45 million increase, reversing cuts agreed by the previous Administration. That increase also signals an end to government hostility towards, and neglect of, occupational health and safety, which were all too apparent during the previous Administration's 18 years in office. The previous Administration were particularly hostile towards trade unions' role in occupational health and safety. They were also preoccupied with deregulation, and that distracted them from considering health and safety issues. It is good that that situation has ended.

Other Departments in the new Government are complementing the action being taken by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The Department of Health's Green Paper on public health, for example, will address the issue of occupational health and safety. I am pleased that the new Government are making health and safety a much higher priority.

I should say that not all of my suggestions and questions in this debate will fall within the remit of my hon. Friend the Minister. Some may be dealt with only by a joint approach, which is already under way, among Departments and others.

Earlier this year, the Health and Safety Executive and the Department of Health sponsored a conference to focus on the health and safety needs of those working in small and medium enterprises. The Government's "Public Health" Green Paper was started after the conference. Before the conference, the Health and Safety Executive circulated a document entitled, "Developing an Occupational Health Strategy for Great Britain". The closing date for submissions on the document to the Health and Safety Executive is 11 December 1998, and I urge all my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to make their submissions on developing an occupational health strategy before that date.

I shall deal first with stress. It is estimated that approximately 19.5 million working days are lost annually because of ill health. Statistics provided by the Health and Safety Executive show that, of those lost days, about 7 million working days are lost because of stress-related illness. Stress is increasing annually, and is very much related to changes in employment structures. Flexible working, for example, has been introduced as a response to globalisation, creating uncertainty that causes unease, discomfort and stress. A second factor contributing to increased stress is the quest for ever-greater productivity, to ensure our competitiveness. Inadequate investment in British industry is a contributing factor to such stress.

I wish to elaborate on that a little because it is clearly related to the problem of stress in British industry. Some hon. Members may have seen an article in The Sunday Times of 11 October written by Andrew Lorenz and David Smith. It was based on the McKinsey studies carried out for the Treasury, and some of the figures were astonishing. For example, it showed that our main competitors—Germany, Japan, America and France—invest far more per worker than the UK. Germany invests a massive 67 per cent. more; Japan invests 55 per cent. more; America invests 52 per cent. more and France invests 46 per cent. more. If those figures show anything, it is that workers are as good as the tools provided for them to work with. As less is invested in British workers, enormous pressure is put on them to produce more to meet that competitive agenda.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's remarks on investment—they would be echoed throughout industry—but is it not also true that, at the point of production, the greatest problem on the shop floor is stress and the drive for greater productivity? Does it not lead to that well-known syndrome of the "tear arser", who puts other people's safety in danger, as well as his or her own? Should not my hon. Friend now deal with that matter, given that so many injuries are caused to people on the shop floor as a result?

Mr. Clapham

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As a result of those pressures on the shop floor, supervisory staff and managers often resort to bullying. That feature is clearly shown in a recent study by the Trade Union Congress, which showed that bullying is one of the main characteristics that leads to stress. We must also bear in mind that, in the teaching, social work and nursing professions, society's demand for greater accountability, which is quite right, has led to more administration. When that is added to all the other pressures, it leads to stress.

Will the Minister consult the Health and Safety Commission, which has been looking at this issue for some time, to see what action it has taken? We require stress management strategies, perhaps embraced within an approved code of practice. If that were applied in industry, we could start to deal with stress. Unless we take action, more and more working days will be lost.

The cost of work-related ill health is immense. An estimated 2 million people a year suffer from work-related illness and 250 to 300 people a year die from work-related injuries. The figure for 1997–98 was 268 and for the previous year it was 287. Thus, there is still an enormous death toll. Moreover, of the estimated 10,000 deaths related to ill health, 3,000 to 4,000 are caused by exposure to asbestos. The human suffering caused by that carnage is immeasurable, and the cost to the economy is enormous. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, who spoke at an all-party group on occupational health and safety earlier this year, estimated that the cost to the economy was between £16 billion and £18 billion—a huge sum by anyone's reckoning. If we are to reduce that figure, we must develop strategies that can be used in industry to prevent the development of stress.

Last week, the National Association of Occupational Health Projects held a seminar in the House. It was addressed by Professor Malcolm Harrington of the occupational health department at Birmingham university, by the Minister for Public Health, by a representative of the Health and Safety Executive and by various speakers from occupational health projects throughout the country. The seminar drew attention to the enormous amount of work that occupational health projects have done in the past 20 years. Those involved work in the community and help to identify the causes of work-related illnesses. They also work with trade unions and management to create preventative strategies. Their work in the past 20 years is enormously valuable.

A few of the occupational health projects are funded by the Department of Health, but the vast majority depend on an assortment of funding. Many spend much of their energy raising funding in order merely to survive. I should like the health improvement plans drawn up by area health authorities to embrace the work done by the occupational health projects. The health projects could then engage with local primary care groups, which would add to their valuable contribution and extend it to improving the health of the nation.

Thus, occupational health projects play a valuable part in protecting the health of the community. Some years ago, they came up against the problem of the increasing number of people diagnosed as suffering from asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos. We know from statistics that have been provided that, every year, between 3,000 and 4,000 people will die in the UK as a result of exposure to asbestos. Government estimates suggest that that figure will continue to increase, and could reach 10,000 deaths by 2020.

Since 1985, blue and brown asbestos have been banned in the UK, but large amounts of white asbestos are still entering the country. Much of it is contained in materials used in the construction industry. May I suggest that the Minister's Department send a memorandum to other Departments that are involved in large construction programmes, such as the Departments of Health and of Education and Employment, advising them to tell contractors working on those construction programmes not to use materials that contain white asbestos? It is not always easy to discern materials that contain white asbestos because they are badly labelled and often come from eastern Europe. Contractors do not always know that some roof tiles, floor tiles and piping contain white asbestos. It is therefore important that the two Departments with major construction programmes are made aware that many of the materials used in construction contain white asbestos.

The evidence that white asbestos is dangerous to health is overwhelming. The Health and Safety Executive accepts that there is no safe threshold for working with white asbestos. In most areas where it is used, safe and adequate substitutes exist.

Earlier this year, the Health and Safety Commission commissioned research by Leicester university after a bizarre decision had been made in one of the European technical committees that asbestos substitutes may be more dangerous than white asbestos. That research has now been completed and published and it shows that white asbestos is more of a hazard than the substitutes used to replace it. In addition, the Department of Health's committee on carcinogenicity stresses that, wherever possible, alternatives to asbestos should be used. Finally, if that were not sufficient evidence, nine EU countries have implemented their own unilateral bans on white asbestos.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who is president of the Council of Europe's Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee has steered through a report calling for a ban on white asbestos. I pay tribute to his work in processing that report.

Had it not been for the Canadian producers keeping Europe at bay, we might have already imposed a ban, but the Canadian producers would have us believe that white asbestos is so safe that we could pour it on our cornflakes in the morning. They do not realise the problem, or will not accept the evidence that it is a dangerous material. However, Europe is not their real target. Their target is the third world, where there are no controls. They know full well that it offers a limitless market. At the same time, through the World Trade Organisation, they can obstruct a European ban. There is a tendency for such matters to become caught up in interminable bureaucracy.

If it appears to my hon. Friend the Minister that the move towards a European ban is becoming bogged down and there seems to be little progress, will he consider pressing ahead with a unilateral United Kingdom ban to protect future generations? In my view, that should be done as soon as possible.

Even when we have dealt with white asbestos by prohibition, there are still problems to be faced. One is enforcement. Although stringent regulations have been in place since 1983, there are still difficulties with enforcement. I note that the Health and Safety Executive has become more vigorous, but resources are limited and inspections and fines are inadequate. The record shows that 768 companies are licensed to work removing asbestos in demolishing buildings yet, between 1990 and 1993, the average fine for violation of the regulations was £1,570. During that three-year period, no company had its licence revoked.

I am aware that there has been a more vigorous approach recently and, in 1996, a contractor was imprisoned for exposing his workers to asbestos while demolishing an old factory in Bristol. So there are signs that the Health and Safety Executive has started to take a more robust approach to breaches of the regulations. Nevertheless, I want to press my hon. Friend the Minister to take the matter up with the Health and Safety Executive and ensure that the regulations are stringently applied and the level of fines is significantly increased. That would send a clear signal that the Health and Safety Executive and people at large were not prepared to accept violation of the regulations.

Mr. Purchase

My hon. Friend addresses the matter with great knowledge. Does he accept that the conditions under which people go to work are such that a worker complaining about such a situation and ultimately refusing to work in those conditions would probably be sacked? If he had been employed for less than 12 months, he would have no redress whatever. Is it not a simple matter of giving individual workers more power to take responsibility for their own health and safety at work without the fear of instant retribution and sacking?

Mr. Clapham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I accept his point. I shall deal with that issue when I discuss safety representatives. I have some proposals for my hon. Friend the Minister, but it is quite true that, at present, anyone who raises an objection in the workplace faces the threat of dismissal, and that needs to be addressed.

Let me return to the problem of asbestos. Even with rigid enforcement, there are still difficulties because there is an enormous amount of the stuff in public buildings. The TUC has suggested that there should be a responsibility and a duty on the owners of buildings to audit their buildings, identify the asbestos and label it. That might improve maintenance. The fact that asbestos has been identified does not mean that it has immediately to be whipped out of a building. Provided that it is managed properly, it can be maintained safely until such time as it can be removed. An audit would certainly result in better maintenance. Such an audit would make it possible to have a public register of such buildings for the purposes of compensation.

When people are found at postmortem to have died from asbestosis, it is difficult to trace the workplace where they were in contact with asbestos. One of the security men who works in this place told me that his father-in-law was found to have died from mesothelioma cancer. As he had been a clockmaker all his life, it became extremely difficult for him to establish a claim for benefit because he had to prove that he had been in a workplace where there had been asbestos. It took 18 months to get the appeal board to accept that he had worked somewhere where he had been exposed to asbestos, despite the fact that he died from mesothelioma cancer. Under those circumstances, setting a common law damage claim on its feet is almost impossible.

I am aware that there has been a consultation document on the subject. Will my hon. Friend the Minister ask the Health and Safety Executive to expedite the matter to give people access to a register? More importantly, I note that, last year, something like 1,350 postmortems reported mesothelioma as the cause of death. There must be an accessible register of workplaces that have asbestos in their structure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) referred to the pressures brought to bear on workers. October this year saw the 21st anniversary of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977. The TUC estimates that there are more than 200,000 workers, safety representatives. They are appointed wherever there are recognised trade unions. That is important for the package of rights that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is steering through. The extension of trade union recognition will give an opportunity for the appointment of safety representatives in more workplaces, which is a very important step.

The enormous amount of work done by workers' safety representatives is one of the major reasons for the reduction in accidents over the past 20 years. The TUC's survey of the statistics shows that companies that have appointed safety representatives and have joint union-management safety committees have 50 per cent. fewer accidents than those which do not have the same procedures. That shows the benefit of having safety representatives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East said, increasing the number of safety representatives would remove some of the pressure and fear for their jobs that people feel if they raise safety issues, because the worker would be able to raise the point with the safety representative, who could then take it up with management and ensure, through the safety committee, that positive action was taken.

I accept that the structure of British industry has changed in the past 20 years. Gone are the larger units of production. There are more small and medium enterprises, employing an increasing proportion of the population. There is often no trade union organisation and management has little access to information about health and safety. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to direct the Health and Safety Commission to work with the TUC and industry to devise a system of roving safety representatives who could be on hand to provide advice to small and medium enterprises. I should also like him to ask the Health and Safety Commission to carry out a study on the impact of extending the rights of safety representatives. If we gave safety representatives the right to stop the job and serve enforcement notices, as safety representatives in Sweden and Australia can, management would not have the opportunity to sack a worker who dared to raise a problem about safety on the shop floor.

Although we have stringent regulations on the issue, the reporting of accidents in the mining industry has caused the mining unions a great deal of concern. They have long argued that there has been massive under-reporting. The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, which is the safety union in the industry, says that there is clear evidence that there was massive under-reporting from 1988 until recently. The Health and Safety Executive has taken that on board. I raised the matter in June during business questions, when the HSE had issued a document that showed clearly that there had been under-reporting in the mining industry. The frequent failure to include accidents that cause an absence of three days or those that occur during weekend working has skewed the statistics.

The constant pressure brought by NACODS on the issue resulted in the publication in June of details of the Health and Safety Executive's audit, which showed that there had been 52 per cent. under-reporting. NACODS contends that the figure is greater—as high as 300 per cent. NACODS rejects the HSE's excuse. I understand that the general secretary of NACODS was told by the chief executive of the HSE that 52 per cent. under-reporting of accidents is normal. The unions do not accept that, and neither do I. I accept that there is bound to be some under-reporting, but for a figure of 52 per cent. to be accepted as normal is excessive.

When accidents are not reported, there is no follow-up, which means further accidents that could have been avoided. It is very important that we ensure rigorous reporting of accidents. Last week, the HSC, perhaps as a result of the pressure that I have referred to, issued a consultation document, "A Duty to Report Accidents". I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will impress on the HSE the need for an overhaul of accident reporting in a framework that will allow the creation of prevention strategies. The HSE should be reminded of that, because we must have follow-up procedures from which further strategies can be developed that will prevent further accidents.

I want to finish where I started, by welcoming the higher priority given by this Government to health and safety. There is still much to be done. The 18 years of Toryism worsened health and safety provision. The Minister could signal a new determination, in the context of the higher priority given by the Government, by making it clear to industry that he will be pressing for higher fines and sentences for health and safety offences.

10.9 am

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing this debate. As he has demonstrated, health and safety at work is a very wide and diverse issue. I shall concentrate on just three areas in order to allow other hon. Members to contribute to the debate.

Far too many people are killed or injured in the workplace. Greater effort must be made to improve health in the working environment. Let us take the construction industry as a case in point. Hon. Members will know that I spent much of my working life as a consulting engineer in that industry, so I speak with some experience when I say that it still has one of the highest fatality rates.

The Minister, whom I congratulate on his appointment, may be aware—these may be cross-departmental concerns—of the important progress of the introduction of roll-over protection structures regulations. The fitting of ROPS make construction plants safer. I welcome the measure; they will save lives and reduce injuries. The Minister may, however, be aware that, although industry welcomes the measure, too, it has concerns. That is particularly so in my constituency, which has a high concentration of plant-hire firms.

The industry has raised concerns about the timing and implementation of the new regulations. There is no question but that they are important. Not a single life should be lost through unnecessary delay in their implementation. The Minister may be aware of industry claims that equipment manufacturers have nowhere near enough capacity to supply the conversion kits that are necessary to modify all plants in time to meet the new standards when the regulations come into force. I am in no position to give a view on whether that is so.

The Minister may argue that the introduction of the new regulations has been signalled for some time. The key issue is when the United Kingdom regulations were drafted. What guidance was industry given on the UK version of the European regulations so that it could make precise arrangements to meet them? What assessment have Government officials made of the industry's capacity to meet the demand for conversion kits? What assessment was made of the lead time to supply the kits in order for the industry to be able to comply with the regulations? The Minister may not be able to reply today; perhaps he will later. We need answers to those important questions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am aware of all concerns in the industry. In fact, next week—I think—I am meeting another hon. Member and representatives of the industry in my office. I invite the hon. Gentleman, too. I am aware of the serious concern, but I think that there are ways in which we can get round the difficulties.

Mr. Chidgey

I am very grateful to the Minister for replying so promptly. I very much hope to be able to join the delegation in his office. I should like to establish whether he is satisfied that there has been sufficient consultation, assessment and planning. We need to consider such practice for future models. We must ensure that new regulations can be introduced sensibly and effectively. If the Minister is satisfied, it could be argued that the industry is being disingenuous, which I hardly think is the case. There is a genuine will by all parties to improve safety in construction.

Health and safety at work has come a long way since we began introducing kicker boards on construction sites and insisting that hard hats were worn. Health and safety science extends well beyond immediate concerns, such as accident investigation and reporting, on which the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone commented. It has gone well beyond the compilation of exposure limits for hazardous chemicals. Long-term research is essential in order to anticipate potential risks of changing work practices.

In the past—even today—we have been concerned with accidents in mines and on construction sites. Now, new risks are associated with working practices in the electronic office, such as the rise in the number of upper-limb disorders. A new area of risk in the workplace, and to the public at large, is associated with emerging technologies, such as genetic modification. The Minister will be aware of public concern over the release and marketing of genetically modified organisms, and perhaps of calls for a total ban on them—or, at the very least, a moratorium on their introduction into the food chain.

The Minister may also be aware that, in 1995, the Health and Safety Commission's advisory committee on genetic modification published a report entitled, "Genetic Modification—Risks and Safeguards". What action are the Government taking in the light of that report? I appreciate that the Minister has not had notice of the question, but I would like an answer. What progress is being made on a rational assessment of the risks to the public of introducing GMOs into the food chain? When do the Government expect to be able to introduce sensible, pragmatic, and above all, risk-free regulations to protect and preserve public safety?

Several key areas must be addressed across this wide-ranging issue. I hope that I have made it clear that everything from the implementation of improved safety measures in the construction industry, to better understanding of risk assessment, the duty of care in the workplace and electronic office, and scientific developments in food needs to be addressed within the remit of health and safety.

I conclude by reinforcing, to a degree, some of the points made by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone. It is especially important that companies which breach health and safety law face penalties that recognise the gravity of the offence—indeed, imprisonment, where the offence is serious enough to warrant it. Far more needs to be done to impress on employers their responsibilities in the workplace. Employees should be empowered by having responsibility for monitoring and improving working conditions. They should be able to refuse to undertake unsafe work without suffering social security penalties, such as the withdrawal of benefit. The Health and Safety Executive must be properly staffed and funded in both a policing and advisory role. I hope that the Minister will respond to some of those points.

10.17 am
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

The subject of this important debate could have a profound effect on the lives of very many of our constituents. I shall concentrate my comments on the dangers of asbestos.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) mentioned that, in April, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), as rapporteur of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe, of which I am a member, compiled a report, "Dangers of asbestos for workers and the environment". I should like to quote from the summary of his recommendations. Ever since the health dangers of asbestos were discovered in the 1960s and there was widespread concern, many countries have introduced regulations on asbestos use, disposal and removal. However, these measures, though sometimes stringent, are not enough to eliminate all risks. The report therefore advocates that legislative action for a total ban would be the only effective solution to this problem in the medium-term.

The summary also encourages further research into asbestos substitutes, and finishes by saying: Even if the use of asbestos were to be eliminated in Europe, the problem remains … in other countries, especially within the Third World, and this requires special measures on the export of asbestos-containing products.

The report was eventually approved after a long and heated debate for which many amendments—22, I believe—were tabled by the Russian delegation because of their vested interest in the production of chrysotile, or white asbestos, and in the teeth of a great deal of lobbying behind the scenes by the Québecois members of the Canadian Parliament, who hold observer status at the Council of Europe. Again, their opposition was due to vested interests in the production of chrysotile.

I put on the record my appreciation of the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting did on the report, and of the enormous help that the GMB union gave with the research. I hope that our Government will take the recommendations on board.

I was unaware of the dangers posed by asbestos until, in the early 1970s, I saw a moving television documentary called "Alice—A fight for life", which told the story of Alice, who was brought up in a terraced house in Hebden Bridge in the west riding of Yorkshire. As a child she had played in the streets with asbestos, making "snowballs". The asbestos had been emitted by Acre mill, nearby, and after a long and vitriolic legal struggle, Turner Newall—or Turners Asbestos, as it had been—eventually paid her compensation related to the asbestosis from which she died shortly afterwards.

In my constituency of Keighley, money is spent year after year by Bradford metropolitan district council, our education authority, on treating and removing asbestos from school buildings because it has become unstable, or because roof replacements, rewiring, refurbishment or other necessary repairs have exposed the substance. We have many children who enter school without English, and many more from extremely poor homes, so our education budget is constantly under pressure, and we would much prefer the money to be spent on the education of our children.

However, we do not have the luxury of choice, especially since the death of Shirley Gibson, a teacher who worked for the London borough of Greenwich. Shirley was 37 years old, and the coroner's inquest concluded that her death, from mesothelioma, was caused by being in contact with asbestos in her classroom.

Another story to hit the headlines in West Yorkshire, similar to Alice's story but very recent. is the tragic case of June Hancock. She died on 19 July last year, having won her claim for compensation against Turner Newall because she suffered from mesothelioma, also caused by playing in the streets with asbestos, this time near the company's factory in Armley, Leeds.

The campaign against asbestos waged by June and her supporters, together with other groups, including trade unions, may have saved the lives of children in the Birmingham area. Heightened public awareness led to the discovery of children playing with illegally dumped asbestos, and it was rapidly removed.

The cases that I have mentioned are those of women and children, who did not work in the asbestos industry or related industries, such as construction or car repairs, where the vast majority of cases of asbestos-related diseases are found. I have used those cases to bring the personal individual tragedies into the debate, rather than depending on exchanges of statistics.

I hope that, before too long, we shall see improved methods of detection and treatment for existing asbestos in buildings, and improved detection, treatment and care of those suffering from asbestos-related diseases, including those whose disease is as yet undetected or latent. I also hope for an eventual total ban on the use of all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, because all forms of asbestos can cause asbestosis and lung cancer.

A Québecois representative at the Council of Europe said that white asbestos is safe if used correctly. Unfortunately, both the building industry and car repair workshops are notoriously difficult to monitor, not least because of low trade union membership.

Almost half of the European Union countries already ban all new asbestos, and I trust that we will soon follow them. To push the argument further, I will bore hon. Members with just a few statistics. In France, 2,000 people died from asbestos-related diseases in 1996; in the United Kingdom in the same year, 3,000 died from the same cause—there were 30 deaths in Sheffield alone—while in the whole of Austria, after a 20-year ban on all forms of new asbestos, the figure was 30, the same as Sheffield's, for the same period.

We already have alternatives to asbestos, and there may be room for improvements. If so, what better way to celebrate the millennium—which would conform to both Christian and Jewish teachings—than to convert some of our too many swords into the proverbial ploughshares? We could use a fraction of the enormous sums spent on research and development for means of destroying life, through weapons technology and methods of delivery, to find a means of saving millions of lives through the development of safe, efficient and affordable alternatives to deadly asbestos.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone for calling for the debate, for his excellent contribution—especially what he said about whistleblowers—and for the sterling work that he has devoted to the subject over many years. With his help, and with that of others in this place and of the trade unions, health and safety at work has been, and will be, kept where it belongs, high on our political agenda.

10.25 am
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the debate. I practised as a personal injury solicitor for 20 years, and coincidentally, I started in practice two weeks before the safety representative regulations came into force. I believe that I dealt with the first fatal accident under the regulations; tragically, it occurred during the small hours of the morning that the regulations came into force.

In my 20 years in practice, I investigated thousands of accidents, from the horrors of the tragedies of King's Cross and Zeebrugge to the more commonplace slipping, tripping and lifting accidents—including the bizarre, such as the accident in which the fire station where a firefighter worked burnt down. The vast majority of those accidents were avoidable with foresight, and would not have occured if the precautions eventually recommended had been undertaken at the time.

My hon. Friend described the cost of accidents to the country. I am concerned by recent press coverage, which has become judgmental, and tries to separate out deserving and undeserving accident victims, often on the basis of ill-informed and unfair comment. That does not help to instil the safety culture that we need in our workplace.

The best example is the apocryphal McDonald's coffee case in America, in which people criticised the lady concerned for claiming compensation. In fact, McDonald's had super-heated the coffee way beyond the temperature that would be expected in an ordinary kettle, and the lady suffered terrible third-degree burns. Those facts are rarely reported.

More recently, we have heard attacks on public sector workers for bringing compensation claims—yet we hear little comment on the health and safety record of the public sector in the fire service, the police service and the health service. There is much room for improvement there, but it gets little press coverage.

My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) have described the new challenge for health and safety posed by the drive for greater productivity. Speeding up outdated machinery and processes often results in accidents. I recently dealt with the case of a young man aged 16 who lost his fingers in a press. The machine was old and badly maintained, and the guard was faulty. The boy was under pressure to improve his productivity, and he lost his fingers. That illustrates the need for proper investment. When we talk about higher productivity, we must consider the consequences—consequences such as those that my hon. Friends have described.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) talked about the risks associated with new processes. Thirty years ago, some of the risks of asbestos were known, but they were little publicised. The risk of industrial deafness was unknown, yet the thousands of claims now coming through show what tragedies took place, especially in shipbuilding and heavy engineering. The insurers may pay the financial price, but the real price is paid by the workers in their quality of life, and sometimes with their very lives.

Now we have new risks. The hon. Member for Eastleigh mentioned some of them. There is repetitive strain injury and eyestrain caused by keyboards and screens, and all sorts of additional stresses that we are starting to notice. The increasing use of chemicals will have unknown consequences. We must be on our guard against such future risks.

The new safety challenges have brought new safety regulations, through the European Union directives of a few years ago—the so-called six-pack. That introduced the new concept of risk assessments. Much lip service is paid to risk assessments, but they may not be done properly. Perhaps the best example is in the manual handling regulations, where the first step in the risk assessment should be to determine whether the lifting operation is necessary or could be avoided. That often becomes the last question, rather than the first.

Mr. Chidgey

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the concept of duty of care and risk assessment is a major step forward, little has yet been done to monitor the effectiveness of risk assessments?

Mr. Dismore

I agree with the broad thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says, and I would be sorry if the only way in which we could monitor effectiveness was through court cases involving people who had been injured through risk assessments not being done properly.

We in this House could also set a good example. I recently had an independent safety audit carried out on my constituency office, which produced a few things that I need to have done. We must also ensure that we comply with health and safety regulations when visiting factories or construction sites in our constituencies and more widely. I regret that a Conservative Member, whom I accompanied on a recent site visit to Portcullis house, was not complying with safety regulations because he refused to wear a safety helmet. I brought that to his attention at the time, and have done so subsequently.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned problems concerning safety regulations and the need for better enforcement. The regulations work by consent, and generally work well, but there are problems when they do not work. The big problem is enforcement, because regulations can be enforced only through the Health and Safety Executive or by the Attorney-General.

I dealt with a case involving the fire service a few years ago. It wanted to hold an exercise off-site in a derelict building of the sort that is torched for dramatic effect in "London's Burning". The union wanted to inspect the building to make sure that it was safe for the drills that were to be conducted, but it was refused access by the employers. We investigated the position and there was no possible way for the union to bring enforcement action to make sure that its legal rights were respected.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether we can have independent enforcement—perhaps by the trade unions, which would act responsibly—in cases where the HSE will not act, often because pressure of work means that it cannot conduct the vast bulk of the tasks that it needs to carry out.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 contained major advances in health and safety in this country, and they were built on by regulations. Again, part of the problem—due to pressure of work on the HSE which is not alleviated, and no matter how much extra we put into it—is enforcement. There are new employment law rights to walk off the job if it is dangerous, and for safety representatives to stop work if it is dangerous, but they are difficult to enforce because there is always the fear of victimisation. I would like a system where not only the HSE, but workers and trade unions, could bring private prosecutions for breaches of the regulations in the most serious cases. That would plug the big gap in health and safety enforcement.

We also need to consider the definition of "worker", because a lot of the dodging of health and safety regulations has revolved around saying, "This person is not a worker; he is a self-employed contractor." Work practices are changing, so we must consider the definition of "worker" in respect of health and safety enforcement activities.

Accidents will inevitably happen, but we need to make sure that we are able to find out why. The victim is entitled to know why that accident happened, and to an apology from his employers, if it was their fault. A lack of such explanations and such information, including information released by the HSE, encourages claims. Injured workers want to find out what happened, and many of my clients have said to me, "I don't want this sort of accident to happen to someone else, and that's why I am bringing the claim." If action had been taken, and if explanations had been given, those claims may have been avoided.

We have problems of uninsured employers, and we should consider schemes to overcome them. We also need a register of insurers to enable employees who bring claims—for example, for asbestosis—to track down the insurers concerned and the records so that they can find out what happened.

With a Labour Government we have, as my hon. Friends have said, a greater commitment to health and safety. We have come a long way, but there is a long way to go. There is no room for complacency—the risks to health and safety are ever-present, and enforcement action is always expensive. We need to build on the great experience of trade unions and safety representatives in trying to tackle those problems.

10.33 am
Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing it. He is an assiduous and committed chair of the all-party group on occupational health and safety, of which I am a member. I also congratulate the new Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), and look forward to discussing a number of health and safety issues with him directly.

Earlier this year, I was lucky to secure a half-hour Adjournment debate on health and safety representatives, and I should like to make a few follow-up points later.

Hon. Members have referred to the cost to industry of days lost through ill-health—£5 billion a year. In the recent debate on the working time directive, my north-west colleague, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, reminded the House that the Confederation of British Industry estimated that £25 billion was lost to the economy in the last year of the Conservative Government due to unregulated absenteeism. The Health and Safety Executive's figures show that 500,000 workers suffer from stress and anxiety caused, or aggravated, by work.

I am proud that Labour's employment and industrial reforms will improve the benefits and rights of millions of workers in relation to wage levels, sick pay and holiday entitlement. I look forward to employee rights to representation being improved in legislation to implement the White Paper, "Fairness at Work". I believe that those measures will improve employees' financial and emotional well-being, but improved occupational health and safety provisions are essential, too.

Measures to improve the identification of work-related health problems, and to treat them effectively, are important. Stress management and counselling have gained vogue in recent years, but the HSE's own research shows that stress counselling is of little value. Jogging in the lunch break or line dancing after work may reduce stress, but will not tackle the cause.

As has been flagged up by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), most Members of Parliament are employers of one or more full-time staff, or the equivalent. We must take responsibility for ensuring that we have regard to the occupational health and safety needs of our staff.

The HSE issues guidance on stress reduction, but a joint Transport and General Workers Union-university of Manchester institute of science and technology survey a few years ago sadly found it to be totally ineffective. The Trades Union Congress, trade unions and many other organisations want a specific workplace stress law that is enforced. I understand that the CBI is not in favour of that proposal, or even of a weaker HSE-approved code of practice on workplace stress. I hope that the Government will end that deadlock, legislate and make progress with all interested parties so that we can have measures that will be effective in reducing workplace stress. That would not only reduce human suffering, but cut national health service costs and improve United Kingdom productivity.

Earlier, I flagged up the issue of health and safety representatives. As a full-time trade union officer for 20 years, one of my key objectives was to raise employee awareness of health and safety issues. I believe that trade union-appointed safety representatives have a crucial role in that regard, and in taking up concerns with employers.

Many employees on short-term contracts—who are part-time and in small workplaces, or who may be getting older and are simply too frightened of losing their jobs—will not complain to their employer about hazardous workplaces. There are now 200,000 trade union-appointed safety representatives under the auspices of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, but only 50 per cent. of the work force is covered by such representatives.

In my Adjournment debate in May, I asked the Government to consider the introduction of roving safety representatives, as there are in Sweden. The Minister gave me no commitment on that point, but said that the arrangements for health and safety consultation should be reviewed, and that that review should also consider how the role of such representatives could be strengthened. It was suggested that the Health and Safety Commission would carry out the review. I am concerned because I have heard through the grapevine that the commission and the Health and Safety Executive are still awaiting a referral from the Minister before they start the review. I hope that the new Minister will be able to confirm that such a referral is in hand.

Finally, I understand that, at the climate change conference initiated by the Trade Union Congress last week, a related question was put to the Deputy Prime Minister, who was asked to extend the health and safety responsibilities of trade union representatives to include the environment. I have heard through my efficient grapevine that he has agreed that that should be considered as part of the general review. I hope that the Minister agrees with him and I look forward to the review being established. I also hope that it will produce early proposals for improvement.

10.40 am
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

First, I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on obtaining this debate. He spoke with knowledge and passion on his subject and raised a number of questions and we look forward to hearing answers from the Minister—questions about consultation with the Health and Safety Executive in the workplace, the future of asbestos and the HSE's role with regard to safety representatives in small and medium enterprises. The hon. Gentleman also wanted the Minister to impress on the HSE the need for a complete overhaul of accident reporting and follow-up procedures. I trust that the Minister will deal with those points and I shall not use this occasion to ask him about the health and safety of planning offices in north London, but will congratulate him on his appointment.

The debate has been extraordinarily one-sided. Of course, health and safety in the workplace are important, indeed, vital issues. The record of both the main political parties on health and safety is good and the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 represented a consolidation of measures that had hitherto been adopted under Governments of both parties. Health and safety legislation has developed considerably since that date—many of the developments took place under the previous Conservative Government.

This Government inherited a Health and Safety Executive with 4,000 employees, which is about one for every 15,000 employees in the workplace and compares favourably with the situation in most of our European competitor countries. One reason why the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher so favoured the Single European Act was because she thought that similar health and safety provisions to those that we were imposing on our industry should be imposed in other European Community member states.

The Labour Government inherited a good record. In the last 10 years of Conservative Government, the number of deaths in the workplace halved. In 1997, there were 249 fatalities, compared with 1,310 in Germany in the same period. So, we have a good record and a good Conservative tradition on health and safety. In debates, when Conservatives object to a health and safety measure, Labour Members often argue that we would still be sending children up chimneys, but it was a Conservative Government who introduced the law to stop that in the first place. Let us hope that we can consider this matter on an all-party basis rather than in such a one-sided way.

The hon. Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) mentioned stress in the workplace and how it causes absenteeism. Stress can be caused by low morale, low productivity and poor management, which are all concerns with which we want to deal as well as health and safety. However, nothing causes greater stress and unhappiness than being unemployed. People without jobs are generally much more stressed than those with them. The great danger of becoming over-enthusiastic about health and safety legislation is that we can create over-regulation. We can all think of wonderful new contexts for creating rules, but all parties must understand that there are limits to their reasonableness and that it is far more difficult to undo unnecessary burdens on business than to impose them.

We have had our share of ludicrous extremes; for example, the general thrust of regulations to control substances hazardous to health in the workplace was good, but we ended up with office workers having to keep a register of Tippex supplies as it was classed as a hazardous substance. That is a case of taking health and safety regulations to extremes.

The gold plating of European Community directives is an ever-present problem. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned the manual handling directive, which gives no guidelines for the weights that it is safe for people to lift, so our civil servants had to invent some. One effect of the directive was to reduce the maximum size of a bag of plaster from 40 kg to 25 kg. Most people were capable of lifting 40 kg, but 25 kg is now deemed to be the safe weight and as a result many workers now carry two bags at once, which makes 50 kg. The regulation has not only been costly to the industry, which had to re-tool to enable it to fill the different size bag with plaster, but has turned out to be counter-productive, as it has encouraged people to carry heavier weights.

The health and safety at work regulations of 1993 were intended to reflect an EC directive and require written risk assessments. There has been much talk of such assessments, but the bureaucracy of every business having to undertake them, when they might not obviously and instantly be necessary, underlines how we have added bureaucracy and burden to industry. The deregulation task force was designed to deal with such excesses, but had hardly begun its work before the new Government were elected and decided to change it for a better regulatory task force.

There are plenty of examples of absurd regulation and of matters being taken to an extreme. One case concerned a boy who used to earn £20 a week helping a milkman. That was stopped when the milkman received a warning letter from the local authority telling him that he would be fined £1,000 if he did not stop employing the boy. In another case a man was refused a job because he was too tall. The basis of the decision was concern for his back because of the health and safety regulations, but he won his case of unreasonable dismissal on the basis that men are taller than women and therefore it was sexual discrimination. The danger of over-regulation is that it is a feast for the lawyers, such as the hon. Member for Hendon, but costs everyone else a great deal of money.

The sick leave bill for the public sector, which is about £3 billion a year is not helped by the fact the Occupational Health and Safety Bureau has one of the worst records.

The working time directive, which we debated earlier this session, is another example of excessive regulation. It is completely alien to the British traditions of freedom and voluntarism in the workplace and will add up to £2.3 billion to business costs. Once again, the regulation has been gold plated. As is inevitable, United Kingdom officials and courts will fill in the gaps in its drafting. The regulations are complex, imposing a huge administrative burden, which will affect some industries much more than others, in particular temporary and seasonal industries.

Will the Minister tell us how the case law of the working time regulations can be prevented from spreading to industries for which they were not intended? At the moment, the transport industry is excluded. The train driver is certainly excluded under the regulations, but what about catering staff on a train? Are they covered if they are employed by the railway company and do they remain covered if they are employed by a sub-contractor? Where is the certainty in regulations that are vaguely drafted?

The directive does nothing for the United Kingdom's competitiveness. It imposes huge costs and will curtail flexible working and harm job creation; it is bureaucratic and will encourage the black economy. Moreover, there was no real demand for it.

Do the Government recognise that the sheer volume and detail of much health and safety regulation represents an unreasonable burden on many businesses, particularly small businesses? What procedures do the Government have for assessing risk in the workplace, as the costs of regulation are so often out of all proportion to the risk? What will the Government do about the gold-plating of EC regulations and directives? Now that the Government have given up the United Kingdom's veto in social chapter matters, which are subject to qualified majority voting, how will they prevent the imposition of costly so-called health and safety regulations, such as the extension of works councils to small businesses?

The Conservative party is in favour of proper health and safety regulation. However, excessive regulation has rightly been described as a form of hidden taxation. Everyone wants a safe workplace—safe workplaces are in the interests of the economy as a whole—but a balance is needed, and that is far from being achieved.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing this debate and I thank him for his kind remarks. I listened with considerable interest to his thoughtful contribution and to those of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) and my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Eccles (Mr. Stewart). I also mention my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), who had to leave the Chamber to attend another meeting. I share my hon. Friends' concerns, which reflect many of my priorities.

The Government are firmly committed to high standards of health and safety in the workplace. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) may have claimed that the Conservatives stopped people putting children up chimneys, but it is fair to say that the Government are prepared to give health and safety a higher priority than our predecessors did.

The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, which were established under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, have stood the test of time over the past 25 years. They have played a pivotal role in improving standards of health and safety in the United Kingdom, whose record is among the best in Europe.

The Government are far from complacent, not least because, in recent years, the UK's health and safety performance seems to have reached a statistical plateau. We need to put that across, if only as a way in which to achieve even better standards. We want the HSC and the HSE to be strengthened and given the resources that they need to be even more effective.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, the most important issue is that of resources. In the current financial year, we provided an extra £4.5 million, restoring the cuts inflicted by the previous Government. Those resources have been targeted on inspection and enforcement by the executive, which is particularly important, as 75 per cent. of health and safety inspectors are on site during their working week. We have recruited 58 new inspectors and are in the process of recruiting a further 126. I shall also shortly be announcing a further and significant increase in resources for the commission and executive under the comprehensive spending review. I cannot yet give the exact figures, but the increase will be good news for health and safety.

I am keen to focus the health and safety agenda on areas that matter to people. The hon. Member for Eastleigh mentioned genetically modified organisms. The Government have announced the formation of a Cabinet Committee on biotechnology, to be chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's concerns on this complex subject, which the Government are dealing with through that Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned violence against staff. The Government made it clear in their human resources strategy for the national health service that violence and aggression against staff will not be tolerated. That strategy is essential, as recent figures show that NHS staff are three times more likely to be attacked than members of the public. In June 1997, the NHS executive issued guidance to NHS trusts on dealing with violence as any other health and safety risk.

In December 1997, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission launched the Health Services Advisory Committee guidance on the assessment and management of the risk of violence to staff in the health service. The guidance sets out a framework for action covering a range of control measures, including hardware and physical aspects of the premises, working patterns and practices, staffing levels and competence, training and the means to deal with accidents. It applies not only to hospitals, but to primary and community care, nursing homes, mental health and ambulance services.

The national plan of work for HSE inspectors identifies violence to staff as a key issue to be dealt with during in-depth inspections at hospitals and NHS trusts. HSE inspectors are prepared to enforce the necessary standards, as is shown by the fact that more than 30 notices on violence have been served in the health services since April 1996.

The health of people at work is a key element in the Government's strategy for public health. Far too many people suffer from ill health caused, or made worse, by their work. A recent survey suggested that 2 million people were affected, so an improvement in occupational health standards needs to be a top priority.

The HSE recently issued a discussion document on an occupational health strategy for the next 10 years. As hon. Members know, the Government are already addressing specific occupational health risks, including work-related stress and violence. We recognise that such problems are very distressing to those affected.

We are determined to ensure that work-related violence is tackled effectively. I am seeking advice from the Health and Safety Commission on what can be done on that issue, about which I feel particularly strongly. The HSE is exploring how best to tackle the matter through a committee involving Departments, the TUC, the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, Victim Support and, of course, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. The Cabinet Office women's unit is also developing a strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone chose an appropriate day to mention stress, as today is international stress awareness day. It is estimated that 500,000 people suffer from work-related stress, anxiety and depression. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the scale of the problem, which the CBI estimates to cost between £7 billion and £9 billion a year; it is also estimated that businesses pay out about £300 million a year in compensation claims. I recently launched HSE guidance on work-related stress aimed specifically at small firms. Moreover, the HSE will campaign to ensure that work-related stress is regarded as a legitimate health and safety issue. The HSC will shortly be considering the feasibility of an approved code of practice.

Of particular concern to many people are the stresses of bullying and harassment.

Bullying is totally unacceptable and is strongly condemned by the Government. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that we are consulting further on the problem and that I will keep him informed of developments.

Many hon. Members have expressed concern about asbestos. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who has been deeply involved in trying to find a solution. The Government's desire is to tackle new occupational health risks, and we have given a clear commitment on that, but we are also determined to tackle the appalling legacy of asbestos. The Health and Safety Commission has recently held consultations on a package of tougher measures to provide better protection for those who may be exposed to asbestos at work.

I will continue to keep hon. Members informed of developments, and especially my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Tooting.

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