HL Deb 29 February 1928 vol 70 cc287-302

VISCOUNT ASTOR rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is proposed to increase the number of factory inspectors so that the inspections may be adequately carried out and unnecessary loss of life and health prevented. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I rise to put the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Your Lordships may remember that this Question was down on the Order Paper in the autumn of last year, but I was unable to raise it then owing to lack of time and pressure of legislation at the end of the Session. Accordingly I had to postpone it. I was asked to raise the question of the adequacy, or inadequacy, of the number of inspectors to carry out the inspection of factories and workshops largely because of a disastrous fire which occurred early last autumn in a film factory. That fire resulted in loss of life and injury to others.

As your Lordships are probably aware, there is a large number of places, rather over a quarter of a million, which are technically factories and workshops and which are liable to inspection. Of these about 129,600 are factories as distinct from workshops. In order to carry on the inspection of these factories the whole staff consists only of 205. Out of that number we have to deduct those organisers and technical advisers who do not carry out routine duties of inspection: so that there is only something like 170 to 180 men and women to carry out the inspection of over a quarter of a million premises. The duties of the inspector under the various Factories and Workshops Acts are multitudinous. They have to carry out routine inspection—there ought to be at least one inspection a year. There are certain premises, where dangerous processes are carried on and where the atmosphere is apt to be vitiated, which ought to be inspected about once every three months. It is obvious that a staff of 170 to 180, however zealous and hardworking they may be, cannot possibly get round more than a quarter of a million premises. In the year 1925 there were 27,663 factories as distinct from workshops which were never inspected at all. There were 1,290 factories which were not inspected either in 1925 or 1926.

That this is unsatisfactory is proved, I think, by the fact that in 1926 there were 140,000 accidents, 800 of which were fatal. It is true that the number of fatal accidents in 1926 is slightly less than in the previous year, but that is very largely because in those industries where a large number of accidents occur many firms were either working part time or were closed down altogether. Actually, in the industries which were not stopped as the result of strikes or from other causes, there was an increase of fatal accidents. I am told on good authority that our staff of factory inspectors is about 25 per cent. below the figures fixed in 1921 as being desirable and necessary. I notice that in another place the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in reply to a Question dealing with another fatal accident in the year 1926, said:— I have said more than once that I am not satisfied that I have sufficient inspectors: and on previous occasions when questioned in another place he has made a similar statement.

I need not take up your Lordships time by going into any detailed description of these places or of the processes conducted there. All I need say is that in the case I am referring to there was an element of danger and there was a fire and as a result four young women lost their lives and two men were seriously injured. There was naturally an inquest and at the inquest the district inspector, a Miss Dunch, explained that she had visited this factory in the course of her routine inspection, that she had been dissatisfied with what she found there, but that she had been too busy to get round again to see that the alterations and the precautions which she suggested had in fact been carried out. Perhaps I might quote what she is reported to have said at the inquest:— … when she visited the place in January things were not satisfactory, and a letter was sent with regard to certain breaches of the Celluloid Regulations. She received a telephone message that a part of the requirements had been carried out.… She was under the impression that the necessary work was being carried out. She had not actually been able to get there to see for herself.

The coroner asked:— If this fire had not occurred these premises might not have been visited until some time next year? She answered:— I think probably they would have been visited. But later, when questioned by the Home Office representative, she went on to say:— … there were 2,309 factories in her district and 2,546 workshops. About half of them were subject to special codes and regulations"— that is to say they required more than a routine inspection— Her staff consisted of one half-time man, with some assistance given by another inspector. It was impossible to carry out the annual inspection. That was her own statement. It is obvious that she would not have been able to get round to see that the advice which she had given had actually been carried out. She goes on further to say: I cannot say my mind was at case about the place.… It was on my list of dangerous factories. That is the statement of the district factory inspector. But at the inquest there was also a representative of the Home Office, and he confirmed what the previous witness had said. Mr. Macklin, Engineering Inspector of Factories, stated that the method of drying was grossly improper. He said that more frequent inspection of these places was highly desirable, but was impossible with the existing staff. It is not surprising, accordingly, that at the conclusion of the inquest both the coroner and the foreman of the jury made comments and observations upon what had happened. The foreman of the jury said:— The jury find … that a firm dealing with such dangerous material should have stricter supervision, and be visited mote frequently by the factory inspector. And the coroner said:— He thought that more frequent visits by the inspectors were essential, not only for the protection of the employees, but also for educating the employer in the better understanding and appreciation of the requirements of the Factory and other Acts. The evidence illustrated the need for greater supervision in this class of factory. So we find that there are a considerable number of accidents every year occurring in factories, that many of them are fatal, and that there is an admitted shortage of inspectors.

The responsible Minister, speaking in another place, has admitted a shortage of inspectors, and year by year, when questioned about it, has said that the Government were waiting until the passing of the Factory Bill. I cannot see why the Government should be waiting for this Bill, more particularly as I regret to see that year by year this very much needed and oft-promised Bill is repeatedly postponed. It is not sufficient to say that one or two more inspectors either have been or may be going to be appointed. If it is true that there is anything like a shortage of 25 per cent. in the required number, I hope we shall be told this afternoon that the Government contemplate appointing a sufficient number of inspectors, so that those duties and responsibilities which are necessary and which were intended by Parliament may be properly carried out, and that there may be adequate safeguards for health, limb and life.


My Lords, my noble friend has put his Question in general terms. As he said just now it is identical with one which he placed on the Paper last November and which he has informed the House he did not ask. Both of the Questions were inspired, I suppose, by the circumstances attending the fatal fire which took place in September last at the works of the Film Waste Products, Limited, Union Wharf, London, and by the proceedings at the inquest which followed. Taking first the general aspect of the question, the adequacy of the present staff of the factory inspectorate for the work it has to do has been raised at intervals for several years, both on the discussions on the Home Office Vote in another place and on other occasions. The present position, as compared with the position before the war, may be stated thus: In 1913 the staff numbered 222, which included nine inspectors at headquarters; the establishment is now 206, including 20 at headquarters. In comparing these figures, allowance has to be made for the transfer of the factory inspection service in Ireland to the Free State Government and Government of Northern Ireland, which involved a reduction of seven posts. This shows an actual reduction of strength of nine posts which were given up in the interests of economy. The number of visits paid to factories and workshops has dropped, I am sorry to say, from 406,445 in 1913 to 300,368 in 1926.


That is a drop of 25 per cent.


This decrease, however, relates entirely to inspection of workshops; that is, workplaces where no power is employed. The number of visits to factories (which are the more important premises under the Acts) has not only been maintained, but has improved, the number of visits to factories in 1926 being 188,172 as compared with 176,591 in 1913. This Government, and the previous Government, have been aware all along that the standard of inspection is too low and that the inspectorate staff will have to be increased to secure the high standard of enforcement of the law in factories and workshops which they would like to see attained. Moreover, if and when the Factories Bill, which was introduced into another place in the summer of last year, becomes law, fresh burdens will be thrown on an already over-worked staff. Their policy, which, like their predecessors', has been to wait until that Bill had been passed and the whole question of the organisation and strength of the staff can be examined in the light of the new situation and duties created by the Bill, was explained by the Home Secretary in the debate in the House of Commons on the Home Office Vote on July 14, 1927.

So far as the fire at the Waste Film Products, Limited, is concerned, two questions arose: First, whether the Celluloid Regulations of 1921, made under the Factory and Workshop Act, 1901, which apply to all celluloid factories, were sufficient to ensure the highest standard of safety in works where the waste products of film were dealt with—it had already been recognised that these general Regulations were inadequate for works engaged in the manufacture of cinematograph film—and secondly, whether this accident had revealed a need for the immediate appointment of more inspectors in the Metropolitan area, where works of this nature seem to have congregated. As regards the first point, the Home Secretary was satisfied that the existing Celluloid Regulations were not sufficiently stringent. The film stripping industry is one of quite recent development, and is, in the opinion of the Chief Inspector of Factories, appreciably more dangerous even than the film manufacturing industry. The Home Secretary therefore decided that two new Codes of Regulations should be issued, one dealing with the manufacture of the film and the other dealing with works in which the waste film is manipulated. Both these Codes of Regulations have now been made, and will come into force on March 1 next and will introduce a number of new and important safeguards. I have the details here if any noble Lord would care to see them.

At the same time the Home Secretary came to the conclusion that having regard, in particular, to the development of this industry in the Metropolitan area, it was necessary to make some addition at once to the staff in the London divisions. He therefore obtained the sanction of the Treasury to appoint two additional (men) inspectors (included in the establishment of 206 already mentioned) for this purpose and these appointments will be made as soon as possible. In the meantime all waste film work has been specially visited by one of His Majesty's engineering inspectors of factories and the steps necessary for compliance with the new regulations have already been taken in hand. I suppose the new Factory Bill will be coming on next Session, but in order to expedite matters the Home Secretary has already decided to advance the date of appointment of a Committee to go into this question of additional inspectors, so that no time shall be wasted, though it will be very difficult, till one knows how the new Factory Bill is going to emerge, to draw up any Regulations or to appoint many more inspectors. That cannot be done till we know what their duties are likely to be. Nor can we claim that an increase of factory inspectors will obviate these accidents. Accidents occur, unfortunately, in a great many places which are most carefully inspected, and I do not think the inquiry which has been referred to satisfied the authorities that the deplorable accident was necessarily due to a lack of inspection or would have been avoided had there been more inspection. The Home Secretary stated in another place that the accident in question was not directly attributable to a deficiency of inspectors but that an increase of staff coupled with the introduction of Regulations containing more stringent safeguards ought to afford workers greatly increased protection.


My Lords, I think the House is indebted to the noble Viscount for raising this question. The insufficient number of factory inspectors is a scandal of some years' standing and indeed the evil is admitted. I am bound to say the reply of the noble Lord has done very little indeed, as I think I shall show in a moment, to deal with the matter. He did not hold out any real hope of improvement. The noble Lord relies, apparently, upon the forthcoming Factory Bill—that Bill about which we have heard so much and seen so little. I cannot recall, at the moment, how many times it has been postponed. It certainly was definitely promised for this Session and now it is again postponed and we are told it is to be brought in next Session. We must be pardoned for being a little sceptical about that in view of past experience. There is no reason to wait until that Bill is passed before appointing a distinctly larger number of factory inspectors. I thought the reply of the noble Lord was, if I may say so with respect, weak on that point. There is no reason to wait; it could be done now.

It is admitted that the factory inspectors are 25 per cent. below strength, and in my view the number of factory inspectors ought to be doubled. It is not a question of 25 per cent., which I do not think would be adequate. The noble Lord gave certain figures which, possibly, not listened to very closely, seemed impressive, but, if I followed them aright, they came to this, that the number of inspectors has been increased by one per cent. over a number of years. I am very much afraid that the trouble in this matter is only another instance of the indifference of the Government in regard to labour interests. There was a debate only the other night in another place dealing with a question which has also been raised in your Lordships' House—the question of the Washington Eight Hours Convention. The record of the Government in that matter is such that we cannot have confidence in their zeal in matters that vitally affect the interests of labour.

There is the question, not merely of factory inspectors, but of mine inspectors. What are the Government doing? They proposed, as a matter of economy so-called, the abolition of the Ministry of Mines. I do not mean the abolition of it in the sense that all the work which it has done would be done away with, but the Government thought so little of its importance that the Ministry of Mines was to be put back under the Home Office. There is a question of whether the number of mine inspectors ought also to be greatly increased. I cannot help fearing that the real reason why more is not done by the Government in this matter is because of their zeal for what they call economy. The noble Lord almost seemed to assent to that, because he mentioned the Treasury, but the Government can override the Treasury. The Government are masters in this matter. It really is not economy to have cheese-paring in the matter of factory inspectors. It is not economy, it is parsimony of the worst description. It would pay well, in many ways, to increase the number of factory inspectors. The noble Lord, with a great flourish of trumpets, indicated another one per cent. increase. If I heard the figures aright I think the 206 have become 208.


205 become 206.


That is half of one per cent. increase. After a great amount of machinery and pressure apparently the number of inspectors has been increased by hall of one per cent. This Government, unhappily, where labour interests are concerned, are always very good at finding reasons for doing nothing. This afternoon the reason is, as I have said, that the Factory Bill is to be introduced and therefore nothing can be done at present. I am afraid we cannot do more than make our protest. There is no question whatever that if the Government have the will to deal with this matter, and deal with it adequately, they could do it perfectly well without waiting for the Factory Bill.


My Lords, I am afraid the noble Lord who has just sat down knows that he has a very bad case, because he has introduced two subjects which have nothing whatever to do with the question before your Lordships' House—the Washington Convention and the abolition of the Mines Department. They are evidently introduced in order to make political play for the by-elections which are coming on. They have nothing whatever to do with the point at issue. So far as I personally am concerned, I rather regret that my noble friend has not said he is going to reduce the number of inspectors instead of increasing them. What we want now is to give people an opportunity to work, and to work as long as they possibly can, and not hamper them by introducing all sorts of inspectors, who cost money and do no good to anybody.


My Lords, I am glad to hear from the noble Lord opposite the pure doctrine of undiluted Toryism. What he wants is that people should do more work and do it under-inspected and under-protected. That, I think, is a doctrine which the Government will hesitate to endorse or put forward as their view. The noble Lord need not be afraid that we have a bad case or that we need wander elsewhere to make our case stronger. The insufficiency of factory inspection has been, as my noble friend said, a growing scandal for many years. The staff is under-manned. What could be worse than the admissions which were heard at the inquest. There was an admission that here was a factory suspected of being dangerous in which something had to be done which ought to have been inspected attain to see if it had been done, but which could not be inspected for lack of time and people to do the work. The solatium that we are offered of one inspector in addition to 205 is really something too ridiculous.


Two additional inspectors have been appointed and that brings the number up to 206.


Very well, I will give the noble Lord his two. Two is not a proper number. I agree with my noble friend that the number of inspectors ought to be doubled. These factories are places where dangerous trades ate carried on and where the workpeople should be protected. As the Government perfectly well know, they will not be protected unless observation is kept upon the employers, and it is necessary to provide inspectors for that purpose. If I might have the attention of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for one moment, I should like to refer to the Factory Bill. I ventured to say last year that the Factory Bill had again gone out of existence and the noble Marquess challenged me and asked how did I know. I did not know, but I suspected, and apparently I suspected rightly, because there is no mention of it in the King's Speech and I understand it is not now suggested that it will be introduced. Heaven knows when we shall see the Bill and still less when it will become an Act. It is not as if inspectors had no duties to perform now. They have a large number of duties under existing Acts. I cannot understand what the passage of the Factory Bill has to do with the appointment of additional inspectors. I do not think that those of us on this Bench, who feel that the conditions under which these people work require protection and safeguarding, can be satisfied with the answer given by the Government, and I hope that the noble Viscount who raised the question will bring it up again later in the Session if nothing substantial is done meanwhile.


My Lords, I scarcely think there can be two opinions in your Lordships' House with regard to the accidents which take place in our various in- dustries. I feel sure that the Government, the employers and the workmen are all very anxious to avoid these accidents if it be possible. I have studied figures going back a long way, and I find accidents have gradually decreased in proportion to the quantity of work which is turned out in our various industries. I know politicians are in the habit of saying that that is owing to the Acts of Parliament which have been passed and the Regulations which have been made under those Acts of Parliament, but I do not agree with that. I think accidents have decreased in proportion to the work done very largely owing to the improvement of the methods of carrying on our industries and the better class of machinery which is used. It is not to these new Regulations that I would attribute the decrease in the number of accidents. I think if you inquire in various industries you will find that the most important thing that troubles employers is the hesitation and the negligence you find very often amongst workmen in carrying out these Regulations.

I could give you many instances where workmen have gone directly in opposition to the orders of their foremen and their employers, with the result that there have been serious accidents. I will take one instance. When a pit is being sunk the men working in the shaft should have a rope put round them so that, if they should slip off the timber upon which they are standing, they will not be seriously injured. It is a most difficult thing to get men to carry out that Regulation. That is one instance. I could give you many others. Employers, so far as I am able to gauge their opinions, are most anxious to adopt any means they can in order to decrease the number of accidents. In mines, as you know, we have inspectors drawn from among the workmen themselves. Where gas is likely to be found one or two men who have been appointed by the men themselves go down and examine the place before the workmen go in, and report whether it is safe to work there or not. There is another point with regard to working in mines. How often have we known of cases where timber has been lying ready to be used to protect the roof from falling and yet men, anxious to produce as much coal as possible, have thought that they would get out more coal before putting in the timber to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the roof comes down and a very serious accident takes place.

I think there is a great deal of exaggeration with regard to the value of inspectors generally. You often hear complaints from employers of interference by inspectors. I think that it is absolutely necessary, where Regulations are not properly carried out, that punishment should fall, not only upon the employers, but upon the workmen who neglect to carry out the Regulations. One would think, to hear some people talk, that employers had no interest in this matter, but surely it is a very serious loss to employers when an accident happens. We have very heavy financial penalties, going up to something like £600, if a man is killed and a considerable sum if he is injured. That alone will induce any employer to try to avoid accidents. So far as I am concerned, I would welcome most heartily more inspectors if I believed that their appointment would reduce accidents, but I am very doubtful about it. If you consult large employers you will find, I think, the opinion that strong pressure ought to be exercised upon trade unions to induce their members to make known to the employers or the foremen all cases where negligence is shown in carrying out Regulations. I think that would have far more effect in stopping many accidents than the employment of more inspectors.


My Lords, I think, if I may say so, that the noble Lord who has just sat down is abundantly justified in pointing out that it must not be thought that employers are indifferent to accidents in their works. Apart from the humane feelings which, in spite of what some extreme politicians say, undoubtedly characterise the great body of our employers, it is of course to their direct interest that there should not be accidents in their works. It is not right to assume, as is so often assumed, that employers are set on doing wrong and that it is only by means of Government inspection that they are induced to do right. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, whom I do not see in his place at the moment, said just now that here was a mischief of long standing. I do not know how far it is a mischief, but whatever the condition of things is at present it is of long standing, and when I hear noble Lords sitting on the Labour Benches denouncing us for not increasing the number of factory inspectors I should like to ask what they did when they were in office.


They were a minority Government.


They would not have found any opposition. They know that very well. I am afraid the noble Lord cannot get off on that plea. They did nothing at all in this matter, although they now reproach us. While I feel very strongly indeed that it is the duty of the Government to provide for adequate inspection, I do not believe that the efficiency of the service varies according to the number of inspectors. That is a wholly wrong way of looking at it. The proper way of regarding this subject is to ask, in the first place, has there been a great increase in the number of accidents? Noble Lords have quoted one important accident, but what general evidence is there that there has been an increase of carelessness owing to the absence of inspection? Without that evidence the whole case falls to the ground. It does not matter how many inspectors there are; the question is whether adequate inspection is carried out, and no other question is in issue. Until noble Lords begin to show that such is not the case—and I should have thought that this lay at the very foundation of any charge of negligence—they can show nothing. I do not admit that a great case has been made out. No doubt we should like to have more inspectors, and I hope that it may perhaps be possible hereafter to have them, but the case must not be argued on these lines.

I should like to make one further observation to the House in respect of the particular accident, in which celluloid was concerned, to which attention has been called. I do not know whether sufficient notice was taken of my noble friend's assurance that since that accident occurred additional Regulations have been made by the Home Office in order to prevent the recurrence of such an accident. Accordingly the idea that the Government are indifferent to what happened in this connection is wholly un- founded. As regards the Factory Bill, I was going to remind the noble Earl if he had been here that we missed his presence in the debate on the Address. If he had been here he would have heard the full account which I ventured to give the House on that occasion of the reasons why the Factory Bill cannot be introduced in the present Session.


My Lords, I should like to say one word in reply to the noble Marquess. It is no defence or explanation, as it appears to me, to say that other people have done as badly as you are doing, and on that ground I think it is quite unnecessary to go into past history, although I should not agree with the conclusions that the noble Marquess has drawn. I am quite certain, however, that he would never base a case for adequate inspection on what another Government had done during a short period of power. Such an argument is altogether impossible, as no Government could shelter itself under such an excuse as that.

I want to say one other word. The representative of the Home Office admitted, as I thought, a shortage of inspection. I am not dealing merely with numbers, for you have to take numbers and skill combined. If I understood his argument, it was that there had been, and still is, a shortage of inspection, but he indicated that the matter was likely to be further considered and additional inspection provided for. I think I am right in my summary of his statement. That is an argument, valid in itself, to which one wishes to give due weight. It entirely justifies the Question of the noble Viscount, because where you have inadequate inspection from day to day lives are being put in jeopardy under conditions which ought not to prevail. I do not doubt that the employers have good intentions. Nobody doubts that. But I should join issue with the noble Lord when he suggests that the workmen are to blame rather than the employers. I do not put any blame on either party. In the history of factory work it has been found that adequate inspection is necessary in order that the lives and health of the workers may be properly protected. There is no dispute on that question, and it is beside the point to suggest special intentions or special wickedness on either side.

I understood the noble Lord to say that there was not adequate inspection now, but a shortage. This is a deficiency that ought not to be allowed to continue for a day. If any man's, health is injured in consequence of that state of affairs it becomes a scandal, and I think that the noble Lord who represents the Home Office will be entirely in agreement with the opinion that I am expressing. I do not blame him in respect of his speech. I thought that it was an admirable speech in the sense that he recognised the shortcomings of the present time, and on account of his promise that, as regards the number of inspectors, some additional inspectors were to be appointed.


In relation to the new Factory Bill, when their duties will all be reconsidered, I think I said that the Home Secretary had made preparations that there should be no delay in the appointment of inspectors, and that this question was being gone into now.


If I might give the obvious answer to that—I am not going back into the question whether the Factory Bill ought to be introduced or not; that has been adequately discussed—if the Factory Bill implies the need of new inspectors, that can only be because it was necessitated by the condition under which industry was being carried on. That is the only real basis upon which an argument of that kind can be founded, and accordingly it seems to me that it was very strongly brought out by the noble Viscount that we are admittedly in the position of having a shortage or insufficiency of inspectors at the present time, and that this ought to be put right, not in the interests of a class but in the interests of our whole industrial life, at the earliest possible moment.


Can the noble Lord who speaks for the Home Office say whether, in the opinion of the Home Secretary, the appointment of these two additional inspectors will enable the duties of the staff of inspectors, under the existing law, to be carried out adequately, satisfactorily and fully, or does he contemplate that further inspectors will have to be appointed if their duties are to be carried out satisfactorily, irrespective of the new legislation that is referred to as the Factory Bill?


I tried to explain that, as the new Factory Bill is coming, the whole situation will have to be reviewed, and I think that it would be premature to create a large number of new inspectors at the present moment.