HL Deb 14 June 1956 vol 197 cc979-94

3.6 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am sure that the purposes of this Bill will commend themselves to all your Lordships. The Bill aims at promoting the safety, health and welfare of workers employed in agriculture—and that, of course, includes forestry—as a whole. It aims also at the avoidance of accidents to children. I suppose that the majority of people in this country look upon agriculture as a fairly safe and healthy industry, but as a matter of fact some 25,000 agricultural workers in Great Britain are off work for periods of more than three days in each year. In addition, nearly 150 people, including farmers, workers and children, are killed every year in agricultural operations. I am sure your Lordships will all agree that every effort should be made to reduce this toll. This Bill is the statutory authority for doing that.


My Lords, will the noble Earl forgive me for interrupting him? Is he saying that the cause of there being this number of absentees from work is solely accidents, or does the figure he gave also include absence through sickness?


It includes sickness.

The problem is by no means a simple one. Workers are employed on upwards of 200,000 different holdings in Great Britain, and conditions naturally vary very considerably from the crofts in the Highlands to the large arable farms in East Anglia, and from the hill farms, with their cattle raising and sheep raising, to the market gardens, with their glass houses, near our industrial centres. Moreover, there have been very considerable changes in agricultural methods over the last twenty-five years. There has been an enormous increase in the amount of machinery used and innovations in the way of chemical sprays, the use of which needs to be very carefully controlled in order to avoid causing injury. All these problems were investigated by a Committee on Health, Welfare and Safety in Non-Industrial Employment, under the chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers. That Committee recommended that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture should have powers to make regulations to prevent accidents, and the most important matters they felt they should deal with were the guarding of dangerous parts of agricultural machines and the provision of clothing giving protection against chemicals.

Your Lordships will remember that the recommendations to protect workers against poisonous substances were carried into effect by the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act, 1952. The Bill before your Lordships' House to-day will give effect to the remainder of the recommendations as they affect agriculture. Since the Committee reported in 1949, their recommendations have been discussed with all interests and organisations concerned, and a great deal of information has been collected about the numbers of accidents. The discussions and consideration of the statistics have shown that there is a wide agreement that accidents can be reduced by a twofold approach.

On the one hand, it can be done by legislation, as recommended by the Gowers Committee. Their recommendation was that the Minister of Agriculture should be given power to make regulations requiring precautions to be taken when certain machines or equipment were being used or when certain operations were being carried out. On the other hand, in such a varied industry as agriculture, even when regulations are made and applied, it is recognised that accidents can be reduced to a minimum only by individual care and attention and by acquiring skill in the right way to do certain types of work. Regulations can do much, but voluntary co-operation and individual efforts by farmers, contractors and workers are also necessary. I am glad to be able to assure your Lordships that in the discussions with the interested parties we have been much impressed by the desire of all to try to reduce the number of accidents. I should like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the general good will and understanding that exists between farmers and workers. The industry is rightly proud of this understanding, and I am sure that it has a part to play in encouraging safety consciousness and reducing accidents.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill. The executive parts are dealt with in Clauses 1 to 7 and administrative matters are dealt with in the remaining clauses: Clauses 8 to 26. Clause 1 gives wide powers to the Agricultural Ministers to make regulations to protect workers from injury These regulations are required to meet the necessity of the case so far as is reasonably practicable. The clause also contains an illustrative list of the subjects on which regulations can be made, but I would emphasise that the list is by no means exhaustive. It includes such matters as the guarding of machines; the prevention of falls from stairs and ladders or through holes in loft floors; the observance of precautions in the management of livestock; and the giving of instruction to, and making particular provisions for, those under eighteen years of age. These are wide powers, and we have carefully considered whether it was possible to include specific requirements about precautions in the Bill itself, but we have come to the conclusion that it would not be practicable. There is still need for a great deal of consultation about the details which will be prescribed and there is need for considerable flexibility because of the varied conditions in agriculture and because changes are continually taking place. I would mention here that under Clause 17 the Ministers are required to consult with the various bodies concerned before any regulations are made.

Clause 2 deals with the handling of excessive weights. Subsection (1) prohibits the employment of persons under eighteen to handle weights likely to cause injury. The ability of young persons varies, but we feel that an employer should know his young workers well enough to he able to estimate what weight every one can handle with safety. Subsection (2) gives power to make regulations limiting the weights workers may lift. There is a similar provision in the Factories Acts. Clauses 3, 4 and 5 deal with health and welfare and the conditions under which sanitary and washing facilities are to be provided. The Gowers Committee agreed that no general statutory requirement could take into account the, varying circumstances on the farms, and in this Bill we have sought to translate the Committee's recommendations into legislative form. We hope it will meet the reasonable needs of the workers without imposing unreasonable requirements on either landlords or tenants. In England and Wales, the Minister of Agriculture has always been responsible for the provision of washing facilities in connection with clean milk, and therefore it has been thought appropriate that he should be responsible for supervising the washing facilities required under this Bill. In Scotland, on the other hand, the local authorities are responsible for clean milk and it has been thought right that they should enforce this portion of the Bill in Scotland. For sanitary conveniences under Clauses 3 and 5 the local authorities will be responsible throughout Great Britain.

Clause 6 deals with the provision of first-aid boxes on farms where workers are employed. The minimum contents of these boxes will be prescribed by regulation. I hope that having first-aid boxes on the farm will encourage all concerned to learn the principles of first aid. I am glad to say that we are already in touch with the St. John Ambulance Brigade, and l hope that discussions with them and with other similar bodies will show that it is possible for all to get suitable instruction in first aid. The last executive provision of the Bill, in Clause 7, aims at preventing accidents to children under thirteen by stopping them from driving or riding on proscribed machines, vehicles or implements. The number of children killed each year by falling under tractors or towed implements and in other avoidable circumstances is no small figure. Although we do not want in any way to discourage children from taking an early interest in farm life, we must ensure that they are kept out of danger as much as possible.

Clauses 8 to 26 contain the usual ancillary provisions giving effect to legislation of this kind. There will be ample opportunity to consider these in detail later on, but there are a few remarks that I should like to make at this moment. Much of the effectiveness of this Bill will depend upon the inspectorate which will be appointed under Cause 10. On the one hand, inspectors must be capable of giving sound technical advice to farmers, and on the other, they must have a knowledge of farming methods and equipment so as to be able to show farmers how existing conditions can be adapted to meet the requirements of the regulations. We propose to recruit a number of inspectors with sound knowledge and experience of agricultural machinery and general agricultural conditions, who will work with the present inspectorate, who are now dealing with inspections under the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act, 1952, and the Agricultural Wages Act, 1948. I feel that an inspectorate built up in this way will be much more economical than an entirely separate inspectorate for enforcing this Bill only.

I should now like to say a few words about the making of regulations and orders under the Bill, which is provided for in Clauses 17, 18 and 19. We are proposing that where the contents of regulations will be in the nature of substantive legislation they shall be made by the Affirmative Resolution procedure; and Clause 17 applies this procedure to the regulations made under Clause 1. Orders made under Clauses 18 and 19, which may extend the scope of this Bill and limit that of the Factories Acts, 1937 and 1948, will also be subject to affirmative procedure. But regulations under other clauses, dealing with weightlifting, sanitary facilities, first-aid and children riding on vehicles—that is to say, regulations which are concerned with the detailed application of the provisions of the Bill—will be subject to the Negative Resolution procedure. There are no definitely accepted rules as to which regulations should be made by affirmative procedure and which by negative, but I think your Lordships will agree that the division which we have proposed here is right in principle. Clause 25 applies the Bill to Scotland. It in no way departs from the general principles of the Bill, but it is necessary to take account of Scottish law and the related administrative practice.

In commending this Bill to your Lordships, I would repeat that it is the outcome of considerable consultation. The representatives of the landowners, farmers, agricultural workers, contractors and machinery manufacturers are all in general agreement with the principles of the Bill. We recognise that it is not possible to prevent all accidents by codes or regulations. But if those concerned in agriculture continue to work together in that spirit of close co-operation which is an outstanding characteristic of the industry, I am sure that the joint effect of the provisions of this Bill and of that co-operation will do much to promote the safety, health and welfare of those employed in agriculture. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl St. Aldwyn).

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the noble Earl intoducing this Bill. I can assure him that as it left another place with general approval from both sides of that House, so it will be discussed in your Lordships' House in the same way. I feel that not only with us, but throughout the whole of the agricultural industry, this Bill, which has been many years coming, will be readily accepted. Considerable discussion took place in regard to the Bill in another place, and I feel that it needs but little discussion here before it is finally approved and becomes law. I am glad to be able to speak this afternoon, although I must apologise to your Lordships, as I shall have to leave early because I have another engagement in Norfolk at which I must attend. I have for many years been interested in the welfare of the agricultural worker and of farmers generally, and I am glad to hear the noble Earl speak of the co-operation that has taken place in bringing this Bill before your Lordships' House and in discussing the clauses before it reached us. I am sure he is right in what he said about co-operation generally in the agricultural industry between the farmers and the workers, and although some farmers may think that expense will be thrown upon them in carrying out the various clauses of this Bill, I am sure that their general interest will lie in the welfare of the workers and that, whatever the cost—it will probably be small, proportionately—they will gladly bear it. It will no doubt form an expense for income tax purposes in an expense account, which will, of course, lessen the burden.

There is one point in the Bill to which I should like to refer. Noble Lords will notice that throughout the Bill there are references to "regulations" and "inspections"; in fact, the Bill is full of the word "regulation". I hope that in the consultations between the parties concerned, and in bringing forward the regulations, the Minister will make the regulations as brief and as few in number as he possibly can. The industry at the moment is rather wrapped up in regulations and I am sure we do not want to extend them more than is necessary. Further, I am hopeful that sooner or later we shall get rid of the word "inspectors". We are getting rather tired of inspection in many ways, and possibly some other words might be used in place of the words "inspectors" and "inspection". I throw it out that inspectors might reasonably be referred to as "accident precaution advisers."




My noble friend says "No"; but I would rather have the word "advisers" than the word "inspectors", because it would help to keep the friendly relationships between the Ministry and the farming classes.

Clause 17 refers to the holding of consultations with interested bodies. I should like to suggest that in these consultations not only should members of interested bodies be brought into consultation, but that it might be desirable to bring in either one or two actual working farmers and workers in the industry, the people who are concerned with the working of the machinery and other things which are covered in the Bill. The only people who can realise the difficulties of machinery are the people who work them. Therefore, if you could bring working farmers and farm workers in, it might be helpful.

Clause 7 deals with the question of children. I am glad that at long last we are to keep the children off the tractors, because there is no more ghastly sight on a farm than to see children riding on tractors, either on the seat, or behind, or on the mudguards. I am glad indeed that at long last we are going to prevent that sort of thing from happening. I will go further—it is not contained in the Bill—and suggest that dogs should be kept off tractors., because one often finds a tractor driver with his dog in front of him on the tractor. Also, in no circumstances should loaded guns be carried on a tractor, because accidents have happened—and I have seer them myself—from carrying loaded guns on tractors.

Clause 2 was referred to by the Minister rather in regard to the carrying of weights by juveniles and young men of eighteen or under. I am hopeful that eventually we in the farming industry shall standardise our weights and fix them at nothing over 1 cwt. or 100 lb. In the past, many accidents have happened to agricultural workers by reason of the strains and stresses of carrying heavy sacks of corn. I have never had to carry a half-quarter of wheat myself, but I am sure I never could, and I doubt very much whether many Members of your Lordships' House could- My noble friend says that he has done it, but the weight is far too excessive for general use. With due respect to the makers of sacks, I should like to see the Government bring into operation a standard smaller weight within a short period of years. I realise that the merchants carry heavy stocks of sacks of all sorts and sizes, but I am certain that it would be in the interests of the industry if the weight, at any rate which the men have to carry, was reduced. One is, of course, aware of the fact that machinery and implements are now helpful in the moving of weights, but generally I think the weight of the corn sacks is too heavy.

I was glad to notice and to hear from the Minister the reference to the first-aid box, because it is important that on every farm, particularly on lone farms which very often have no telephone, there should be some means whereby assistance could be given from a first-aid box, or something of that sort when minor accidents occur. I am glad to be able to support the Bill and I hope that it will pass through quickly and soon become the law of the land.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, it is indeed pleasant to find myself largely in agreement with the noble Lord who has just spoken—I cannot say entirely, because with one thing he said I was not in complete agreement. I did not like his suggestion that these inspectors should be called "accident precaution advisers." I think the word "inspectors" is better. Possibly there is a word better than "inspectors", but it is not "advisers".

I, too, welcome this Bill, and I do not think anybody who knows anything about the agricultural industry will deny the necessity for it. As has been said, we have a vast industry which employs over 600,000 people, and in which there have always been the best of labour relations. It is an industry in which there is much hard work, much of it extremely dirty. I feel that it is up to us to see that the employment in that industry is made as safe as it possibly can be, and that conditions of employment are as good as we can make them. The problem is even more urgent owing to the rapidly increasing amount of machinery in use on our farms. Anybody who goes to one of our major agricultural shows and sees the enormous amount of machinery, particularly the section showing machinery in motion, will be impressed with the need for this Bill.

It is, of course, only an enabling Bill in most of its clauses, and the "bite" naturally will be in the regulations made under it. I hope that these regulations will come quickly and that they will be effective. I am sure that the Minister will consult the manufacturers of machinery, so ensuring that at least the new machinery coming on to the farms is as safe as it can possibly be made. It is not always easy to make some of our mobile machinery as safe as one would like, because much of it has to work in extremely rough and bad conditions; mud and the guards necessary for safety do not always go well together. Still, we must do our best. Regulations are also needed in respect of ladders and staircases to make them as safe as possible. I know that many of our buildings are old, but that is no reason why workers should have to use unsafe ladders or staircases.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Wise, in urging that regulations should be brought in as soon as possible limiting the weight to be carried. I know that a skilled agricultural worker seems to lift a 2¼ cwt. sack with considerable ease, but I must admit that when I have tried it myself I never find it nearly as easy. I am quite certain that they are too heavy, and the sooner we get rid of the 2¼ cwt. sack, the better. I realise the difficulties and also, as the noble Lord said, that there is much more mechanical handling than there was. Even so, I think the sooner we get rid of that sack the better. I should like to reinforce what the noble Lord said about seeing that the regulations, when they do come out, are as simple as possible. It may not be possible to make regulations which we should consider simple because, apparently, things that are simply worded are usually not very effective. I feel that when they come out, simple forms of the regulations should be produced and given the widest possible publicity so that everybody in the industry will have a good idea of exactly what his liabilities are. They should be understood by the farmers and all those who work in the industry.

The other thing about which I am pleased is that first-aid boxes are to be put on farms. I hope that every opportunity will be taken to encourage training in first aid classes. I am certain that there will be every co-operation by both the St. John Ambulance Brigade and the Red Cross. The more people we can make efficient in first aid, the better it will be, not only because of the provisions of this Bill but because, after all, the most dangerous place, statistically, is one's own home. I thought at first that the clauses on sanitary conveniences and washing facilities did not go far enough, but I feel that it is right to put on the local authorities and the Minister the duty of seeing that the minimum requirements are met, relying on the general rising standard of living, and perhaps the difficulty of getting the skilled workers on to the farm, to encourage people to provide facilities above that minimum standard.

I also welcome the provisions about children. On that matter, I myself must plead guilty, because I have sometimes allowed my children to ride on tractors, when I have had confidence in the driver, and even to drive tractors; but usually I have forbidden all children to ride on tractors except with their fathers. I understand, however, that most of the accidents which happen to children occur when they are riding with their parents; therefore I think these provisions are sound. Nevertheless, I hope that, when the regulations are produced, they will allow a certain amount of riding by children in trailers fitted with seats and that sort of thing, because it is important, if we are to keep up our supply of farm workers, that the children should go on to the farms and be able to take some part in the operations. As I said before, I welcome this Bill. We must now look forward to the early appearance of the regulations. I hope that this Bill will lead to a reduction in the number of accidents to those employed in our greatest industry.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I too congratulate Her Majesty's Government and the Minister on framing this Bill for the protection, safety and health of the land worker. It cannot be often, especially in these times, that your Lordships on both sides of this House are able in such a pleasant atmosphere to congratulate Her Majesty's Government on measures that they are taking. I admire the theory and the idea behind this Bill, though there may be difficulties in putting it into practice when the regulations are finally formulated. I admire especially Clause 1 (1) which deals, as the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, has mentioned, with buildings, especially out-of-date buildings which are now used for special purposes. On farms there are far too many holes and crevices which, for one reason or another, have been knocked through walls and floors of buildings not designed for the purposes for which they are now being used. As a result, they are a danger to the farm, to the produce and to the men. Farmers would be wise to welcome skilled inspectors who could point out the dangers, which possibly the farmers themselves did not appreciate, in the condition of their buildings, stairways, hoists and so forth which are used in and about a modern farming establishment.

I congratulate the noble Earl especially on Clause 1 (3) (g) which makes it necessary for a farmer to bring to the notice of his men all the points that are brought out in this Bill. I feel it is essential that the men themselves should realise that this Bill is designed for their benefit and safety. If the men do not realise the importance and implications of this Bill, then its objects cannot possibly be achieved. Her Majesty's Government must do everything possible to secure the co-operation of the agricultural workers' unions in bringing this Bill before their members and making it quite clear that it is the responsibility of the farm worker, as well as of the farmer, to look after his own safety, and also the safety of the produce that he k handling. I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Wise, in what he said about children riding on tractors. I hope that, following the introduction of this Bill, the community as a whole, on the farm, in the village and on the roadside, will join in preventing children from riding on tractors. Regrettably, no amount of ordering by the fanner will stop this habit of children riding on these dangerous machines—and they are dangerous machines now, for one can sit on the outside and travel at 20, 25 or 30 m.p.h., and the presence of a heavy trailer makes it impossible for the vehicle to pull up in the same space that an ordinary motor lorry, motor vehicle or car can.

I welcome also Clause 8, which deals with compulsory notification of diseases and accidents that happen on the farm. Possibly farmers will not welcome this clause, but I believe that it is one of the most important in the Bill. Sprays and all sorts of toxic acids are being used in ever-increasing quantities, and I do not believe that any of us, even—or perhaps especially—the back room scientists, knows what the ultimate effect on personal health will be through space handling of these deadly poisonous sprays and chemicals. There is another vital health aspect, and that concerns the effects of diesel fumes both from tractors and in enclosed spaces. How many times does one see a little diesel engine running inside a barn? Nobody bothers to think what effects that may have in twenty-four hours on a man who is working inside that space. I hope that the scientists, the manufacturers and the men who fit the diesel engines will pay attention to the effects of fumes from diesel fuel, a matter which is attracting such publicity at the present time. I feel that this provision for the notification of diseases on farms is one of the most important in the Bill.

I admire the sanitation clauses. It is right, in my view, that there should be more sanitary facilities available on farms and on all agricultural units, as they are called. The agricultural worker, the farmer and the landlord have for a long time been complaining that they have been "carrying the can" on behalf of our country. How the Minister's inspector will decide who should "carry which can" under these particular clauses is a matter for consideration. I have no doubt that there will be suitable tribunals and even an appeal to the Minister himself as to who should undertake this particular task.

Her Majesty's Government are, by this Bill, placing on the farmer the onus of looking after the health and welfare of his men. Any wise and prudent employer in agriculture has, however, been performing this particular task for a great many years, and it would be a great mistake if the population as a whole were to take the view that the Bill has been made necessary because conditions on farms were so bad. On most farms, indeed, I am sure the reverse is the case; and, obviously, it is to the advantage of the farmer to see that his men are healthy and are employed as safely as is possible. I wish Her Majesty's Government and the Minister all success and Godspeed in securing the passage of this Bill and the approval of the regulations which are proposed therein. Unfortunately, no matter how much legislation, how much foresight and care there is, accidents do happen. I know only too well, from my own experience, that carelessness can produce fatal accidents. No amount of legislation will ever do away with them. But if this Bill should save the life of one valuable man in the agricultural industry, or that of a woman or child, then at least it will have accomplished the purpose for which Her Majesty's Government and the Minister are bringing it before your Lordships to-day. I beg to support the Bill.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome this Bill. I think it is a desirable and timely Bill. It is also most satisfactory that there is general agreement about it and that it is largely non-controversial. The one anxiety that people have had about it is, I think, that great reliance is placed upon regulations. I have no doubt that there will be a continual probing of the Government in the hope of finding out a little more about what these regulations will mean. But it seems to be generally recognised and accepted that the only way to deal with the problems involved is by regulation, because they are too complicated to deal with in any other way.

In view of the circumstances, I feel that there is nothing for me to do but to be brief. I have, therefore, only a few questions to ask in connection with the Bill. The first is in regard to Clause 3 (3), dealing with the construction of sanitary arrangements. I think the matter is there left in the hands of the local authority, and the subsection says that: Regard shall be had to the number and sex of the workers so employed, the location and duration of their work and all other relevant circumstances. I wonder whether the local authorities should be further tied down as to the exact conditions when sanitary arrangements should be provided and when they should not. I think it has been suggested that this has to do with the number of people working on a given acreage—whether or not the number is very great on that acreage. But perhaps there should be some more definite formula if that matter is to be handed over to the local authority.

If it is possible at this stage, I should like to know more about the provisions regarding the travelling by children on tractors and on other dangerous machines. First of all, I would say how greatly I welcome the backing of the law in this respect; but I would ask, on whom will the liability finally be placed? Will it be placed upon the driver of the tractor, upon the employer or upon both? So far as heavy weights are concerned, I think that the 2¼ cwt. sack will be with us for a considerable time, because it has various merits. It can be quickly handled when handled in the right way—much more quickly than the smaller sack; and with the advent of more mechanical handling it might, if left to itself, remain all the longer.

Of course, the 2¼ cwt. sack was never meant to be lifted by one man. I think the original principle was that it would take at least two men to lift it. Therefore, I think that what should be stopped is the kind of activity mentioned by the noble Lord opposite, who, I regret to discover, has actually lifted one of those sacks by himself. That is a thing which was never meant. The principle was to have a sack that could not be moved by one person, which really meant that that sack would not be stolen. At any rate, I hope that this matter will be given some careful consideration, because it is possible to handle these heavy weights and people will always need to handle heavy weights, even though there are risks in doing so. There is a kind of tradition that agricultural workers teach their children, as to how one should or should not lift weights. I often wonder whether such traditions are right and whether it might not be possible to produce some kind of carefully-considered scientific booklet to instruct upon this subject.

So far as the first-aid box is concerned, I greatly welcome that proposal. Like everyone else, I am sure that it is important that as many people as possible should learn how to use these boxes. I wonder where it is proposed that the first-aid boxes shall be placed on the farm. I have a feeling that often the farmhouse is the best place because there is a telephone there, and usually people are available all day, and quite often there is somebody with knowledge. I should prefer to see the first-aid box placed in the farmhouse rather than somewhere where it might not be too well looked after. Finally, I trust that we shall see a great deal of co-operation, so that children shall not ride on dangerous implements or climb in dangerous places in buildings; and I very much hope that the result of this Bill will he a satisfactory reduction in the number of farm accidents.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill has been welcomed and I am sure that there will be general co-operation in carrying it out. There may be a few points requiring greater consideration later on. As an instance, in the application of this Bill to Scotland there is a difference in that, unlike in England, responsibility in Scotland for the provision of any new fixed equipment that is required will fall entirely upon the landowner. It may well be, therefore, that a substantial expenditure can be imposed upon agricultural land and woodland owners. It should therefore be kept in mind that at the present time capital expenditure upon land, both for maintenance and improvements, and capital expense of all kinds, is very high, and an estate may quite likely have a serious deficit already if it is carrying out its obligations in full.

It may be necessary, therefore, to enquire further about provision for the recoupment of this expenditure. Presumably the occupier who is expected to benefit from it would normally make a contribution, but it seems that in Scotland, if this matter should have to go before an arbiter for a decision, there is not at present any real confidence that adequate provision would be made. Perhaps later on this point may receive consideration by the Minister and be attended to in the regulations or wherever is most suitable. I noticed that the Minister referred to the inspectors who would be required to administer this Bill, and I hope he does not imply that the cost of the inspectors and of the work will throw a further, quite heavy, burden upon agriculture.