HL Deb 01 November 1983 vol 444 cc428-31

2.52 p.m.

Lord Collison

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek is unwell, I am sorry to say. In his absence, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the first Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what they are doing to ensure that cutbacks in staff of the Health and Safety Inspectorate will not affect the protection afforded to agricultural workers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office, and Minister for the Arts (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Agricultural Inspectorate, which is a part of the Health and Safety Executive, has in recent years made significant strides in improving its operational efficiency, particularly through the development of a computerised hazard rating system to aid it in drawing up planned programmes of inspection and concentrating on the premises and activities of highest risk. The Government will continue to give their full support to the inspectorate in its work to maintain and promote high standards of health and safety in agriculture.

Lord Collison

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his reply. I should like to ask one or two supplementary questions. I am sure that the noble Earl would agree that there are too many accidents in agriculture and that some of the machinery used is not used properly and ought not to be used at all, and therefore demands constant inspection. While I am grateful to the noble Minister for what he has said, can he explain to me why the number of safety inspectors has decreased from 198 in 1979 to 155 in 1983, which is a reduction of approximately 22 per cent? I have consulted the union about the situation and they are very disturbed, and they have asked me to ask these questions. I am told by the union——

Noble Lords


Lord Collison

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the union has ascertained that there are only 120 inspectors in the field, which means that the number of visits has about halved? In view of the seriousness of the situation and the harm caused to people and the distress caused to their families, can the Minister give us some assurance that the number of inspectors will be increased? Could he not accept that the numbers as I have given them are completely inadequate?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am aware that in general in this country and eleswhere there is a high accident rate in agriculture. For this reason special provision is made for health and safety matters in the industry, which has a separately organised inspectorate. On the second part of Lord Collison's supplementary about the fall in staff numbers, it has indeed been rather sharper this year than anticipated, mainly due to natural wastage. We are taking steps to remedy this through a scheme of recruitment, but in general the overall fall in numbers of inspectors will not lead to decreased efficiency since other steps, such as the computerised hazard rating which I mentioned in my initial reply, are being taken to improve operational efficiency. In this way we shall be able to concentrate on areas of the highest priority.

Lord Collison

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that slightly encouraging statement, can he give us the target figures for the inspectorate which the Government have in mind?

The Earl of Gowrie

No, my Lords, I cannot do that without previous notice, but obviously we are concerned at a sharper than expected fall. I think the recruitment numbers we would be thinking of would be four or five in the fairly near future followed subsequently by an additional five or so.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the number of employees in agriculture per farm is something less than two? The inspectorate for that sort of situation must be much greater than for factories, where you can go in and inspect for a thousand people, or even more. This is a valid point. Agricultural workers are independent people. I do not know what a computer can do to deal with matters on a farm. The inspectors that I have seen visiting my farm are very good, and I think that the Minister should be aware that visits by an inspector are a necessity. Computers will not do the trick.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am not suggesting that computers will do the trick. What I am suggesting is that one can improve operational efficiency in this way. The important thing in this field is the educative effort, because machines are only as safe as those who use them allow them to be. It is important, therefore, to get a proper programme of education, and we are consulting with manufacturers about this as well.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that his replies reveal a highly unsatisfactory trend? Is he aware, as my noble friend has said, that accidents on farms are a matter of acute concern at this time? Would he not agree, therefore, that to reduce the number of inspectors at a time when there is concern about accidents is an extremely serious matter? Is he aware that it is disappointing that he is not able to produce the figures for which my noble friend asked? Can he say how this recruitment to which he has referred is going to work out? How quickly is the inspectorate to be increased, so that this problem can be tackled as a matter of urgency and not in the lackadaisical way which the noble Earl seems to be describing

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I refute suggestions from the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that I feel lackadaisical about this issue. The fact is that there is no correlation between the number of inspectors and the overall rate of accidents. There were more inspectors in the 1970s than there are now, and there have been fewer accidents during recent years than there were in the 1970s. One accident is one accident too many. There is no complacency about this. There is a small shortfall, wider than expected, in the number of inspectors. We are taking steps to alleviate the situation, as I mentioned in my answer to the orginal supplementary, but I hope that the noble Lord and the House will not feel that the sheer incidence of numbers of health and safety inspectors is the main issue where health and safety in agriculture are concerned.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, would the Minister make sure that young people on YTS courses who are using farms for their work experience are adequately covered in view of the serious worries that parents have, not only about factories but about agriculture generally? In view of the figures, one is a little alarmed that there is perhaps not the adequate cover that there needs to be for young people on YTS courses.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I wholly endorse concern for the health and safety of young people on training schemes in agriculture, as elsewhere. To clarify the position in relation to the regulations issued by the MSC in consultation with the Health and Safety Executive, the Government are bringing forward new regulations which will bring YTS trainees within the full scope of the Health and Safety at Work Act. I would anticipate that I shall be introducing these into your Lordships' House.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, will the Minister tell us how long the shortfall to which he referred has continued? Will he explain what the difficulty is about filling it? Is there some difficulty about finding people who are out of work and looking for a job?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I do not think the most efficient way of filling the very highly skilled posts of inspectors in the Health and Safety Executive would be by looking through ordinary lists of unemployed people. It is highly specialised and skilled work. I have no doubt we shall be able to fill the unexpected small shortfall that I mentioned earlier.

Lord Byers

My Lords, is the noble Earl right? Surely among the unemployed are a considerable number of people with great managerial experience. These are the people who could be quickly trained because they have been trained once in something else.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am perfectly happy to look at the point that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, makes, but I must rest on my earlier answer that this is extremely senior, very highly skilled, highly paid work. I do not think simply looking through Job-centres will easily provide the answer.

Lord Wise

My Lords, do the new regulations regarding the standardisation of the non-rotating type of take-off shaft guard, which I understand come into force on 1st January next, apply only to new machines purchased after that date, or will it be obligatory for farmers to replace existing guards which on some of the older machines are not entirely satisfactory? Will they need to be replaced by this new type of guard?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, the essence of health and safety is that as many people as possible should be involved. Everyone in the industry has a part to play. Manufacturers, importers, suppliers and installers have a duty under the Act to ensure that new machines are safe. But, as I said in answer to an earlier supplementary, no machine is safe if safety precautions are ignored. That is why I am anxious that there should be an increase in the educational aspect of health and safety at work for those ends.