§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden rose to call attention to the case for further steps to improve provisions for health and safety at work; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am glad to have this opportunity of introducing a debate on a subject which I am sure many will feel is of the utmost importance despite the fact that at the present time our thoughts are very much turned to events in the Gulf. However, health and safety at work is a matter of continuing concern.
§ Towards the end of the previous Session we had the publication of the annual report of the Health and Safety Commission—the body charged with responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The report shows that a great deal of important and necessary work was undertaken during the year. The job of the commission becomes increasingly complex. It must deal with the results of new technologies, substances and processes. The chairman stated in his foreword that the commission's methods and speed of reaction have had to be adapted to meet European requirements. That arises because of the decision to make occupational safety one of the areas for qualified majority voting under the Single European Act.
§ Despite the good and committed work of the commission—it is one of the remaining institutions based on the tripartite principle involving unions and employers as well as a commissioner representing the public interest—there is still great cause for concern. We read, for example, that in manufacturing industry the number of fatal injuries increased for the first time in a number of years from 94 in 1988–89 to 105 in 1989–90. Employment in the same sector increased marginally but not to the same extent.
§ The provisional figures for injuries to employees that cause an absence of more than three days was 5.4 per cent. higher than the final figure for the previous year and that in itself was 6.5 per cent. higher than the figure for the year before that. The trend is not a good one, even taking account of the fact that there may well be better reporting.
§ In construction the picture is bad. The fatal injury rate there is the highest for all sectors. According to the report, the number of major injuries to employees increased for the third successive year from 2,907 in 1988–89 to 3,166 in 1989–90.
§ On 20th June last year my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick tabled a Question on health and safety and the Channel Tunnel workforce. There had been a great deal of public disquiet over a series of deaths and injuries on our side of the project. The situation on our 267 side appeared to be worse than on the French side. At the time the debate took place, the consortium building the tunnel had been prosecuted three times by the Health and Safety Executive and on each occasion it was fined £10,000. The HSE is now prosecuting the companies in the consortium following investigations into the death of Gary Woodward, aged 32, who was killed in 1989.
§ In July 1990 an electrician, Charles McCourt, died while repairing a high voltage cable. We have recently heard that further prosecutions are in the pipeline. According to the HSC report, there have been discussions between the contractors and the Accident Prevention Advisory Unit of the Health and Safety Executive. As a result of those discussions, a safety monitoring system has been introduced. It is understood that the project, while being exciting and innovative, is clearly hazardous. It should not, however, be one that proceeds at the expense of the safety of the workers involved in it. The union organising the workforce believes that tougher penalties are required. The union points to the situation in the United States where company directors can be charged with the manslaughter of their employees if a fatal accident occurs as a result of negligence or the failure of safety measures.
§ As I said earlier, the construction industry generally has a bad record. It is a hazardous industry and that is why training is so important. I regret that the Construction Industry Training Board, which has done so much in this area and without which things might have been worse, faces a somewhat uncertain future. It has been granted a further three years of existence as a statutory body, but beyond that its future is obscure.
§ Apart from the nature of the job, there are additional reasons why there are particular problems in this industry. It is a fragmented industry with many small companies. This can lead to poor communication on site and poor management of sub-contractors. Then there is the contracting system itself with bonus payments and penalty clauses which can encourage the cutting of corners. In small companies the level of safety training is low. I shall mention small companies again in a moment. There is sometimes a fear of victimisation or intimidation as this fragmented industry is difficult to unionise. Unions active in the industry complain that there are insufficient inspectors and that when prosecutions are brought the fines are derisory when compared with the worth of the contract involved. The companies get off lightly.
§ Moreover, there is no safety culture in the industry. There tends to be a macho culture where safety is not given sufficient importance, either by management or sometimes by some of the workforce. Undoubtedly the disaster at work which had the greatest impact on the public in recent years was the Piper Alpha tragedy. I have read the report of Lord Cullen. It was a fascinating document in its way, if somewhat depressing. I do not intend to discuss it in detail tonight. Parts of the report are highly technical and it may well warrant a full debate in itself with participation by noble Lords who have a degree of 268 technical expertise in that area. However, I believe that one of my noble friends may make some further reference to the report in the debate this evening. My reason for referring to the report is that some of the conclusions about safety seem appropriate not just in the hazardous environment of North Sea oil rigs but also wherever hazardous working conditions exist.
Lord Cullen, also refers to the need for the establishment of a safety culture. By that he means the establishment of the kind of working environment in which it is simply not permissible to cut corners and where everyone is constantly aware of the hazards which surround them and take the necessary steps to minimise them as a matter of course. Paragraph 18.45 of the report states:
Companies with a good safety record are dedicated to the proposition that safety starts with the unfailing commitment of the most senior management, and that of the chief executive officer in particular. They are personally responsible for setting … the safety philosophy and communicating it to all the workforce. The latter may be expressed in such simple and easily understood concepts as 'nothing is so important that it cannot be done safely' or 'if we cannot do it safely we won't do it' but underlying those is the belief that safety is a basic element in conducting business and cannot be considered a discrete and separate activity".
Lord Cullen, further stresses the importance of the involvement of the workforce. He regards first-line supervisors as playing a key role and emphasises their need for health and safety training. He says:
Possibly the most visible instrument for the involvement of the workforce is a safety committee system".
However, it became clear from the inquiry that the Piper Alpha management did not recognise unions. There were safety committees consisting of supervisors but not of elected employees. Unions can play a key role not only in training but in motivating the workforce, and the company had clearly not understood that.
§ Over the years, the Trades Union Congress has played a significant role in trying to build a training and safety culture. That is not always easy. During my years as a trade union official I have known situations in which the members themselves have been none too keen to highlight unsafe working practices or insufficient precautions in the handling of hazardous substances. There is sometimes a fear that there might be victimisation or a diminution of lucrative work in an area where there is no alternative. So unions have had an educational job to do and in the main have been doing it. My own union employs a health and safety officer who was formerly a factory inspector. We hold regular training sessions at the union's college at Bishops Stortford.
§ In 1968 the occupational health unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was expanded into an institute on the basis of a donation and subsequent annual grants from the TUC. The school tried, without success, to get similar support from employers. Nevertheless, the work expanded and important research was undertaken. M.Sc. courses in occupational medicine and hygiene were commenced. Sadly, I am told, the institute closed recently.
§ I am told that one of the reasons for the closure was the lack of interest on the part of academia in health and safety at work. That is a great pity since, as has been said by Professor Schilling, well known for his 269 commitment in this area, raising standards depends on health professionals being properly trained—hence the importance of academic centres. It is to be hoped that the efforts of Professor Schilling and his colleagues to establish a new academic department of occupational medicine will meet with success. However, I understand that the London federal health and safety service of the University of London has recently been closed as the result of cuts. The unit was carrying out very valuable training work in the safety area. It is a great pity when institutions of this kind, which are so necessary to future health and safety provision, become the subject of cuts and disappear from the scene. Important as the work of the HSE is, academic back-up and research is also important, particularly if we have to meet European standards in the future.
§ I said earlier that I would say something about small businesses. I am prompted to do so by an article which appears in the current issue of the Employment Gazette. This points out that employees working in small companies appear to run 20 per cent. more risk of major injury than those in medium to large establishments and some 40 per cent. more risk than those in very large establishments. When it is appreciated that, of the 2½ million employing establishments in the UK, 96 per cent. employ fewer than 20 people, it can be seen that this is a sizeable problem. Moreover, some 16 per cent. of major injuries in smaller establishments were to people under the age of 19 years, including six involving people under the age of 16. Also, there may be under-reporting, so the higher incidence of non-fatal injuries apparent in smaller establishments may be understated.
§ The article does not attempt to draw conclusions, but surely the statistics indicate the lack of a safety culture here, perhaps due to ignorance on the part of small company managements together with a greater incentive to cut corners for the sake of getting a job done and retaining profitability. It could also be argued strongly that a lack of inspectors with time to monitor what goes on in small companies is a contributing factor.
§ I am sure that the Government will say that the HSC's bid for resources has been met in full over the past two years. However, the fact remains that there have been cutbacks. The chairman's report states that nearly a decade ago—at the start of the Thatcher decade—the commission was told to cut staff radically, to improve efficiency and not to impose undue burdens on business. The chairman claims that that has been done, although he comments that the problems of the commission's growing effort in inflationary times remains a constant anxiety. Of course, there is the necessity to recruit and retain staff of sufficient professional standing.
Perhaps I may refer briefly to what is known as the European framework directive of the Community. So far as I can see, it imposes obligations upon all employers very much in line with our own legislation but in certain respects goes further. There is one provision to which I should particularly like to draw attention. It states:
Workers who, in the event of serious, imminent and unavoidable danger, leave their work stations and/or dangerous area may not be placed at any disadvantage because of their action and must be protected against any harmful or unjustified consequences in accordance with national practice".
If that means anything at all it means that in such circumstances workers who walk off the job are entitled to protection from dismissal or other intimidation.
§ To summarise, I believe that adequate resources must be available to do the job of monitoring or inspection. The workforce must be involved through safety committees and elected safety representatives, who must be given time off with pay for suitable and approved training. There must be an end to victimisation and intimidation. People should feel free to highlight unsafe practices without such fears. I emphasise the necessity of union representation, recognition and involvement to prevent that.
§ There ought to be tougher prosecution and enforcement policies. To date, fines have widely been seen as inadequate in the light of the injuries and fatalities involved. More must be done, through the HSC and elsewhere, to encourage the development of a safety culture. Of course the HSC must have the necessary facilities both to meet the needs it has already identified and to enable us to play a part in developing safety policies within the Community.
§ The Government should further emphasise their commitment to health and safety at work. Unfortunately, they have sent out the wrong signals as a result of their attitude to the industrial injuries scheme, which has gradually been eroded by successive social security Acts. One cannot help thinking that the Government would like to jettison it altogether. In doing so they seem to be indicating that they do not appreciate that some working environments are inherently hazardous and that the workers within them must have that additional protection.
§ I believe that this debate will provide an opportunity to highlight some of our anxieties and I await the Government response with interest. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. Her exposition of some of the defects of the existing regime was authoritative and calm. Today's debate could lead to a limited health and safety reappraisal of industrial relations with the object of introducing recognition procedures, so establishing a new dimension of co-operation between employers and those who are employed.
That new dimension would have to be established in any event in order to implement certain recommendations—which I shall come to later—of the Cullen Report. As part of the reappraisal there could be a wider impact upon the improvement of safeguards for health and safety at work generally. If such were to ensue the gratitude expressed to the noble Baroness for having introduced the debate and for 271 having afforded this opportunity for open and constructive discussion would extend beyond your Lordships' House.
It is appreciated that my noble friend the Minister —to whom we all extend the warmest of welcomes and whose contribution cannot but enhance this occasion —may well not be in a position to comment on such matters as the new dimension. By the form of the Motion as tabled the provisions to which reference is made would appear to be the series of statutory instruments and the structure under the existing regime. No doubt my noble friend the Minister will be able to deal with that in due course. We shall look forward to his contribution.
It is evident from the Cullen Report—it has been evident for a very long time—that as far as improved safeguards for health and safety at work are concerned, the issuing of these instruments can afford no substitute whatever for a new dimension of co-operation, such instruments being only part of the effective steps to be taken. The case for taking further steps raises questions of considerable importance affecting the welfare of those who work and their families, the continuity of production of goods and the provision of services and the safety of the public who avail themselves of such services.
Although responsibility for health and safety lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of management, I agree with the noble Baroness that the trades unions have an important contribution to make. As she puts it, they have a key role in motivation; first, on training, which is essential, and, secondly, in some sort of advisory capacity on the board of management by nomination of members who have actually done the jobs on which health and safety depend.
Lord Cullen's report acknowledged at paragraph 21.83 that such controversial matters as industrial relations were beyond the scope of his terms of reference. However, paragraphs 21.73 to 21.87 recommend the involvement of the workforce and trade union participation. In addition, at paragraph 21.67 it is said that the regulations should require stated objectives to be met rather than prescribe detailed measures to be taken. At paragraph 21.84 there is reference to the appointment of safety representatives by the trades unions; at paragraph 21.79 reference to the problems of recognition. Since the 1971 Act there has been no machinery for the resolution of recognition disputes. The system of collective bargaining on conditions of service inevitably has proved unequal to the task on matters of health and safety at work.
This is not the occasion to consider recognition procedures under Sections 44 and 45 of the 1971 Act which, although complex and cumbersome, have worked tolerably well in practice. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, who has great experience of these matters, and the noble Baroness will agree with my assessment. Indeed, it is not appropriate to comment upon the relevant paragraphs 8 to 15 of the code of practice provisions. The hope must be that as part of the reappraisal a simplified procedure can be 272 worked out by government in consultation with the trades unions and the CBI, and that discussions take place soon not only in the context of the implementation of the recommendations of the Cullen Report, to which I have referred, but in the wider context of health and safety at work generally.
It is understood that under the 1974 Act it is the intention of government to issue a series of regulations which reflect the health and safety requirements of modern advances in technology. It is also understood that within the European Community framework the health and safety items of the social action programme are supported in principle, as is the case with the workplace directive, the personal protective equipment directive and certain other directives. But harmonisation and effective enforcement by the Commission are absolutely essential if unequal competitive situations between member states are to be avoided and the Council of Ministers must make due financial provision to those ends. I have no doubt Her Majesty's Government will take all possible steps to generate the necessary political will as between heads of state and the Council of Ministers. In the European Community context, I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could give some assurance on that point and on any proposals for statutory instruments to improve the existing regime.
On health and safety at work reappraisal of our industrial relations, all that I respectfully ask is that the papers on this Motion be given due consideration. This is not the pipedream of a visionary; it is a tentative application of common sense in the light of experience.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Lord Rochester
My Lords, I am glad as always to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. I cannot go quite as far as he has, certainly not in advocating, if I understood him correctly, that union representatives, as opposed to employee representatives should sit on company boards to deal with the subject of health and safety. I am sure, however, that he was right to emphasise the importance of employee involvement in these matters. I shall have a word to say about that later.
As the noble Lord rightly said, responsibility for health and safety at work lies primarily with management. In much of manufacturing industry a considerable degree of risk is necessarily involved in producing the goods and services on which our standard of living depends. In practice, there is often a conflict between the interests of production and those of safety, particularly in determining how scarce resources are to be allocated. I well recall from my experience in the chemical industry how difficult it sometimes is to strike a proper balance between them.
I gladly pay tribute to what our best firms are doing to achieve safe working. For instance, the great company for which I worked has for long taken into account health and safety as factors in its management performance appraisal system. Indeed it now goes further and links managers' pay to success in meeting 273 environmental targets. Having said that, I am sure that further steps can and should be taken to bring employers generally up to the level of the best.
In preparing for this debate, I turned, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, to the last annual report of the Health and Safety Commission. In the foreword to the report the chairman observed:The European Community has now to be regarded as the principal engine of health and safety law affecting the UK".The chairman noted that directives concerning occupational safety may now be introduced on the basis of qualified majority voting under the Single European Act.
I was glad that he went on to say:We have made clear to our European friends some of the difficulties we see in an over-hasty provision of new law, particularly without assurance that it can be enforced with equal determination in all Member States. We have also sought to insist that Member States should make their own arrangements for subsidiary detail, subject to European agreement on general principles".In my view the Health and Safety Commission has struck just the right note. There is a danger that in this matter the European Commission could overstep the mark. For instance, Sub-Committee C of your Lordships' European Communities Committee, on which I have the honour to sit, recently considered a draft directive on working time. The proposals include provisions relating to minimum rest periods and limits on night work, shift work, overtime and even annual holidays. The European Commission maintains that those proposals are justified on health and safety grounds. On that point the committee received conflicting evidence. However, what I found most disconcerting was that before issuing the draft directive the Commission had not even consulted the Community's own advisory committee on health, safety and hygiene about its proposals. Against that background I welcome the aim of our Health and Safety Commission to try to ensure that new Community based legislation, like new UK legislation, is properly proportioned to the risks with which it deals.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, I have read —at least in part—the Cullen Report on the Piper Alpha disaster. I was struck —fully in line with my own experience, if I may say so—by the way in which Lord Cullen referred to training as a key point in both his summary and recommendations. For example, he said:Evidence as to training for emergencies showed that the induction was cursory and … the training of persons with special duties in an emergency did not take place with the frequency laid down".He noted:Management … failed to ensure that emergency training was being provided as they intended. The safety policies and procedures were in place; the practice was deficient".I suggest that some at least of those dicta could well be transposed and applied with equal justification to other recent disasters.
274 What can the Government do to help? Only a month ago this House held a debate on training. Like other noble Lords I expressed regret that in the absence of a government lead it had been left to the CBI to arrange for representatives of the TUC, the chambers of commerce, training and enterprise councils, local authorities and educational organisations—almost everyone except the Government—to meet in an effort to draw up national training targets. The CBI's initiative followed the Government's decision not merely to withdraw support from the targets previously set for the 1990s by Sir Norman Fowler when he was Secretary of State, but to abandon any further attempt to set such objectives. As I see it, there is no reason why national targets should not encompass health and safety as much as other matters. In this there is no need for legislation but the Government should be prepared to give a lead.
That brings me to the point which the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, raised; namely, employee involvement. At paragraph 18.48 of the report, Lord Cullen, says,It is essential that the whole workforce is committed to and involved in safe operations. The first-line supervisors are a key link in achieving that as each is personally responsible for ensuring that all employees, whether the company's own or contractors, are trained to and do work safely and that they not only know how to perform their jobs safely but are convinced that they have a responsibility to do so".Lord Cullen—the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has already made some reference to this matter—goes on to stress the value of a safety committee system as a means of providing for new ideas and solutions to safety problems to be brought up and for passing verbatim and uncensored safety comments up the management line. He says also that the system helps to reinforce the principle that each employee is responsible for his own safety and that of his fellow workers.
I do not think that that paragraph can be improved on as a statement of the importance of involving all employees in seeking to promote health and safety at work.
Is there more that the Government should do to promote employee involvement in this area? On a number of occasions in the past I have argued that the time has come to make it a statutory requirement that in every organisation which employs more than a certain number of people there should be consultative bodies of some kind. Within them, health and safety are certainly matters which should be discussed.
In this Chamber we can only talk; it is for others to act. But at least our contributions to this discussion will provide evidence of the importance that we attach to the matter of health and safety at work. After all, it is a subject which should not give rise to political controversy. Indeed, the noble, Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when replying to the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, last June on the Channel Tunnel workforce, reminded us that the 1974 Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act is itself an outstanding example of the common ground on which we can all stand, for it was a Conservative government 275 that drew up that legislation and a Labour government that enacted it. I am sure that that is the best way by which further steps in this field should be taken.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lords, it is some time since I spoke in this House, and I am delighted to be involved in a debate which concerns health and safety in industry. First, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden? She really adorns that Front Bench very well indeed and she introduces subjects which are worthwhile discussing. I have nothing but admiration for her.
This is a non-political matter—an absolutely non-party matter. Anybody who is not concerned with health and safety at work must be stark raving mad. So it is a question of what is the right approach, what is the best bet and what is the way in which to deal with this subject? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, that this is a non-party matter. That is about the only point on which we agree.
I am taking part in this debate because of my personal interest in the construction industry. I was 37 years in the other House, during which time I was a junior Minister of Housing; I knew something of the construction industry. Later I became Minister of Public Building and Works and I really came to know the subject well. It was at that time that I learned about the Construction Industry Training Board. I discovered what the best elements of that industry were trying to do. Certain parts of that industry are a credit to the nation, but certain sections of it are a discredit.
I once inquired into the whole building industry and discovered that 52 or 53 per cent. of it consisted of a man with a boy and a bucket. That part of the industry is absolute rubbish. We are not concerned with those people. We cannot do much with them and we cannot control them. But the other 50 per cent. or so can be controlled—not necessarily by legislation from this House, but by contracts. The employers in those decent firms say exactly what should be done and how it should be done.
That brings me on to the industry's approach to this matter. I have mentioned about the 50-odd per cent. of good firms that are worth talking about. I should like to put it on record that I have no vested interest in this matter. I do not get paid by anybody. I have been approached many times but no individual firm pays me. So I speak without any interest at all, purely impartially, and I know of the background.
The Construction Industry Training Board is a good example of what ought to be done to try to help in health and safety at work. One of the courses that it runs is about health and safety. It is part of the training. That is why I want to explain why the CITB should be encouraged and extended and why this Government, above all governments, should try to make certain that the CITB and all it stands for carries on doing what it is doing now.
276 The board was originally set up in March 1964 under the Industrial Training Act 1964 which was subsequently amended by the Employment and Training Act 1973 and the Industrial Training Act 1982. The three main objectives of the Industrial Training Act were to ensure an adequate supply of properly trained men and women at all levels of industry; to secure an improvement in the quality and efficiency of industrial training, and to spread the training more evenly across firms. That was the object of the establishment of the CITB, and health and safety at work was part of its attitude to industry generally.
I should like to talk about the membership. Today there are 56,000 local firms associated with the CITB, so I am not talking about rubbish. How does the board get its members? In the main, the board is appointed by the Minister and at the moment it is employer-related. That means that the chairman is related to the employers' side which suits them fine. It is their business anyway. However, the board represents the interests of those who work in the industry. It represents the trade unions. The Transport and General Workers' Union and UCATT have a seat; and, believe it or not, the educationists, whoever they may be, also have a seat. I suppose that they are people who can read and write. So it is a board which is truly representative.
I should now like to turn to how the board gets its money, because if we talk about health and safety we must also talk about those who work in the industry being conscious of health and safety in their job. My noble friend Lady Turner said that the construction industry has the highest percentage of accidents of any industry in the country. That is why it is imperative that the CITB is encouraged. At the moment, 42 per cent. of its income comes directly from the membership by voluntary levy. The remaining 58 per cent. comes from the government of the day. We are talking about £173 million which is no mean figure. It is not something to be ignored and thrown away. The Government ought to recognise that in this body they have the potential for a good job of work on safety.
It is important to state how many are undergoing training. During 1989–90, a total of 22,000 young people started their training under the CITB youth training scheme. Another 16,000 took part in the CITB National Training Centre Courses of various types. What are the courses? They are piling, plant operation, steeple-jacking, motorway barriers and, much more important, health and safety at work. That is where it spent the £173 million.
How long does a course last? Some courses last only two to three days, while others go on for over a year. The pattern is very varied. Let us now see how the £173 million is spent and what are the results. It is estimated that two-thirds of the trainees under instruction complete their two-year training and are taken on by employers. This compares favourably with the national picture over the years. A large proportion of those trainees become apprentices and continue their training after completion of the youth training programme.
277 I have another interesting figure which I was given the other day about youngsters. In 1988–89, the number of school-leavers decreased, but the number on youth training schemes formulated by the CITB went up. The board took over 22 per cent. of the entire output of schools for its training schemes. The young people on youth training courses are likely to be taken into employment with indentures, and increased earnings during apprenticeship are linked with satisfactory progress at six-monthly intervals.
I appeal to the Minister. If he has anything worthwhile to say tonight then, for goodness sake, will he say something about the CITB? The Government keep poking their nose into this subject and reforming it. The CITB was reconstituted following a major review of the remaining ITBs during 1989. Industry pressure for the retention of the statutory level was the principal reason for the construction industry being the only industry to retain its ITB as a statutory body.
I am asked to say that the CITB welcomes the fact that the new board is employer-led, which enables it to work more closely with the employers' federations. But the government department responsible for the CITB is now that part of the Employment Department known as the Training Enterprise Education Department—formerly the Training Agency, and before that the Manpower Services Commission.
I understand that that body has been investigated again and again and we now have the situation regarding the CITB that the Government of the day have agreed only to prolong its existence for a further three years. After three years it will be reinvestigated —and that means 1992. However, the industry is convinced that construction will need a statutory levy in future to support its training. This can be operated only through a statutory ITB, and its training requires stability and long-term investment to be effective.
Now that a new employer-led board has been created, the Government should show their confidence in the industry's employers by ensuring the long-term future of the CITB. Is that too much to ask? We are asking the Government to say they have great confidence in the CITB and that its future is assured. If the Minister does not do that, let me tell him that the employers who are there now will say, "You do it, brother: somebody else work it out". That is rather sad because that training—and here I am back to my original point—is at the heart of all that my noble friend has been talking about: the whole question of whether or not health and safety can be part of the workforce.
The construction industry—I speak here without any vested interest—is worth supporting. We must remember it is a barometer of this nation: if it is doing well as an industry, the nation is doing well but if it is not, the nation is doing badly. That is a fact of life. I know very well—and of course I shall put this on the record straight away—that the first priority for Britain today is to beat the wretched man called Saddam Hussein. That takes precedence over everything—over everything I have said and uttered today. But the great thing about our democracy is that we can talk about 278 other matters while we are in the middle of a crisis. I am very much aware of the time I have taken and all I can say is that I beg this Government now to make certain that they look after the CITB and give it the assurances it wants to enable it to continue its job of work.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, may I first welcome the noble Earl, Lord Strathmore and Kinghorne, to his new and, I think, rather difficult brief. I wish him success but since I am in Opposition not too much success.
The aims of the Health and Safety Commission and the Executive, formulated as a result of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, have never seriously been challenged, as we have heard from other speakers, and today they enjoy widespread acceptance and support. Public awareness of the HSE's role is reflected in the increased number of complaints which are received. In the 1989–90 report, to which my noble friend Lady Turner referred in her excellent introduction, the director general reports an increase of 50 per cent. over the two years to 1990 and an impressive 130,000 telephone inquiries per annum.
It is disturbing to learn from that same director general's report that in the London area responses now have to be restricted to cases which on the basis of verbal complaint are judged to be strongly based. Many complaints by members of the public are not investigated at all. As the chairman points out in the same report, 10 years ago the Health and Safety Executive was bigger than it is now and yet it had fewer responsibilities.
No one objects to a requirement on public bodies to make efficient use of resources, but these items in the report would seem to indicate that the resources now available are not sufficient for the task to be done properly. Surely the investigation of complaints is the first requirement for such a body. The maintenance of public confidence demands that this should be so, and the fact that it is not so must cast doubt on some of the statistics in the report. If not all the complaints are investigated, not all legitimate complaints are recorded.
The chairman's remark about increased responsibilities brings me to one of the two areas I am concerned about today. One is the problem of GMOs —I am sorry, I have forgotten the actual words and I am using the acronym, but they are genetically engineered organisms which are released into the environment. During the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill (which is now an Act) questions were raised on the control and monitoring of GMOs. It emerged from government replies at that time that this work would be undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive, although the Minister said that at that time its inspectors lacked the appropriate environmental expertise.
The noble Earl, Lord Arran, concluded that HSE inspectors, subject to additional recruitment and 279 training, would be well placed to gain the necessary additional expertise. He said (at Col. 2002 of Hansard) on 2nd July 1990:All things considered, the most sensible and efficient arrangement therefore seems likely to be one in which HSE acts on behalf of DoE and other departments under an agency agreement".He continued:The Committee will be pleased to know that we already have arrangements for such an agreement well in hand".Later on the same day, when he was questioned about the level of resources available to implement this part of the Act, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, said, (at col. 2003):The Government have repeatedly made it clear that resources will be made available to do the work required under the Bill. That applies as much to Part VI as to the rest of the Bill".Can the Minister say what has happened in regard to Part VI of the Act? Has recruitment been achieved and has training been put in hand? Have adequate resources been made available for all the new HSE requirements under the Environmental Protection Act? A whole raft of new responsibilities was placed on the HSE.
As a vice-president of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, my second area of concern is that of local authority environmental health officers. Local authority environmental health officers have had a considerable input into the enforcement of health and safety at work in particular sectors as defined by the Health and Safety Enforcement Allocation Regulations. I shall mention just a few of them: retail/wholesale, exhibitions, office activities, catering services, residential accommodation—there is a list of 13 areas in which environmental health officers take on the role of the Health and Safety Executive inspectors.
The split of enforcement between the local authorities and the HSE seems to work surprisingly well. There is good local and national liaison between the HSE, the local authorities and the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. The local authority unit of the HSE is led by an EHO, and others work for the HSE on secondment. In addition, when appropriate the HSE staff will provide background knowledge for EHOs, for example, if there has been an accident involving an unusual piece of equipment. So altogether it works well.
However, in 1990 the local authorities took over responsibility for additional premises which were transferred to them from the HSE. These premises were low risk in relation to the HSE's work but compared with others in the local authorities' priority system they were often high risk. The effect of this was that often premises previously allocated to the local authority became less of a priority and therefore might be visited less frequently. We are back again to the question of resources. The increase in the number of premises coupled with the shortage of EHOs, which I understand is about 400 nationally—quite a significant number—is likely to have resulted in the work of the EHOs becoming more reactive. They can react 280 only to complaints and often have no spare capacity to undertake visits and inspections to prevent accidents and improve safety.
Other noble Lords have mentioned EC directives which put extra burdens on the HSE. Indeed, eight are in transition at present. That will increase the burden on HSE inspectors and EHOs; for example—again I shall not read out the whole list—there is an EC proposal on VDUs (visual display units) and on part-time and temporary employees, personal protection equipment and so on.
The European directives do not comment upon who should enforce the legislation. Obviously for employees local contact with the enforcers is important and environmental health officers can undertake health and safety inspections in conjunction with other work, thus making them cost-effective. However, whoever undertakes the work, extra resources will be needed. Neither local authorities nor the HSE will be able to absorb them without support.
Finally, there is anxiety as regards home working. Currently factory type activities must be registered but office type work need not be. The use of VDUs in home working is becoming commonplace.
To sum up, the need for an efficient, comprehensive health and safety monitoring service is as great now as it was in 1974 when the Act became law. It is essential that we should continue to build on our existing system so that it can meet the new challenges of the next century and our much more complicated working environment.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord O'Hagan
My Lords, I do not wish to lower the tone of what until now has been an excellent debate nor to spoil the Minister's first venture into these difficult areas. I wish him well, as I am sure do other noble Lords.
Much of what I wanted to say has already been said better by other noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Rochester. He inadvertently stole the quotation which I had prepared from the Health and Safety Commission's latest report. In what remains of my speech, most of which has been confined to the mental wastepaper basket, I wish solely to concentrate on the European Community aspect by contributing, as it were, a postcard from Brussels to your Lordships' debate because I sit on the European parliamentary committee which deals with those matters.
The first point which I should like to report to the House is that the Health and Safety Commission and Executive are held in the highest regard by the institutions of the European Community. Not only do they have a comprehensive knowledge of how those institutions function but they have succeeded in conveying their views with a remarkably effective record of penetration. That should be noted and I hope that the Government will be aware of that when in the future policy making is required upon those complicated matters.
As the Commission itself notes, the whole centre of gravity in these very difficult issues—the interface between people and capitalism—is now moving faster 281 and faster across the Channel. If we are to discuss those issues with any degree of first-hand authority, we must observe what is happening there rather than waiting until later on and then complaining about what is alleged to have been imposed upon us. People there would be willing to listen to us if we were to go there early. Indeed, Sub-Committee C here makes informed comments in detail at the appropriate time on these issues.
Other noble Lords have touched upon a number of proposals. I shall not dwell on any of them in detail except one by way of illustration. There has been a directive on exposure to asbestos which is a peculiarly cruel form of hazard to those who work in premises affected by it. The first irony to note is that the European Commission building in Brussels is riddled with the worst form of asbestos and is being evacuated. Therefore, the Commission is not complying with legislation on that topic which is already on the European statute book.
The second irony is that the country—and I shall not name it—which held the chair of the Council of Ministers when the modern consolidated legislation on this topic was being dealt with had neither enforced nor implemented the first piece of legislation which was passed some few years ago. Therefore, when examining what is suggested by the European Commission it is very important that at the same time, particularly in this country, we take a good look at what is being done to put into practice that which is already agreed. We should be prepared to give additional facilities, powers and bodies—people—to the Commission to make sure that European Community legislation is properly enforced throughout the European Community. Otherwise, as a nation we are Penalised because we enforce it and others do not. That is of particular relevance in this field. It is easy to make symbolic gestures on health and safety if you know that you are not going to enforce the legislation on your own people.
There has been much discussion about Piper Alpha and the subsequent report. The Commission is preparing legislation in this sphere—Community proposals on offshore installations—which is likely to be published shortly. I very much hope that steps will be taken to convey the remarks made in this debate to those drafting the legislation and that those in your Lordships' House more expert than I will make representations because the safety culture which is now developing as a counterpart to 1992 will not merely be British but will be European. We must endeavour to ensure that our best practices become part of what the Commission is putting forward on behalf of the entire Community.
I raise the subject of the Health and Safety Agency. I do not wish to ask my noble friend difficult questions on this occasion. However, it would be of great financial benefit to our country and the people in it if there was an inspectorate of inspectors and, on the lines of the inspectorate in the competition field, a European Community institution which had the right to see whether European Community law was being implemented on the ground, in the workplace, in the 282 factory and on the farm. I believe that that would be very much in the British national interest and would add a great deal to the credibility of the European Community as an institution. I hope that the rather —and I am trying to be kind—tentative proposals put forward by my noble friends in this field and by their counterparts in another place will be greatly reinforced so that there is a proper enforcement of European Community legislation on a fair basis right across the Community, particularly in this sphere. I support all remarks made by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway in that regard.
This country has a very high reputation on the Continent for the work done by governments of different parties and by different parts of our industry and trade unions in this field. That cannot be said about everything we do but it is quite true on this subject. We need not boast about it every day or run across to Brussels with a big flag saying, "We are the leaders in health and safety and nothing we do is wrong", because, of course, we can learn from others.
However, there is a great deal of respect for the relatively silent work which has been done by us. We should build on that because, if we use the evidence of efforts undertaken in this country, it will be much easier for us to amend and alter in a way which others will find acceptable those proposals which have yet to be put forward or which are already announced and published. For example, I received a letter from a distinguished doctor saying that certain parts of the proposal aiming to protect women in certain occupations may have an unnecessarily adverse impact on women's employment for various technical reasons with which I shall not weary your Lordships now. That may be a solid and valid point. However, if there is too great a tendency to treat the Commission in Brussels as though it were a Labour government in exile, then our points are unlikely to be accepted on their full merits. On that ecumenical note, I shall conclude.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Phillips
My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend Lady Turner had to wait so long to bring her excellent debate before your Lordships. However, I was delighted to hear her usual succinct and telling introduction.
I am reminded of the occasion when the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Crook. To my knowledge he had worked towards it for around 10 years. It is always exciting to see the fruition of one's labours. Prior to that, as many noble Lords will be aware, the legislation was very perfunctory; some dealt with railways, some with shops and some with factories. This Act was a consolidation of legislation which contained something good for every worker.
In Great Britain we are not very good at prevention. The accident never happens to us; it always happens to the other person. I like the philosophy of the TUC of establishing a safety culture; it is something we should cultivate.
283 When I was a Lord Lieutenant and had to greet Princess Beatrice on the pier at Westminster one dear old waterman informed me that the pier was 100 years old, totally rotten and was suddenly about to sink into the river. I expressed the hope that it would not sink on that day. It was a cold November day and even to go down with the Queen would not have been exciting enough for me.
I mentioned the fact to a number of people, who thought it was some kind of joke. However, the more I thought about it the more I realised that all the piers along the Thames are old. One day, as with the "Marchioness", there would be a terrible disaster. That would be followed by the usual inquiry. I commend that point to the Government. I do not ask them to do too much, but they might like to consider it.
The noble Lord, Lord Mellish, spoke of the construction industry. He is quite right; the group he has worked so hard for is the best—but it also comprises a lot of the worst. I had an office in Buckingham Street and watched a beautiful Georgian house opposite being pulled down by a bunch of very cheerful Irish labourers. They were shipped in every Monday from Liverpool—they were obviously cheaper to employ than London workers—and shipped out every Friday. Where they stayed or what they did in between I do not know.
I cannot bear to see people not protecting themselves, and every morning I used to give them a speech as I entered my office. They did not wear any kind of safety harness. I pointed that out to them. I used an old teacher's trick and picked on one. I said, "You look to be around 23 years old to me"—in retrospect all men look 23 to me—"If you fall and break your back you will never work again; what is more, you will not receive a penny compensation". I gave them so many lectures I gather I was christened, "Our Lady". I do not think that phrase was used in an apostolic sense.
That was a clear example of lack of safety protection at work, but no one ever came to inspect the site. I contacted Westminster Council. A very energetic lady was sent along; she made so many recommendations that the next time anyone was asked to visit the site they sent a man—she had been promoted.
Many things must be done to put this wonderful Act into practice. Regular inspections of the workplace must be made. I ask noble Lords to inquire how many inspectors there are in their own boroughs. If an inspector attempted to visit every place of business and employment in the course of his career he probably would not make it; there are so few inspectors. We leave the inspections until there are complaints from the workers. That is not how the Act is meant to work.
Workers must be trained. I cannot stress too strongly how thrilled I was to see that recommendation high on the list of TUC priorities. People must be trained. I visited steelworks and watched men lifting enormous pieces of steel and pushing them into furnaces—that is going back a long way. I have 284 watched people in the nuclear industry. I have watched many people doing jobs that I would not have the courage, expertise or any other reason to want to do.
Happily many conditions in industry have improved, but in its train there are other hazards. My noble friend Lady Nicol mentioned some of those hazards. We forget that technologically we have very advanced industries. However, that brings extra hazards which were unknown 30 years ago. Those hazards include the modern office; that dreadful edifice. We see ghastly buildings springing up everywhere. I believe a certain gentleman who was the architect of one office building may be joining your Lordships' House. It is a pity he is not present this evening. Perhaps I could speak to him on this point.
The buildings have brown windows—I have visited a lot of them. Hundreds of computers are being used by young women who sit alongside them. I asked about the hazard to their eyes, their ears and their brain. They said that it was quite all right. Is it? Nobody knows enough about the matter. The technology has not been in being long enough. I believe a hazard exists. Indeed, the sick building syndrome is being examined at the moment.
I have the privilege of being the president of the Institute of Safety and Public Protection. That splendid name encompasses a splendid bunch of people. They are professionals mainly from the boroughs who carry out the difficult task of ensuring public safety. They meet professionally because they want to improve their own skills and knowledge for the best reason of all; the same reason as people join trade unions. Their aims and objects are to provide a body of knowledge with expertise in all relevant aspects of safety and public protection.
I shall give your Lordships a quick run-down to illustrate the requirements needed to be a member. They must be engaged in industrial, commercial, administrative and retail enterprise—just for starters. They must also be familiar with licensing relating to entertainment, safety of sportsgrounds, home safety —many hazards to workers exist in the home—animal welfare and health and emergency planning. Yet there are not enough of them. We constantly introduce Acts of Parliament but never insist that the requisite number of enforcement officers are appointed.
I could say a great deal more but time is limited. I mentioned to my friend that females usually keep to the allotted time; I must therefore ensure that I do not break my own rule.
This is an important debate. I was saddened that more people were not present on the Government Benches. When we discuss money, farm animals or hunting the House is full. If we speak of people, people's accidents and deaths, it is not so full. There should be no deaths in the course of building motorways. It used to be said that every ton of coal carried the blood of a miner. We do not want that to be said of our modern industry. We must strengthen the working of the Act both by better training and by employing more inspectors.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, I attempted to persuade some of my noble friends to speak in the debate today using the experience they have gained in the industry in which they had worked for some years. I was quite unsuccessful. That is the reason I find myself, to my surprise, taking part in the debate.
Two years ago this House debated a report from the European committee on the effect of visual display units on the health of those who operate them. At that time I was surprised to find that practitioners of my vocation of journalism were among those affected. In my day those of us who had sold their heart to the old black art, as we put it, were immune from professional stress, we exclude the perils of excessive hospitality which we cheerfully faced. We wrote our copy and headlines with very thick black pencils. However, the younger ones learned to work a manual typewriter with two stabbing fingers. Progress was on the way. All that has gone.
Everything today is done by computer. The joking cry has not been heard during the past few days of these terrible events as they design the big black type. The joking cry, "Boy, send for the type that we used for Queen Victoria's funeral", has not been heard. There are no boys in Fleet Street any more. We got rid of that type long ago.
We live in a different age which has made the composition of newspapers simpler and cheaper, but it seems it is more dangerous. It is not only journalists and particularly sub-editors who are affected. Hundreds of thousands of office workers are now operating or working alongside visual display units. The alleged effect on such workers caused the European Commission to produce a framework directive setting general measures to improve the safety and health of workers in the workplace. They included a handful of directives. Our Select Committee considered that the directive concerning visual display units—VDUs as they are commonly known—warranted closer investigation.
The committee studied the problem carefully, as it always does study the problems put to it, but, alas, it turned the proposal down. It was thought that it was not sufficiently established that the health risks were heavy enough to cause concern or that such risks could not be met by good office management. In some respects the scientific evidence was inconclusive. The committee recommended that employers and trade unions should make every effort to educate those people required to work with VDUs.
It was an unusual, tentative report from the distinguished committee. There were not the hard, clear conclusions that one expects from it. It said that there was probably less risk of stress if the operator could control his workload. The committee did not believe that there was justification for establishing a formal system of breaks from VDU work. One could not escape the cynical feeling that the committee came to the nub of the matter when it said that only if the scientific case was strong was it possible to impose substantial costs on industry. In the present good 286 office management and good explanation were the answers to the problems. That meant that bad office management was left to carry on.
However, the committee hoped that acceptable proposals would be made by the International Standards Association and the Comité Européen de Normalisations. It hoped that the last body, the CEN as it is conveniently known, had an acceptable approach because it preferred a code of practice to regulations. In the debate on the committee report my noble friend Lady Turner regretted its decision. She brought her special and profound union experience to the discussion. She told us that there are five main categories of possible hazard associated with VDUs. There are five main categories of possible injury and hazard. These are RSI—that is to say, repetitive strain injuries—musculo-skeletal strain, stress, skin rashes, eye disorders and possible reproductive hazards.
The committee accepted that most problems can be solved by good office management—and so they can, but, alas, good office management is not universal. There are still many unredeemed Scrooges in the commercial world. I hesitated whether to speak today because the situation now looks more promising than it did two years ago. Since our debate the EC has wisely re-examined the proposals for a Council directive on minimum requirements for work with display screen equipment. Since then the possible ill-effects of the exposure have been explored in Canada with worrying results about radiation.
Last month in another place a Question was put to the Secretary of State for Employment asking him what legislation he intended to bring forward to enable the United Kingdom to meet the requirements of the EC directive on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen units. The Minister answered that the Health and Safety Commission is now currently discussing with the CBI and the TUC the most appropriate way to implement the directive. I do not know whether the Minister who is to answer in this debate has any information to give us about those discussions. It may be that these are early days since the legislation which the Community demands need not be completed until the end of next year. A directive is perhaps less draconian than its name would suggest. I hope that when we come to legislation it will be sufficiently tough and contain enforcement measures.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I rise to speak about the safety conditions and records in the building industry and the Cullen Report on the Piper Alpha disaster. The building industry featured heavily in the speeches made earlier by other noble Lords. I listened with interest to the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, because of his background with the major trade union involved in the building industry and also because of his loose association with the industry in a political sense. He referred in his speech to the Construction Industry Training Board.
It is as well to put the record straight. The CITB was on its way out. The Government had put their red 287 pencil through it. What finally convinced the Government to continue with the training board was the pressure applied by the big builders themselves through the Building Employers Confederation, other associations and trade unions. It is no accident that the president, Sir Clifford Chetwood, was made the chairman. A great deal of credit must go to him for the fact that the training board was retained. I say no more about that.
Unfortunately I was not here to listen to previous speakers. I expect that they made the point that the building industry now has the worst accident record of all industries. It is important to look at the enormity of what is happening in that industry with accidents. On average there is a fatal accident each week. There are about 150 deaths a year. If that figure is multiplied over a decade, just over 1,500 people have been killed in the building industry. That is carnage by any standard. It is the equivalent of five major pit disasters.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lords, I do not dispute the noble Lord's figures. However, does he understand the need for training in order to make sure that safety is understood?
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I was going to make that point. Accidents which took place last year and which were reported to the Health and Safety Executive totalled 21,000. That is a substantial increase. In addition, a substantial number of accidents are never reported. One reason suggested for the substantial increase is the financial position of the industry. Competition for work is so tight that the first casualty is safety conditions. I do not know how the problem can be solved but it is a fact of life that this is happening.
At a TUC sponsored conference a few weeks ago more than a little evidence was given of victimisation on some sites. People who were rigorous in their defence of safety measures were given short shrift by their employers when they found it possible to do so. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, that one of the best ways to prevent accidents is to make sure that every operative is aware of the dangers and fully trained in avoiding them. But one fact comes across quite clearly: most accidents are due to operator negligence, and many of them could be avoided if a more rigorous education system existed.
I hope that the Government will reconsider their reluctance to involve trade unions at almost every level, although I know that the trade unions are represented on the training boards. The key to safety lies mostly on the sites. The lads on the site, and not full-time trade union officials, should be the guardians of safety. I hope that the Government will give that greater priority than they have in the past.
In the final part of my speech I should like to deal with the Cullen Report. I am an engineer and a member of the AEU, which lost a good many members in the Piper Alpha disaster. The Cullen Report on this terrible tragedy contains serious criticism of the oil company and of the Department of 288 Energy's safety activities. In the view of those representing the employees, the report vindicated the stance taken by the trade unions over a number of years in respect of health and safety in the North Sea. The series of massive explosions which destroyed the Piper Alpha oil platform on 6th July 1988 caused the loss of 167 lives—the highest death toll in any industrial accident in living memory. There was a mining tragedy in Wales in the early 1930s but the Piper Alpha tragedy was by far the greatest industrial disaster this nation has experienced. We have a duty to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again.
The unions have stressed time and again that where they are prevented from functioning normally, health and safety is one of the casualties and is not given the priority it deserves. There must be a counterbalance to the employers' motivation to maximise production so as to achieve maximum profit—which sometimes leads the most honest of men or women to cut corners and to say "Oh, it will be all right", when very often the reverse is the case. It is blatantly obvious that a very rare, occasional visit from an overworked inspector from the Department of Energy, which equally wishes to maximise production, will in no way provide such a counterbalance, especially when we remember that the inspectors have to rely on the operators to provide them with transport. Even these rare visits are telegraphed to the companies well in advance and a surprise inspection to catch someone doing something unauthorised or dangerous goes by the board.
Too many people in government have allowed a dogmatic dislike of trade unions to blind them to the obvious fact that the dangerous bucket shops, the frighteningly unsafe sweat shops the world over, are places where trade unions are, in one way or another, prevented from functioning. We dealt some time ago with the conditions of machinists in sweat shops. The Government would not listen.
There is a clear correlation between the prevention of trade unionism and poor safety records. The reason is quite simple. Only an employee with the strength of a trade union behind him or her will feel safe to challenge the employer and insist that unsafe working conditions are corrected. The fact that these comments apply to the offshore industry is proven in many ways. One is that the noble Lord, Lord Cullen, found it necessary in his report to recommend protection for safety representatives against victimisation. The noble Lord must have been convinced that such practices were taking place. The slightest hint that such protection is needed clearly illustrates the 19th century attitudes of some employers in that highly dangerous industry. If that seems harsh I ask the House to consider the chronic safety record in the North Sea, with fires, explosions, deaths and disasters. What kind of employer would want to take even the slightest chance that this could occur?
Another indicator is to compare the better safety record in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea with the British one and keep in mind the fact that the same companies operate in both sectors. Where the company involved is the same, the poorer British safety record must be due to other factors. The two 289 main differences are that trade union involvement is bitterly opposed in the British sector—I know that from my own inquiries—while it is encouraged by the Government in the Norwegian sector; and the Norwegians have an independent regulatory body which oversees health and safety. When making a Statement in another place the Secretary of State, Mr. Wakeham, indicated that the Government had accepted the Cullen Report and would make certain recommendations in the future. Over two months have already elapsed and no changes have taken place. My union tells me that there is still the practice that if someone is keen on safety he may be given only a fortnight's contract. The company can get rid of him in that way.
I asked a question of the Minister a few weeks ago. I was very disappointed by his answer. I put that question because I believe that the key to the safety issue lies in the appointment of safety committees. The Cullen Report recommends that responsibility for safety should be taken away from the Department of Energy and given to the Health and Safety Executive. The report also recommends that representation on the safety committees should be divided between employers, the inspectorate and the trade unions. I urge the Government to follow that recommendation with the utmost zeal and introduce it as quickly as possible. On the trade union representation there should be a preference for men on the site who work in the industry. When appointed, those people should have full rights not only to debate and to make suggestions but to vote. They should have equal rights with the employer for whom they work. No one is yet convinced that there is a safety drive in the North Sea.
One death in the oil industry in the North Sea is like the death of a miner; it is one too many. As a nation we have a duty to try to eliminate the possibility of such deaths to the best and maximum of our ability. If the Minister does not have the time to reply to me on this issue tonight, I hope that he will take on board what I have said and draw the matter to the attention of the appropriate Ministers in the Cabinet so that they can deal with it.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Lord Meston
My Lords, I am sure that we were all pleased to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, thinks that all men look about 23 years old. That confirms the view that when she was advocating the replacement of old piers she was really talking about the River Thames and not Members of this House.
In calling attention to the case for further steps to improve health and safety, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, reminded us that this would never be an area for complacency. I especially welcomed her emphasis on the construction industry and on the problems created by smaller firms. The debate makes one realise the sheer size of the topic, covering as it does everything from AIDS to asbestos. It reminds us of the truism that illness and accidents account for far more lost working days than strikes ever have or indeed ever will.
In this country we are fortunate in having a reasonably modern framework of legislation. The 290 Robens Report concluded that there was too much law. The resulting Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was therefore largely an enabling Act. The general duties imposed upon employers by Section 2 of that Act are not absolute duties, nor are they duties to do what is required so far as is practicable. Employers have the less onerous duty to do what is required,so far as is reasonably practicable".That phrase appears six times in Section 2. However, the prevalence of the phrase must not be allowed to blur the impact of stricter duties when they are stipulated in regulations, nor to weaken the effect of guidance notes and codes of practice issued by the Health and Safety Executive. All such material should be scrutinised to ensure that the blurring is not happening.
The norm upon which the Robens Report was based was the directly employed and unionised workforce. Since that time, there have been changing trends in employment relationships and in the traditional workplace which require a review of how safety systems and policies should adapt. Homeworkers have already been mentioned. There are also seconded workers, temporary and part-time workers and job sharers. These are all people who can be especially vulnerable.
There are two particular problems in respect of these workers. The first is the availability of remedies for breach of common law duties which depend upon the existence of a traditional contract of employment. The so-called "marginal" workers do not fit easily into the traditional model and the self-employed do not fit in at all. I am sure that it is not only lazy lawyers like myself who groan when having to advise on a typical accident to an ostensibly self-employed construction worker who has fallen from some faulty scaffolding. One has to unscramble the inter-relationships and duties of the main contractor, a chain of subcontractors and the independent contractor. It is salutary to read at page 60 of the 1989–90 report of the Health and Safety Commission of the increase in self-employment in the construction industry and also of the increase in accidents in respect of such people. That topic has already been covered in the debate and it is one that cannot be emphasised too strongly.
Questions of compensation, indemnity and insurance which arise in such situations should not, I suggest, depend upon artificial legal labelling as to whether someone is employed or self-employed. Any changes in that direction will be consistent with the main scheme of the 1974 Act, which extends benefit of some duties to the so-called "self-employed".
The second problem in the development of a so-called flexible firm or marginal workforce is enforcement. Different hazards in different settings are less easy to identify, evaluate and control. It is essential that employers are educated into identifying hazards, that they develop procedures to protect their non-core workers and that they do not see such workers as somehow being second class employees who are not entitled to insurance and indemnity.
291 Enforcement also depends upon manpower. The increase in legislation and the increasing encouragement of the proliferation of small businesses must put a greater burden on the inspectorate. That point has already been mentioned. An inspector's exercise of his discretion to prosecute or to persuade should not be governed by manpower commitments and limitations. I ask whether the Government are satisfied with present staffing levels and present staff retention.
I must also express my concern that the transfer of responsibilities from the Health and Safety Inspectorate to local authority inspectors should not become a short-term expedient to cope with the pressures on the former. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, expressed the view that the present division of responsibility between the Health and Safety Inspectorate and local authority inspectors works well. I hope that she is right. I say that because the division of functions between the two can, especially when pressures mount, create the potential for silly demarcations schemes as to who is responsible for what. I have some experience of that in relation to the responsibility for inspecting an office when an office happened to be apparently within a factory. I defy anyone to unscramble the provisions of Section 85 of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 and Section 175 of the Factories Act.
The growing number of small firms, the reduction in unionisation and the financial pressures on all employers increase the need to encourage employers to plan and budget for health and safety. In a recession it is all too tempting to cut back on maintenance of equipment and on the use of safety experts. Small firms must have access to expertise. It is also tempting to rely upon the fear of unemployment in the workforce in order to suppress claims for compensation.
The foreword to the 1983 annual report of the Health and Safety Executive contained a warning of that risk. It stated that,in hard times it is training and supervision generally that are the first to go. The raw recruit is set to work almost immediately".It then related the following story:The extent of the fear of the loss of one's job may perhaps be gauged by the parents who offered to pay for damage to a conveyor when their 17-year old son jammed his shovel into it to stop it after his arm became trapped at the tail drum. They offered to waive their claim for compensation if only their son could continue in work".Where there is no union organisation, it is more, not less, important to have recognised employee elected safety representation. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Rochester. In that context the repeal in 1975 of Section 2(5) of the 1974 Act was a retrograde step. I hope that the Government will now look again at the matter.
As my noble friend pointed out and as the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, restrained himself from repeating, the foreword to the 1989–90 report states that the European Community has now to be regarded as the principal engine of health and safety law. One sympathises with the view expressed in the 292 memorandum of the Department of Employment dated March 1989 that much of what is coming from Europe is already implicit in our law. That leads us to consider whether, and to what extent, it is necessary to make explicit the requirements coming from Europe, thereby running the risk once again of having too much law. However, the belief that the 1974 Act is a good enough basis for many of the European directives can be no excuse for not responding positively to the massive programme which is under way in Europe.
As a lawyer one is, I suppose, inevitably concerned primarily with the rather negative aspect of health and safety; namely, compensation when things go wrong. I had to struggle for three days to obtain a pitiful sum for an exemplary worker who lost his eye in the service of his employers, who had not provided him with proper protective goggles. It was especially irksome to receive on his behalf —on the basis of full liability —a miserly sum while other public figures were receiving enormous sums from libel juries. I do not apologise for saying that damages, especially for the smaller type of injury, are not high enough.
In an Adjournment Debate in another place last week, it was interesting to read that the Government may be looking again at no-fault compensation. Even if I am wrong about that, it is a topic which needs further consideration, especially now that structured settlements have come into being. I ask that the opportunity be taken for the House to debate that topic once again.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for putting down the debate today and I should like to join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister to our debate. He is fortunate indeed to be starting with the relatively low-temperature subject of health and safety rather than with our annual bun fight over the birth of yet another of the sons of Frankenstein. We believe that we may be saved another son of Frankenstein in the immediate future, and so we can concentrate on the far more important issues involved in tonight's debate.
We have so far had 10 speakers in the debate. It seems to me that they have all testified to the case for the Motion put down by my noble friend. There have been three themes in the debate: that there are signs of deterioration in the position on health and safety after 20 years or so of advance; that there are serious limitations in the institutions for dealing with health and safety after their reconstruction in 1974; and that there are a considerable number of practical, modest proposals, many of which have been put forward by previous speakers, for improving our health and safety record.
For the deterioration I would advance—much of this is merely a summary of what others have said —four pieces of evidence. First, there were all the statistics quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, and my noble friends Lord Dean of Beswick and Lady Turner: the fact that the accident rates, after improving significantly in the 1960s and rather more 293 significantly in the 1970s, suddenly became stuck in the 1980s—they showed only slight improvement throughout the 1980s—and have not improved at all since the mid-1980s.
Everything that we know about the industrial mix in this country—the decline of the smoke-stack industries; the decline of iron, steel and coal and so on —would make us expect to see a decline rather than a stagnation in accident rates. No one can seriously doubt—I do not expect the Government to admit it tonight—that some of the major reasons for the decline in the rate of improvement have been the pressures of increased competition, the pressures of the recession and the many cuts the Government have made in the various provisions for social services, and health and safety, and, in particular, cuts in the Health and Safety Commission's budget. We have the figures and they give us good reason to feel worried.
There has also been an increasing number of major accidents which seem to us to be rather worse and rather more extensive than accidents in the past, occurring in industries and occupations which we had been brought up to believe were relatively safe; for example, British Rail and the London Underground. Thirdly, there have been new threats at work and new fears of danger or violence at work; for example, among librarians, in schools, on buses, and in places where we believed that violence was not normally seen. Finally, and this has been mentioned by several speakers, there are the consequences of 1992.
In his report, the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, made it clear that a substantial majority of the existing non-tariff barriers in Europe were defended by arguments relating to health and safety. They are all supposed to go. That of course is why the Health and Safety Commission is being inundated with one draft directive after another from the European Commission. One of the most remarkable figures I have seen in a public document for a long time is contained in this year's Health and Safety Commission's annual report in which the commission says that there has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of meetings in Brussels or overseas. If that rate of increase continues, it will be no wonder that we shall see fewer safety inspectors; they will all be in Brussels. I do not say that they should not go to Brussels; I say that that is one of the reasons why we must have a re-think about the resources that we put at the disposal of the Health and Safety Commission.
I pass to the second line of argument that we have had in the debate. It has been put forward most recently and convincingly by the noble Lord, Lord Meston. That second line of argument is that we should look at the policies that we have been following in this country since 1974, which come out of the great —we can say this in retrospect—Robens Report. The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, was wrong. It is even better than he suggested. Lord Robens was appointed by Barbara Castle. He investigated and reported to Maurice Macmillan who introduced the Bill which was passed by Michael Foot. It was a wonderful example of what we had in industrial relations legislation in those days—consensus. It was a fine 294 report. As has been said on the other side of the House, it put us in advance of most other countries on health and safety. Even in 1991 most of the points that the Robens Report made are seen to be true: simplification, unification and self-regulation.
We created an excellent agency which we have systematically underfunded ever since. We now know that the Robens Report had a number of post hoc defects that we can now see. It underplayed the role of conflict. As has been said, it failed to advance participation and it left a consistently under-resourced set of institutions because it did not talk about money. One did not talk about money when one produced reports in the 1970s.
The point about conflicts is important. It is true, as my noble friend Lady Phillips said, that there are considerable areas of agreement on health and safety. Everyone wants to get the workers to put on goggles and to wear helmets. Everyone wants to get them to carry through the procedures. The employer is especially keen that they should use all the expensive equipment that he has provided for their use. However, as my noble friend Lord Ardwick said, when it comes to visual display units and whether the workers need to interrupt the flow of their work every 15 minutes in order to have a break, there is a cost involved, and the TUC naturally says one thing and the CBI says another. When it comes to which carcinogenic substances should be included in a schedule against which workers must be protected, the employers will make a short list and the unions will make a long list.
I refer for a moment to Piper Alpha and the amazing list of defects which Lord Cullen listed: the permanent works system; the low standard of fire fighting; inadequate training; the absence of monitoring; and bad management. I do not say that those were the results of the company not spending enough money nor that the company was mean. I say that if the company were ever to carry out half the proposals in the report, it would have to spend a great deal more money than it spends now.
There is a conflict as regards health and safety and therefore we must have legal regulations. As several noble Lords have said, Lord Robens overplayed the self-control, the joint investment, the common interest. There need to be tough measures, some law and some fines. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, that even ICI was fined £250,000; Tate & Lyle was fined £250,000. The average fine is less than £1,000 and it is much too low.
I turn to the situation of inspectors on which I wish to make a number of points because it concerns practical proposals. I calculate that we now have 554 inspectors in the field force. They visit 175,000 places a year—316 each. I calculate on this year's report that for 16 million workers the inspectors make 316 visits —one per day. That is farcical. It is not true that the numbers have risen. The maximum number of inspectors was 759 in 1980. In 1988 it was 592. This year I read in the annual report that the field force is 554. That is a decline. In the report this year the director-general, John Rimington stated that renewed growth had come after nearly a decade of increasing 295 difficulty—in other words, cuts—as the functions laid on them had multiplied while their core of experienced staff had dwindled in numbers. That is the position today and it has not been arrested. John Rimington goes on to say that the major recruitment effort they are having to make consumes large resources—he does not say that the men or women are there, he says that they are being recruited—and it means that they are carrying a burden of experience which is making a reduction in the amount of effective work which inspectors can achieve on average. Thus the position is not yet better. My question to the Government is: when will it get better?
I also agree that we ought to have further integration of the inspectorate. As has been said, the Cullen Report makes that suggestion. I do not suppose that the Government can tell us tonight, but I hope that they will tell us soon that they accept that. I agree also with what was said about local authorities. The local authority inspectorate should be integrated with the rest of the inspectorate because at the moment we are starving local authorities. There has been a 24 per cent. reduction in the past two years in the number of officers with that function. Even if they were the right body to do this, it does not have the money.
I also believe that there should be an integration of the railway inspectorate. There is a widespread feeling, not merely confined to the railway unions but among many people in British Rail, that we need to see the full declared independence of the railway inspectorate. We shall not see that until it is fully integrated and made part of the present inspectorate.
Lastly, what about the cost of all this? Most of the cost of what has been suggested tonight would be borne by bad employers and would come out in fines. The rain would rain upon the unjust and there is nothing wrong in that. The direct cost would be very small; I know that is so because I have asked people in the House and they tell me that it is right. The way I read the annual report of the Health and Safety Commission, the cost is £119 million per year. If we double that, in five years it would only be £200 million per year. If we focus on the field staff and on the people behind the lines, it would not cost us more than £150 million per year. That is £10 million a year to do something about health and safety. It is pitiful; it is extremely small. I hope that the Government will tell us that they can do it.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne
My Lords, I have listened to the concerns about health and safety at work expressed by noble Lords during this debate, and I can assure the House that this Government are committed to seeing that workplaces enjoy the highest standards of health and safety that are reasonably practicable. Workplace accidents and ill-health can indeed have tragic consequences and are matters which touch us all. I am sure that we are all well aware of the effects of even minor workplace injuries or 296 exposures to harmful substances or processes; and many of us have personal experiences that reinforce our concern.
Health and safety is an area where a degree of common ground should, and I believe does, exist between all parties. The 1974 Health and Safety at Work, &c. Act is an outstanding example of that common ground. The legislation was drawn up by a Conservative Government and put onto the statute book by an incoming Labour Government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and other noble Lords have referred to the unacceptable level of accidents in certain industries. The Government are determined to reduce accident levels, although I should point out that viewed over the long term the trend is encouraging. The latest fatal injury rates are at a level less than a third of that 30 years ago and less than half of that 20 years ago. Within manufacturing industry the rate is also only about half that for 1970. I also point out that the available statistics suggest that fatal injuries in the United Kingdom are among the lowest of all EC member states. There is, however, certainly no room for complacency.
With regard to major accidents, the overall picture is that we seem now to have reached a kind of plateau, but there are variations between industries. For example, reported major injury rates in the construction industry have again risen. In addition, we must not forget that health at work is as important as safety and that many illnesses caused by work-related activity can have long latency periods. The Health and Safety Commission's current best estimates suggest that ill-health caused by work gives rise to at least 2,000 premature deaths each year and contributes to a further 8,000.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred eloquently to the importance of safety management in industry. Time and again official reports of disasters across the world—Three Mile Island, Challenger, Bhopal and closer to home Zeebrugge, King's Cross, Clapham and Piper Alpha—have drawn attention to failures by management to ensure adequate control of the risks associated with their organisation's activities. Studies by the Health and Safety Executive have shown that the vast majority of fatal accidents and those causing serious injury could have been prevented by management action. Accidents are not inevitable matters of chance but are subject to management control. It should therefore be possible virtually to eliminate them.
The HSE's accident prevention advisory unit has identified certain common features among organisations which are successful in achieving low levels of accidents. These include a conviction that high standards are achievable; a management which adopts a proactive approach and sets realistic and monitored objectives for health and safety for which managers at every level are held accountable; the systematic identification of hazards arising from the organisation's activities; and the devising and maintenance of systems which ensure that the hazards are eliminated or controlled.
297 It is worth noting that practitioners of such an approach believe their programmes to be cost-effective, especially within the context of an overall loss control programme. I am sure noble Lords will agree that as we enter the 1990s the pursuit of business excellence demands much more than maximisation of profits and is seen by forward looking companies to embody the total well-being of the individual employee and environment, together with the production of total product quality.
Attention has quite rightly been drawn to the importance of training in improving health and safety at work. The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act requires employers to provide the training needed to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the safety and health of employees. Nor is the UK alone in recognising its importance. European Community directives also place on employers the responsibility of providing adequate training in safety and health.
Training is higher than ever before on the nation's agenda and as a topic for boardroom discussion. This results from a growing recognition of its benefits and from what has been described as a revolution in the field of training. The Health and Safety Commission and Executive are determined that this revolution should bring about improvements in health and safety; effective training is one of the most important ways of developing a safety culture and hence a safer and healthier working environment.
The commission and executive have, therefore, been looking recently at policy and practice on health and safety training. The HSE considered in particular the extent to which national standards and syllabi could increase the effectiveness of health and safety training; how national government training bodies, accrediting bodies and training providers could help promote health and safety training; and the requirements of different groups such as employees, managers, health and safety practitioners and young people. As a result a range of measures will be taken over the next few years to raise the profile and increase awareness of the importance of health and safety training. Ultimately, however, the responsibility for ensuring adequate training must rest with the employer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, referred to the Construction Industry Training Board. The CITB has reviewed its structure and approach over recent years to improve its effectiveness in the future. It maintains a high health and safety profile and seeks to improve standards of health and safety through training packages, advice and courses which plug gaps in the existing training provision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, referred to Lord Cullen's report on the Piper Alpha disaster. I share the welcome given by the noble Baroness to that excellent report. The Government have accepted the report's recommendations and work is in hand to implement those recommendations as rapidly as is consistent with effective implementation. I hope that that also answers the point that the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, made.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lords, the noble Earl made some nice remarks about the CITB, but the review that is now being carried out is causing anxiety. Can the Minister offer the CITB some assurances?
§ The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne
My Lords, I have some further comments to make on the CITB later in my speech. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to penalties for Channel Tunnel contractors. The Health and Safety Executive has successfully prosecuted contractors three times, and a further four prosecutions are currently in progress. Cases of manslaughter brought against senior management of companies are possible under existing law, but it is often difficult to prove a link in court between senior managers and individual accidents.
The noble Baroness also referred to small businesses. The HSE is concerned about accident rates in small businesses. It has recently produced a report for small firms entitled Safety Pays. That report emphasises the benefits of an effective health and safety policy. A recent HSE initiative in Yorkshire and the North-East targeted small firms' premises resulting in a range of enforcement action and substantial local and national publicity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, also referred to the framework directive. The Government are a party to adopting the directive and proposals for implementation are being developed. There have been increases in provision from the Government, who have met the HSC's public expenditure survey bids in full in recent years. The Government increased gross provision to the commission and the HSE by £9 million in 1989–90 to a total of £118 million; and in 1990–91 by £40 million, including £22 million for nuclear safety research, to a total of £158 million, with an additional £2.5 million being provided in the Winter Supplement. As a result of this the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, Dr. John Cullen, was able to write to the Secretary of State at the end of last year,I am naturally very pleased that the resources the Commission asked for to take forward our programme of work will be forthcoming in 1991/92. The Commission wish to express their thanks to you for the efforts you made to achieve that outcome".Those are reassuring words indeed.
In common with other government departments, there was a decline in HSC resources in the early 1980s. However, this trend was reversed in 1988–89. The HSC now has 8 per cent. more inspectors than in 1988–1989, and further increases are planned. However, there is a limit to the number of trainees which the HSC can absorb in any year. That is why the increases are gradual.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to penalties. I agree with the noble Baroness that one of the problems with prosecution as an enforcement weapon has been the low level of fines imposed by the courts. This gives the wrong impression to defendants and to employers generally about how seriously we regard health and safety offences.
In its annual report for 1989–90, the Health and Safety Executive noted signs that the courts were 299 beginning to act severely in cases of serious dereliction of health and safety responsibilities. In 1989–90 provisional figures show an average fine for all courts of £877, a rise of over £300 on the previous year's average. Some exceptional individual fines were also imposed, such as the £250,000 levied against Nobel Explosives in April of last year for the explosion in Peterborough on 29th March 1989.
However, the Government and the Health and Safety Commission and Executive all consider that the average level of fines remains too low. This problem is being tackled on two fronts: by administrative changes to the maximum fine and by HSE inspectors explaining to the courts the seriousness of the health and safety cases they hear. Naturally, if these measures are to be fully effective, magistrates will have to be fully committed to them. Early last year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment wrote to the chairman of the Magistrates Association expressing his concern about the low level of fines for health and safety offences. At the invitation of the association, he later published an article in the August edition of The Magistrate. This is an encouraging sign and we hope that magistrates will continue to give health and safety the priority it deserves.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway referred to the Cullen Report. The recommendations in that report on the Piper Alpha disaster were accepted by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The Health and Safety Commission was asked to take on responsibility for regulating offshore oil and gas safety. It is intended that the transfer of functions from the Department of Energy to the commission will take place in the spring and arrangements are well in hand. Until then the Department of Energy and the Department of Transport will retain responsibility for offshore safety functions.
HSC's priority will be to make a rapid and effective start on implementing Lord Cullen's recommendations for a new safety regime. This will be a major task. The Government are committed to seeing that this is done promptly, comprehensively and effectively.
The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Rochester, again referred to the Piper Alpha tragedy. Lord Cullen recognised the benefits which trade union involvement in health and safety can bring. Indeed the primary responsibility for health and safety offshore must lie with the operators and their employees who work in the North Sea. Lord Cullen concluded that it would be inappropriate to change the offshore regulations for safety representatives. These regulations will nevertheless be reviewed this year after two years of operation.
The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Rochester, referred to technological change and Europe. Technological developments expected in the 1990s will have a significant potential to benefit but also, unfortunately, to threaten health and safety. One illustration is the continuing rapid growth in the 300 application of computers to the design, operation and maintenance of plants. which presents positive opportunities for removing people from risky locations, strengthening control and reducing human error. It also shifts the onus for decisions from plant operators to designers, reducing the scope for human intervention in a crisis or unforeseen circumstances. In other areas, such as the growing use of biotechnology, we are constantly being presented with new challenges and new potential hazards which must be fully assessed and controlled.
As noble Lords have said, this is a European phenomenon. The Government are committed to furthering health and safety on a Europe-wide basis and ensuring that our own high standards are not only maintained but shared by other member states. That will not only reduce the toll of human suffering but will also reduce the scope for competitive distortions which disadvantage our industry.
The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, referred to European Community developments. It is European Community initiatives which have had by far the greatest impact on our domestic legislative programme on health and safety. It is therefore fortunate that the high esteem in which the Health and Safety Executive is held throughout Europe allows the United Kingdom to play a highly influential role in those developments.
I now return to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, regarding construction. As I have said, training is a key element in managing a safety culture and I know that the Health and Safety Commission shares that view. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the importance of health and safety training in the construction industry. The construction industry is a key area of concern and health and safety remain a major problem. The industry has invested much time and money in trying to improve its health and safety performance. Some larger companies in particular are behaving in a highly responsible manner. It is also heartening to know that our fatal accident rate is better than those of many other European countries. However, all fatalities represent a personal tragedy and there is no scope for complacency. The Government and the HSC regard the fact that there are still about three deaths each week in the industry as totally unacceptable. Improvements in safety standards must be achieved.
Prime responsibility for bringing about improvements rests with the industry itself. However, as part of the continuing process of promoting long-lasting improvements in standards the HSC has proposed new legislation to strengthen the management of health and safety on construction sites. That is now being developed in parallel with a recently proposed European directive which also addresses the organisation and control of safety on site.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred to the investigation of complaints. Public concern over health and safety issues has grown rapidly in recent years. The noble Baroness referred to the increasing volume of complaints received by the HSE. Noble Lords will realise that those complaints will vary in 301 their seriousness and the HSE must judge what action to take, according to which cases are likely to be strongly based. All fatal accidents are investigated. However, noble Lords may be assured that HSE's inspectors will pursue complaints and take enforcement action to the highest levels in companies not measuring up to the standards expected of them.
The noble Baroness also drew attention to the health and safety of home workers. I remind your Lordships that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act applies to all employers and employees alike. Enforcement action has been taken in respect of home workers at risk.
My noble friend Lord O'Hagan mentioned the subject of European Community initiatives, which have had by far the biggest impact on our domestic legislative programme on health and safety. It is therefore fortunate that the high esteem in which the Health and Safety Executive is held throughout Europe allows the United Kingdom to play a highly influential role in those developments. The Government are pressing for European directives to be properly implemented throughout Europe.
The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, mentioned the subject of VDUs. I shall touch briefly on that issue. As noble Lords have indicated, an EC directive on the use of VDUs was adopted last year. Work has now begun to determine how that directive can best be implemented in the United Kingdom. The Health and Safety Commission will issue a consultative document later this year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, also referred to genetically modified organisms. HSE inspectors receive a high standard of training and already include experts in the appropriate areas. They comprise the widest group of expert professionals in the public service inspectorates. It is for that reason that they will deal with environmental matters in co-operation with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution.
The noble Lord, Lord Meston, mentioned marginal workers. I can assure the noble Lord that health and safety at work regulations apply to all working people —temporary, part-time, self-employed or on contract. New control measures are being developed to deal with the special problems of workers on sub-contracts.
The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, referred to violence at work. Employment Ministers share his concern. They have spoken out in support of the HSC's committee on violence to staff at work which is looking at ways to reduce violence and to care for staff affected by it.
The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, and other noble Lords referred to HSE resources. I can only repeat that the Government have met the HSC's budget requests in full year after year. I think that that includes the past four years.
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I understand what he is saying. But I am not quite clear about what he said earlier. Can he enlighten me? I thought that he said that the HSC was committed to reversing the decline in the number of inspectors. According to my evidence, that has not yet 302 taken place. In 1988 we had 592 inspectors and in 1989 we had 554. When will that reversal take place? Will it reach the point where we have 759 inspectors, as we had in 1980?
§ The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne
My Lords, perhaps I may deal with that point later in my speech.
The Health and Safety Executive will continue to expand its programme of preventive inspections, which are planned using a rating system based on inspectors' judgment of risks, site standards and management control and the interval since the last inspection, thus ensuring that the frequency with which particular premises are visited takes due account of the risks at those premises. Particular attention will be given to occupational health issues and management arrangements for health and safety and also to the protection of the public. Noble Lords may be assured that the HSE's inspectors will pursue complaints and take enforcement action to the highest levels in companies not measuring up to the standards expected of them.
The Health and Safety Commission and HSE will certainly be doing their best to ensure that the message of the importance of health and safety gets across to everybody. They will be building on their successful approach, demonstrated during implementation of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, of using a variety of media to get key safety messages across to small firms and other groups which are sometimes hard to reach. They will also be playing their full part in planning for success in 1992, which, I remind noble Lords, is to be European Year of Safety, Health and Hygiene.
Returning to the last point of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, perhaps it would be better both for the noble Lord and for me if I write to him on the subject.
Of course the Commission and the HSE will not be working alone but in concert with representatives of the TUC, CBI, local authorities, consumer interests, safety organisations and experts. Their aim will be to achieve lasting improvements in the United Kingdom health and safety system. The Government fully support all those involved in that task and I hope that noble Lords will endorse their efforts.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lord, before the Minister sits down perhaps I may ask him one question. He said nice things about CITB. Is the message from him and his department that the CITB has nothing to worry about for 1992?
§ The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite rightly very persistent on this matter. Again, I believe that it would be better if I write to him in due course.
§ 8.9 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who participated in an excellent and wide-ranging debate in which your Lordships drew on a wide range of expertise in this area. I should also like to thank the Minister for his speech on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box on this subject.
303 In particular I welcome his assurances that the Government are determined to reduce accident levels and that there is no room for complacency. However, in certain respects I found some of his responses a little disappointing, particularly concerning the Construction Industry Training Board and its future. On the other hand, I note that as far as the Cullen Report and the framework directives are concerned, we may, I suppose, expect to have the opportunity to look at some new legislation in this field. Certainly it is the view of those of us on this side of the House that there is room for much tougher legislation, as I think we have indicated in a number of speeches. In particular, in our view there is a case for an increase in the number of inspectors, because it seems incontrovertible that there has been a decrease in the inspectorate since the early days of the 1980s.
That being so, while I thank the Minister for his contribution to the debate, I hope that the Government will take seriously the issues we have raised this evening. I look forward to hearing more as to what the intentions are following the Cullen Report, the framework directive and the present consideration being given to the VDU directive. That will give us an opportunity to come back for a further discussion. In the meantime, having thanked everybody, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.