HL Deb 21 April 1994 vol 554 cc279-81

3.10 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive is able to carry out its dual roles of law enforcement and protector of employees effectively.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, yes, I have every confidence in the Health and Safety Executive's approach to enforcement. The responsibility for protecting employees lies with the employers and with the employees themselves.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply to my Question. Perhaps he can help me and a lot of people out of some difficulty. Employees are afraid to report incidents of pesticide exposure to the Health and Safety Executive for fear that they will be sacked by their employers. Employers are afraid to report such incidents because they are frightened of being prosecuted. Can the noble Lord give the exact position with regard to those matters?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I somehow expected that pesticide exposure might raise its head. I believe that the noble Countess makes a very valid point that it can be extremely difficult for an employee in a firm which employs just one or two people, from a purely personal human relations point of view, to report incidents to the authorities. I hope that the officers and inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive will act with appropriate care and caution, and will make themselves available as best they can.

As regards the noble Countess's second point, I understand that there may be considerable fear by any given employer about prosecution. It may help if I elaborate on the prosecution policy of the Health and Safety Executive. It considers a number of matters: principally the gravity of the offence; the general record and approach of the offender; and, thirdly—and I think this is most important—whether it is desirable to be seen to produce some public effect, including the need to ensure remedial action, by the punishment of offenders in order to deter similar offenders who have not complied with the law. The point is that the Health and Safety Executive is not in the business of prosecuting left, right and centre. It will prosecute only when it is absolutely appropriate in the given circumstances of a case.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many thousands of employees cannot be protected by the Health and Safety Executive because management can hide behind Crown immunity and cannot be prosecuted no matter how negligent it has been? Crown notices are a pathetically inadequate substitute for legal protection. That is why the Government should abolish Crown immunity.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord made that point very forcefully only yesterday. I cannot take the noble Lord any further than I did then. As I said yesterday, the Health and Safety Executive is considering both the costs and benefits of the removal of Crown immunity, but we should not wish to go down that line if it showed that costs exceeded the benefits. However, as I made clear, also to the noble Lord yesterday, we believe that health and safety legislation bites fully on the Crown and that it should observe exactly the same standards as are observed in the rest of the country.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware—I am sure that he is—that the Health and Safety Commission report for 1992–93 made reference to a new enforcement strategy to be applied by the inspectorate? Is any information available as to how that is working? Secondly, will the Minister give assurances that the Health and Safety Commission will continue to be provided with the appropriate resources to do the very valuable job which it is now doing, despite what is recommended in the deregulation Bill which will shortly be before this House?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as regards the first point, it is rather early days to say what progress is being made but. I shall certainly let the noble Baroness know in due course.

On the matter of resources for the Health and Safety Commission, following the 1993 Public Expenditure Survey, the settlement will be £190 million for 1994–95 and £192 million for 1995–96. That is somewhat less than the previous allocation, but I assure the noble Baroness that it is a still a 6 per cent. increase on the provision for 1993–94. We believe, and the Health and Safety Commission itself believes, that it is most important to increase and have a reasonable number of inspectors for the inspectorate. I assure the noble Baroness that the number of inspectors has increased by about one-third since about 1988.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is not the most important factor that information is freely available and disseminated among the farming population in which the noble Countess is interested? That is more important than prosecuting. I remember an example many years ago, just after the war, when I was instructing my grieve on the dangers of spraying. He said that he was fully aware of the dangers because he had told the men, when clearing the nozzles, to blow and not to suck.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct. Obviously information is more important than prosecution. That is why I tried to stress, when I answered the noble Countess, that the Health and Safety Executive does not prosecute just like that. It prefers to offer advice on compliance with the legal requirements as far as possible.

As regards purely agricultural matters, which is the particular anxiety of the noble Countess, I assure the noble Lord that a new document on sheep dipping and how to protect your health will be distributed to all registered sheep farmers in time for the main dipping season.