HL Deb 30 October 1996 vol 575 cc320-2

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, after the first full year of the privatisation of the coal industry, they are satisfied with the level of accidents in the industry.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Government are never satisfied with the level of accidents in the coal industry or anywhere else at work. However, the evidence suggests that there has been no decline in health and safety standards since privatisation and, in some areas, greater emphasis has been placed on health and safety issues.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I appreciate that accidents have traditionally been analysed on the basis of the rate per 100,000 man shifts. However, in spite of what the Minister has just said, what significance do the Government place on the fact that the number of fatalities in the mining industry has increased from two to five and that there has been an increase in serious accidents of 18 per cent.? Do the Government consider that the reduction in the number of mines inspectors—from 60 in 1993 to 22 at the present time—is sufficient to ensure proper safety in the pits?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct. The number of fatal accidents rose between 1994–95 and 1995–96 by three. That is to be greatly regretted. However, one has to remember that the number of man shifts worked also rose by some 22 per cent. during the same period. During that time the rate of all reportable accidents fell. The number of fatal and serious accidents in 1994–95 was the lowest on record and the number in 1995–96 was the second lowest. The number of people in the mining inspectorate has gone up from the figure which the noble Lord quoted.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, will the Minister ask the Health and Safety Executive to inquire into the increasing use of contractors brought in as sub-contractors in and around the coal mines? I ask that because the accident figures of those contract workers may not be registered by the private owner and consequently the total of all casualties of all workers in and around coal mines may be entirely different from what is produced in the reports.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is always difficult when one starts comparing figures. The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, was correct in saying that the figures are normally based on the rate per 100,000 man shifts. The figure for accidents in 1994–95 was 10.19, which went down to 8.44 in 1995–96. Before privatisation only British Coal collected figures in that form, but since privatisation the Health and Safety Executive has collected figures from all coal mine owners. The rates for 1994–95 are therefore only for mines operated by British Coal but the rates for the later period, 1995–96, cover all the privatised industries.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I wish to revert to the question of mine safety engineers. Is it not a fact that the resources of the Health and Safety Executive as a whole are at present overstretched and that this applies as much to mining as to anything else? Are the Government looking carefully at this matter and aiming to put it right?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not think the resources are overstretched. Certainly they are kept fully employed. The mines inspectorate investigated the effects of privatisation on health and safety standards in the coal industry. Employees and local trade union representatives were asked how management attitudes had changed since privatisation. The general response was that there had been little change but some said that management were placing a greater emphasis on safety. I can assure your Lordships that the Health and Safety Executive mines inspectorate regularly monitors these standards.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, have the resources of the Health and Safety Executive been reduced; and if so, to what extent? To what extent is the HSE's activity impaired as a result of any such reduction?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in fact, there are now more inspectors than there were a short while ago.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Coal Authority has said that it intends to inspect every working mine at least once in each calendar year. Will the Minister say who will monitor that, particularly as the Health and Safety Executive has said in its report that, because some of its activity has been diverted elsewhere, it is not entirely sure how it can cope with its planned inspection of the pits?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not aware that there was a difficulty over the inspection of the pits in the way the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, suggests. I shall certainly look into the point and write to him.