HL Deb 06 November 1998 vol 594 cc494-8

2.8 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd July be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Dubs, I beg to move that the draft Health and Safety at Work (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 which was laid before your Lordships' House on 23rd July 1998 be approved.

The primary purpose of the order is to provide for the establishment and functions of a new executive non-departmental public body, operating along Next Steps lines, to be called the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland.

The essential thrust of the draft order is to streamline the administrative structure for health and safety at work in Northern Ireland. As health and safety at work will be a transferred matter under the new political arrangements in Northern Ireland, it is important that that structure should be as efficient and effective as possible.

I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I say a few words about the role of the proposed executive. The executive will assume the functions of the Department of Economic Development (apart from its legislative making function), the Health and Safety Agency for Northern Ireland, an advisory non-departmental public body, and the Employment Medical Advisory Service under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. The draft order will also align the functions of the executive more closely with those of the Great Britain Health and Safety Commission/Executive.

The draft order provides that the executive, as is the case with the Health and Safety Commission/Executive in Great Britain established under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, will enjoy Crown status. This means that the executive's staff will be civil servants and thus the terms and conditions of employment of existing staff will be protected. No other non-departmental public body in Northern Ireland enjoys Crown status and I believe that conferring this status on the executive indicates the importance Government attach to its role.

The executive will have very wide ranging policy functions in relation to health and safety in the workplace, including powers to make proposals to Government for new legislation dealing with health and safety at work. The executive will also have extensive enforcement powers in its own right and its inspectors will have very wide powers under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 to tell people what to do, to carry out investigations and to take legal proceedings where necessary.

There was a general welcome for the proposals following the publication of the proposal for the draft order. However, Government have agreed to make two changes to the draft order in response to the consultation exercise. The power of the head of the Department of Economic Development to appoint a deputy chairman of the executive will be exercised only after consultation with the executive. Also, in relation to the employment of staff by the executive, the draft order now provides that the executive "shall", rather than "may" employ staff.

Noble Lords will, I am sure, welcome the Government's proposals, as outlined by me today, to streamline the administrative structure of health and safety at work legislation in Northern Ireland and at the same time bring that legislation more closely into line with that applying in Great Britain. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd July be approved.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as the Minister said, the responsibility for health and safety at work is about to be transferred to the new Northern Ireland Assembly and executive. However, at present it is undertaken on the old direct rule basis. In some respects, the whole framework of the order proceeds on that basis. When responsibility is transferred, will it be necessary to have an agreement—sometimes known as a concordat—between the new executive which is part of the Assembly and the Health and Safety Executive?

The choice of the term "the executive", which occurs throughout the order, is likely to lead to confusion when the Government in Northern Ireland is about to become known as "the executive".

There was a choice of two names, following the Great Britain example where we have both a Health and Safety Commission and a Health and Safety Executive, the executive answering to the commission. In the Northern Ireland case, under this order, there will be a single body carrying out the functions of the commission and the executive in Great Britain. However we should not—and I do not—complain too much about its name.

There is another small point which I noticed. I was not quite sure how it arose. The chairman of the new health and safety executive is to be disqualified from being a Member of the Westminster Parliament. However, all the members of the new body are to be disqualified from being a member of the Assembly. It seemed to me rather odd that only the chairman should be disqualified from the Commons whereas all the members, including the chairman, should be disqualified from the Assembly itself. It seems to me that some of the Assembly members may be very suitable for appointment to that body in due course. If they are allowed to stand and be Members of the Westminster Parliament, I should have thought it was not inappropriate for them also to be permitted to be members of the Assembly. But again, that is a small point.

The most important single phrase within the order occurs on page 6 where, in Article 20 on enforcement authorities, after "concerned" the words "and the Executive" are inserted. That gives power to the health and safety executive to enforce the various regulations for which it is to be responsible. I notice that the word "and" is used there. That means that the enforcement is, under this order, to be the responsibility of the department and the health and safety executive and not the sole responsibility of the health and safety executive. That was not what I was expecting in that part. I am not sure what will be the remaining duties of the department, as opposed to the executive or, for that matter, what will be the responsibility of any other department in respect of it. Therefore, I am not sure whether the executive is really being given the full powers.

Finally, is there likely to be a consolidation of this order? It seems to me that where we have, as we have here, a very large number of amendments made throughout the whole of the 1978 order—for example, almost every paragraph refers to "the agency" and that is collectively changed to "the executive" throughout but there are also smaller changes set out in the schedule—it all becomes extremely complicated. Therefore, I hope that we shall have a consolidating order before too long so that there is a single document which people can consult to know all the arrangements made for the important work of enforcing health and safety legislation throughout Northern Ireland.

In general, this order is desirable. In some respects, it is surprising that it has been so long coming. That does not reflect any particular Northern Ireland consideration. Northern Ireland legislation has tended to follow, at a rather long distance sometimes, Great Britain legislation. But here in Great Britain, the Health and Safety Commission and Executive have long established themselves as important and excellent bodies carrying out their functions; enjoying a great deal of confidence from all sides of industry and from the public at large; and I believe and hope that this executive in Northern Ireland will quickly be able to establish a similar degree of confidence from all concerned throughout the Province.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I hope that I shall be able to answer the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cope. With regard to the issue of disqualification from office, disqualification is normal for such post holders and is in line with normal practice. The chairman is disqualified from the Commons because this is a class A appointment. Members are a class B appointment and, therefore, different circumstances apply.

The noble Lord asked whether there would be a consolidation of the order. That will be a matter for Assembly decision in the future.

He asked also why the enforcement is the responsibility of the department and the executive. This provision takes account of the possibility that a future change in the law might involve another department, for example the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, in relation to railway safety.

I hope I have answered the points that were raised. There is no need for a concordat in this case. We anticipate very close working relationships, which will continue from the existing close relationships, under the new arrangements proposed. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-one minutes past two o'clock.