HL Deb 21 March 2001 vol 623 cc1418-22

2.40 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Wirral

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to remove Crown immunity under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, including the present immunity which extends to the Palace of Westminster.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government announced their intention to remove Crown immunity from the statutory enforcement of health and safety law in the Revitalising Health and Safety strategy statement which was published in June last year. In Parliament the situation is somewhat different. However, we have the agreement in principle of the House authorities to apply health and safety legislation to the Parliamentary Estate. Both of these measures are being considered for the safety Bill that the Government are currently drafting.

Lord Hunt of Wirral

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, will he accept that there is a degree of impatience about the issue because the same commitment was given by the previous government? So far as concerns the Palace of Westminster, the reason why it has not been possible to move as fast as some of us would have liked has been the lack of accommodation. The fact that the Minister's right honourable and honourable friends at Her Majesty's Treasury have authorised the expenditure of a substantial sum of public money on a property known as Portcullis House will mean the release of a substantial amount of accommodation within the Palace of Westminster. Will the Minister ensure a fair balance in terms of the use of accommodation between the House of Lords and the other place? Will he ensure not only that the changing and dining facilities for our staff are upgraded, but also that accommodation for Members of this House, for their staff and for others who work within the Palace of Westminster conforms to the necessary legislation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I fear that it would not be proper to reply to the bulk of that supplementary question, as it is a matter for the House authorities, in terms of budgets and their relationship to another place, rather than for any government Minister. The Government have a commitment to legislate—indeed, reference was made in the Queen's Speech to pre-legislative scrutiny in relation to a safety Bill. We are currently drafting a Bill that will include provisions to remove Crown immunity from all Crown properties. As I say, the Parliamentary Estate is slightly different; however, the Bill will cover that as well and will ensure the direct application of health and safety legislation to the Palace of Westminster and the enforcement of that legislation.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is ironic that successive governments have legislated for all of us, especially for any wrongdoing, but have used Crown immunity to protect themselves and to exonerate themselves from any wrongdoing? Does my noble friend recall that in the Commons some years ago some of us managed to get Crown immunity lifted in relation to dirty and dangerous kitchens, which previously could not be inspected? We also managed to get Crown immunity lifted for service personnel who wanted to make claims for negligence during training but could not do so. I welcome my noble friend's historic announcement. It will strip government of their historic defence, and it is a genuine indication of open government. When will it be done?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept that this has been a problem in regard to health and safety legislation for many years and that it has become caught up with the legal and almost theological arguments about whether the Crown can sue itself at law. What is really important here is the protection of those who work on Crown properties and for Crown employers, as well as for those who pass through such premises. That is what our legislation will be designed to remedy. As I say, the safety Bill is currently being drafted. It was referred to in the Queen's Speech and will be enacted by this Government in this, or possibly the next, Session.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, can the Minister hold out any hope that, under this new regime, the temperature of this place will be kept at a reasonable level above freezing point?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, although I have deep sympathy with the noble Lord's predicament, again, it is hardly a matter for the Government; indeed, it is a matter for the House authorities. Should the noble Lord wish to address such a question to them, I have no doubt that he will receive a warm answer.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the Minister accept that many staff employed in this building work and live in conditions that would be totally unacceptable anywhere else in the country? Does the noble Lord further accept that there is no way that the Government, this House or Parliament itself can shelter behind anyone else's responsibility? If they wish to deal with the situation, nothing can stop them—or does the noble Lord believe that that is wrong?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the question is what law applies. The House authorities have committed themselves to following health and safety regulations as far as concerns this House and, indeed, another place. There is a House of Lords Safety Policy that meets the best requirements of health and safety practice. There are problems associated with operating it within this building, but the House authorities have addressed that. Therefore, I do not want any implication to be taken of criticism of the House authorities. However, how they take it further in terms of the health and safety regime is a matter for them rather than us. Our responsibility is to ensure that the law applies equally to all work places.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I should like clarification of my noble friend's reply to the first supplementary question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. When responding, my noble friend said that it is not for the Government to decide such matters. Can he confirm that neither is it a matter for the usual channels; it is matter for the House itself?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. My noble friend is absolutely right: it is a matter for the House itself.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Refreshment Committee of your Lordships' House. Has the Minister had the privilege, as I have—the shocking privilege—of visiting the kitchens of your Lordships' House? In support of the noble Lords, Lord Ashley and Lord Marsh, I should tell the noble Lord that, if he did so, he would be horrified by the conditions that he would find. Will the noble Lord prevail upon his noble and right honourable friends, especially those in the Treasury, to release money to improve these appalling conditions?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as it happens, I have visited the kitchens on occasions, both many years ago when I was an officer of a union that used to represent staff within this building—indeed, I should perhaps have declared a past interest in that respect—and also more recently. I believe that things have improved, at least a bit. However, the purport of the noble Lord's question is probably to get me involved in matters that are primarily the duty of the House authorities. I shall, therefore, not fall into that trap.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, if my noble friend the Minister will not fall into that trap, will he at least join with all of us on both sides of the House in paying tribute to the staff of the Palace of Westminster, not least for their perennial patience towards us and their efficiency? Will he also ensure that an investigation is carried out into the reasons why so many of them quietly tell us of the difficulties that they endure in serving the Members of both Houses of Parliament? If, as my noble friend said, there is an agreement in principle that the conditions are to be raised to the same standards as exist elsewhere—not in Royal palaces—why should they not be subject to the same laws as apply elsewhere? Indeed, why should not the staff be protected by the same laws as everyone else? That would reflect our appreciation of them.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in terms of the first part of my noble friend's question, I wholeheartedly endorse his comments as regards the service and the dedication that we receive from staff in this building; and, indeed, that appreciation applies to our colleagues in another place. I recognise the often very difficult conditions under which they work. As to the middle part of my noble friend's intervention, I must again side step that question because that is primarily a matter for the House authorities. However, broadly speaking, I would agree with the last part of his intervention.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, on the question of safety and immunity, I am sure that some other noble Lords present today will remember the occasion in this Chamber when parts of the ceiling fell off and almost landed on the late Lord Shinwell; and, indeed, could have caused him, or any other Peer who happened to be sitting in the area below, quite considerable harm. Can the Minister tell us who is responsible if injury occurs to a Peer as a result of such a situation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, one of my noble friends says "God". The legal situation is complex, but I am sure that the House authorities would observe their obligations in that respect had an injury—which thank goodness did not occur—been sustained by Lord Shinwell.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, how long will it take to change the light bulb on the right hand side of the Throne?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not think that I need consult the Chancellor of the Exchequer on that; I think that the House authorities have sufficient funds.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, do the mice in the Bishop's Bar and the Peers' Guestroom have Crown immunity, or can something be done about them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, clearly that again is the responsibility of the House authorities. I may have a residual departmental responsibility in respect of biodiversity, but I think primarily it is someone else's responsibility. Clearly their appearance there is to he regretted, however much we might like them in other contexts.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, reminded us. previous governments have removed Crown immunity from hospitals and from members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces. If Crown immunity has been removed from them, why is it proving so impossible to do it in the Palace of Westminster?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hope that we are reaching a situation where that is not impossible. Indeed, some movement in that direction was taken when we established the Food Standards Agency. The reason for the situation—I described it earlier as slightly theological—is that the Crown cannot sue itself, whereas since the establishment of trusts in the National Health Service there is a body to prosecute. Such a body does not exist as regards government departments, including MoD departments. However, the arrangements as regards the MoD differ according to the different locations of both civil and military personnel. We intend to clarify the whole situation so that the same laws can be enforced and applied to premises where people are employed by Crown bodies as apply to any other employer.