HL Deb 28 January 2003 vol 643 cc1004-6

2.50 p.m.

Viscount Falkland asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that large retailers are aware of the medical procedures in the event of customers or staff collapsing due for instance to epilepsy or diabetes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, we have no specific information about large retailers' awareness towards customers in this matter as there is no legal requirement to provide such assistance. The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 set out employers' responsibilities. Employers must provide adequate and appropriate first aid facilities and equipment for employees who are injured or who become ill at work. The regulations do not require first aid provision for members of the public. However, research has found that on the whole employers, including retailers, are aware of their responsibilities.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords. I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. I know that she has had some difficulty with the way in which I have phrased my Question. I thank her for dealing with the issue in relation to staff.

I was concerned about a report that I received from a member of the staff of this House. Over a week ago he was in a supermarket and suffered a hypoglycaemic episode, which describes a dangerously low blood-sugar level, from which he subsequently collapsed. He woke up in hospital and later discovered that he had been put into an alleyway outside the premises by the staff of the supermarket. Thanks to an observant member of the public, an ambulance was called and after treatment he recovered. Does the Minister agree that that demonstrates a need for further education for the staff and management of businesses such as supermarkets? I know that this matter is somewhat outside her scope, but can she offer some encouragement and guidance on it?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Viscount, gives the House an appalling and horrifying story that could happen to any of us who suffered a cardiac arrest or a similar problem when staff were not in a position to recognise the cause. Staff may assume that one's condition is due to something other than a medical condition and as a result bypass it. I can give the noble Viscount some help.

Although under health and safety legislation employers have a responsibility only towards their employees, this autumn the Health and Safety Executive will publish a discussion document on the provision of first aid in the work place. Together with my colleagues at the Department of Health— my noble friend Lord Hunt is listening to what I say—I shall ensure that a copy of that discussion document is sent to all major retailers. I shall also ensure that it includes questions, thus seeking their views as to what provision they can make for members of the public who may be in such a horrifying position as described by the noble Viscount.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recollect that a year ago I was smitten by a similar event and was carried unconscious from the palace where I was picked up by an ambulance? Senior staff of the Law Lords department appeared to know exactly what to do and happily I am here today.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we are all the richer for the presence of the noble Lord. It struck me that your Lordships may be interested in the situation in the Palace of Westminster. To allay the fears of noble Lords, there are 18 trained first-aiders in the House of Lords and an additional 71 trained first-aiders in the House of Commons who are available to both Houses. I am delighted to report that there are also 42 people trained to use defibrillators, so I am confident that if any of us experiences a sudden cardiac arrest, a hypoglycaemic attack or a collapse we shall have the best possible support and service. That support and service is also offered to members of the public.

Lord Gladwin of Clee

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former trustee of Diabetes UK and as someone who has type II diabetes. Is my noble friend aware that although the health and safety first-aid regulations cover employees, the Health and Safety Executive has issued guidance to undertakings that provide a service to the public, such as places of entertainment and shops? Will she encourage the Health and Safety Executive to make that more widely understood and available particularly to large retailers?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords, I had picked up that point. I understand that local authority licences require that there is adequate first aid provision for members of the public in places of public entertainment, such as cinemas, sports halls or the like. As the noble Lord has rightly identified, the problem is that health and safety at work applies to employees and there is no clear legal responsibility for members of the public who may collapse in a shop or on the street. There is a duty of care for ambulances to respond to a call for help, but there is no duty on any of us to summon that ambulance.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, while I welcome the proposed discussion document, can the noble Baroness say whether it will consider not only the provision of equipment and training but also the provision of suitable notices for anyone who may happen to be on the spot when such an incident occurs?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I shall do my best to ensure that that is included.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I declare an interest in Epilepsy Action. Is the Minister aware that the generic first aid courses undertaken by the staff of such stores do not include how to deal with epileptic seizures or diabetic comas? Perhaps it would be helpful if guidance were issued stating that at least one member of staff in such large buildings should have that special training. Does the Minister agree that people who suffer such illnesses should helpfully wear clearly visible Medic Alert bracelets or necklaces so that staff can identify them?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, on the second point, clearly it is not appropriate to have an information leaflet inside one's wallet; it needs to be obviously available to staff so that they know that there is a medical cause for the collapse. On the training in epileptic seizures, the point of the discussion document is that the current first aid provisions are based on regulations drawn up in 1981. At the moment that provides for extensive training initially—four days—which can be costly to small employers, but there is then a problem with skill fade. Issues about how to keep training up to date, whether we can extend it to the use of defibrillators, the use of medicines, Epipens and the like as well as the treatment of epilepsy, are precisely the points that we hope to explore in the discussion document.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, would it be a good idea if more first aid training, including training in diabetes and epilepsy, were undertaken in schools and colleges so that a wider proportion of the populace had such expertise? Is it true that often when people pass out, other people believe that they are drunk, leading to someone being placed in an alley?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I spoke more euphemistically about the matter, but I am sure that your Lordships understood what I was saying. Many schools offer some first aid training, but there are something like 1,500 first aid training providers led by St John Ambulance which trains 500,000 volunteers a year, and the British Red Cross which trains another 200,000 a year. It is found that those who volunteer to undertake first aid training as employees often do so because it is of value to their family circumstances. We need to find the most effective way to keep such skills up to date. That is one reason why we shall be seeking views in the discussion document.