HC Deb 17 May 2000 vol 350 cc47-67WH

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee HC 31.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Pope.]

9.30 am
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the work of the Health and Safety Executive, the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs and the Government's response to it. I wish to place on record my thanks to the specialist assistant who helped us a great deal when we prepared the report and to our advisers, Professor Malcolm Harrington and Graham Reid. I cannot deal with the whole report in a short debate, so I shall pick out one or two issues that need to be emphasised.

I refer first to the tripartite nature of the Health and Safety Commission. When it was set up in the 1970s, such a format made sense. Much of the evidence that the Select Committee received suggested that many changes had been made to industry and to work in general, and that perhaps a different format should be adopted. Having looked into the matter carefully, I believe that it would be a big mistake to change the format of the Health and Safety Commission. Many people do not belong to trade unions. How are they represented? There is an increasing number of small businesses in this country. How are they represented? The problem is that owners of small businesses spend so much time running them that they do not have time to make contacts with other small businesses and to be representative.

The same applies to people who are not in a trade union. They do not have a framework in which to participate. We want the tripartite system to work. We should encourage people to join trade unions and ensure that employers participate in employers' organisations. The arguments that were put to us reflect the changes in industry and employment in this country, but they do not necessitate a change to the Health and Safety Commission. Through working parties and others, the commission ensures that the whole spectrum of the working population is covered.

I make a small plea to individuals. I see many people at my advice bureau who have major problems. They need someone to represent them, so even if a person is not in a place of employment where there is a trade union, it is worth while joining a union merely for insurance purposes and to have a representative if things go wrong. The tripartite system should be encouraged and be made to work.

On the whole, the record in Britain of reducing accidents at work is good, although I am not absolutely certain that that is because of the huge success of the Health and Safety Executive, safety representatives and employers. The changing nature of work in this country lies behind much of the improvement. Once we get away from mining and quarrying and some of the other heavy industries in which accident rates are high, the number of accidents should reduce dramatically. Good employers, particularly those who have good health and safety representatives, have achieved a remarkable reduction in the number of accidents at work. The HSE must concentrate on a relatively small number of employers and workplaces where health and safety matters are not taken seriously. A great deal more pressure needs to be placed on such places of work.

Health and safety inspectors must follow up accidents much more vigorously than they have been doing, and they must visit places about which they receive complaints about safety issues at work. Statistics are available to show the contact that has been made. However, I suspect that on far too many occasions contact with a company merely constitutes someone ringing up and asking what happened, and if that person is half-satisfied as a result of that telephone call, he records it as a contact. That is not the same as visiting to investigate the circumstances. It is important that the inspectorate undertakes vigorous inspection and that senior inspectors carry the work load of inspections. They are not especially good at management, and it is important that they continue to be inspectors, rather than become managers.

One of the key issues is the level of prosecutions and fines. In cases involving some appalling incidents, the courts have been extremely lenient in imposing fines. It is important that the level of fines is increased, and that the courts impose them vigorously.

If the person involved in an accident at work cannot return to his job, it is important that health and safety inspectors visit and prepare a full report, because civil proceedings will almost certainly follow. It is important that the inspectorate and the person instituting civil proceedings co-operate, to ensure that some compensation is available for people who have suffered because of a poor safety regime at work.

The Government must tell us more about the measures that they intend to take to tackle corporate killing and to deal quickly with the small number of large companies that do not have a safety culture throughout their businesses. Companies' insurance premiums for safety at work should reflect the company's record much more than at present. At the moment, companies with good safety records may be subsidising through the insurance mechanism companies with much poorer records.

The message that I want to send as a result of this debate relates to a different issue. In the past, companies have been slow to respond to new problems. We are all good at solving yesterday's problem, but we must solve new problems. For a time, no one knew anything about problems such as the injuries sustained by people who worked with asbestos. It was therefore possible to say, "Very tragic, but we were not aware of the problem." Gradually, people became aware of the problem, and perhaps we were slow to act.

The major anxiety about health at work now relates to the problems that people suffer as a result of office work. The Health and Safety Executive must pay much more attention to problems such as repetitive wrist strain, which people may develop as a result of using a keyboard, sick building syndrome and, problems caused by laser printers and stress.

Much more effort must be put into those aspects, as well as keeping up with traditional areas of activity. In particular, we have a responsibility to consider how to get people back to work. I represent Stockport and Tameside, and when I was first elected in the 1970s, big companies had a firm culture. They did not want accidents at work to happen, but if one did, they felt that they had a responsibility to find a job for the person who had been injured when he was fit to return to work. Even if the person could not return to his previous job, work was found for him.

That was a fine culture. If a company felt that it had any responsibility for an employee's state of health, or if an accident had occurred and the employee had to take time off, it would find that employee a job to go back to. The problem for a lot of people who do office-based work is that, when they have been absent with stress or other job-related illnesses, it is extremely difficult for them to get back. I make a firm plea that, in considering their task, the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission should examine the new problems facing people in work, rather than concentrate solely on the old ones. They should work hard to reduce the problems of stress of work, and they should investigate sick building syndrome and the problems associated with laser printers and other such equipment.

I commend the report to the House and I commend the Government's response. However, although we are doing well in comparison with the rest of Europe at reducing accidents at work, people still suffer a great deal of misery from injuries and poor health at work. We need to do more to tackle that.

9.41 am
Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

There is much to reflect on in the report. However, it is striking that the structure of the Health and Safety Commission has, broadly speaking, stood the test of time in the 26 years since it was established under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. That shows the benefits of regulation—if I may be controversial so early in the morning. For all the complaints that we hear about business being crushed by bureaucracy, it is worth remembering that the HSE exists to protect workers from being crushed by machinery—and so it has.

In the 26 years since the establishment of the commission, the number of people killed at work has decreased from about 2,000 a year to about 400, which is 400 too many deaths, but the reduction is welcome. Half that reduction may be attributed to the change in industrial structure, and the other half to the impact of better health and safety awareness. Not all regulation is bad, but bad employers make regulation necessary and, in some cases, we could do with more of it. Over the years, the public response to events such as Flixborough, Piper Alpha or the Southall railway disaster has told us that there are always lessons to learn and to be applied.

My next point follows on from the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), and it relates to the changing nature of risk in the workplace, our perception of it and how best to address the health and safety question. He referred to the problem of asbestos, and there is currently a debate about the safety of mobile phones. Nobody knows what the long-term implications of those issues will be, but we need to be on guard and to monitor carefully the impact that new products have when they come on to the market.

My hon. Friend also referred to workplace stress. There is nothing new about that type of stress. Robert Owen went around factories in the 19th century and reported on the 14-hour days worked by children aged 10, and played a large part in bringing the first of the Factory Acts into being. We have recently developed a greater understanding and awareness of the problem of stress, partly because of the use of the law. That is another change to the way in which we treat health and safety issues. Court cases that have been brought on behalf of people suffering from stress in the workplace have made employers more aware of the duty of care that they owe to their employees, which is a change for the better. However, although the law provides a remedy in the form of a civil penalty inflicted on employers, it does not necessarily act as an incentive to them to change their practice. They may have an insurance policy that pays for the penalty, and their only cost will be in bad publicity.

Bad publicity can be a powerful weapon, however, because no one likes to be clamped in the stocks of public opinion. Increasingly, companies cannot afford to have a bad reputation. Therefore, I strongly welcome what the report says about publishing more information about firms that have breached health and safety legislation. I am in favour of naming and shaming as well as the tougher penalties that the Chairman of the Select Committee spoke of a moment ago. Publicity is part of the modern armoury for dealing with health and safety risk in the workplace, as is better information about those risks and how they need to be addressed.

In a sense, safety is a state of mind. We need to renew the crusade for that state of mind in the workplace a quarter of a century after the establishment of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974. Preventive visits play an important part in creating and maintaining that state of mind. I support what the report has to say about the issue. Everyone agrees that we want more investigation of accidents, but I hope that it will not be at the expense of preventive work.

My final point concerns the role that partnership has to play in ensuring health and safety in the workplace, in particular the role of trade unions. I should at this point declare the support that I receive from the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union. The tripartite structure is another aspect of the 1974 Act that has stood the test of time. Last night Sir Clive Thompson was bemoaning the impact of regulation, but even the Confederation of British Industry describes the tripartite structure of the Health and Safety Commission as a success story.

That is no happenstance. Workplaces with union representatives and union safety committees have half the rate of accidents compared with workplaces where there is no consultation with workers. It is even more interesting that that benefit accrues not just in big companies, but in smaller companies where there is a trade union presence. That connection was spotted way back in 1937 by Sir Henry Walker, who was the chief inspector of mines. When he reported on the Gresford colliery disaster in which 265 men lost their lives, he said: I hope that I am not exceeding my functions in saying now what I have held for many years, that miners should be members of some effective trades union. That opinion is based on the grounds of safety, with which I am alone concerned, for I believe that a well organised trades union, wisely directed, can be as potent an influence for promoting greater safety in mines as it is already in matters, for example, of wages and conditions of employment. He was absolutely right.

Trade unions naturally have an interest in protecting their members, and they do an effective job under the civil remedy in gaining £300 million a year in compensation for those who have been injured at work. However, all hon. Members would acknowledge that it is one thing to have a right enshrined in law and another to be able to access it. The most important role that trade unions play as part of civil society is to help thousands of people each year to access their rights to health and safety.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point about the role of the trade unions. They play a valuable role in many respects, but how would he explain the apparent anomaly in that the number of accidents is at a record low, albeit at a plateau, but trade union membership is also at a record low? Surely on his logic, as union membership has gone down, the propensity for accidents at work should have gone up.

Mr. Benn

No, that is not the case. Unionised workplaces are still much safer than non-unionised workplaces. I put that down to the greater health and safety awareness in our society since the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 and the establishment of the Health and Safety Commission. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) anticipates the point that I was about to make.

Given the problems that we know exist in getting access to smaller workplaces to deal with health and safety, and given the cry we still hear from employers in those workplaces about what they perceive as the burden of regulation, we can do two things. The first was identified in the report: roving safety representatives should be able to visit workplaces where that union has members, even if they are not recognised, to report on health and safety conditions.

Secondly, I should like to see trade unions, which after all have a lot of expertise in the field of health and safety through their work in training health and safety representatives, offering their knowledge and their expertise as consultants to workplaces in which there may be no trade union members. If unions wanted to think innovatively about their role, they could offer employers help to ensure that they comply with legislation, advise on the systems needed and provide assistance in accessing information to ensure safer working conditions. Paragraph 85 of the report is about the possibility of giving small employers help with consultancy fees. Perhaps trade unions could offer to charge a moderate fee in return for such a service.

We have come a long way since the 1974 Act and the all-party consensus that led to it. Thanks to the work of the Health and Safety Commission, many more people are today free to work in safer workplaces. The price of that freedom is eternal vigilance.

9.50 am
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

It is a pleasure to take part in my first debate on a report of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, as I am now one of its members. I was not a member when it agreed the report, which was probably just as well, as I would have had some difficulty putting my name to it.

I want to put the unfashionable and difficult other side of the case about the Health and Safety Executive. When people properly point to deaths and serious injuries in the workplace, it is difficult to say that a balance must be struck between the regulation of industry, the function of the Health and Safety Executive and our duty as a nation to ensure that our industries are as safe as possible. Compared with other countries, the United Kingdom has an excellent health and safety record. The hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) have drawn attention to the fact that the number of deaths at work has fallen from 2,000 to 400 since the Health and Safety Executive has been active.

The Pareto principle is that for 20 per cent. of the effort one can achieve 80 per cent. of the target, and that it becomes ever more onerous to bear down on the final part of the target. That applies to industry. Given that the level of industrial activity and production has increased considerably since 1974—I accept that the nature of industries has changed and that some of the more dangerous industries do not employ the same number of people as they did—it will still require an enormous effort to reduce the figure from 400. Bearing down on the final part of the target through regulation or another mechanism will have damaging effects, as regulation is a burden on employers and leads to wider burdens on industry and wealth creation potential as a whole.

Those considerations must be borne in mind. People will say that it is reckless to attack anything to do with safety, but if we want to make things wholly safe, we should stop production. That is the only way to guarantee achieving the 100 per cent. target.

My experience is of the armed forces, in which safety and training is important. However, if training were risk free, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy would not enjoy such high professional standards. It is because they train rigorously that we can put troops on the ground in Sierra Leone who are second to none in the world, and are now performing an immensely valuable role on behalf of not only the British citizens there, but the people of Sierra Leone. That is a result of a demanding training regime.

That experience relates to the armed forces, but there is a parallel with the industries of wealth creation on the question of where one draws the line between trying to prevent accidents at any price and trying to prevent them by sensibly regulating the workplace. I am not saying that there should be no safety regime; that would be madness. Everyone would want Army ranges, for example, to be thoroughly well-regulated and, safety officers properly briefed and the rest of it. Safety during simple range exercises is easy to control, but fire-and-manoeuvre exercises in places such as Salisbury plain or by the British Army training unit Suffield in Canada are a different matter. The more difficult and demanding the training, the more likely it is that people will be hurt or killed—as the low-level flight training of Royal Air Force fast-jet pilots has sadly shown.

I can draw only on my experience of the services. Some people will say that there is no parallel to industry, but I believe that there is. We must make a judgment about the sensible balance to strike.

Mr. Bennett

If the situation across the whole of industry were the same, I could accept the hon. Gentleman's case, but there are huge variations even between companies involved in the same activity. Some companies have done much better than others in reducing their accident rate to the 20 per cent. to which he referred. We surely need to bear down on companies whose record is poor. They are getting a competitive advantage because they are putting people's health and lives at risk.

Mr. Blunt

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I shall outline my difficulties with the report. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central said that the Health and Safety Executive could take responsibility for half the reductions in deaths but the other half could be attributed to the change in the nature of the industry. I am not sure how one can allocate such neat percentages. The Chairman of the Select Committee concluded that the improvement was due simply to the change in the nature of industrial work. The Health and Safety Executive can surely take some credit, but the good record is also a reflection of both employers and employees being committed to good practice from the start and of the use of common sense. It is obviously in the interests of employers and employees for accidents in the workplace not to happen. As the Chairman of the Committee said, there will always be unscrupulous employers and irresponsible employees, and the Health and Safety Executive will have to step in. However, the report's call to put unlimited faith in prosecutions, fines and litigation may strike the wrong balance.

I agree with naming and shaming the worst offenders and bringing prosecutions where there has clearly been negligence and irresponsibility. No one would argue against that. However, if companies believed that the Health and Safety Executive, rather than a source of advice and preventive measures, represented only legal action against any and every mistake in the workplace, the spirit of co-operation and good practice that has helped produce the good record could be threatened and damaged.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish drew attention to the practice of large companies in the early 1970s: if an employee had been hurt in the workplace, they would try to find him alternative work, in the best paternalistic tradition of good employers. If we create a spirit of antagonism over safety, we will undermine the tradition of employers caring for their employees—which I believe still operates among the best employers. Indeed, it is increasingly seen to be in employers' interests properly to look after their own people. We are moving to a climate in which, particularly in the UK, people rather than capital are the employer's most important resource. If we accepted the Committee's recommendation, that self-evident common sense could be undermined.

My greatest problem with the report is the Committee's wish to give additional powers to workplace safety representatives, including permission for those representatives to initiate prosecutions. I agree with the Confederation of British Industry, which is interested in facilitating the reporting by representatives or others of unsafe practices, but is worried that increasing formal powers might promote antagonism between various parts of the company. The Committee seems to have brushed such criticisms aside, not least those of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which argues that such a move could allow employers to shirk their responsibilities, diluting the primary responsibility of line management. That is the danger.

In the Select Committee yesterday, we took evidence on biodiversity and the first witnesses wanted a biodiversity tsar—someone who is seen to be responsible and will take the lead. We all want someone to be seen to be in a leadership position to take responsibility, whereas in fact safety must be the responsibility of us all, particularly in the workplace. It must be the responsibility of both line management and employees. If safety is delegated or shoved off to a representative in the workplace, the ownership of the issue will to some extent be taken away from the rest of line management and other employees. I agree with RoSPA and the CBI that that would be a pity.

Health and safety has steadily improved in the United Kingdom, because the vast majority of employers and employees show a common-sense interest in voluntarily minimising risk and working safely in what the CBI pertinently describes as a "blame free culture". As always when people want to improve health and safety, no one can question the good intentions behind the Committee's report. However, there is a danger that co-operation could be replaced by antagonism and blame, which would not be in anyone's interest.

10.2 am

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point)

I cannot say that I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has just said. The precursor to much of what I have to say is the comment "mind the gap", because there are serious gaps in joint or co-operative working between local authorities, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.

The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee report has been worth while, and I much enjoyed my involvement in the Committee's work. In particular, I was greatly enlightened when I shadowed a health and safety inspector on his routine rounds in my constituency. I found that different standards apply to different sorts of works. For instance, we visited a waste transfer station, where the attitude towards health and safety was different from the far more stringent approach at a local school of 1,000 vulnerable young people. We went into much greater detail at the school. At the waste transfer station, working practices were constrained by other factors.

I return to my original point about the gaps. I have before me part of the memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which says: HSE has close links with the Environment Agency in England and Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), not only because of the potential environmental implications of health and safety failures in work places that handle particularly hazardous or dangerous substances (eg chemicals), but more recently through the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 1999. Under these Regulations, the HSE, Environment Agency and SEPA are jointly designated as the Competent Authority for authorising and inspecting safety arrangements at establishments covered by the COMAH Regulations. Similarly, HSE has close links with local authorities as the latter have responsibility for the enforcement of health and safety legislation in shops, offices, distribution outlets, hotels, restaurants, residential care homes and leisure centres. The formal mechanism for this is the HSE/Local Authority Enforcement Liaison Committee (HELA), though much informal contact is at inspector level on a day-to-day basis. HSE provides guidance to local authorities on their enforcement function. Part of the memorandum concerns land-use planning. The Committee did not dwell on that, but since the report's publication, huge concerns about it have arisen in my constituency. I know that the Minister cannot discuss specific examples, so I will refrain from using names, but I shall bring one or two matters to his attention. On land-use planning, the agency and the HSE separately advise Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) on the possible impact of industrial developments on people and the environment. The Agency and the HSE recognise the need for liaison to resolve differences of view before comments are provided to LPAs. Unfortunately, I have a problem with the HSE's powers. It has not yet been determined whether a planning application from my constituency will go to the Secretary of State. A company that deals in accident-damaged cars has applied to store those cars on a 25-acre site until the insurance has been settled, when they will be auctioned. When the local planning authority formally consulted the HSE, all aspects of the application had become retrospective, except for the auctioning. The HSE objected to the application, because the land for the proposed use was close to hazardous installations. The HSE had used its processes for risk assessment and deduced that the risk to the public from attending auctions would be too high. It advised against that and said that it would support the local authority if the application went to appeal. The HSE also said that if it were not satisfied that the local planning authority could enforce stricter conditions, it would allow 21 days for deliberation with the authority. If the HSE remained unhappy after that, it would recommend that the Secretary of State called in the application.

That is how the system is supposed to work. However, the local authority and the developer—the applicant—managed to produce conditions to satisfy the HSE in part and tried to remove the objections. The HSE tells me that the objections still stand, but that is a legal matter, because no permission will be granted until GO-East recommends that the Secretary of State call in the application, and he decides to do so, or there is a public inquiry, the outcome of which we would await. The application could also return to the local authority, which, by the way, is minded to give permission.

Such land use does not fall within the HSE's inspection remit. It is a matter for the local authority, because auctions are retail activities. It would have been the HSE's direct responsibility to inspect the site if it had been a breaker's yard. Hundreds of my constituents are worried, and through their elected representatives, who include members of an action group and people such as myself, have asked, "What is the matter with the Health and Safety Executive? Why can it not intervene?" The firm has not complied with conditions before, so why should it do so now? There is a great fear that the conditions will not be met or enforced. It is not for me to say whether that will be so, but the fear exists. The HSE will have no powers of intervention if the conditions are not met or enforcement is inadequate and the local planning authority cannot police matters. That is a grave concern. I seek the Minister's guidance on those points.

I turn to the inconsistencies that sometimes arise between the actions of the Environment Agency and the HSE. I can refer to a small, but good example, which highlights the issue. When we visited a waste transfer station with the health and safety inspector, we saw empty liquefied petroleum gas bottles of the sort used in caravans and homes, and in skips in the yard—all sorts of things go into skips. The people in charge said, "We had a visit from the Environment Agency, and they said that we had to store the bottles inside. But when the HSE came round, they said, 'No, don't leave them inside where workmen might have a quick tea break; they should be outside.'" I was asked for my opinion, and had to bow to greater experience and knowledge. I could not answer the questions of people at the yard, except to suggest that they return the bottles to the gas company. There are, therefore, difficulties with the lines taken by the Environment Agency and the HSE, which was mentioned in some of the Committee's evidence sessions. I should be grateful if the Minister replied to those points or at least investigated some of them.

10.12 am
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

First, I pay tribute to the Clerks of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee for constructing such a good report. The Minister and the Government have welcomed it, as their response demonstrates. I shall touch briefly on the issue of corporate manslaughter and the fact that health and safety is not treated with the seriousness that it might be.

As a long-term campaigner on health and safety, and having been a safety representative in the shipyards 25 years ago, I know that the question of safety has moved along apace and that there have been improvements in the more responsible yards and factories. However, a hard core of major problem industries must still be tackled. The present regulations do not cover the problems suggested by the statistics.

In 1996–98, there were more than 47,000 major injuries in United Kingdom factories. The number of deaths has dropped to 400 a year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) mentioned, but given the statistics that we received in the evidence-taking session, I still do not believe that employers are even close to treating the problem as seriously as they might.

As the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, claiming that there have been reductions in the number of accidents is virtually warping the statistics, because the number of workers in manufacturing during the lifespan of the Health and Safety Executive has dropped drastically. When the number of injuries is compared with the number employed in a particular industry, little improvement in real terms is apparent.

Not one director or manager who has been prosecuted in the past six years has received a fine of more than £1,000; that, in itself, shows another part of the problem of corporate manslaughter. A £1,000 fine was imposed in a case involving someone who was killed in the construction industry; I will not mention the company, but it has a very bad record. That shows that the issue has not been treated seriously enough—and the Government should tackle it sooner rather than later.

I note in the Government's response that the Home Office will soon introduce new measures on corporate manslaughter, first as a form of consultation. What is the Minister's definition of "soon"? It must be very much sooner than action promised by Ministers in respect of other, equally important, matters. It may not be in the Minister's brief, but as someone in the lead Department, he will be aware of the issue.

I note, too, that the Scottish Executive will have a separate responsibility to look into the matter. I shall write to the appropriate Ministers in the Scottish Executive on this issue, which has been dear to my heart for so long, suggesting that they trail-blaze, allowing the courts in Scotland to reach the same conclusion as the Trades Union Congress and to treat more seriously the matter of fining individuals responsible for deaths.

When giving evidence, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment gave the clear impression that he was sympathetic to my argument; many members of the public have written to me, showing that those in the wider world are very concerned about the matter, which requires a positive response from the Government. I look forward to his reply.

10.18 am
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I, too, commend the report because of the renewed attention it brings to the issue of health and safety. I commend it also because of the stress it lays on the importance of prevention and responsibility. I support the recommendation that there should be a crime of corporate killing, and the sooner such a measure is introduced, the better.

The report draws attention to the key and successful role played by the tripartite structure of employers, employees and others including local authorities and the public. This morning, I shall draw attention to a failing in that other section, which relates to the responsibility to consider the health and safety of those not directly employed in the workplace and to the role of a local authority as an agent of the Health and Safety Executive.

I wish to draw attention to tragic circumstances in which the system failed. On 20 May 1999, two of my constituents—Vanessa Gregson aged 19 and a strong swimmer, and Tshan Kamara aged seven—were found drowned at the deep end of an unsupervised swimming pool at Honicombe Manor holiday park in Cornwall.

Indeed, the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) held an Adjournment debate on the subject in January this year.

At the inquest, the coroner stated that, if a lifeguard had been present, at least one life could have been saved. The coroner criticised the sudden and hidden change in gradient in the swimming pool towards the deep end. He said: I find it almost incredible that such a hazard can be allowed in a pool to which holiday clients have access. The coroner also pointed out that there had been two inspections of the pool by Caradon council, acting as agents for the HSE. He noted that its recommendations had not been carried out and also that there had been no follow-up. He queried the adequacy of the inspections and the expertise of those who were sent to carry them out. He doubted whether they had sufficient expertise to assess swimming pools effectively. It was subsequently found that the owner of the pool did not possess the publication "Safety in Swimming Pools"; that no emergency system was in place; and that there was no written safety policy. Today sees the start of the prosecution of the pool owner by Caradon council.

Such a tragic circumstance raises several key issues relating to health and safety. I have raised the incident with the director general of the HSE. In a letter that I received from her on 16 March, I was told: If swimming pool operators follow the guidance given, they will be well placed to prevent unnecessary injuries and fatalities to pool users… As part of a routine programme, we regularly review all guidance to ensure the best possible advice is available…We shall be reviewing the guidance for swimming pool operators again in the near future. I hope that the HSE will indeed review its guidance to ensure that it is effective. I also hope that, in doing so, it examines the implementation of the guidance more closely and assesses the expertise of those whose remit is to implement it. I hope, too, that it will look beyond its current guidelines. It and the Government must examine the issue of statutory licensing of pools that are used by the public. It is not good enough to be told, as I was by the director general of the HSE, that because it is more dangerous to swim in the sea than it is in a private swimming pool, we do not need to secure closer regulation of such pools.

My constituents died in tragic circumstances; two young lives were lost needlessly. The prosecution, which starts today, will reach its conclusion on that specific instance. However, I want the HSE to examine the general guidelines more closely to ascertain whether they are adequate and whether there should be greater follow-up and greater strength in the law to enforce them.

10.24 am
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I have not had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, but I should like to contribute to the strands of argument on this matter. Clearly, there is a high level of consensus that the Health and Safety Executive has played an important and positive role in a generally favourable long-term trend of reducing accidents and a growing safety culture. I shall focus on the two more controversial strands of the argument, which appear to point in opposite directions. One is that the Health and Safety Executive is not sufficiently aggressive in enforcement, and the second is that, as many small businesses claim, the HSE contributes to red tape and the gold-plating of regulation.

Local small companies tell anecdotes about the inspectors who visit them; a typical example is that of a small company with an English-speaking labour force that is required to put all its signs in multiple languages. There must be hundreds of examples of such red tape, but I shall concentrate on the inadequacy of enforcement. The matter has been raised in passing, but I shall make the point more systematically.

The Select Committee and the Centre for Innovation in Corporate Responsibility have conducted some good research from which there are several criticisms—the first is the simple lack of investigation. Between 1996 and 1998, only one in every 10 serious accidents, which include amputations, was investigated; of those, only one in 10 led to prosecution—one in five in cases involving fatalities. That prompts the question: what is the HSE doing when it considers serious accidents? The argument, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and others, is that because of how the HSE functions, 80 per cent. of the cases that it prosecutes are heard in magistrates courts, thus the fines imposed are derisory—£20,000 is the maximum.

Why are other powers not utilised? The Minister may say that it is because it is necessary to legislate for new powers of corporate manslaughter, but the HSE already has the power to refer matters to the police, although only 1 per cent. of its actions have ever been so referred. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that only two cases in the past 10 years have been pursued to a charge of manslaughter. The power to pursue such a case already exists; further legislation is not needed.

My final criticism is the high level of inconsistency in enforcement. There is a factor of six in the likelihood of investigation when farming and mining are compared, and a factor of about five or six in the average fine imposed in magistrates courts in Wales compared with those imposed in the west midlands. There is no obvious reason for those enormous variations.

The lack of prosecution and investigation and the disparity in fines has damaging implications; there is little deterrence in the system and it brings the concept of punishment for serious negligence into disrepute. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) argued that the emphasis should be on preventive work rather than on enforcement. If the evidence that I have cited is right, it should be the opposite; too much attention is probably paid to the pernickety details of preventive work and routine inspection, and not enough to enforcement. It would be helpful if the Minister described roughly the balance of the HSE's work load and whether he is satisfied with it.

A shift in the direction of enforcement would not result in confrontation or an anti-business sense. I came to Parliament from a large multinational company in the oil industry, in which there was an intense safety culture, not for idealistic reasons, but for fear of loss of reputation as a result of a bad accident. The company would have difficulty recruiting top professionals if it was not seen as at the frontier of health and safety. There are sound reasons why good companies have a safety culture; many of those companies would like the cowboys in the industry to be prosecuted more aggressively for lapses. A shift in the direction of tough enforcement would not in any sense undermine the HSE's mission to raise standards throughout industry.

10.30 am
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on securing this debate, and on the report of his Committee. Though short, it is an interesting, useful and detailed report. Many members of the Committee have spoken in this debate, citing striking personal examples of the need for the Health and Safety Executive—in particular, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who referred to a tragic swimming pool incident involving her constituents.

The Health and Safety Executive has, since its establishment in 1974, done a good job. The figures speak for themselves. Whatever the reason for the better figures, there has been a remarkable reduction in the number of accidents at work. I am not sure how the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) concluded that half that reduction is owing to changing work patterns and half to safety measures, but a combination of factors has been involved.

In the United Kingdom, 1.7 fatal injuries occur per 100,000 workers, whereas in the United States the figure is 3.2, and in Europe it is 3.9. Those are interesting figures. The figure for the United States is substantially higher than that for the UK, despite the "sue first" culture in which companies tend to face lawsuits if a slight injury—or worse—is suffered in the workplace. More ironically, in Europe, business is subject to much more excessive and costly social regulation and bureaucracy. We have benefited from not being part of that. Despite those factors, the safety record in north America and Europe is much worse than in the UK.

As well as paying tribute to the work of the Health and Safety Executive, we should pay tribute to the efforts and resources that companies put into health and safety, to which various hon. Members have alluded. Health and safety is now treated seriously across the board, in most, although not all, places of work. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central described that as a crusade for a state of mind in the workplace. That crusade has been largely successful.

I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that it would be a mistake to change the format of the HSE. Most hon. Members have commented that the tripartite approach has worked well, and should continue to do so. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should concentrate on the relatively small number of employers who still do not take health and safety seriously, which is unforgivable. I also agree with his point about large divergences between similar companies in the same kind of business. That is not acceptable.

We are not only considering companies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out, many health and safety applications are received in relation to defence, in which he is an expert. The hon. Member for Riverside spoke about leisure facilities, which also present many dangers.

It is right that the report has been produced 26 years after the formation of the HSE. Working practices have changed significantly since 1974, when the majority of people worked in large manufacturing companies. Currently, 99 per cent. of enterprises have fewer than 50 employees, 80 per cent. of enterprises are run by the self-employed, and the service sector accounts for more than 75 per cent. of employment. Clearly, as the number of manufacturing jobs is still falling significantly, that trend will continue.

Changes in trade union membership patterns have been mentioned, although the hon. Member for Leeds, Central and I came to different conclusions about what that should mean for health and safety. Industries are also changing. Less heavy machinery is used, and fewer people are employed in the mining industry, which was traditionally a big source of dangerous jobs. There has also been a big increase in outsourcing, subcontracting and working from home. The last of those presents a particular challenge, although I do not suggest that, on the basis that some statistics suggest that most accidents happen at home, we should increase the HSE's work by providing for personal inspectors for everyone who works there.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) said that different types of regulatory approach should be flexible, and I thoroughly endorse that. The health and safety regulation that applies to a school will differ from that which applies to the waste transfer station that she mentioned, where well-trained professionals rather than vulnerable youngsters will be present. It is right that we should adapt and find new ways of doing things. However, I am concerned that the HSE's work should not become overly prescriptive and that it should not expand its role simply because workplace patterns are more fragmented. I hesitate to use the term "modernise", which crops up in the report, but there must be good reason to modernise; one should not do so simply for modernity's sake, although the term is a buzz word with the Government.

I hope, therefore, that the report will not be seen as a solution in search of a problem, when there is not actually a problem. The figures might have reached a plateau, but they have probably reached a reasonable level. I fully accept that, as hon. Members have said, 400 deaths are 400 deaths too many, but we compare favourably with countries across the world. We need to avoid a blame culture, in which there is no such thing as a genuine accident.

I certainly want to avoid excessive regulation on small and emerging businesses, which are the key to the Chancellor's enterprise economy, about which we hear so much. People who work from home should not have to comply with the expensive regulations that apply to manufacturing industry, for example. The requirements on smaller businesses and on the self-employed should be minimalist, and costs should not be disproportionately high.

I want to query a few issues with the Minister. I agree with the report's conclusion that the preventative role of the Health and Safety Executive should remain its priority, because that is its most valuable role. Proactive inspections form about half the executive's regulatory contact with employers each year. What is the Government's attitude to workplace injury reporting and to criticism that more injuries are not reported? I am certainly in favour of naming and shaming the worst offenders, as long as that is done fairly and on an even playing field so that firms are not victimised. We need to set out the criteria clearly so that we know when firms have strayed from an acceptable benchmark. I am most concerned about firms that repeatedly commit the same offences against health and safety standards. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said that we needed to concentrate on the worst offenders and on those who repeat offences. What is the experience of workplace injury reporting in the United States and Europe? Are there more criteria? Are more injuries reported?

I also back the idea, to a limited extent, of encouraging insurance firms to reflect best safety practices in their premiums and conditions. That is a case in which the marketplace can work effectively. The problem with that approach is that it might not necessarily have the same impact on larger and smaller firms, because premiums are a fairly small percentage of turnover for large firms. I caution against the possibility of encouraging larger firms not to report their injuries where that would have an impact on their no-claims bonus or the level of their premiums. Have the Government had initial talks with the insurance industry about that? When may we expect the Government's consultation proposals on corporate manslaughter, to which the hon. Members for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and for Riverside referred?

The report criticised the poor record in pursuing prosecutions in cases of serious injuries. Is the number and success of such prosecutions the best measure of the HSE's success? The United Kingdom has a relatively small number of workplace accidents and the demand for prosecutions may result in the victimisation of employers who have just been unlucky with unavoidable accidents. I certainly agree, however, that we must not hold back from throwing the book at the worst offenders.

The report and various hon. Members have called for greater penalties. That is worth looking into for larger companies, for which the maximum fine of £20,000 is a mere drop in the ocean. Such a fine is already a big deterrent for smaller companies. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South raised an interesting point when he said that the highest penalty that has been imposed in the past six years on directors and mangers of businesses has been only £1,000. His criticisms and those of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish were mainly of the courts because they were not meting out larger penalties. We should not focus only on the inadequacies of the HSE's powers.

I shall deal briefly with the hypothecation of fines to the Treasury. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn with the Financial Services Authority. I was a member of both the Joint Committee and the Standing Committee which considered the Financial Services and Markets Bill. The current proposal is that fines levied on financial firms for misdemeanours go to the Financial Services Authority—the regulator, which is akin loosely to the Health and Safety Executive. It will be an obvious temptation for the FSA to step up prosecution regimes to expand its own empire, in order to increase the number of regulators whom it employs, the number of regulations that it delivers and the fine income from its members when firms fall foul of those regulations. It will be a vicious circle.

There is a scheme in the FSA to rebate to members the fine income against their fees. I can draw an interesting analogy. Refunds to people who are regulated by the HSE would ensure that the cost of complying with regulations is reduced and, thus, make it easier and give them greater incentive to comply with the extra regulations. It will make compliance more affordable. Does the Minister know how much money in fines has gone to the Government?

The Health and Safety Executive has already placed a large financial burden on business. Over the next three years, an extra £63 million will be spent on that—£43 million as a result of the introduction of charging in the gas, transportation and railway industries, which is a little publicised additional stealth tax. If the Government are not willing to hypothecate revenue from fines for health and safety-related matters, will they offer tax breaks for small firms, in particular, for the cost of consultancy advice on health and safety matters? As the hon. Member for Leeds, Central said, trade unions could charge for consultancy advice to members of the Confederation of British Industry.

Finally, I wish to query rail safety and its future. Ostensibly, the Health and Safety Executive performs the role of signing off the safety of rail signals, for example. When an accident is caused as a result of a faulty signal, it investigates why the accident happened and what remedial action should take place. Will the Government clarify that role?

The report is useful. The debate has been well constructed. I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that we should concentrate on solving tomorrow's problems, not yesterday's, and work in partnership with tomorrow's businesses rather than using yesterday's excessive restrictions and regulations to solve yesterday's problems.

10.44 am
The Minister for the Environment(Mr. Michael Meacher)

This has been an excellent debate, which has raised important points on which I shall reflect. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), the Chairman of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, on the Committee's fourth report, which, like so many of the Committee's reports, is well prepared. The Government always take the Committee's reports seriously, and the fourth report is no exception. I shall try in the time available to respond to as many as possible of the main points that have been made, but if I am unable to do so I shall write to hon. Members.

My hon. Friend said that he thought that the tripartite system had worked, and I agree, but there remains a problem with getting through to small and medium-sized enterprises. It was said that the whole occupational structure of industry has changed and that there is a long tail of small companies. I do not know whether a change in the Health and Safety Commission will be necessary, or whether, as the Committee says, people should be encouraged to join their employer organisations or a relevant trade union. I am not sure that they are mutually exclusive. I strongly agree that that would be the way to make contacts with a much wider field.

The country's record on reducing accidents at work is good. It is better than that of the United States or the rest of Europe. That is unquestionably due in significant measure to the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, but we cannot be complacent. I agreed with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) until he used the ill-advised phrase "a reasonable plateau". We cannot accept that. It has been repeatedly said that some 400 people still die each year in workplace accidents. Another statistic that I find just as alarming is that 25,000 people are injured or made ill by their work and leave the work force each year, never to return. Those are shameful statistics in the modern world of work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said that more investigations and prosecutions were needed—a point also picked up by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). I agree. I am not satisfied with the number of investigations or prosecutions. It is, of course, a question of resources. When the Government came to power we immediately put extra resources into health and safety. As a result, in the past three years there has been an increase in regulatory activity. More specifically, that has meant inspector contacts with industry up to a record 188,000; enforcement notices up to a record 11,000, and prosecutions up to 1,800. I accept that that is from a low base and that it is not adequate, but we agree on the objective.

On the crucial question of penalties, the amounts are derisory. It is insulting that, when a member of a family has been killed at work, the penalties in some instances are as low as £2,000. I am pleased to say that the Court of Appeal has pointed the way and that the Howe judgment of 1988 encouraged the courts to adopt a tougher stance on sentencing. For example, Balfour Beatty learned the hard way when it was fined more than £1 million for the Heathrow tunnel collapse, when it was a miracle that no one was killed. That case showed the way in which the courts regard such accidents, and I strongly support that.

The Government will legislate—when parliamentary time allows, but not in the dim and distant future—for courts to have stronger sentencing powers for health and safety offences. That will include the prospect of jail for the majority of offences. In addition, the Home Secretary will consult soon on changing the law to make it easier for corporate bodies to be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter. That matter was raised by several hon. Members and it would be a vital reform of the criminal justice system. Those serious measures will bring home the importance of better health and safety management where it matters most—in the boardroom.

We intend to do more to toughen penalties for breaches of the law by those with a casual, reckless and criminal approach to safety. The real aim is not simply to punish people, but to induce a positive management culture. A small minority always thinks that attention, time and resources need not be given to proper safety management, and the Committee agrees unanimously that it is those companies that must be targeted hard. We are considering making more innovative penalties available to the courts to hit hard and punish individuals responsible for health and safety failures as well as the companies. The suspension of managers without pay, the prohibition of director bonuses for fixed periods and the possibility of custodial penalties in the most serious cases involving recklessness and gross negligence are matters under consideration.

The last point that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish made concerned occupational health and stress—the latter being perhaps the most widespread of several environmental health issues. I have long thought that Britain has never really had an occupational health system. It is clear that, in addition to reducing accidents, we must improve the nation's health at work. Some 2 million people suffer from ill-health caused by their work, and a staggering 500,000 say that their health is affected by the stress of their job. Too many people are made ill at work. That is why the revitalising health and safety agenda, which we shall publish shortly—I do mean shortly—will set out some pretty demanding targets for reducing the number of days lost through illness and injury at work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) spoke about the need for sensible regulation. No one wants over-prescriptive legislation, but sensible and necessary regulation is important and has undoubtedly contributed to the gradual steady reduction in the number of deaths. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of naming and shaming, and I warmly welcome the HSE's initiative to publish a special annual report to name and shame companies and individuals convicted in the previous 12 months.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central and others asked about insurance practice. Many who responded to our consultation document "Revitalising Health and Safety" thought that the insurance industry should do more to exert pressure on employers' health and safety performance, and I agree. I shall soon discuss with the industry further steps that it might take. Insurers already graduate employers' liability premiums according to the degree of risk, in the same way as is done for car users, whose record is taken into account, and that is helpful.

With regard to prevention, my hon. Friend was right to say—the figures are clear about this—that the number of accidents in firms that have health and safety representatives is about half that of similar companies which do not. I am glad that the HSE is publishing a discussion document on worker involvement, including a consideration of increased powers, which might entail issuing improvement or prohibition notices.

The speech of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) was, on the most charitable interpretation, seriously misconceived, and, less charitably, nothing less than disgraceful in some of its implications. He said that it was too burdensome to address the problem of the remaining 400 people who are killed every year and to be concerned about the remaining 20 per cent. He drew a comparison with army training, in which one expects some casualties, but there is no comparison whatever between army training and the circumstances in factories where procedures are set down and equipment has to be provided in order to minimise risk.

I asked the HSE to supply the figures for previous cases in order to ascertain how many accidents were the responsibility of the employee—some, unfortunately, behave foolishly and pay for it with their lives or receive serious injury—and how many were the consequence of inadequate management. The figures showed that seven out of every eight were the fault of poor management.

The hon. Member for Reigate asked where the line should be drawn and wanted to secure a sensible balance. I totally disagree with him. However many lives short of 400 are lost—whether the hon. Gentleman draws the line at 100, 200 or 300—I am not prepared to accept them. I passionately believe that a great deal more can be done to reduce the unacceptable carnage at places of work.

We seek not to increase antagonism, but to accentuate a safety-conscious management culture, which is quite different. We want management on side—we do not aim to be punitive—and the vast majority of management is on side, but a significant minority is not. There is no question of delegating from line managers to health and safety representatives. Of course line managers retain the prime responsibility—from the boardroom downwards—but the representatives have an important role.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) mentioned several examples, such as the local auction and the storage of liquid petroleum gas bottles, in which there was a difference of viewpoint between the HSE, the Environment Agency and the local planning authority. I shall certainly take a close interest in that matter and request an explanation. I promise my hon. Friend that I will investigate further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) asked when the Home Office would publish its consultation document on proposals for reforming the law on involuntary manslaughter, and I promise my hon. Friend that it will be published within the next month.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) mentioned the tragic deaths of two young people in a swimming pool at a holiday site. The matter is now the subject of a prosecution and we shall watch carefully to see how the case unfolds. She asked about statutory licensing, and, again, I undertake to examine the issue further and, if necessary, to reply to her in writing.

The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to there being too few investigator prosecutions. I have already said that the HSE's resources are inadequate and we have bid for a significant increase in the spending review. I insist on no reduction on front-line preventive work; additional resources must come on top of that. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that prevention is better than prosecution after the event.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked about reporting. There will always be questions surrounding non-reporting, but I am not satisfied with failures. New arrangements for reporting by telephone and through the internet should improve under-reporting. I understand that the HSE will set up a reporting centre for incidents by April 2001, which is expected to increase response rates. The HSE will also review the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 next year, and consider how employees and their representatives can be actively involved in reporting accidents and ill health.

The question of ill health and fines was raised, for which the courts have responsibility. I am concerned that cases in magistrates courts are not sufficiently referred to Crown courts, where the penalties are higher.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. We come to our next subject for consideration.

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