§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]9.30 am
§ Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
I begin by declaring an interest in health and safety at work. I am a member of Unison and have a long interest in the subject as a former health and safety representative in engineering and public services.
When the Adjournment debate was suggested, I was keen that we should raise the issue of health and safety at work, not only to allow us an hour and a half to discuss this important subject in Westminster Hall, but to create an awareness of it beyond the debate today. It has not been given high enough priority in the work of the House of Commons or elsewhere. It should have the No. 1 spot on any organisation's agenda. We need to push it up the industrial relations agenda, so that it is seen as more important and is discussed more. We need to make health and safety a No. 1 issue in the voluntary sector as well as in public services and the private sector. The issue is relevant to the whole of the British economy and needs to be treated as such.
I compliment the work of the all-party group on occupational safety and health, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). It has done, and continues to do, admirable work across the piece, which I welcome. We should salute the work of the group, and that of my hon. Friend in particular.
I welcome the Government's decision to move the responsibility for the Health and Safety Commission to the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a good move, and one that we should welcome as it allows for a more co-ordinated, all-round approach to health and safety through the Department. I hope that that is what happens. We must examine not only statistics, but the whole question of illness and health in the workplace, which has not been treated properly in the past.
I think that we would all agree that we hear about health and safety when there is a major problem, which can be international as well as national. Among the international incidents were Chernobyl, Bhopal and Mexico City—to name just three. Nationally, we have had Piper Alpha, Herald of Free Enterprise, King's Cross, Hatfield and, unfortunately, too many others to mention. It is only when such disasters occur that we all, for a short period, deal with health and safety issues, and awareness of the problems sometimes disappears far too quickly—perhaps a day or two later. We must focus on these incidents and try to ensure that they do not happen again.
I do not want to use the debate to describe the health and safety situation in the United Kingdom as desperate and deplorable, because it is far from that. In fact, it is very good in some areas. The commission, the Health 2WH and Safety Executive, employers, employees, the TUC and the Scottish TUC work daily to improve health and safety in this country. As I said, it would be wrong to argue that there has been no improvement in recent years, because that is not the case.
In the past 10 years, significant European Union directives have made a qualitative difference to the health and safety agenda in this country, including: the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1994; the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994; the consumer protection legislation; and related general product safety regulations in 1994. Health and safety representatives throughout the country, irrespective of which sector they work in, have welcomed the health and safety six-pack of regulations, which included the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992, the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1992, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992. Steady progress has been made throughout the 1990s with legislation that has helped to build a framework for employers and employees, and for managers and health and safety representatives, who have to implement it at local level.
Having said that, there has still been no major UK legislation since the 1974 Act. That Act has been very successful and has played an important pivotal role in developing all the health and safety regulations I mentioned, but things have moved on significantly in those 30 years. We need to upgrade the legislation and bring in a new Act. The legislation needs to be taken forward, consolidated and built on for the future, because of the differing situations that people now face in the workplace.
As I said, it is not a dreary picture: it is a positive one. Much good work is taking place, such as that of the Health and Safety Executive. The inspectors, the Health and Safety Commission, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress are all trying to work in partnership, locally and nationally, to develop a better health and safety framework for industry and the British economy.
Health and safety continues to play a major role for people at work and for trade unions where they are organised and recognised in the workplace. The revitalising health and safety strategy, which has been sponsored by the Government, the Health and Safety Commission and the TUC, has been engaged in campaigns to strengthen the health and safety system. It has promoted and supported the work of the workplace safety representatives, fostered rehabilitation and retention systems as well as dealt with a wide range of workplace hazards. In particular, it has raised the profile of health and safety nationally and internationally. All those partners are to be complimented on that. The TUC needs to continue to engage the CBI as well as other organisations to ensure that people work collectively on this problem. If they do that, we have a chance of securing major gains in health and safety.
It might be as well to mention some of the statistics, which can sometimes be very dry. We should not take that attitude in this case, as we are talking about people being injured and killed. That is the daily reality in British industry. The figures are quite stunning. It is not true to say that there have been no improvements,
3WH because there have been and we should record that. According to the HSE's provisional figures for 2001–02, 249 workers were killed—43 fewer than the previous year—4,000 people were killed by asbestos-related diseases and 6,000 from other occupational illnesses.
The HSE says that at least 70 per cent. of incidents causing death or serious injury are due to health and safety management failures and should—not could—have been prevented. That highlights the major problem that we face in trying to ensure that good structures and framework agreements are implemented, and are applied locally to protect the work force. We must ensure that fewer people are killed. One would be too many for me. Realistically, we must aim to reduce the number of people killed and injured at work.
Some more figures should be added to those official statistics. About 30 people are killed at sea on British registered ships and on British waters. About 1,000 people die in work-related road traffic accidents and another 1,000 are killed by asbestos. The TUC estimates that around 5,000 people a year die from asbestos-related diseases. It should be a matter of deep concern that that problem continues. About 9,000 people are killed by other occupational diseases such as cancer, asthma and cardio-vascular illnesses.
§ Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewsliire)
Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of asbestos-related diseases, will he join me in putting on record our appreciation for the work of voluntary organisations such as Clydeside Action on Asbestos? If such organisations did not exist, people with this terrible disease, and their families, would have been left to suffer alone.
§ Mr. Lyons
My hon. Friend is right. Clydeside Action on Asbestos has for some years worked almost single-handedly to raise awareness and understanding of asbestos-related issues. In the west of Scotland, because of shipbuilding and heavy engineering, there is a long history of problems related to asbestos. It is crucial that relatives have someone to link up with and to get support from, and Clydeside Action on Asbestos is a serious, well-organised organisation.
The Health and Safety Executive report 2001–02 records 27,000 major injuries, which is only 47 fewer than in the previous year, which shows the task that faces parliamentarians and local health and safety representatives in trying to improve the situation. The consequences of illness and accidents are a serious problem for the families involved, but they also have a shocking effect on the British economy, as it is estimated that 40 million days off are due to illness and injury.
The figures are surprising. Some sectors would be considered safe places to work, but the figures show that that is not so. One would think that there should not be accidents or deaths in agriculture—hunting, forestry and fishing—but there are. One would expect major problems in construction, and many of the deaths in British industry occur in that sector. There were 79 in the current year, but 113 in the previous year. Those are worrying statistics.
Every week, five people in Britain are killed in their place of work, and 200 die as a result of occupational illness—I have already mentioned some of the illnesses.
4WH We need to underscore the importance of health and safety not just because of the deaths and illnesses, but because it is a person's right to be protected and to work in a healthy environment.
§ Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)
My hon. Friend used the word "protection". Does he agree that a new health and safety problem has arisen in work places, which is the threat to the work force from bullying and physical violence? Indeed, a member of the staff of an hon. Member, who was pursuing his activities as an MP, was subjected to physical violence. Such incidents occur in banks, supermarkets and so on, and cause stress and illness. Does my hon. Friend accept that that new phenomenon has developed in the past 10 years?
§ Mr. Lyons
Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point. I know only too well the recent evidence from the shopworkers' trade union on the number of assaults that its members suffer. In the health service, nursing and portering staff in hospitals have to face such threats daily. There have been major campaigns in London Transport to try to reduce the number of assaults on staff. It is a great problem for everyone, and is perhaps a subject for debate in its own right.
The statistics show a major impact on families and on the economy. Tomorrow, the Chancellor will tackle British productivity. It is not a party issue; every Chancellor will say that we need to improve productivity in the economy. It would be a good starting point to say that if the days lost through accidents could be substantially reduced it would be a major contribution to improving productivity. We must take health and safety issues in the workplace seriously.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
My hon. Friend quoted the statistics. Does he accept that, even if people have been killed or seriously injured, when employers who flagrantly ignore health and safety regulations are taken to court, they often receive the most pathetically low fines for abusing legislation to protect their work force?
§ Mr. Lyons
Yes, I accept that point. I welcome the campaigning work of the TUC and other organisations to highlight the issue of corporate manslaughter. If that could be included in legislation, it would be a significant step forward and it would be welcomed all across the country, not just by trade unions and employers, but by relatives and friends of people who have been involved in some of the major incidents.
We need to drive health and safety up the industrial and political agenda. I referred earlier to the health service. There is an attempt in the House, through a private Member's Bill, to deal with needle stick injuries. That matter is straightforward. Thousands of people per year are injured at work. We are losing tens of thousands of days in the health service because people are receiving needle stick injuries. Whether in Scotland, England or Wales, there needs to be a determined effort to eradicate needle stick injuries. Such injuries are unnecessary. If we were to work on that alone, there would be a major benefit, not only for people who are likely to be injured, but for the health service and for 5WH patients and staff. People would not be injured in that way, and would be at work rather than off work because of a needle stick injury.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I refer my hon. Friend to the needle stick injuries policy of Barnsley district general hospital. That policy has been brought to the attention of the Minister, who is to invite my hospital to a conference this June to promote its policy. Does my hon. Friend feel that there is a need for the Department of Health to drive best practice on the issue through the entire national health service?
§ Mr. Lyons
Yes, I do, and I welcome that point from my hon. Friend. When we have successes in the health service on health and safety issues, it is important to show them to other trusts up and down the country as examples of best practice. There is no point allowing every trust to try to find a way forward. If we find something that is successful, it can be used as an example of best practice and can be developed quickly.
§ Anne Picking (East Lothian)
There might be the odd accident, but almost 100 per cent. of needle stick injuries could be wiped out by good practice.
§ Mr. Lyons
I accept that point. My hon. Friend has years of experience of the health service. Nurses know how such injuries can be avoided, and how we can ensure that people are able to go to work and not be involved in such incidents.
Unison and other trade unions have been campaigning for some time on this issues, because it is important to their members, who are on the front line of the health service. A needle stick injury is not just a physical problem: it also causes psychological worry. People who are in that situation start to worry about what the needle was used for and what effect the jab will have. That is a dreadful burden. It is not just about the days off. Staff should be protected and should be able to work safely in the health service, without fear. I welcome the campaign by Unison and others. More strength to their elbow. I hope that they will be successful in ensuring that we eradicate needle stick injuries from the health service in the UK.
All too often we speak about health and safety in relation to the British economy and the voluntary, private and public sectors. We also need to consider the people who work in the Palace. Are they being protected properly? Whether they are in kitchens or other locations such as workshops, are they being treated properly and afforded the proper protection?
§ Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)
I compliment my hon. Friend on securing this worthwhile and important debate. Before he goes deeper into the question of location, will he clarify the definition of workplace? Although it is easy to define factories, offices and shops as places of work, does the definition include buses, trains and aeroplanes? People who work on them often face health and safety hazards. I am aware that other legislation, such as that on construction and use, can apply in certain cases, but if legislation does not specifically apply to such situations, does my hon. Friend agree with me that it should?
§ Mr. Lyons
Yes, I accept that point. I mentioned that a new Act was necessary. Such an Act should examine 6WH the definitions in the 1974 Act, because they can change so quickly. Home working is another issue. Whether we like it or not, people work from their homes. They should be afforded the protection of health and safety legislation. Some people work at home with toxic substances or even fireworks. There is no legislation on that. We need to review everything that we are doing on this subject.
§ Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)
We all know how long it took to detect the fact that diseases were caused by asbestos. Those diseases went for many years—I think that it was 30 or 50—without being reported by the Government. I am concerned about MDF board, which is a new material that is banned in America. It is creating the same situation as asbestos caused.
§ Mr. Lyons
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, which I was unaware of, and I am sure that he and others will ensure that it is put on the political agenda. If that material contains the same dangers as asbestos, we must act quickly.
We will commemorate workers memorial day in April, and I think that that is an appropriate time to redefine the health and safety campaign. We need new legislation. We need to recommit ourselves to doing everything that we car to reduce the number of deaths and injuries at work—that goes without saying. Workers memorial day gives us the chance to do that, but we must seize the opportunity to ensure that health and safety remains on the political agenda. It is not good enough that we see health and safety as an issue just for employers, trade unions and employees. It is an issue for all of us and we must take it seriously.
MPs must have a keen interest in health and safety matters. Our constituents have to ensure that they are in a healthy, safe and secure workplace every day of the week, and we must support them in that. Those working day to day need our full support, including employers, employees and the health and safety reps who slog away at the front line trying to ensure that improvements are consolidated, so that working people have a better working life.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
I should like to raise the issue of health and safety at work in care homes for elderly people. There are, obviously, multiple risks and opportunities for accidents in care homes for staff and residents. Where budgets are being squeezed, there are implications for staffing levels, staff training and, therefore, health and safety at work.
Heavy responsibilities rest on care home registered managers, many of whom, due to staffing difficulties arising from budgetary pressures, are now having to take on additional duties that they previously only supervised. I am full of admiration for many of the care homes in my constituency—for the level of care that they are giving while they are coping with those difficulties.
By 2025, the number of people trying to survive on ever-dwindling pension funds will be 2 million more than the number of children under 15. Currently, less than 18 per cent. of the United Kingdom population is 7WH under 15. Some of the next generation are already 30-something. That begs the question of who will look after those people if they live beyond the current life expectancy of 80. It is more than likely that they will have to live in care homes; at current rates, that can cost £20,000 a year. Recent statistics from the Health and Safety Executive and the local authorities enforcement liaison committee on residential care home injuries show that most injuries occur to people over the retirement age of 60, and the vast majority of those to people aged 80 and over.
In my constituency, the council has told me that the number of people aged over 80 will increase over the next five years, and that an additional 20 placements will be needed in residential or nursing care. Currently, the council pays £480 a week for a person to stay in a council-run home, but only £340 towards someone living in a privately run home. That has obvious implications for the viability of private homes, and care bids are being lost at an alarming rate.
There is a health and safety issue here. What happens to an elderly person living in a private home when the funds with which they are topping up the amount given by the council run out? In several instances in my constituency, when residents' funds have run out, and they have been in a private home for a long time and are looked upon as family rather than clients, the owners of the homes have chosen to absorb that expense themselves rather than take the risk of moving elderly people into another, cheaper home. There have been instances in which people have died after being moved out of the home that has been their familiar surroundings, and away from the people that they have known for so very long.
One problem has centred on the question of who should enforce health and safety standards in care homes when the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 and the Care Standards Act 2000 both apply. Elderly people have a large range of special needs so care homes have to deal with clinical waste, drugs and medicines, all of which have to be controlled and administered properly. There is a significant risk of scalding in baths and showers. Four out of 10 accidents in the health care sector are due to manual handling problems and proper manual handling risk assessments are essential. Independence and the maintenance of dignity are particularly important when devising methods of lifting dependent people into beds or baths and there are health and safety implications for staff—they must be trained in proper techniques; otherwise, they can sustain back injuries.
A range of equipment and circumstances is required in care homes to ensure safety, such as good lighting, non-slip floors, handrails and so on. Temperatures may need to be higher than are comfortable for the people who are working there. They need to be provided with proper clothing so that they can work comfortably. An increasing number of electrically assisted pieces of equipment are used to care for older people, such as seating, hoists, chair lifts and other mobility equipment, which all have to be maintained properly, even if they are the private property of the resident, to ensure that they are safe and for reasons of fire prevention.
8WH Violence to staff and other service users is not uncommon and must be properly managed to avoid ugly situations and give staff a safe means of withdrawal from dangerous situations.
The number of older people is rising rapidly in Europe. We are living longer—I hope that I do, too, and I hope that we all do—but we are having fewer children. There will continue to be a need for an increase in the supply of care homes and the employment of carers. We need to have not only patience and dedication to care for older people but sufficient knowledge and understanding to carry out tasks safely without risks to staff or those being cared for. There is an inescapable link between funding via local authorities and health and safety training in local care homes. There is a growing need because of the increase in the numbers of dependent elderly people, and we need to stem the flow of the loss of care beds. I hope that the Minister will address the implications that local council funding has for health and safety issues in care homes for elderly people.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It may help hon. Members to gauge their contributions if I point out that the first of the three Front-Bench spokespersons should be called not later than 10.30.
§ Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing the debate. The presence of such a large number of hon. Members in the Chamber this morning demonstrates the importance with which the issue should be treated.
In the past five years, more than 1,500 employees and 500 members of the public have died as a result of work-related disasters. Let me give just three recent examples from my region, the west midlands. In May 2001, Orangzeb Khan was killed when he fell two floors down a lift shaft at a factory. In September 2002, 39-year-old Troy Tattam, a construction worker, was killed when he was hit by a vehicle on a construction site. In February this year, 19-year-old Kyle Newell was killed when he was struck by a concrete load that fell off an excavator at a construction site.
That is the reality of death at work. However, we are concerned with not just death but injuries, occupational illnesses and psychological injury, which may be caused by excessive stress or bullying. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) rightly reminded us that we are dealing not only with factories and construction sites but with other workplaces such as care homes. I shall try to confine my remarks to five minutes so that my hon. Friends can also contribute to the debate.
I wish briefly to address the issue of the law. It is only part of the solution. We must also bring about cultural change, embed good practice in businesses and raise the profile of health and safety. However, the law has an important role. As my hon. Friend said, we have not had major legislation on the issue since 1974.
The law must be changed in three main areas, the first being corporate killing. The Labour party has a manifesto commitment to introduce such a change, and 9WH it is about time that we did. The problem is one of identification. Although it may be possible to identify a particular person in an organisation as having been guilty, say, of gross negligence, it is not possible to identify the company with the act. The Law Commission's proposal, which has been endorsed by the Government, of an offence of corporate killing would overcome that problem.
Secondly, the question of penalties was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). If it is possible to imprison people for breaches of trading or food standards law, why is that penalty not available for breaches of health and safety law? It is time that we dealt with that inconsistency.
Thirdly, there is the matter of directors' obligations, which was the point of a ten-minute Bill that I introduced a fortnight ago. I refer hon. Members to an excellent briefing paper on my Bill that was prepared by Brenda Brevitt of the science and environmental section of the Library. She explains the background to the Bill with greater clarity than I did when I introduced it in the House. She pointed out that in 2002 the British Safety Council revealed that many company directors believed that profits were more important than safety. Such concern with profits rather than safety must be addressed.
In my Bill, I tried to incorporate through amendments to the Companies Act the elements of good practice that have been developed, for example, by the Centre for Corporate Accountability and by the Health and Safety Commission, which issued guidance in 2001.
There are two aspects to my Bill. First, it would require companies to identify a particular director as having responsibility for health and safety. That is not scapegoating. The duties that would be imposed by my Bill on the health and safety director would not be subject to any criminal penalties, but the director would be required to monitor health and safety in the company and report on it regularly to the board.
Secondly, the Bill would impose an obligation on all directors of a company to take health and safety into account. Under current company law, directors have a responsibility, for example, not to act in a way that is contrary to the company's interests. There should be no conflicts of interest. Directors cannot, for example, appropriate, or misappropriate, corporate opportunities, and there are statutory responsibilities relating to financial matters. My Bill says that there is an additional area—health and safety—in which directors should have a duty under company law.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
Would the Bill not make it easier to prosecute a director for manslaughter?
§ Ross Cranston
There would possibly be that indirect effect, but that is not in the Bill. The intention is to mirror, in relation to health and safety, directors' responsibilities in other areas. Someone may ask, "Well, why not impose duties on directors in relation to, say, environmental matters?" However, I would reply that health and safety is so central, given that it relates to the physical integrity of employees and others, that it should be a priority among directors' duties.
10WH Reaction to the Bill has been positive, in the sense that the TUC has endorsed it. The Institute of Directors has written to me saying that it is unhappy because it fears that identifying a particular director as the health and safety director would lead to scapegoating. I have addressed that in the Bill by limiting the health and safety director's responsibilities. The chairman of the Black Country chamber of commerce, Mike Holder, has endorsed the Bill, although he has pointed out to me that, in our area of the black country, many health and safety difficulties arise in relation to unincorporated bodies, rather than companies. My Bill is the first step. Other legislation would have to cover the public sector, and unincorporated companies would also have to be addressed.
I promised that I would speak for only five minutes, but I just want to mention, as I mentioned informally to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am serving on a Select Committee and I beg the indulgence of hon. Members if I leave the Chamber shortly to return to it.
§ 10.7 am
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on obtaining the debate. It is vital to working men and women that such debates take place in the House, and that their concerns about health and safety at their workplaces are discussed. We all know the figures—my hon. Friend quoted them—showing that, despite existing legislation, there are far too many deaths and injuries at workplaces in this day and age.
I am the first to say—as I am sure my hon. Friend would—that there are good employers who are concerned about the health and safety of their work force. Those employers work with their work force, trade union representatives and trade unions, but there are also employers who do not. There are still today employers who clearly put profit before safety, and safety rules are not always followed, which puts at risk the health and safety of the work force.
In Wandsworth, for which I am one of the Members of Parliament, the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council has been at the forefront of dealing with two cases of men who were killed at work because safety rules were not followed. One of the men, Olatunji Owolabi, was a night security guard on watch at a vacant London Underground building in Balham, which is in my constituency. That man died after being overcome by carbon monoxide fumes. All the rules that his employers were supposed to follow, such as telephoning him every hour to see that he was all right, were not followed. Mr. Owolabi was telephoned only once. He was supposed to be visited once during his shift duty, but that did not happen. The man died because his employers were not following the rules.
The other case concerns Michael Mungovan, who was struck by a moving train just outside Vauxhall station in south London where he was working on rail maintenance. He had not received proper training, and proper supervision had not been implemented for workers working on rail maintenance while trains were still running. Both those men would still be alive today if their employers had followed the rules.
It causes deep concern that when those responsible for such tragedies are charged and found guilty in the courts, they are fined appallingly low sums of money. In 11WH the case of Mr. Owolabi, the fine was £35,000 plus costs. No one who caused his death—his death was caused through sheer negligence by the people who employed him—was sent to prison. I must say to my hon. Friend the Minister that existing legislation is not tough enough. Why should people who neglect the safety of their work force walk away with pathetic fines that mean nothing to them? My hon. Friend who opened the debate made it clear that men and women are killed every year by the failure of employers to follow safety rules.
The other issue, which concerns many trade unions and their health and safety representatives, is the lack of action against employers who allow safety rules to be broken because the Crown Prosecution Service does not take action against them. In the case of Mr. Owolabi, although there was clear evidence that the cause of his death was neglect by his employers, the CPS claimed that the evidence did not warrant further action. Just what message does that send out to working people and to trade unions? I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is an urgent need to introduce much tighter legislation to protect working people.
We all know that the issue is not political. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raised an important point, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden on securing the debate, which has given my hon. Friend the Minister the opportunity to tell the Chamber and working people up and down the country what action the Government will take to protect them while they are at work.
§ John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), who represents a neighbouring constituency, on securing the debate. He and other hon. Members have presented a compelling case for further health and safety legislation in the workplace, to which I should like to add my support. Only a minority of such cases result in a prosecution. In the past 50 years, there have been only three successful convictions for corporate manslaughter, and there is growing frustration that nobody can readily be held to account.
Shipbuilding is an important industry in my constituency. In the tragic case of Simon Jones, it took three years of campaigning to bring the general manager of Euromin, the Dutch owners of the dockyard where he died, to court on a charge of corporate manslaughter. When the trial finally went ahead in November 2001, the company and its general manager, James Martell, were cleared of manslaughter. The company was found guilty of two lesser charges of breaching health and safety regulations and was fined a measly £50,000. I must say to the Minister that that is not good enough. It is time for the Government to take action and improve workplace health and safety, increase law enforcement and promote corporate accountability. We need to introduce legally binding safety duties on company directors, so that they are obliged to take measures that will ensure that their companies comply with health and safety law. We also need to change the law on corporate 12WH manslaughter, so that companies can be more easily held to account if management negligence causes death or serious injury.
It is also important, particularly to the people of Scotland, that the Scottish Executive introduce proposals to ensure that a similar regime applies in Scotland. Is it not sad that once again no one from the Scottish National party could be bothered to turn up for the debate?
On average, workplaces can expect a visit from the health and safety inspector once every five years. In the absence of more external inspectors, trained safety representatives should be given greater legal power to stop unsafe working practices.
I draw the Minister's attention to what is called a provision improvement notice, which is used in Australia. The serving of a PIN puts an employer on formal notice that the safety representative thinks that the employer is breaking health and safety law. Work can continue, but the representative has given notice that he considers that work to be unsafe and that it must therefore be examined. It is then the employer's responsibility to consider what the safety representative has said and to ascertain whether he is correct.
§ John Robertson
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If a company is not insured, how will the work force be looked after in the event of an accident? That is all the more reason for representatives to be given the power to act when they see that an error is being committed.
I do not want to repeat too much of what other hon. Members have said, but I will mention bullying in the workplace, which is one of the newer aspects of working life. The law on harassment must be examined and brought into line with health and safety legislation. Bullying at work has increased, and in Europe it is seen as a more important issue than it is in the United Kingdom.
As mentioned in a debate a few weeks ago, Scandinavian countries in particular have recognised that bullying is a health and safety issue, and have introduced methods to prevent it. Norway recently improved its legislation on the work environment to protect employees against bullying at work. In Sweden, an ordinance on measures against victimisation at work came into force in March 1994. That defines victimisation asrecurrent reprehensible or distinctly negative actions which are directed against individual employees in an offensive manner and result in those employees being placed outside the workplace community.
Another issue that is dear to my heart is the effect of smoking in the workplace on health and safety. There is abundant evidence that breathing other people's tobacco smoke carries serious health risks, even for the children of those who are chronically exposed. Recent estimates suggest that, each year, several hundred people in the UK die from lung cancer caused by passive smoking. Those people have rights: I am an asthmatic, and I have rights.
13WH A study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, published in June 2002, analysed all the significant published evidence related to tobacco smoking and cancer across 12 European countries. It identified passive smoking as a cause of lung cancer, and classified second-hand smoking as carcinogenic to humans. It estimated that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke were 20 to 30 per cent. more likely to develop lung cancer.
The code of practice on smoking in the workplace should clarify the steps that all employers should take to comply with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which requiresevery employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all his employees.Such measures should start with a complete ban on smoking in every workplace where reasonably practicable. Even employers such as pub landlords and restaurant owners who might not want to ban smoking altogether should have to take reasonable and practical steps to reduce employees' exposure to smoking by, for example, improving ventilation or creating separate areas for smokers, as some public houses now do.
The Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 was introduced 30 years ago. It is lacking for today's workplace, especially given new research, the vast technological changes that have transformed the modern workplace and medical studies since the 1970s. It is time to introduce new legislation in a 2004 health and safety at work Act to do justice to today's employees.
§ Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife)
I echo the compliments made to my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing this important debate.
I want to refer to one or two matters relating to work that has already been done in the House. First, I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the revitalisation of health and safety strategy, led by the First Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), has been valuable in tackling an Act that was effective in improving industrial practices in that day and age, but is not relevant to the wider range of work opportunities now. It is necessary and important to revitalise legislation on health and safety at work.
I also want to draw attention to the work of the campaign for new safety legislation, led by the Centre for Corporate Accountability. It is a true partnership and the trade unions support its work and the principles behind it. It also involves representatives of bereaved families and gets to the heart of the matter touched on by my colleagues this morning: the need for the Government to introduce legal reforms to impose legally binding safety duties on company directors. The campaign also examines the need to reform sentencing law and procedures and law enforcement, and recommends various proposals that I am sure, without going into detail, would be worthy of consideration. I lend my support to the campaign's work.
I agree that the issue is not political. We have all probably had bad experiences of a colleague in the workplace being seriously injured or, tragically, losing their life through incompetence. I have been involved in 14WH work force collections and, as a representative of the work force, have handed over a cheque to help a grieving widow through a tragic and difficult time, although she might feel that no money can compensate for such a tragedy. There is a great need to introduce legislation to encourage employers to take on board their responsibilities.
Mention has been made of good employers, and there are many of them. However, no mention has been made of the responsibility on work forces to ensure that working practices are adhered to. On many occasions, and despite best efforts in workplaces, I have seen short cuts taken by the work force to achieve bonus levels and so on. That incentive has sometimes led to corners being cut, with tragic results, often for someone other than the person who cut the corners.
There are many issues in a fast-changing working environment, and none should be excluded. We should consider the fact that people work from home, and my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden referred to this. For example, there are also bus drivers trying to do their jobs late at night whose work is interfered with by rowdy members of the public, possibly leading to threats to other people's safety. Nurses and doctors in hospitals are also affected.
There are many examples, and good legislation should work as a deterrent in every situation, whether for shopkeepers, bus drivers or whoever. We should ensure that the maximum incentive and deterrent comes from legislation to ensure that the best practices prevail. People should be allowed to go about their day-to-day work. They should know their responsibilities, and that should the employer not introduce the protective measures clearly required by law, there is no way out for that employer and the punishment will fit the crime.
Mention was made about competitiveness and the size of companies. The biggest lack of incentive is the variation of penalty. If each company knows its responsibilities in legislation, there will be a level playing surface; everyone will face the same penalty, which will be proportionately of benefit. There is nothing worse than for employers not to have proper working practices in place and then to discover the cost of court cases, legal battles and penalties. It is better for companies to cover themselves at the early stages of employment to protect against such events, and encouragement in legislation should ensure that that happens.
I will not say much more because much of what I would have said has already been said. I echo the sentiments of hon. Members who have spoken, and I want to note again the large turnout. I am sure that we all want to see safer working practices. We must be tough at home as well as tough abroad, and we must be tough to ensure that people, not only in the workplace but in their day-to-day lives, are protected by legislation and have the comfort of knowing that it will be implemented. They must know that there will be no mercy for those who breach the legislation.
§ Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)
I am conscious of the time, and I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) 15WH for leaving me three minutes to speak about my experience of working as a health and safety representative.
I was fortunate enough during my working life to work for a company that took health and safety extremely seriously from the senior director down. Indeed, my biggest problem was trying to encourage employees to take health and safety seriously. My experience of working for a progressive employer contrasts with that of those working in the construction industry, which is an absolute disgrace. I cannot emphasise enough to the Minister that we need to examine that industry and see how best we can improve its record.
We spoke earlier about the problem of asbestos, and I am proud of my own union, the Transport and General Workers Union, and its work to secure a change in the law in Scotland. The law now allows for relatives to pursue a claim for those who were killed by asbestos or asbestos-related diseases, when previously it said that when people died, their claim died with them. However, the TGWU—through the work of the TUC and the Scottish TUC—managed to change the law, which has proved extremely beneficial to the relatives of the people who have died of such a horrible disease. If people need a reason to join a trade union, I can see no better one than to secure their health and safety.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) mentioned bus drivers, and I have anecdotal experience of bus drivers being attacked in their workplace. That resulted in communities losing a bus service but, more importantly, bus drivers being supported in their workplace.
Corporate responsibility has been mentioned, and I will finish on this point. Corporate responsibility is worldwide, and corporate bodies should not be allowed to export their bad practices from this country to third world countries or exploit vulnerable people to secure profits and the loss of jobs in this country. I hope that the Minister will take that on board in examining legislation on corporate responsibility.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons). As he rightly said in his introductory remarks, this is an enormously important subject that we do not consider often enough. I believe that it was last debated in the Chamber just over a year ago. I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the very effective support that he has received from his colleagues, which, in many cases, comes from a wealth of experience of health and safety problems.
I want to concentrate on enforcement, as there is no point in having elaborate regulation and new laws if they are not enforced. The subject is often raised by businesses, many of which approach it responsibly, some of which do not. I often hear from business people whom I meet that we have an incredibly elaborate health and safety enforcement system in this country, with thousands of inspectors crawling all over their premises morning, noon and night investigating petty breaches. However, the facts and figures suggest the opposite; in many ways, we have a very loose, skeletal enforcement system.
16WH The figures produced by the Centre for Corporate Accountability surprised me, although I have examined this area before. Currently—or at least when the last research was done—we have some 840 inspectors in the field who examine health and safety regulation enforcement issues. They cover some 730,000 premises; in other words, there is one inspector for roughly 1,000 workplaces. This team of inspectors covers 37,000 major injuries every year; an inspector therefore covers a major injury roughly every five days, carrying out investigations and bringing prosecutions in addition to their other work. That seems to be a very thin enforcement system, and I should be grateful for the Minister's reaction.
§ John Robertson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 37,000 injuries and accidents are the tip of the iceberg, and that the real number of unreported injuries and accidents is probably at least double that?
§ Dr. Cable
Yes. The Health and Safety Executive recognises a category of workers who are off work for more than three days because of injuries at work, whose numbers are vastly greater than those of workers who incur so-called major injuries. As the hon. Gentleman says, many major injuries are never reported. It is not just a question of small numbers of people enforcing a regime that covers large numbers of injuries. What also struck me about the figures was the sharp decline in the number of inspections in recent years. In construction, agriculture and mining, which are particularly dangerous industries, the number of inspections since 1996 has declined by about 50 per cent. That may represent greater efficiency and better targeting—I do not know the explanation—but it is very striking that the amount of inspection is going down, not up.
It is inevitable that there is a good deal of under-investigation of accidents that occur at work. I saw from the same source that the HSE investigates only 20 per cent. of major injuries. That figure has improved in recent years, which suggests better prioritisation. The figure has roughly doubled since 1996, but it is still a small number. Only 5 per cent. of smaller injuries, where people are off work for three days or more, are investigated. Only 30 per cent. of dangerous events, such as explosions and collapsing premises, are ever investigated. Large numbers of injuries and accidents occur that are never investigated because the resources are not there to pursue them.
An alarmingly small number of injuries and accidents that are investigated ever result in prosecution; only 33 per cent. in the cases of deaths and work, and 10 per cent. in the cases of major injuries. We should reflect on that fact: of the major injuries that are ever investigated, only 10 per cent. ever lead to prosecution. It is also striking that when prosecutions are initiated, they are almost always successful. The Crown Prosecution Service and HSE system has a brilliant success record when it brings cases to court. In cases of major injuries, there have been only three failures out of 300, and in cases of deaths, there has been only one failure out of 83. That suggests to me that a far higher standard of proof is sought in industrial accident prosecutions than would be the case with normal criminal investigations, let alone civil cases.
17WH In other words, the authorities are looking for a 90 per cent. plus standard of proof. If the CPS adopted a somewhat more relaxed standard, as we would normally expect, far more cases could be brought successfully before the courts. Will the Minister give his reaction to those figures, and the Government's assessment of what resources and manpower are required in the HSE system to produce a satisfactory level of investigation and prosecution?
I want to respond to a couple of points that have emerged during the debate. One is about the legal changes and the other is about legal liability. The hon and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) is one of several Members pursuing private Member's legislation to cover different deficiencies in the law. His Bill relates to the legal duties of directors, and I am a co-sponsor of it. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) is introducing a Bill on tougher fines, and the figures are extraordinary to me, as someone relatively uninitiated in this field. Some 87 per cent. of major accident cases go before magistrates rather than Crown courts, and the average fine is £9,000. Even in cases of deaths, 40 per cent. go before magistrates, and the average fine is £15,000. We are often dealing with ludicrous levels of fines, and the hon. Gentleman's proposed legislation is designed to address that.
There is also the issue of Crown immunity, such as in the case of the Royal Mint, which simply walked away from its obligation to an employee when it had been grossly negligent. We also have to address the issue of corporate killing, and I am supporting the amendments of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to the Criminal Justice Bill. I am not a lawyer and do not know whether that is the best way of dealing with the problem, but at least it is now being addressed. How do the Government see the different pieces of legislation being interwoven? Do they favour a piecemeal approach, or would it make more sense to have one large health and safety Bill to incorporate the different elements?
My final question to the Minister relates to legal liability, as I know that he has taken responsibility for the inquiry currently taking place in the Department for Work and Pensions. Last Friday, I visited a local roofing contractor, a long-established Twickenham company that is highly regarded, totally above board and observes very high standards. However, it has faced insurance cost increases of about 500 per cent. during the past five years and is losing business left, right and centre to cowboys who do not insure or observe proper standards. I was asked about the progress of the Government's inquiry, so will the Minister explain that this morning? I understood that it was due to finish at the end of March, and I do not doubt that it is imminent.
In particular, will the Minister tell us about the possibility of changing the system of insurance to bring it closer to that for car insurance? In other words, employers with a good record should receive the equivalent of a no-claims bonus as an incentive to improve their practices. That does not happen at the moment, as all the risks are pooled within a given sector, so good and bad employers pay the same charges. Is it possible, through regulation or some other way, to bring us closer to a model in which insurance charges reflect performance as well as the average in the industry?
18WH To conclude, I should be grateful if the Minister gave his assessment of the optimum level of staff for enforcement through the executive, an indication of how the Government see the best route to new legislation and a progress report on their inquiry into employers' liability insurance.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
I join in the welcome for this important debate on health and safety. From his experience as a mechanical engineer and later as a trade union official with Unison, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) knows a great deal about this subject. I agree with the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) that the issue is not party political, and that it is in the interests of everyone employers, workers and the country as a whole to have high standards of health and safety. That should be a "No. 1 issue", to use the expression of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said that we must address employers' liability insurance by matching the risk to the premium much more closely, particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises. I agree that the idea of a no-claims bonus has merit, but that should be tied to good health and safety practice in the industry. If a trade body were prepared to have a good-quality health and safety scheme for the industry, membership of that scheme and its implementation, plus good practice over a long period, would lead to lower premiums. A double trigger is required.
We heard that accidents cause injury and death to workers, but it is worth remembering that accidents also damage productivity for business, result in lost work days—a point made in the debate—and open up employers to the possibility of legal action in the criminal and civil courts. There should be every incentive to have a partnership that enables good practice to be built on.
It is important for the Minister to answer the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) about care homes, and the points made more widely about bullying. It cannot be a coincidence that incapacity benefit claims for mental illness have increased by 25 per cent. That means that many people are leaving work because they are suffering from clinical depression and stress. I am interested to know what the Minister thinks can be done to improve circumstances in the work setting so that that is no longer the case. The points about bus drivers and nurses must also be addressed.
The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) talked about his experience of working for a good company and said that a good partnership could be achieved. It is worth repeating a remark made by a former Minister who dealt with this issue previously, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead):Effective health and safety is about getting duty holders to fulfil their obligations as a matter of course, not just in response to an inspector's visit, and that means working in partnership with stakeholders to achieve long lasting improvements in voluntary compliance."—[Official Report, 19 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 284–5.]
That is the test. Good health and safety in the workplace should be commonplace.
19WH I shall raise one other issue; the fire strike. Last autumn, the Health and Safety Executive issued a paper entitled "Application of Health and Safety Legislation to the Police in the Context of the Firefighters' Dispute". However, we do not seem to have heard much in response. The document states:The police role means that police officers will be first on the scene of many possible fires during the dispute, many more than during ordinary duties. The potential risks to officers are … greater than normal, and may be increased further by the lack of support from fully trained civilian firefighters, as well as lesser availability of military assets … Considering how to address these risks will also have to take account of complicating factors such as the limited time in which to give further instruction to police officers, and the absence of personal protective equipment for officers normally required for fire rescue, or training to use it.I have three questions for the Minister about that. Have the Government been able to make any agreement with, or representations to, the Fire Brigades Union that would protect the police in such difficult circumstances? What is to be done to make life a little easier for them during the dispute? Are the Government able to make any estimate of the total cost to UK business of the impact of the fire strike in relation to more general health and safety issues?
One of the issues discussed today is whether there should be legislation on work and safety. The hon. Member for Twickenham asked the Minister whether there should be a wider new framework through the primary legislative route. As long ago as 2000, the Government promised in the Gracious Speech that a Bill would be drafted to provide for, among other things, the revitalisation of health and safety at work. The hon. Member for Central Fife recalled that. We have had one of the Bills that was promised—on railways and transport safety—but the engineering employers have said in their briefing for this debate that the commitment to have a new legislative frameworkappears not to have been carried forward … If there is to be new legislation introduced by way of modernising the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 we urge that this is done not in a piecemeal fashion but as a Government Bill which will then allow the full participation of all stakeholders.What is the Government's position? Are we to have a new health and safety at work Bill?
On corporate manslaughter, the same considerations apply. There should be a well thought through proposal that has the support of the Government after proper consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) makes that point quite regularly. In July 2001, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) talked about the end of the consultation period on corporate manslaughter. He said:The consultation period ended in September 2000. During that time, we received more than 160 responses. Almost all were of high quality and required careful consideration[elipsis] We have yet to make final decisions … It is important that we consider those issues in detail".—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 237WH.]On 24 July last year, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn) said: 20WHan interdepartmental group has examined the issues raised by the consultation and other unresolved areas. The group has now completed its work. We will be publishing a digest of responses to the consultation paper shortly."—[Official Report, 24 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 1505W.]I have looked, and my researcher has looked, and we cannot find any evidence of such a digest being published. If it has been, I would like the Minister to reassure me about that.
It is not good enough that it is all taking so long. When I was shadowing the then police Minister—now the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—two years ago, I was pursuing him about the matter. On 29 January 2001, he said:in our view, and overhaul of the offences against the person legislation is best handled in the context of a law reform Bill, which will also include changes to the law on involuntary manslaughter and corporate killing."—[Official Report, 29 January 2001; Vol. 362, c. 120.]In other words, there should be a new offences against the person Act. Is that still the Government's position? What is the current state of play, two years on?
I do not want to rehearse all the past arguments about white asbestos, but I should be grateful if the Minister told us whether there was any further scientific thought on white asbestos. He will know that regulations were introduced last autumn, after vigorous debate, on whether white asbestos should be classified in the same way as brown and blue. I should be grateful to know if he has any plans to consider that again.
On employers' liability insurance, the Minister must be aware that, last year, there were examples of 100 and 1,000 per cent. increases in the premiums for employers' liability insurance. Some employers who gave evidence to the all-party group on small business—I know that the hon. Member for Twickenham was there—said that it was almost impossible to get cover.
Obviously the matter is urgent. This year's increases could be 20 per cent. or more, and many employers are being put in a difficult position. Will the Minister come forward with detailed proposals to help small businesses? Does he accept the logic of the point, which has been made by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, that good practice by small and medium-sized firms, which should not be rated across their industries, must be recognised? Will action be taken soon?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)
This has been an important debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), not only on his powerful contribution, but on stimulating important contributions from across the Floor. I want briefly to outline the Government's overall strategy on this vital issue, and then do my best to respond to the numerous points that have been raised in this interesting debate.
As has been acknowledged, we already have one of the best health and safety records in Europe. There has been a dramatic reduction in accidents since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The rate of fatal accidents in the United Kingdom is 21WH now less than a quarter of that in the early 1970s. That is down to the hard work of decent employers, the Health and Safety Executive and the trade union movement, whose representatives have played a leading role.
My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), who drew on his experience, emphasised the importance of good trade union work, which we should acknowledge. There is more such work to be done in the future. There are, however, no grounds for complacency, which has been a theme in the debate. Although the record is good, it is certainly not good enough.
There is no doubting the role of health and safety in improving people's quality of life and in stopping their work reducing their quality of life. Everybody has the right to carry out their job in safety. Today, we have heard about the misery that health and safety failures, which have caused some terrible accidents, can cause to workers and their families, and hon. Members have rightly talked about tragedies in their constituencies.
It is not only workers who benefit from good standards in health and safety, although that is crucial, but employers and our economy. We are losing up to 40 million working days a year because of work-related injuries and ill health. It is worth emphasising at the outset that proper health and safety management systems are not a financial burden on businesses but should be viewed, as they are, as vital investment. Let us be clear; good health and safety is good business for us all.
In conjunction with the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive and other stakeholders, the Government have achieved a lot in the past five years towards improving health and safety. Nevertheless, too many people are dying or are absent from work as a result of injuries and ill health. Although provisional figures for 2001–02 indicate a welcome 15 per cent. decrease in fatalities among British workers, figures for work-related, non-fatal injuries sadly show an increase. Again, there are no grounds for complacency.
Furthermore, in 2001–02 some 2.3 million people in Great Britain were suffering from what they believed to be work-related ill health. That translates into an estimated 33 million working days lost, the vast majority of which were due to musculo-skeletal disorders and, increasingly, stress-related illnesses. It is therefore vital that we continue to keep the issue firmly on the Government's agenda to ensure that health and safety retains a high profile and is at the heart of daily working lives. I share the view of those hon. Members who argue that we need to lift the issue up the key agendas in our economy.
In particular, we need to raise the profile of occupational health, which is sometimes seen as the poor relation of health and safety management. We were pleased when the HSC and the HSE came into the Department for Work and Pensions, which makes sense in terms of making links with our benefits relating to incapacity and with the growing number of people on incapacity benefit.
In brief, our goal is a health and safety culture that emphasises prevention and that leads to the reduction of workplace accidents, absences and health inequalities 22WH and, thereby, reduces the pressures on our national health service, incapacity benefits and so on. We want to put more emphasis on rehabilitation and advice, and we want to provide better access to occupational health support. Increasingly, we must work with our partners on building on good practice. I recognise the point of the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall), who discussed good and bad practice in the workplace.
We should remember that the economic burden of health and safety failures is estimated to be a whacking £18 billion, so the matter is of economic as well as social and health importance. In the document "Revitalising Health and Safety", the Government set targets and discussed eight priorities that hon. Members have highlighted today.
Let me turn to the detailed issues that have been raised. There seems to be an inverse correlation in these debates between the range of questions and the time allowed to the Minister to try to sum up and answer them. I suspect that I shall not be able to deal with all the questions. As usual, I shall reply in writing if necessary and send copies to hon. Members.
Needle stick injury is an important issue. We do not know the precise number of such injuries. The Royal College of Nursing is doing a study that we shall review very carefully. The Government's position is that proper legislation is in place in the form of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), who emphasised the importance of good practice and the need for Government inspectors to work very closely with those who oversee the practices in health care institutions and, in particular, hospitals.
Much concern has been expressed about the terrible deaths that still occur, about the failure of some employers to comply with the law and about prosecutions. Every year, the Health and Safety Executive undertakes some 200,000 visits, which result in approximately 1,000 prosecutions. In addition, some 11,000 notices are served. Last year, fines increased by about 33 per cent. to an average of £12,000, and the Government are supporting a private Member's Bill to increase fines and penalties, which is important. Following a Select Committee inquiry, the HSE now investigates a higher percentage of accidents than before, but we must find the right balance between that work and prevention, which is never very easy.
A theme of the debate was violence in the workplace. My figures suggest that some 1.3 million incidents of violence from fellow workers or customers occur in the workplace every year. I know from my own visits to the accident and emergency department of Mayday hospital in Croydon about the abuse and, at times, violence that our wonderful front-line staff—the doctors and nurses—have to tolerate from patients fuelled by drugs and drink. One could find similar evidence in many other sectors such as the fire and police services. That matter certainly must be given high priority.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) discussed care homes and the way in which demography places an emphasis on the health, safety and welfare of the very frail people who are cared for in care homes and of the staff. It was right to emphasise that. Alongside issues such as stress, we must ensure that 23WH work on health and safety is not concerned only with the traditional industries—although such work is important and must continue—but with the problems in the modern economy, such as lifting and the fear of abuse that may arise in care homes. The hon. Lady's contribution was important.
On corporate manslaughter, which is essentially a matter for the Home Office, the Government remain committed to reforming the law in order to provide a strong deterrent to the few employers who are inclined to disregard in extreme ways the health and safety of their employees. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said that legislation on corporate manslaughter was not strong enough. I hope that my assurance that we are committed to the matter will help.
There has been a rigorous and full review of employer's liability insurance and we are committed to reporting on that as soon as possible. There has been proper consultation. I shall deal with the points made about the fire strike by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in writing. Our employment policy has to be about making work possible, but also about making work safe.