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Column 810period ; in my own trade, 37 carpenters and joiners ; 19 bricklayers ; 13 plumbers and glaziers, and so on. It is not just the labourer digging holes who is affected.
Hon. Members have seen the television programme showing a woman inspector going around various sites. She stopped work at a particular site and had only been off the site for a few moments when they started work again, with the employer telling them they were either back at work or sacked because it was easy to replace them. The inspector had to go back and stop the work again. That was a recent television programme showing what actually goes on in the industry in London.
The situation has not improved since 1985 ; in fact, it has got worse. In 1977 the number of fatal accidents was 130. The Minister is trying to make out how much better it is now. In 1977 the number of employees in the industry was 1,167,000 ; in 1987 the number of fatal accidents was 100, but the number of employees in the industry at that time was 984,000--183,000 fewer. If there has been a certain fall-off in the rate of accidents, there has also been a fall-off at certain times in the number of workers in the industry. It is very interesting that the number of self-employed has gone up, with lump labour in particular. In 1981, 11 self-employed workers met with fatal accidents, and there were 40 major injuries. In 1987, 41 self- employed workers were fatally injured and 450 suffered major injuries. In 1981 there were 388,000 self-employed and in 1987 542, 000, so it is clear that there is a correlation between the number of self-employed and the number of fatal accidents.
On 1 January 1979, 86 factory inspectors were employed in construction. According to Government figures given to me by the Library of the House, on 1 September 1987 there were 75. To be fair, in addition to the 75 experienced inspectors in 1987, there were a further 17 qualified inspectors. This total of 92 qualified inspectors compares with a total of 90 at the beginning of this year--a number which is unlikely to have changed by September 1989, when the recent public expenditure White Paper envisages that there will also be 90 trained inspectors. It is intended that there will be 100 such inspectors by 1990, but even with those numbers, how on earth are they dealing with the real situation? It is high time that the number of inspectors in the construction industry was doubled. We need not the 100 that the Minister boasts that we shall get but at least 200. Even that would not be enough, but it would be a great improvement on what we have now. Despite the safety blitz, whole sections of the construction industry are without safety supervision. Where trade unions are weak on a site, the employers get away with murder.
More than 2,000 dangerous sites were shut down by factory inspectors during the safety blitz. More than 10,000 contractors on 8,272 sites were inspected. Yet during the year of the blitz, which ended in March 1988, 157 people were killed--including 16 members of the public--and 21,000 people were injured. In London there were 38 deaths. Yet the average fine imposed on the 47 companies brought to court was £837. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West said, that is a joke. When will real penalties be imposed? When will people who are criminally negligent be put in prison?
If the Government are so keen to deal with safety in the construction industry, when do they intend to introduce legislation? They are keen to introduce, out of the blue, legislation that affects dock workers. How much better it
Column 811would be if dockers did not have to consider taking strike action. Instead, we ought to have been welcoming Government action to eliminate death and injury in the construction industry.
The general secretary of my union, Mr. Albert Williams, was right to declare that death caused by employers' neglect should be an indictable offence and that there should be prosecution for corporate manslaughter, but it is cheaper for employers to take the risk of being fined than to pay for the introduction of proper safety standards.
We need far more health and safety inspectors. There should be an elected health and safety representative at every workplace. My trade union is the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. I am proud to say that I have now served for 50 years in that union, beginning in the old Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, which then merged with UCATT. The former regional secretary of the Merseyside branch of the ASW argued that every member must be his own safety officer, and I agree--where there are good, organised trade union jobs there is collective power to enforce the regulations--but the unions are becoming increasingly weak in certain areas because of the growth of lump labour and individualism. Workers are therefore unable to enforce safety regulations, as they can if there is a good trade union organisation. That is one of the problems in the construction industry.
UCATT is conducting a safe site campaign and has produced an excellent document. [Interruption.] Do you mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker? If I speak for half an hour, that is a matter for me, not for you. With all due respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, even if I have been speaking for 20 minutes, I am entitled to do so. I do not intend to speak for much longer, but it is not your job to mention to the Whip that I ought to be thinking of sitting down.
Mr. Heffer : I will reply to that by telling you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I tabled a motion that carried the names of 240 hon. Members. The debate has arisen from the desire of those who supported the motion that it should take place. I am ending my speech by referring to what my union is doing. It is important that the House of Commons and the country should know that if employers conducted themselves as my trade union conducts itself and as the workers in the industry conduct themselves, there would be fewer accidents and deaths. There would be a little less profit, but that would benefit the workers in the construction industry.
It is not just a question of the safety regulations. There is the question of chemicals, asbestos and wood preservatives on site, and also the problem of noise and the handling of loads. Those issues cannot be brushed aside lightly. More deaths and injuries are caused to workers in the construction industry because of the materials that they work with than happens in any other industry. I make no apology for speaking at length on the issue. It is dear to my heart and to the hearts of many other people. I am part of that industry, even though I have been a Member
Column 812of Parliament for 25 years. I have fought for a hell of a long time to get the House to discuss safety in the construction industry and I make no apologies for having spoken at length on the subject. When I was an apprentice, conditions in the industry were little different from those described in "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists". Despite all the technology and the health and safety regulations, when I go on to some sites today I think that conditions there have returned to those described in that book. It is time that the people of this country did something positive about that. That is why I welcome the debate. I hope that the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West will be carried. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the House once more that time is very limited. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to speak. I hope that those who are called will be fair to the others by making brief speeches.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) on his 50 years in his union, but he attached great blame to employers and at times to the self-employed. I was disappointed that he did not point out that there is a great need for good training and safety standards to be inculcated at an early stage. I understand that 107 deaths were due to industrial accidents in 1988. Half those tragic deaths were of people who had been working on site for less than one week, which makes it much worse. It also emphasises the critical need for training at an early stage.
The seven-point plan proposed by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is a march back to the over-regulated 1960s and apparently proposes controls and burdens on businesses. Surely that is not the way forward. We need higher standards, but we will not achieve them by imposing burdens that have not been properly thought through or considered. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about higher fines. It is easy to be simplistic and consider only the fine for a criminal offence. Any firm that is negligent is liable to massive damages in the civil court. I could reel off a number of cases in which firms have had to pay damages well in excess of £250, 000 when someone has suffered death or serious injury, and that must not be overlooked. I also agree with the hon. Member for Oldham, West about the responsibility of a main contractor. That must also be considered extremely carefully.
I shall confine my remarks to the construction industry training board which is based in my constituency, as the Under-Secretary of State knows because he has been there. It is a centre of excellence and has a profound effect on my constituency. It is located not in a town but in a rural area and employs about 500 people. At least 10 villages are largely dependent on the CITB for their entire economy. Its impact locally is quite enormous, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is well aware. Since the centre was opened, 95,000 adults have been trained. It trains 5,000 people a year on 50 different courses. This year the CITB is responsible for 35,000 YTS places.
Paragraph 4.24 of the White Paper on training criticised the failure of industrial training boards to make a
Column 813significant impact on training generally, but that does not apply to the CITB, given its record in training over the years, its standards of excellence and the emphasis it places on safety right down the line. I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned today's initiative. "A Site More Safe" which is being launched by the CITB in conjunction with the Open College and Channel 4 and is aimed at those on the sites who are responsible for site safety-- the foremen and the managers. That is why it is an important initiative. I shall not elaborate further, but the CITB is constantly producing more initiatives to improve safety standards. It is aware of the need to reduce the number of deaths and injuries. It is rising to that challenge through its training infrastructure.
The White Paper contains an intention to move the ITBs to a non-statutory training organisation basis. However, the construction industry differs from all other industries. It is unique. A vast number of businesses operate within it. Its work is largely cyclical and is often dominated by large projects such as the docklands and the Channel tunnel. The work force is highly mobile. As the hon. Member for Walton pointed out, the work shop is the site itself and that is why the industry cannot be considered in a ordinary way. Training must take place on site and if the work force is constantly moving on in different directions and different employers are poaching skilled workers and constantly looking for new staff for different sites the usual rules cannot apply to the construction industry.
If every employer contributes to a scheme and pays a levy the industry will be happy as it is at the moment. However, if only some employers contribute voluntarily, inevitably there will be a great deal of poaching. If some firms train staff and workers and pay the levy, when times become difficult they may not continue to do so. The arguments in favour of a statutory levy are extremely strong. If training moves on to an entirely voluntary basis, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, when things are going well firms will continue to pay that levy. Certainly in a time of plenty and an economic boom which we are experiencing at the moment, firms would continue to pay, but if there were a downturn or another recession--and, as I said, the construction industry is cyclical by definition--I am convinced that firms will opt out of paying that levy and the entire infrastructure of the CITB would be under pressure and that would be high-risk tactics.
I accept that the CITB must make certain changes. It must do something about its deficit of £94 million. It proposes to reduce that deficit over five years to £25 million by charging the industry more. At present the industry pays nothing at all for the 35,000 YTS trainees. I believe that it will be fair for there to be some charge. There are other ways in which the CITB can raise money commercially. It will do that, and, furthermore, it will make it very clear to the Government, if it has not already done so, that it is quite prepared to take a smaller, reduced levy over a phased period. It can live with that, but an organisation that turns over £160 million and has such a training structure obviously cannot make changes too quickly. I would be the first person to say to the CITB that its whole bureaucracy is outdated and outmoded. It has a board of 30 people which meets three or four times a year and that structure is hardly conducive to good, streamlined, effective management. So I am pressing for
Column 814structural changes to be made. However, I believe that the CITB can produce proposals that will satisfy the Minister and will be in keeping and in tune with the White Paper.
I must say to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate that if the CITB has to cut its operations in west Norfolk the effect on local employment will be immediate and extremely serious. If we were talking about King's Lynn or Norwich the surplus employment could be taken up, but in rural villages where there are very few other jobs there is very little scope for alternative employment, especially when employment in agriculture is contracting. Obviously that is of tremendous importance to my constituency, particularly when the CITB has recently moved its headquarters to Norfolk. It was a major vote of confidence in a rural area and a rural constituency for a major organisation to move its headquarters into west Norfolk and employ 500 people. If the CITB has to cut back because the statutory levy is removed or confined to labour-only sub- contractors, inevitably there will be cuts in what the organisation offers at Bircham Newton and surely that would mean major cuts in safety standards.
If the Minister is serious about trying to reduce the figure of deaths and injuries which is far too high--there were 3,624 major injuries last year-- there must be training at an early stage and those 5,000 adults a year must go through the CITB. Those adults do not all work on site. Many will be operating sophisticated plant. Many of them will be operating cranes, for example. Many will be scaffolders and steeplejacks. Those are the sorts of people who must have high-cost, highly sophisticated training, and if they do not get it at the CITB, or at Bircham Newton, it is unlikely that the firms will pay for it. In that case, this catalogue of statistics will get worse, not better.
I say to the Minister of State and to the Under-Secretary that the initiatives that the Government are coming up with are excellent. What they are doing to try to boost the Health and Safety Executive is to be applauded, but I urge them to look very carefully before making any major changes in the statutory levy. That could mean only one thing : perhaps not immediately, but over a period of years, the industry would pay less for training, and in due course a centre of excellence in my constituency would decline. That would have a devastating effect on safety and on the people about whom we care most--those working in the industry. We want to get the casualty figures down, and the only way of doing so is by continuing with the CITB. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to do that. I hope that he will take my suggestion on board.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : I will not follow the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) into a consideration of the merits and demerits of the construction industry training board, whose ability to deliver its service to a constituency as remote as mine is somewhat incidental. However, I cannot help observing in passing that the hon. Member said that if the board were to play a lesser part, private employers would be likely to spend money on training. That does not seem a very great vote of confidence in the Government's proposals to put a greater burden of responsibility for training on the private sector.
Column 815As to the issue that is actually before the House in this debate, I do not think that there is any dispute about the fact that there is a serious problem and that this is a matter of considerable concern. That, I think, is common ground in all parts of the House. The fact that early-day motion 241 in the name of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has attracted so many signatures is indicative of the level of concern that this issue has raised. Quite honestly, I do not think that it matters whether the deaths have occurred under a Labour Administration or a Tory Administration. They are deaths, the number is far too high, and it is in the interests of every hon. Member to find ways of reducing it.
It is not entirely clear to me whether the figures that have been mentioned include deaths and injuries resulting from contact with dangerous substances and noise. I noted that last month Mr. John Cullen, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, indicated that far more workers on construction sites are injured or killed as a result of contact with such substances or noise than as a result of accidents. The hon. Member for Walton raised that question. Clearly it is an important issue, and we shall be interested to know how the Government are responding to the claim.
In the debate in this House on 2 December 1987--the last time, I think, that the issue of health and safety was considered at length here--the Secretary of State said that
"our health and safety arrangements are fitted to cope with the needs of a modern society and a changing and expanding economy."--[ Official Report, 2 December 1987 ; Vol. 123, c. 1004.]
In all honesty, I do not think that those comments match the situation. Since that time it has been clear that health and safety arrangements are not coping. Reference has already been made to the report "Blackspot Construction". I take encouragement from the fact that I do not think that any such great claims were made by the Minister of State when he spoke earlier today. I think that there is recognition of the fact that much more needs to be done.
As to the causes of accidents, including fatal accidents, it is all too simple to lay all of them at the door of some buccaneering builders, although I cannot deny that a good number of such builders exist, and no doubt they are responsible for many of the accidents that take place. Nor do I believe that the accidents can be laid at the door of some system of work--that it is all the result of people pursuing the profit motive. Inevitably, human nature comes into it. During my few years of practice at the Scottish Bar I acted on both sides of the argument--for employers and for employees. An amazing number of cases were put down purely to human nature. Employers can provide helmets, but the helmets are not always worn. Nor are safety harnesses always worn. That has nothing to do with failure to provide safety equipment ; it is just that, for one reason or another, people think that they can do without it, and in some cases it is a question of sheer forgetfulness. Nevertheless, what is quite clear, as was indicated in the report "Blackspot Construction", is that 70 per cent. of accidents could be prevented by positive management action. Much could be done to increase awareness of safety. Awareness, I think, is the key, and lack of awareness is attributable to both employers and employees.
Column 816The report on the blitz campaign to which reference has been made showed that one third of all managers had insufficient knowledge of basic health and safety. That is a staggering figure. The report also showed that in 14 per cent. of the cases investigated no one was in charge of the work. Quite clearly, if management is unaware of important safety matters, one cannot readily expect employees to have that knowledge. As has been said by the Minister of State, particular features of the construction industry make the problems more acute. Unlike a factory, where the same conditions tend to prevail over many weeks--indeed, years--construction sites change constantly. Indeed, we are talking about different sites, as well as changing sites. A person may be on a site for only a few days, or even just a few hours. I talked earlier today to representatives of the Scottish building trade. They said to me--I regret that I do not have figures to back this up--that in the case of a long-term project such as the Torness power station construction it appeared that over a period of 10 years the level of accidents fell due to familiarity with the site. That is not always the case when building contractors move quickly from site to site.
Mr. John Ward (Poole) : I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Certainly I agree with what he says about big permanent or semi-permanent sites being much easier both to administer and to inspect. Does he recognise, however, that a great deal of the construction industry is based on very small sites with one, two or three men, and that in many cases those men are dealing with minor drainage projects, and so on? Very often that is where the greatest danger lies, and it is difficult to blame the employer alone for accidents.
Mr. Wallace : To some extent the hon. Member is making the point that I was about to make--that there is a whole series of small sites and that people may be on them for only a matter of hours. However, surely the underlying point must be taken together with the rapidly changing work force and lump labour--the fact that the person on whom one relied yesterday is not necessarily here today. That emphasises the need for a keener awareness of safety and for greater attention to safety matters. The fact that a site is small and that workers may be on it for only a few hours in no way absolves those responsible for safety factors.
The response that we have had from the Government is not adequate. The blitz campaign underlines the seriousness of the problem, but I do not believe that the increase in the budget of the Health and Safety Executive and the number of new inspectors go nearly far enough. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) illustrated the shortage of inspectors by referring to the number of sites that each inspector in London has to cover. It is my understanding that in the west of Scotland, including the great Strathclyde conurbation and the whole of the south west of Scotland, there are about five health and safety inspectors. It was graphically put to me that a health and safety inspector going to investigate a construction site in Dumfries would probably have to pass many hundreds of sites on his way there and that if he stopped to check each one he would probably never get to Dumfries.
The volume of work is immense and the necessary resources should be provided. By all means let us acknowledge what has been done, but it is clear from this
Column 817debate that far more needs to be done. We have heard the Government's response in relation to the compulsory wearing of safety helmets, and I do not dissent from that proposal at all. Indeed, I look foward to an indication from the Minister as to when it might be expected. There is good precedent for tomorrow not being early enough. I welcome the fact that more guidance material is to be made available to small firms. However, if the fundamental problem of increasing awareness is to be tackled, it is not just a question of highlighting faults, as the blitz campaign did. The Health and Safety Executive must do more by way of advising safety practices and encouraging good practices. I also agree that it is important to bring home to senior management the impact of fines. We should consider personal prosecutions rather than corporate ones. That was mentioned by the chief inspector of factories, Mr. Tony Linehan, in an article in the Financial Times of Friday 13 January : "The Health and Safety Executive plans to start prosecuting directors of construction companies running building sites where there are serious accidents he said the time had come to move beyond prosecuting companies and to explore action against individual directors responsible for safety."
The Minister also mentioned the recent prosecution of a site agent and a senior foreman. No doubt they are now well aware of the serious lessons to be drawn from failing to enforce adequate safety standards. Until that awareness is felt at the highest level, no real action will be taken to ensure that all sectors of the construction industry recognise the need to improve safety practices.
In a recent White Paper on road traffic law, the Government rightly suggested that insurance policies which protect the drink-driver offender from the consequences of disqualification are undesirable. To that end they have reached agreement with the Association of British Insurers to phase out such policies. If the fines imposed in the construction industry are to be effective, similar consideration should be given to phasing out insurance cover against such fines. I accept, as the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West has suggested, that civil damages may be sought, but invariably such matters are covered by insurance.
More attention must be given to smaller sites. We need more inspectors. We must also stress the importance of safety in training. Safety groups should be established under the auspices of an employers federation. It may be that a small company is unable to employ a safety officer or is not fully acquainted with the vast number of existing regulations. If a number of smaller companies joined together they could employ a safety officer whose remit would be to brief his various employers on safety requirements. This debate is worthwhile because it highlights the importance of the issue. There is no room for complacency. I am sure that we shall return to this matter in the future and I hope that, by then, some of the positive and constructive ideas that have been mentioned tonight will have been implemented. I also hope that we shall have seen a downward trend in the current unacceptable level of fatal accidents and serious injuries.
Column 818I welcome this debate because I start from the premise--I assume that it is shared by all other hon. Members tonight-- that the protection of the work force is the highest priority of any company. There is no question about that. I am sad, however, that, so far, this debate has not made clear that that responsibility is ably discharged by many construction companies, although there is no doubt that the construction industry faces problems. However, over-simplification will not help to solve them.
I am especially struck by the fact that no Opposition Member has been able to explain why it is that other sectors of British industry, which are equally beset by commercial pressures and all the other pressures outlined tonight, have better records on health and safety than the construction industry. One is led to conclude that the reasons for the above-average number of fatalities and injuries in the construction industry are therefore more complex than commercial pressures.
As I read the Opposition motion, it appears that they believe that the answer lies in more regulations, but that will not solve the problems. I do not believe that the mailed fist approach would help because the problems are much more deep seated than has been so far outlined.
I am also sad that the debate has not highlighted that health and safety are not just the responsibility of the Government. The motion charges the Government with this, that and any other responsibility but, although the Government have a role to play, such an approach ignores the role of companies, trade unions and employees. Alas, individual employees within the construction industry are just as guilty of lack of responsibility as some of the companies. There are good companies and bad ones, but I believe that we have more good ones than bad ones. Unfortunately, there are good and bad sectors of industry and the construction sector gives cause for great concern. It is important to stress, however, that it has been a matter of concern for many years and that that concern has spanned a number of Governments.
Health and safety should not be a political football, but the debate is in danger of making it such. Health and safety should be completely non- partisan and if one accepts that principle it leads in a more constructive direction than that proposed in the motion. Although the reasons behind the motion are of the highest integrity, the motion itself is disappointing and narrow. It over-simplifies the issue and as soon as one does that one unfortunately reaches the wrong conclusions.
We are all well aware that the Health and Safety Executive provides inspection, enforcement and advisory services. In the main, those advisory services are given free. Therefore, there is no excuse for any company to plead ignorance. In the past I have visited many companies and too many companies within the construction industry tended to plead ignorance.
We have heard a great deal about the strength of the Health and Safety Executive. I understand that there are now 99 inspectors. That level was not dictated by the Government ; rather, the HSE established that that represented the right manning level. I accept that the inspectorate might be one short, but it is manned at roughly the right level. The HSE's funding for 1989-90 will be met in full and its budget will increase within the next three years. All that is in sharp contradistinction to the message I got from the Opposition Benches. I got the impression of depleted ranks within the HSE, a lack of money and all the rest of it. That is simply not true.
Column 819I have the impression that, although a number of hon. Members have referred to the need for blitzes--indeed, the word appears in the Government amendment--it is considered by some to be an irrelevance. It is far from that. The blitz that took place between April 1987 and September 1988 resulted in about 8,300 construction sites being visited which highlighted many problems and resulted in action. Therefore, we need more site visits rather than less.
There is an even more powerful weapon to solve the problem that we are discussing. Sending directors to gaol and so on may be part of the solution, although I do not think that it would work. However, the threat of the closure of unsafe sites is a more important sanction because it hits a man--or in this case a company--where it hurts, which is in the pocket. Knowing the industrial community well, I am sure that such a sanction has a strong effect. Will the Minister say how many sites have been closed and whether the Government have been considering the use of this weapon in a more aggressive way? We must accept that, even if the number of inspections was doubled, the enforcing authority could not have inspectors everywhere at the same time. That leads me to conclude that the amendment is right. Companies have by far the bigger role to play simply because inspectors cannot be everywhere.
The problem in this industry is attitudinal. There is a high labour turnover with small sub-contracting companies. That is the classic ingredient for extreme difficulties such as those we are debating. Bearing that in mind, and curtailing many of the remarks that I would have made had the debate been longer, I will confine myself to a few suggestions.
Companies have a definite responsibility. The problem lies in the large number of small sub-contractors in the industry. If they will not tackle the problem, it must be tackled by the main contractors. In other areas, such as manufacturing, large companies use their purchasing power with those from whom they purchase to get the right quality.
It does not seem a great departure for contractors in the construction industry to get their sub-contractors together and tell them the facts of life with regard to health and safety. The essential fact--it should go ringing from the House--is that the figures of fatalities are unacceptable.
In addition, I hope that the Health and Safety Executive will continue to intensify its activities. Will the Minister give us an assurance that that will happen, because, along with the resultant enforcement actions, it is of prime importance? The other piece of the jigsaw is what the Government can do to help. I support what the Minister of State said about more regulations being needed to cover such issues as the compulsory wearing of hard hats on construction sites. That is not an irrelevancy ; it can make a big contribution to reducing the fatality figures.
I applaud the Government for what they are doing and I shall be watching their efforts to ensure that they take whatever steps are possible to solve the problem. None of us wants to return to this issue in a year or two and have to speak again about this sorry state of affairs in the industry.
Column 8209.4 pm
"the Government to increase inspection, improve site management and enforce tougher penalties".
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) on his campaign over many years to get this matter brought before the House. He knows far more about the industry than I shall ever know. He made a fair speech, acknowledging that responsibility for accidents lay in different places.
Some incidents are clearly management responsibilities, some are due to workers ignoring management instructions, and some are plainly accidents about which nothing can be done. For example, the provision of adequate safety clothing, and the enforcement of its wearing, the provision of railings where appropriate and the shoring up of excavations are clearly management responsibilities. But there is no way to legislate to ensure that a man handles a piece of mechanical equipment correctly. He may do it negligently or in circumstances which result in an accident.
The use that may be made of site statistics can be misleading because, as has been pointed out, some sites exist for only a day or so, or even a few hours. It would be misleading to include those in the total statistics. But that does not alter the fact that it would be good to have up to double the number of inspectors and site visits, and every responsible firm would agree with that.
No sensible firm wants a prohibition notice or prosecution. My company makes safety a formal item on the agenda for every board meeting and at every meeting we discuss a report on safety matters. In addition--at my suggestion, which my colleagues cheerfully accepted--the safety officer must make a report in person to the board at least once a year. There is great awareness that safety is, above all, a board responsibility.
The Government should consider making the appointment of a safety officer a statutory responsibility of every company in the industry, rather in the way that the appointment of a company secretary is a statutory responsibility of a company. I disagree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) that some firms might be too small to employ a safety officer. At least one member of the management of every company, however small, should have responsibility for safety. Even if it is a small firm, he can do that along with his other duties. The fact that a firm is small should not be a let-out from having a safety officer.
Hon. Members in all parts of the House accept that the situation remains unsatisfactory, and I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran) say that there should be more site visits. I did not understand how he thought that could be achieved without many more inspectors being appointed. We want more such visits and more prohibitions where necessary, but, above all, we want those visits to take place as a deterrent so that prohibitions and prosecutions are not necessary.
There will be no permanent solution to the problem, because just as there will always be traffic accidents there will always be construction accidents. There could be far fewer, and it is up to us to reduce them. The responsibility lies squarely with the Government who must play their
Column 821part. They are not doing that and their complacent amendment shows no sign of their accepting responsibility for these matters. 9.10 pm
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : The subject of the debate is of great concern to all hon. Members. I shall avoid repeating what has been said with eloquence by other hon. Members. There are two ways of looking at the problem and they illustrate the difference between the Government and the Opposition. First, there is the idealistic approach. It is quite right in its way and says that every death is a tragedy, that it is preventable and should be prevented. Who among us could possibly argue with that view?
There is another view which says that it is remarkable that so few construction workers are killed every year, given the boom in construction all over the country and human nature. Little has been said about human nature, but it is the fundamental problem at the heart of the matters that we are discussing. We talk about short cuts, carelessness and over- confidence and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran) said, we often talk about inexperience. We point to those things as being the causes of accidents in the construction industry.
Another difference between the two main parties in the House is that the Government look to the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission for guidance. The Health and Safety Executive said that by 1990 we would need 100 inspectors in the construction industry. A year before that time we have 99 inspectors in post. The Opposition propose to tell the Health and Safety Executive what to do. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said that we could have 200 inspectors now, but I suspect that if he had his way we would have many more. I say to him and to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who is not in the Chamber, that it is not a bad idea to take note of the advice and guidance of the experts that we employ. The man in Whitehall does not always know best.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West spoke about blacklisting. That is a typical red herring that comes up in almost every debate on employment. I should like to quote a real expert, the director general of the Health and Safety Executive, Mr. Rimington. When he addressed the Select Committee on Employment at the end of last year he said :
"We are in fact increasing the number of inspectors in construction. Perhaps I should explain, I think it is generally known, that we did make representations to the Secretary of State, the Commission did, last year, with the result that more money was made available to us. We are building up the Factory Inspectorate from what is certainly too low a figure. Our main priorities over the next year will be to increase the amount of inspection on construction sites, and to increase the amount of inspection of small firms and contracting firms generally. As you probably know, there has been quite a mushroom growth of those. Many of them, while not wishing, I think, to defy safety provisions, prove to be unaware of some of the hazards with which they are confronted."
In the same exchange Mr. Rimington said :
"Certainly, as regards the construction industry generally, there has been an enormous amount of enforcement activity over the past two or three years. The number of enforcement actions that the Factory Inspectorate has taken on construction sites have virtually trebled over the past two years."
That is the reasoned and measured voice of the expert, and I prefer it to the hysterical ravings of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. He blamed Thatcherism and said that
Column 822the amazing growth in activity in the construction industry caused the problem at the root of our debate. There has been massive growth not only in activity but also in employment, yet the hon. Gentleman berates the level of unemployment. He cannot have it both ways. Nothing that the Government could do could be as effective as discipline and self discipline on site. Safety education, protective clothing, prohibition orders and fines are important. Perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate he will comment on the point that a maximum fine of £2,000 in a magistrates court is too low. It might with advantage be significantly increased ; and the power to bring actions in a higher court should also be examined.
At the end of the day, safety comes down to one man and one job and the right and wrong way to carry it out. There is no point in saying that it is the Government's fault. It is the fault of any man who allows his life to be placed in jeopardy. We must not get into the cosy attitude of blaming it on Government. We are all individually responsible when we put ourselves at risk, whether in construction, on the roads, in the home or anywhere else. The individual's responsibility must be paramount.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : I echo the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) in paying tribute to the Health and Safety Commission and complimenting it on the documents that it has supplied. The commission says that between 1981 and 1985 there were 739 deaths in the construction industry. It said that nearly all of them could have been prevented and that in 70 per cent. of the cases positive action by management could have saved lives. It clearly pins the responsibility on management. It talks about the need to plan and develop safe systems of work before the job starts. The commission talks about roof work and says :
"In the vast majority of fatal accidents on roofs, management did not exercise sufficient control to ensure that relatively simple precautions were taken."
On demolition the commission said that 67 out of 95 accidents causing death were caused by management allowing unsafe systems of work.
The Labour party has instigated this debate because there is a rising trend in accidents. Between 1981 and 1985 major injuries increased by 30 per cent. and in a 10-year period there were 1,500 deaths in the construction industry. In that same decade 500,000 injuries were sufficiently bad to keep people off work for three days. That is much worse than what happened at King's Cross or in the Clapham rail disaster. The number of deaths is much greater than the 495 killings by the IRA. During that same decade three times as many people were killed on construction sites.
In the Falklands conflict 254 British service men were killed, but there have been many more deaths in construction. We must speak out loudly and clearly and say that this is intolerable. Death and injury occur too easily and too often in the construction industry, which is one of the most dangerous industries in Britain. The worrying thing is that the post-war improvement in the figures has been halted, the trend has been reversed and the toll of death and crippling injury is increasing. That is an intolerable scandal and the House must decide to do something about it.
Why are the figures getting worse? Why is there a disaster area? Perhaps it is partly because of the changing
Column 823face of the industry. Many of today's larger companies have fewer directly employed workers than they used to have. There has been a huge increase in self-employment, what is known as the lump, and in small contractors. The Health and Safety Executive said that these small firms are constantly competing for work and often cut costs to the bone and that safety is usually one of the first casualties--if it is ever considered at all--so that, in the conflict between profits and health and safety, health and safety come last.
More than one third of all employees are now in companies with seven or fewer people, whereas in 1975 it was only one in seven. So we have myriad tiny sub-contracting firms going in and out of business. More than half the deaths occurred on sites with fewer than 10 people. Half the victims had been working for only a week or less on the site where they were killed. Those in charge of the work were considered to be wholly or partly to blame for two thirds of the deaths and to be solely responsible in over half those cases. If we are to have a campaign that will succeed, most of these small firms will have to be brought into it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) knows that in the east end of London there is a great growth of construction industry at the moment. The east end is like a forest of cranes. There is an increase in work and this means great pressure to take on inadequately trained, inexperienced labour ; and unless something drastic is done there will be an increase in this tide of tragedy.
What is being done about it? We have had the so-called blitz. It started in April 1987 and it was found that by law if work is to last for six weeks the health and safety authorities have to be notified. Only one third of the employers did so. That is another way of saying that two thirds broke the law. Nearly one third of the sites were controlled by agents or supervisors whose knowledge of health and safety legislation was poor or very poor. On 14 per cent. of the sites management was non-existent. Things were so bad and dangerous that on one in four sites work was stopped.
Of course, some firms were good and some were excellent and that showed that they could compete in the market place and implement proper safety measures, which disproves the argument that proper safety makes firms uncompetitive.
The other thing that was found through the blitz was that there were very few prosecutions. Why was that? The Health and Safety Executive explained that it was because of the time and effort necessary to prosecute and the fact that it did not have the necessary staff.
We must ask ourselves what we are to do about this situation. We have to have enforcement of the existing law. If there are no prosecutions, if firms know that they can break the law and cause death and injury and there will be no prosecutions, or they will just have their wrists smacked, nothing will happen. If they are prosecuted in the magistrates court, where the maximum fine is £2,000, we shall not get anywhere. We need proper enforcement. There are not enough inspectors or resources, and the Government are to blame. That is why I intervened in the Minister's speech.
Column 824The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), who is a valuable member of the Employment Committee, referred to the health and safety evidence given to the Committee. I have here the annual report of the Health and Safety Executive 1986-87, which says :
"During the six year period April 1980/86, the resources available to the Executive declined in real terms and the number of our inspectors by 213".
So under this Government real resources to the Health and Safety Executive have declined and the number of inspectors has been cut. There is also a reference in the report to a suspension of recruitment between 1980 and 1984. For four years there was a complete suspension of recruitment to the inspectorate. The Government ought to apologise for that error and that cutting of the inspectorate.
The same report says that the pressure on resources throughout the year was a matter of anxiety to the executive and it could not do its job. It explained that in the following year, 1987-88, the rates of pay for inspectors were increased, but the amount of money available to the Health and Safety Executive did not go up. Therefore, again the number of inspectors had to be cut.
The truth is--and I will give way immediately if the Minister can say that I am wrong--that the numbers of agriculture inspectors, factory inspectors and inspectors of mines and quarries are now lower than in 1986 and in 1977, 12 years ago. That is where the Government are to blame for the lack of enforcement.
They say that there are 99 inspectors in the construction industry. That is totally inadequate. There are 180,000 firms in the construction industry.
Time is very short and that is why I have truncated my remarks to let some of my colleagues speak, but I want to suggest a number of things that I think should be done.
First, there must be an increase in penalties. We have to get prosecutions brought in the Crown court and not in the magistrates court. They have to go to the magistrates court first and it is for the Health and Safety Executive to ask that they be moved up to the Crown court. When men or women leave home to go to work their families expect them to come home in the evening, and if employers are so grossly negligent that they cause the death of a worker the sentence should be imprisonment. I believe that until we get some sentences of imprisonment neither employers nor anybody else on the site will take these matters seriously.
The second step is to take up the idea of UCATT, which has asked for what it calls super-safety reps, rather similar to full-time shop stewards who would be full-time safety representatives.
Thirdly, the super-safety reps should have the right to stop a job when there is danger to life. If they had that power it would really mean something. Some people may think that that is going too far, but I remind the House that in the Norwegian sector of the North sea the Norwegian trade union safety representives have that right, although they hardly ever use it because the management takes them seriously and there is proper safety treatment. There should be a right to stop the job where necessary to protect life.
Lastly, because we are dealing with an emergency and need extra safety representatives and inspectors quickly, the Government should take up the visionary offer by the general secretary of UCATT to make available his 120 union officials to act as inspectors. These are people with a lifetime of experience of the industry who know what