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Column 825they are talking about. They would work under the supervision of the Health and Safety Executive. That would be a way of doubling the inspectorate immediately to get some action on something which all hon. Members must regard as a national emergency.
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House that safety in the workplace is too important to be dealt with on the basis of ideological prejudice. Indeed, anyone who recognises the nature of the building industry will know how deep-seated and difficult some of the problems are. It is a diffuse industry which works in many different locations. As a result, it is small wonder that the Health and Safety Executive found in its survey that 65 per cent. of firms did not identify work that was likely to go on for more than six weeks.
It is inherently a risky industry. Risk is compounded by latitude in the industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) mentioned. It was significant that the report of the Health and Safety Executive, referring to the introduction of helmets to improve safety, said :
"Reactions range from unthinking abuse to total apathy, typifying an all too common lack of concern for safety measures."
Therefore, health and safety problems in the industry remain deep-seated. It is wrong to lash out at various so-called contributory factors, such as the lump system or what the motion calls "relentless commercial pressures". That is simplistic. The evidence provided by the Health and Safety Executive does not support the theory that the irresponsible behaviour and sloppiness that lead to accidents are necessarily increased at times of commercial upsurge. For instance, as a proportion of the numbers in the industry there was little difference in the number of fatalities in 1981, when the industry was depressed, and 1986-87, when it was booming. The survey on the blitz between April 1987 and September 1988 on the 2,000 prohibitions issued by the Health and Safety Executive shows that, while prohibitions were imposed on 51 out of 55 sites in Glasgow, which was booming at that time, in Southampton, where market conditions were equally booming. there were only five prohibitions out of 134 sites.
Most of all, the Labour party motion fails to recognise, as Her Majesty's chief inspector of safety recognises, that it is precisely those companies with the most strict safety rules and the most strict system of monitoring and training their work forces on safety that are the most successful and profitable. As the chief inspector said :
"A well-planned contract which identifies safety requirements will be more efficiently run, more productive and therefore more profitable."
The Government are right to try to set down an effective framework within which, through voluntary co-operation, employers, employees and regulators within the industry can make an improvement in safety.
That is not to say that safety is not a matter of concern. There has been reference in the debate to an article in the Financial Times which said that only 49 per cent. of sites with more than 50 employees visited by the Health and Safety Executive had prohibition notices ; that the overall standards of health and safety were poor ; and that only one third of managers on sites had an adequate grasp of safety procedures. It is worrying that prosecutions have not led to a greater change in attitudes in the industry.
Column 826While I welcome the approach by the Government to increase safety supervision in smaller companies, to improve site notification procedure and to allow for better management and co- ordination on multi-contractor sites, I think that there is a strong case for stricter penalties for people who break the law. Equally, there is a strong case for the promotion of model contracts which could be put forward by the Building Employers Confederation, the National House-Building Council and others. Those contracts should show exactly what good safety procedures involve.
In the long run, attitudes will be improved only through training. It was significant that Brian Hewitt, the National House-Building Council president, welcomed the Government review of training recently when he said that it
"provides the house-building industry with the first opportunity for over 20 years to make a meaningful impact on training policy." There will be 60,000 entrants a year into the building industry over the next few years and a massive need for retraining. Now that the National Council for Vocational Qualifications has recognised the CITB as a lead industrial body, it is important that it uses competence procedures for qualifications in a modular form, if necessary, including health and safety aspects so as to improve significantly the amount of training that is done within the industry on health and safety.
It is a waste of time having well-trained operatives within an industry unless the public have confidence in the way that industry is policed. Although statutory regulations for every type of building work contractor would be unrealistic and undesirable, there is a strong case for statutory self-regulation of the industry, which could take place either through the National House-Building Council or the Building Employers Confederation for companies, depending on the kind of work that they are doing, its complexity and its scope. A house builder, if he has satisfied criteria of confidence and experience and has provided adequate insurance indemnity and evidence that he has understood safety procedures, would be made responsible on the site on which he worked, irrespective of whether he was sub-contracting, employing lump labour or directly employing labour, for safety on that site. It is curious that, while there is a seven-year training period for architects and a four-year training period for house planners, there is no specific and necessary training period for house builders. If we did what I propose, the reputation of the industry would be increased, the consumers' confidence would be restored, and the safety of employees in the industry would be immeasurably improved.
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : Piper Alpha, King's Cross and Zeebrugge were all dreadful disasters involving huge loss of life and terrible injuries. Shock and horror were rammed into the lives of the families affected. Every year there is a disaster of similar magnitude in the construction industry, but the disaster is diffused. It is not concentrated but hidden, and it is not exposed in the media in the same way as the terrible disasters to which I have already referred.
My colleagues have referred to "Blackspot Construction" produced by the Health and Safety Executive in June 1988. That document recorded that 739
Column 827people were killed in construction accidents between 1981 and 1985--an average of 147 deaths per year. That is twice the rate for agriculture and five times the rate for manufacturing industry. Since 1985, it has climbed to 160 deaths per year. A construction worker is killed or seriously injured on site every hour of every working day and a less serious injury occurs once every couple of minutes. Deaths caused by long-term diseases and injuries kill 4,000 people per year. That is carnage --the word used by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) --and carnage on a horrific scale. It is a battlefield on which building workers are the cannon fodder for the employers' profit system.
Not all the people on a building site face the same risks. The chances of a site manager or agent dying of lung cancer before reaching retirement age are half that for the general population. By contrast, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys decennial occupational mortality supplement 1979-80 and 1982-83, a plasterer runs three times the risk of disease as his boss. The risk of disease extends to families living in buildings under construction, repair or renovation, as recent evidence from Germany has shown from the use of timber treatment solutions containing pentachlorophenol and lindane. Fifty thousand people in this country belong to the Association of Victims of Wood Preservatives and are preparing to sue United Kingdom companies such as Rentokil and Cuprinol which distribute products which can allegedly cause leukemia, cancer and blood disorders including aplastic anaemia.
My time on the shop floor during the 1970s was littered with anecdotal stories of how we hardly ever contributed to retirement do's for chippies or welders as they never lived long enough to retire because they worked with similarly dangerous substances. The common link between Piper Alpha, King's Cross, Zeebrugge and the construction accidents and illnesses which we have discussed this evening is that they are all preventable. All the deaths are the result of callous disregard by employers for workers' safety. It does not matter whether the employers be Occidental, British Rail, Townsend Thoresen, John Laing, Tarmac, Rentokil or Cuprinol. Whether those deaths are preventable is not, in a sense, in question tonight. The Opposition have stated that they are, as has the HSE in its five-yearly report which stated :
"Ninety per cent. of construction fatalities could have been prevented."
Even the Prime Minister's amendment acknowledges that. Clearly the Government have been on the defensive tonight. The HSE continued : "In 70 per cent. of cases, positive action by management could have saved lives."
Why is that action not forthcoming? That question should be the crux of this debate. That is what I think and what I want to express in these two or three minutes after waiting many months to make a major contribution in this hallowed hall of the House of Commons. That question should be the crux of the debate in the few minutes that remain.
Action is not forthcoming because of the £12 billion worth of contracts in London and the south-east alone. Contractors have been told to complete contracts on time, regardless of how many corners they cut. The most infamous statement that I have heard in six years in this
Column 828palace of varieties is "a man a mile" in relation to the building of the Channel tunnel. It is estimated that the Chunnel will lead to 20 deaths in 20 miles. That is the impact on the work carried out. Deaths are being built into the budget. That is an obscenity. There is no other word for it. It is obscene that the construction industry's profits should be put before the lives of those who create that wealth.
The Government and the Prime Minister's all pervading and perverse philosophy of "get rich quick and ignore the lives of the workers" underpins the philosophy of the employers. In the past 10 years, 1, 500 people have died in construction accidents. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the number of fatal and major injuries has risen by 66 per cent. in the past seven years. In the two years 1986 and 1987, six of the top building firms in Britain--Beazer, Bovis, Laing, Tarmac, Wimpey and Trafalgar House--made £836 million profit. In the past three years, Laing, McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Tarmac and Wimpey have all been found guilty of health and safety offences. The fines have been between £500 and £2,000. When one compares that with Jeffrey Archer's £500,000 and Elton John's £1 million--when one sets the reputations of those individuals against the lives of construction workers--how do the scales balance?
From January 1983 to March 1987, the average fine on 2,343 firms was £361--the same as the average fine for not paying the fare on London Transport. That is how much the lives of workers in the construction industry are considered. The Government take no serious account of that point, and their attitude is understandable when one notes that in 1987 Wimpey, Bovis, Tarmac, Trafalgar House and Costain each gave between £25,000 and £37,000 to the Tory party to keep it sweet. Amey Roadstone, Costain, Gleeson, McAlpine, Marples, Taylor Woodrow, Wimpey and Mowlem also all subscribe to the Economic League which blacklists any shop steward who sticks his head above the parapet and complains about unsafe working conditions.
The Labour Government gave us the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, but that is no more than a bit of paper unless it has teeth and stewards have the confidence to use it. The Health and Safety Executive is staffed by well-intentioned individuals, but it is inadequate. The Minister said earlier that this was a red herring, but the Government employ six times as many dole snoopers in London as factory inspectors. Last year, 4,133 sites known to inspectors in London had 12 inspectors to cover them. They could not get to each of them once a year if they tried, so although there were 36 deaths in London last year and 413 major injuries there were only 18 prosecutions and no employer was gaoled--so much for the law and order party!
The workers have had enough. A debate like this will not satisfy the thousands of workers who are sick to the back teeth of burying their mates after accidents. Comrades have spoken of it. Building workers, first in London and now in the midlands, have formed the construction safety campaign. They are asking for a lot of things--but the first and most important is that the number of deaths and injuries of construction workers in Britain should become a major political issue. Tonight we have made a start on that. There are a few more miles to go down that road. We shall have lobbies and meetings and, no doubt, some industrial action along the way as well. We shall do what we have started to do in Coventry,
Column 829where we are banning contractors when scaffolding and other inadequate working practices on building sites are creating risks for workers. We shall put that proposal to every Labour council. Our experience and that of the Health and Safety Executive is that the Government do not allow the HSE the resources to operate properly. The debate may be a little irritant to those Tory Members who have turned up, but what of the wives and the bairns of those who have died in the past 10 years? There are about 1.5 million workers in the industry, and in the past 10 years 1,500 have been killed and 40,000 have died from bronchitis, cancer and other diseases caused by dust and unhealthy working conditions. The number injured runs into millions.
Our motion puts the blame where it lies. The chilling report of the Health and Safety Executive shows that 90 per cent. of fatalities in the construction industry are preventable--not "avoidable", as the Minister said. He should look in a dictionary and see the difference between the two. If employers--those with the money--really meant to save the lives of their workers, they could do so.
There is a solution to the problem. It lies in the motion, in the suggestion of the Health and Safety Executive, and in the work of the construction safety campaign. Employers do not care a damn about safety. They care only about profit. The only way that we shall stop their lust for profit and the killing of workers in the construction industry is when those employers no longer own and control it--when workers in the building industry and the working class generally own, control, plan and manage the construction industry. Then we shall build houses without the death of workers being the price that is paid.
Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) : It is a measure of the importance that we attach to the subject that not all right hon. and hon. Members who wished to speak in the debate have been able to participate.
There can be no doubt about the high level of accidents in the construction industry, and there can be no doubt about the need for effective action by all concerned to improve health and safety standards. The construction industry is one of the most dangerous in the country. The Health and Safety Executive's 1987-88 report shows that the number of employees who suffered fatal injuries in all industries totalled 340 and that no fewer than 100 of them were in construction, compared with 96 in all manufacturing industries. The figures in respect of the self-employed and non-employed are even more striking. The number for all industries is 525, of which 157 are accounted for by construction and 100 by manufacturing.
The figure of 157 deaths in construction for 1987-88 is the highest since 1981. I refer also to the figures for reported accidents per 100,000 employees, the latest of which were published in February with the Employment Gazette supplement, from which one can see that accident rates in construction are among the highest of all the industries included. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) made it clear that, along with all those accidents, there are deaths arising from occupational disease such as asbestosis and bronchitis. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, Dr. John Cullen, stated that more people die from contact with dangerous substances and from noise on construction sites than from injuries.
Column 830The Government have a responsibility, and the Minister made great play of the fact that recently there has been an increase in the number of factory inspectors dealing with the construction industry. However, that increase is against the background of a progressive decline in the number of Health and Safety Executive staff and of factory and agricultural inspectors. There has been a decline in qualified and experienced factory inspectors, and all the increases are accounted for by recent new recruits. It is arguable that the additional number of construction inspectors will be less capable of doing the job than would be the case were there a more balanced complement, with the more experienced and qualified inspectors who have left to take other jobs.
That decline in the executive, for which the Government have been responsible over 10 years, has occurred while the Government have piled additional responsibility upon responsibility on the commission and the executive. I refer to the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1984, responsibility for gas safety including domestic installations, the Road Traffic (Carriage of Dangerous Substances in Packages etc.) Regulations 1986, and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988, which will shortly come into operation. All those are increased responsibilities and yet, at the same time, year in, year out, there has been a decline in the resources available to the Health and Safety Executive. We welcome the belated improvement, but it is totally inadequate --infinitesimal against what is needed to restore the position. We need a commitment from the Government to increase the amount available to the Health and Safety Executive by a substantial amount each year in order to begin to overcome the problems.
Against that background of a shortage of factory inspectors, it was probably right to have the much publicised blitz to which the hon. Members referred. However, when a blitz takes place, the people inspecting the sites are unable to do their normal jobs. Inspectors are reallocated to the work instead of carrying out the jobs they should be doing. As I am sure Ministers recognise, an important role of the inspectors is advisory and educational.
The Government have responsibilities for health and safety in our construction industry. We need a massive increase in the number of inspectors and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said, there is a great need for longer sentences for offenders. Top managers should go to gaol if they are responsible for inadequate health and safety standards that lead to death and serious injury on construction sites.
Reference has been made to the excellent study, "Blackspot Construction", carried out by the Health and Safety Executive. That points out quite clearly time and again that responsibility for these injuries and deaths lies with the site management, and inadequate supervision and planning of the work places.
It should be made absolutely clear that responsibility lies in the work place with the workers themselves, in addition to the inspectorate. We deplore the fact that, year in, year out, the Government have enacted legislation to undermine and weaken the trade union movement, which has, and should play, a key role in health and safety in the workplace, particularly on construction sites. It is no use
Column 831the Government talking about the role of the workers and the trade unions and, at the same time, constantly introducing legislation to weaken and undermine them.
The Government have put private profit before public service and preferred tax cuts to public investment on improved services. The Government have undermined the trade union movement at every opportunity. We are not suggesting that the Government are indifferent to death and injury on building sites, but the Government have not given health and safety in the construction industry the priority that they deserve. That is why we shall be voting for the motion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : The inevitable constraints of time mean that I shall not be able to do justice to the powerful contributions made by a number of hon. Members. Without the two inevitable exceptions, the contributions made were extremely helpful, and of the sort that we expect to hear.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State called for a debate which went above party and which would bring about some positive suggestions for tackling a very real problem and give a clear message to the industry that it must do better. For the most part, that has been the case and I shall certainly look at Hansard to note the points that have been made, and reply to any specific points as necessary.
I shall comment shortly upon some of the points that have been made in the debate, but I first want to emphasise two points which are central to the issue of construction safety. First, far too many people are killed while working on sites--hon. Members from both sides of the House have rightly condemned that carnage. Secondly, it is wholly inexcusable because so many- -90 per cent. of the deaths--are obviously preventable.
Yes, construction sites may be inherently dangerous, with large machines, heavy weights and heights, but time and again inspectors report that the true cause of an accident was ignorance, complacency or lack of thought about basic and simple precautions. It is utterly unacceptable that some of those engaged in the construction industry have so little regard for human life and the well-being of their fellow citizens.
However, there is another reason why this record is so appalling. It concerns an area where the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and the Opposition motion have chosen to try to make cheap political capital, and about which they are mistaken. They have charged the Government with some form of commercial interest in fostering poor safety conditions, but the message that we are trying to get across to industry is that there is every commercial reason to ensure that firms have the highest safety standards. Accidents not only cause pain and suffering but incur extremely high costs--£2 billion per annum--a high proportion of which fall on the construction industry. Young people will soon be in short supply, and the industry's image will do it no good whatever in a difficult recruitment market.
When inspectors visit sites they find that there is a direct correlation between firms with good safety standards and those that are successful. Those that have poor standards
Column 832often go bust. Mistakenly, their managers think that by cutting corners they can make economies. Such short-sighted attitudes invariably backfire, and the same lackadaisical attitude to running their business leads to economic ruin. A good manager knows that he must ensure that his company performs well in all sectors and that it is counterproductive to cheat on safety.
In a powerful contribution, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said that safety is a question of "your health or their wealth." He could not be more wrong. There is nothing contradictory or inimical between profits and safety ; the two must go hand in hand.
Mention was made of accident rates, and inevitably the hon. Member for Oldham, West interpreted them in a particular way. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that we do not understand the message. There were 157 fatalities last year and 3,600 major injuries--too many. Like it or not, the hon. Gentleman will have to face up to the fact that the prevention of accidents lies not with the Government but with those who work on sites and primarily, though not exclusively, with employers.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West has a way of presenting figures. I shall make a point from which I take no comfort--it is the sort of thing in which the hon. Gentleman wants to indulge--about the number of fatalities in the construction industry. There were 139 deaths in the boom period of 1986-87 and 157 in 1987-88. Those figures are well below the rates of the last sustained boom in construction. In 1974, there were 166 deaths and in 1975 there were 182. If I adopted the simplistic nonsense of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, I could say, "That is OK. We are doing better and deaths were higher under a Labour Government." I derive no comfort from that, but that is the way in which the hon. Gentleman tried to present the argument. It is not good enough to come to the House with pretensions of office when the best that one can do is to try to attribute accident figures to political opponents. Even by the standards of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, that will not work.
We understand that the Opposition take a dirigiste view of the courts, but the Government should not lecture courts on how to decide cases. It is the Government's job to ensure that penalties are available for courts to use. If magistrates decide that a case is serious enough to commit to the Crown court, that is where it goes. Companies do not take fines of £750,000 lightly. Such fines make a substantial deficit in a company's accounts. It is about time that people such as the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who pretend to take an interest in these matters, understood that.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said that the construction industry's fatality record was quite appalling. The misery, desolation and grief that underlie the figures for many families is made more unbearably acute by the fact that many of the accidents were avoidable. When others rise to the occasion, the hon. Member for Oldham, West is more likely to sink to it. Surely this is an issue in which even he could have risen above his usual practice of using and abusing any issue for cheap political points. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) at least did his best to reflect that concern.
What we need to know from the Opposition tonight, as the debate reaches its conclusion, is which of their two spokesmen more accurately reflects Opposition views. Is it an attempt at common sense or cheap sensationalism ; positive action or political posturing ; heartfelt concern or
Column 833the usual Oldham claptrap? In a few moments' time we will know the answer to that, but even if students of Labour's past form are unlikely to be disappointed, we could all hope that, just this once, they might conceivably have got it wrong.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :--
The House divided : Ayes 212, Noes 265.
Division No. 154] [10.00 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Heffer, Eric S.