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Column 1103Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.
Lords amendment : No. 4, before clause 11, to insert the following new clause-- Exemption of Sikhs from requirement to wear safety helmets on construction sites--
".--(1) Any requirement to wear a safety helmet which (apart from this section) would, by virtue of any statutory provision or rule of law, be imposed on a Sikh who is on a construction site shall not apply to him at any time when he is wearing a turban.
(2) Accordingly, where--
(a) a Sikh who is on a construction site is for the time being wearing a turban, and
(b) (apart from this section) any associated requirement would, by virtue of any statutory provision or rule of law, be imposed-- (
(i) on the Sikh, or
(ii) on any other person,
in connection with the wearing by the Sikh of a safety helmet, that requirement shall not apply to the Sikh or (as the case may be) to that other person.
(3) In subsection (2) "associated requirement" means any requirement (other than one falling within subsection (1)) which is related to or connected with the wearing, provision or maintenance of safety helmets.
(4) It is hereby declared that, where a person does not comply with any requirement, being a requirement which for the time being does not apply to him by virtue of subsection (1) or (2)--
(a) he shall not be liable in tort to any person in respect of any injury, loss or damage caused by his failure to comply with that requirement ; and
(b) in Scotland no action for reparation shall be brought against him by any person in respect of any such injury, loss or damage. (5) If a Sikh who is on a construction site--
(a) does not comply with any requirement to wear a safety helmet, being a requirement which for the time being does not apply to him by virtue of subsection (1), and
(b) in consequence of any act or omission of some other person sustains any injury, loss or damage which is to any extent attributable to the fact that he is not wearing a safety helmet in compliance with the requirement,
that other person shall, if liable to the Sikh in tort (or, in Scotland, in an action for reparation), be so liable only to the extent that injury, loss or damage would have been sustained by the Sikh even if he had been wearing a safety helmet in compliance with the requirement.
(a) the act or omission referred to in subsection (5) causes the death of the Sikh, and
(b) the Sikh would have sustained some injury (other than loss of life) in consequence of the act or omission even if he had been wearing a safety helmet in compliance with the requirement in question,
the amount of any damages which, by virtue of that subsection, are recoverable in tort (or, in Scotland, in an action for reparation) in respect of that injury shall not exceed the amount of any damages which would (apart from that subsection) be so recoverable in respect of the Sikh's death.
(7) In this section--
"building operations" and "works of engineering construction" have the same meaning as in the Factories Act 1961 ;
"construction site" means any place where any building operations or works of engineering construction are being undertaken ; "injury" includes loss of life, any impairment of a person's physical or mental condition and any disease ;
"safety helmet" means any form of protective headgear ; and "statutory provision" means a provision of an Act or of subordinate legislation.
(8) In this section--
Column 1104(a) any reference to a Sikh is a reference to a follower of the Sikh religion ; and
(b) any reference to a Sikh being on a construction site is a reference to his being there whether while at work or otherwise. (9) This section shall have effect in relation to any relevant construction site within the territorial sea adjacent to Great Britain as it has effect in relation to any construction site within Great Britain.
(10) In subsection (9) "relevant construction site" means any construction site where there are being undertaken any building operations or works of engineering construction which are activities falling within Article 7(a) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (Application outside Great Britain) Order 1989."
Mr. Eggar : I hope that it will assist the House if I explain the background to the amendments and the reasoning behind them. The Health and Safety Commission has long been concerned about safety standards in the construction industry. As long ago as 1986, the commission issued a consultation document on proposals for regulations that would require all workers on construction sites to wear head protection where there was a risk of injury. These proposed regulations, which have the support of both sides of the industry, should significantly reduce the number of head injuries on construction sites. The Government are committed to laying the regulations before the House as soon as possible.
The Government have also had to consider the impact of the regulations on the Sikh community. For religious reasons, orthodox Sikhs are unable to wear anything on their heads in public except a turban. Most of the responses to the 1986 consultative document commented on that issue. Broadly speaking, employers and employer organisations in the industry argued against an exemption on health and safety and industrial relations grounds. The Sikh community, on the other hand, argued in favour because of the hardship that Sikhs would otherwise suffer. The Government have had to take a difficult decision. We had to balance strong feelings and views about the importance of health and safety on one side with strongly held religious views on the other.
It may help the House if I rehearse briefly some of the arguments. The dangers of head injury on construction sites are well known. They are undoubtedly greatly reduced by the wearing of helmets. We are confident that new regulations will considerably reduce the number of head injuries and result in an overall improvement in health and safety standards.
The House will not be surprised to learn that Sikhs also feel strongly about the issue. The tenets of his religion are more important for the turbaned Sikh than his own safety. There are more Sikhs employed in construction than in any other industry. It is estimated that the figure could be as high as 40,000. The practical consequences of a statutory requirement on Sikhs to wear helmets would be that many thousands of Sikhs would be faced with a straight choice between their religion and their job. That would cause real hardship and could also result in a loss of skilled labour to the construction industry.
Column 1105It is rare for an issue fundamental to the faith of one particular religious group to come into conflict with public policy. But on other occasions it has been seen as right that the law should take account of deeply held religious beliefs. A precedent exists in the Motor-cycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976. Looking back further, there is the whole British Sikh military tradition. Sikhs were allowed to wear turbans instead of steel helmets when they fought for this country in the first and second world wars. The Government believed that the balance of the argument lies in taking account of the deeply held views of the Sikh community. Making an exemption for Sikhs in this way will mean that the overall improvement in health and safety arising out of the new proposed regulations will be slightly less than it might otherwise have been. I have no hesitation in accepting that.
Having decided to make an exemption, it was essential for us to do all that we could to make it workable. That is why we introduced Lords amendment No. 5, which I know is a cause of concern to my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) and for Crosby (Mr. Thornton), among others, and which was debated at length in another place. I should say to my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley and for Crosby that the effect of their proposed amendments would be to render worthless a Sikh's right not to wear a helmet because an employer could justify a general requirement to wear a helmet on health and safety grounds. We believe that that would make our exemption unworkable.
You will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this has not been an easy decision for the Government to make, but I am convinced that our approach is the correct one. I am confident that it will command widespread support in the House.
Mr. John Townend (Bridlington) : I strongly oppose Lords amendment No. 4, which will divide communities and discriminate against the indigenous population. The British people have accepted millions of immigrants from the new Commonwealth since the war. As a result we have, for better or worse, ceased to be a white, homogenous society and become a multi-racial society, with all the problems that that brings.
The British people were never consulted and all the polls show that if they had been consulted they would have consistently opposed mass immigration, which has fundamentally changed the country in which they live. Despite that, however, they have accepted the newcomers with a generosity and tolerance that few other countries have shown. The British people have accepted that they must integrate with the newcomers. They have accepted that everyone should be treated equally under the law and to ensure that there is no discrimination they have rightly been told that they must accept the Race Relations Act 1976. Since the British people have so generously accepted the newcomers, it behoves the newcomers to integrate and to become English. Whether they are brown, black, yellow or white, they should become English in England and Scots in Scotland. They should accept our laws, our history, our traditions and our tolerance. Unfortunately, the great and the good in this country are not satisfied with having created a multi-racial society--they now want a
Column 1106multi-cultural society, which will prevent assimilation and Anglicisation and will result in Britain ceasing to be one nation and becoming several nations.
The new clause is fundamental to that change of policy. An ethnic minority, albeit for religious reasons, is to be treated differently under the law from the rest of the community. Separate laws for separate communities are divisive and unwise, particularly when they involve the safety of others. What will be the position if somebody drops a heavy object from the top of a scaffold and it lands on a Sikh? If the Sikh were wearing a safety helmet, the object might just bounce off and cause no damage. If he is wearing a turban, however, he may be severely injured and fall on top of somebody else or knock somebody off the scaffolding. Others will thus be put at risk by the new clause. The Government should also consider the position of a worker on the top of scaffolding who accidentally drops something. Again, if it hits someone wearing a safety hat it may cause no damage, but if it hits a Sikh wearing a turban, it may kill or severely injure him. What about the psychological effect of that on the person responsible for the accident?
In industry safety should be paramount and religious belief should take second place. I understand that the new clause is opposed by employers in the construction industry and by the trade unions and that when it was debated in the House of Lords nearly all the Opposition speakers opposed it, although they did not press it to a Division.
When immigrants from different countries and with different beliefs come to a Christian country they should be prepared to accept our laws and our way of life. If they do not wish to do so, they have a choice. They do not need to work in the construction industry because there are plenty of other jobs available. Alternatively, they could wear a metal helmet over their turban. There is no consistency in the law. People wear hard hats in power stations but I am told that the new clause does not include power stations. How will Sikhs deal with that?
The new clause discriminates against British workers who do not wish to wear hard hats for other reasons, which in some cases might be health reasons.
Mr. Corbyn : Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that many Sikh building workers and Sikh people living in Britain were born here, hold British passports and are therefore just as much British workers as any white worker?
I was perturbed to read the remarks of the noble Lord Strathclyde when he moved the new clause in the other place. At column 738, he stated :
"We are firmly committed to improving safety standards in construction and we are convinced that the regulation will be a significant step forwards. However, the many representations that we received from the Sikh community convinced us that the regulations would cause real hardship for orthodox Sikhs.
It was decided on balance that in this case the wider issues of religious freedom and"--
these are the significant words--
"relations with the Sikh community must take precedence".--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 1989 ; Vol. 511, c. 738.]
Column 1107It is the last sentence that worries me. Does this mean that in future legislation exemption will be made to maintain good relations with ethnic minorities? Such discrimination against the general population would be very much resented by the indigenous population, as other happenings have been in recent years.
My hon. Friend referred to crash helmets for motorcycle riders, an issue that caused considerable problems. I remember a sad case which occurred soon after I became a Member of the House. A gentleman said that he had his own reasons for not wearing a crash hat and asked why he should be treated differently from the Sikhs. He broke the law numerous times, was arrested many times by the police and was actually put in gaol.
We have also allowed the ritual killing of animals, which is abhorrent to many people in this country who regard it as cruel. I beg the Government to go no further down this path as it is divisive and discriminatory. We must stop encouraging the development of a multi-cultural society. We must all be equal before the law whether we are brown, black or white. I sincerely ask the Government to think again and at this late stage not to press the new clause.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : In response to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) has just said, I simply say, as a member of the Conservative party, that it is no part of the philosophy that I recognise in my party to trample on the religious practices or beliefs of anybody in this country or outside. As I understand it, part of the burden of my hon. Friend's objection to what is proposed in the new clause is that Sikhs not wearing hard hats on building sites take a risk. I am prepared to accept that they take a risk, but I ask my hon. Friend to consider how important observance of their religion must be to them if they are prepared to take such a risk.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said in his wide-ranging and thoughtful introduction to these proposals, for many people in the Sikh community, certainly in my constituency in west London, in Southall which is next door, in Hayes and Harlington and in a number of neighbouring constituencies, building work is a traditional trade. Many Sikh people work on building sites.
Mr. John Townend : Does my hon. Friend accept that in many cases employers already have a difficult enough time persuading employees to use safety equipment, and will it not make things much more difficult if a certain section of the work force is exempt from the regulations? Will he also deal with the point that I raised about the danger to other workers?
I do not know whether all hon. Members have received this letter, which is dated yesterday, from Mr. Robbie Browne-Clayton, director of economic and public affairs at the Building Employers Confederation, telling us how heinous it would be if we allowed the new clause to be inserted into the Bill. I must tell the confederation that the record of its voluntary code of practice to persuade its members to wear safety equipment, hard hats and so on does not stand up to close examination. It is a bit rich for that body now to complain about what the Government
Column 1108are doing. The final paragraph of the letter from the confederation complains about amendment No. 5 and states :
"It has also been suggested that to admit the possibility of a defence of justifiability would effectively negate the whole exemption. This we do not accept."
The letter, however, does not go on to argue the confederation's case. The confederation must understand, as my hon. Friend the Minister explained, that without amendment No. 5 the rest of the amendments would not be worth the paper they are written on as people would be able to get round the changes.
Mr. Malcolm Thornton (Crosby) : What evidence does my hon. Friend have to support his remark that builders, in general have done little or nothing to improve safety on sites? Builders supported the recommendations to which the Minister referred earlier and which will be laid before the House in the future. It is three years since builders gave their support to those recommendations. It is only because the Government have been considering representations from the Sikh community that those recommendations are not already in force. Given the support that those recommendations have received from builders, what evidence does my hon. Friend have to support his remarks?
reinterpretation of my remarks strengthens my point. I said that the record of the confederation was patchy and not good, but my hon. Friend said that builders had done nothing. I did not say that ; I said that the confederation's record does not stand up to examination. It claimed that a voluntary code would work, but it has not. The Bill is necessary because of the standards in general. I want to pay tribute to the person who has done an enormous amount towards the introduction of the amendment, Michael Truman, who was the Conservative candidate for Southall at the previous election. I know that that is a party-political point, but I hope that Opposition Members will bear with me. He brought me into the campaign and I know that Ministers at the Department of Employment and at the Home Office will acknowledge that he lobbied vigorously for the amendment. He brought a number of Sikh representatives to the House and to the Departments and he deserves a great deal of credit from the House. With a few exceptions, the majority of hon. Members are white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or in some cases Catholics. It is therefore easy for us to assume that laws which suit us will suit everyone. Whether people want Britain to be, or think that it should be, a multi-racial society is beside the point. Britain is a multi- racial society and that will not change.
There are times--this is one of them--when we must consider modifying our laws. Surely the benchmark as to whether that change is reasonable is whether it is fair to the community concerned and whether it brings any disadvantage to the rest of the community, white, black or Asian. I believe that this change does not disadvantage anyone, but recognises the religious conviction of the Sikh community. I am proud that my Government have recognised that and introduced the amendments.
Column 110911.45 pm
Mr. Thornton : I listened with considerable interest to the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister. I am pleased that at long last the regulations to which he referred will, I hope, shortly be coming before the House.
There is total agreement on the desirability of hard hats being the norm and the rule on construction sites for safety purposes. The Minister has conceded that this will add immeasurably to the overall safety on sites. He has also conceded that the Government's concession in amendment No. 4 will weaken this improvement in safety. I accept that it is difficult to quantify the extent to which it will do so and I do not seek to quantify it. I also accept that the Government had an extremely difficult choice to make. They have come down in favour of an exemption for the Sikh community.
It is fair to say that, although these moves have been generally and widely welcomed, the employers in the construction industry feel strongly that no exemption should be allowed. However, my motion to disagree does not relate to this general exemption but to the Lords amendment which was moved thereafter and to which the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) referred : the amendment related to justifiability.
That amendment adds to, rather than clarifies, the problem. It adds to the difficulties that employers will face on building sites. It may be that, under normal circumstances, the exemption which amendment No. 5 grants to Sikhs will cause few, if any, problems. It may be possible for sensible and sensitive employers to allocate different work on that site. However, that is not always the case. We all know construction sites on which particular dangers and difficulties exist. The amendment is specifically directed at such sites.
If an employer has decided that, because of its specific circumstances, a site requires that all the work force should wear hard hats, he would be left with no defence against a claim that something was being done to the detriment of a Sikh who was required to leave his site or move to another part of the site where further detriment--perhaps by loss of earnings-- would be caused to that worker. I do not believe that the Government wish to impose such an additional difficulty, or that this is, in any way, what the amendment seeks to do.
In answer to Lord McCarthy, in the other place, the Lord Strathclyde said :
"The Government feel that to refuse to employ Sikhs on such grounds"
--that their own health or the health and safety of other workers might be endangered--
"because they would not wear safety helmets is unjustifiable. The employer no doubt would argue that the condition is justifiable, as he is applying it to all his employees equally."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 October 1989 ; Vol. 512, c. 82.]
It seems to me, and to the employers, that this is wholly unreasonable. The matter is already covered by existing legislation. The Minister said that my amendment is a wrecking amendment that would negate the Lords amendment. Not so. There is adequate race relations legislation to cover the point. Employers have to justify to courts or tribunals that the decision taken was reasonable in the circumstances.
I recognise the Government's dilemma : they have spent three years considering representations made to them and
Column 1110have come to the conclusion that it is right and proper to grant Sikhs this exemption. I do not accept that my motion will negate the Lords amendment, which, if carried, will add enormously to the difficulties of site management and cause problems for employers and workers alike. Lords amendment No. 4 will give the Sikhs what they need--Government recognition of the risks that Sikhs are prepared to take, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West said, for their religious beliefs.
Whether this will affect other workers and how much they might have to suffer because of other people's beliefs are fine points. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us why present legislation cannot guarantee the exemption that the Government are granting. I hope that he will be persuaded that such legislation is enough and that there is no need to accept the Lords amendment.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : There has been a good debate on the first group of amendments, although we were unhappy with its outcome, and the issues were given serious consideration. This debate has been unfortunate in that the contribution by the hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) contained connotations which we found unacceptable and which lowered the tenor of the discussion. The hon. Member for Bridlington said that Sikhs should accept our laws because they live in our country. That is a non-starter. The Lords amendments would allow Sikhs to wear turbans on construction sites. If we reject the measure, presumably employers will not take Sikhs on such sites, in line with the situation before the Lords amended it.
This is not an easy issue for me to discuss. For one thing, I do not have a Sikh community in my constituency. It is also difficult to adopt a clear position on this sensitive subject. We should probe the arguments on both sides better than we are doing in order to understand the legislation. First, there is a clear danger to Sikhs. The Minister has admitted that. I do not know the extent of the danger, but it is clearly a matter of some significance or there would be no reason to say that helmets should be worn on construction sites and no need for the other parts of safety law to operate. The hon. Member for Bridlington spoke about danger to other workers. We can think of sites other than high buildings--tunnels, for example--where such danger could be caused. In such cases danger caused to Sikhs could give rise to all sorts of problems for people who go to their aid. Perhaps we do not fully understand the likelihood of that, but it may be that debates on earlier legislation when the wearing of helmets was discussed will give us knock-on information for this debate.
Discrimination in favour of Sikhs may, on balance, be justified but to some extent it could create problems of counter-discrimination to other people who would feel unhappy about that. We must question whether discrimination in favour of Sikhs exacerbates problems instead of trying to resolve them. Perhaps we should discuss the wearing of turbans and helmets in a wider context. They have been discussed in the application of legislation to motor cycles and now such legislation is to apply to the construction industry. Presumably industries other than construction could also be affected by this legislation.
We need to respond to deeply felt community views, but it does not follow that we should take such views into
Column 1111account in all circumstances. There may be some in which we should override them. It is like accepting the argument that Salman Rushdie should withdraw his book because of feelings in some communities. We are also faced with the general argument about religious freedom. In the other place, Lord McCarthy said ;
"We should allow religious groups in this country who feel as deeply as the Sikhs on this matter freedom to do what they want unless we can demonstrate that they are significantly damaging people other than themselves by their actions.
To me the issue turns on whether other workers are being damaged, whether the employer is being put at risk and whether measurable damaging circumstances can be shown."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 1989 ; Vol. 511, c. 744.]
That is a fruitful position to take and we should discuss it while we have the opportunity before we move on from the amendment.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : I support the amendments because they are most important to the many orthodox Sikhs among the 40,000 or so Sikhs in the construction industry. They would be faced with an appalling dilemma by the new requirement.
A long-standing characteristic of British life has been our freedom of religion and our tolerance of the requirements of different faiths. The provisions are directly related to the religious requirements of the Sikh faith. That faith goes back for more than 500 years, and it requires of its adherents that they coil their hair and wear it beneath a turban. That requirement is one of the five Ks which are the articles of the Sikh faith. The safety helmet provision would have been incompatible with that religious practice. 12 midnight
The British Sikh community therefore welcomed the amendments moved for the Government by Lord Strathclyde in the other place. In particular, they noted the opposition of Lord Stoddart of Swindon, speaking for the Labour party, who condemned what he called discrimination in favour of one particular religion, which he viewed, by some extraordinary way of reasoning, as somehow being discrimination against other sections of the community. It is right to respect the devotion of the Sikhs to their religion and to make these provisions. The Gravesend Sikh community has expressed its concern through its Gurdawara. I commend the Government for their sensitive response to the representations by hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members.
Mr. Eggar : We have had an interesting debate, and the contributions from my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Derbyshire North-East (Mr. Barnes) have shown what a difficult issue this is, and how the Government have had carefully to balance conflicting and firmly held views.
I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) that exemption for Sikhs could, in theory, pose a risk to others who work on the site, but the chances of a third party on the site being injured as a result of a Sikh being injured because he was wearing a turban rather than a hard hat is fairly remote. Sikhs work on construction sites at the moment, wearing their turbans, and we are not aware of any injuries that have occured in the circumstances that he has outlined.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East asked me to describe the scale of the problem. The last year in
Column 1112which there was a detailed examination was 1981-82, and in that period there were 2,000 accidents on construction sites involving head injuries. That is roughly the same number as occur now, although there might have been a slight decrease--we do not have any firm statistics. About one death a year has resulted from head injuries. Unfortunately, because of the way that the statistics are collected, we cannot say how many of those injuries occurred to Sikhs. However, it is accepted by both sides in the construction industry that some strong legislative action has to be taken to improve safety on construction sites. There is no dispute about that, and it was recognised as a result of the 1986 consultation paper.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) is not noted for his lack of generosity to those of us grinding away on the Front Bench, so it was slightly unfair to say that the reason why the consultation period has taken so long is that Ministers have been considering the position of the Sikh community. It was only in February this year that the recommendation was made by the Health and Safety Commission, and it was only at that point that Ministers were able to make a judgment on the conflict between the requests of the HSC and the feeling of the Sikh community.
My hon. Friend has suggested that Lords amendment No. 5 is unnecessary because it would still be for the employer to demonstrate that a requirement to wear a safety helmet was justifiable because, if a person were not to wear one, he would be a danger to others and to himself. The arguments on this matter are evenly balanced, as it is on a number of points in this difficult subject.
Having once decided, however, that there should be an exemption for Sikhs, it must be for the Government to ensure that the exemption is a real one and is beyond doubt. The problem with the argument that my hon. Friend advances, and that of the building employers--I understand the concern that has been expressed--is that it would muddy the waters and introduce some uncertainty and lack of clarity where, above all, we must have certainty and clarity.