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Column 201Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Wright, Dr Tony
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Donald Anderson and
Mr. Paul Flynn.
Question accordingly agreed to .
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill .
No order shall be made under section 1 of this Act which includes any provision amending or repealing any enactment relating to the health and safety of any person'.-- [Mr. Fatchett.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : With this we may take New clause 8 -- Approval of certain markets (No. 2)
(1) Where a person proposes to set up a commercial market that person shall apply to the local authority in whose area he proposes to set up the market for approval of the setting up of that market. (2) Where an application for the grant or renewal of approval has been made under subsection (1) above to a local authority, the local authority shall
(a) give or renew that approval subject to such reasonable conditions as the local authority think fit ; or
(b) refuse to give that approval, provided that approval shall not be unreasonably withheld.
(3) A grant or renewal of approval under subsection (2) above shall cease to have effect after a period of twelve months beginning with the date on which it is granted or such other longer period as the local authority giving or renewing the approval may determine. (4) The local authority may charge a reasonable fee in respect of an application for the grant or renewal of an approval under subsection (2) above and different fees may be charged for different classes, sizes and locations of market.
(5) The Secretary of State may by order make further provision as to approvals and regulation in relation to the setting up of commercial markets.
(6) A person who sets up a rival commercial market without approval of the setting up of that market having been given or as the case may be renewed under subsection (2) above, or who carries on such a market in breach of any conditions attached to the grant or renewal of an approval, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
(7) In this section, "local authority", "market" and "right of market", have the same meaning as in section 22 above and "commercial market" means a market other than a market
(a) which is a temporary market within the meaning of section 37 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 ; and (b) the proceeds of which are to be applied solely or principally for charitable, social, sporting or political purposes.'.
Mr. Fatchett : We may have moved from a consensual position--at least for the Front Benches--to an issue that will give rise to some controversy. New clause 5 would remove any reference to health and safety from what will be section 1 ; we argue that provisions for health and safety, both at work and generally, should not be dealt with by means of the general powers included in the Bill.
Column 202In a speech to the European Policy Forum last autumn, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was quoted as saying : "Our response to recent large scale disasters has been out of all proportion to the disasters themselves."
He went on to mention our reaction to the Kings Cross fire--in which at least 30 people were killed--and the Marchioness disaster, in which 50 people were drowned.
I am not making a personal attack on the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The powers in the Bill will be given to Ministers generally, allowing them to amend and repeal health and safety provision and to affect security that has been built up over decades and generations. I have quoted the Parliamentary Under-Secretary merely to make the important point that he and, I suspect, other Ministers--especially those at the Department of Employment--approach the issue with a particular perspective and a particular ideological bent. That is why we seek to remove any reference to health and safety from the first four clauses of the Bill.
We have said throughout that we find the powers in those first four clauses unacceptable, and that they should in no circumstances be used to repeal primary legislation ; we are now arguing that they should not be used to deal with health and safety provisions. Let me demonstrate the extent of the problems. Health and safety is a vast issue, which should be dealt with separately from the specific powers in the first four clauses. The record shows that there are 1.6 million workplace accidents each year, and that 2 million people suffer from occupational diseases ; in 1991, 473 people were killed at work. Those statistics represent costs to individuals and their immediate families, and burdens on business.
There is also a cost to the economy. The cost of industrial accidents and disease is estimated to be some £16,000 million a year. Moreover, a recent publication from the Royal College of Nursing drew attention to the costs of accidents and injuries at work to a certain NHS hospital, estimating that 5 per cent. of that hospital's running costs would relate to industrial injuries and illnesses.
New clause 5, however, relates not just to industrial provision but to
"the health and safety of any person".
Opposition Members fear that the Government may intend to amend or repeal fire safety regulations, thus reducing the safety and security of certain people. The hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) is well aware of last week's tragic events in his constituency : he responded to them by calling for tougher regulation and more inspections, and we support and respect what he said. He was also right to suggest that many landlords are using the social security system to provide housing for multiple occupation which does not meet standards that should be met in a civilised society.
Having read some of the newspaper reports of those tragic events, I feel that the hon. Gentleman's comments were appropriate ; and they are also relevant to the Bill, given that it is a deregulation Bill that attempts to remove existing provision and security. I should have thought that last week's events in Scarborough showed that, on the contrary, we should tighten provision and improve inspection and standards.
Column 2036.15 pm
The statistics make my case compellingly. They reveal that an average of 800 people a year are killed in fire-related incidents in the United Kingdom, which has a higher fire death rate per million than any other European Union country. Each year, moreover, deaths resulting from accidents related to foam-filled furniture run into the hundreds.
We want to know the Government's intentions. I hope that I have demonstrated the seriousness of the problem ; so why are we concerned about their intentions ? The answer is simple : we do not necessarily believe in the Government's good intentions. They always say, as they did many times in Committee, "Trust us--leave it to us." They say that they will not reduce security and safeguards. I simply do not accept that. There are times when, rather than accepting the Government's words, we must look at their record ; we should examine some of the rhetoric from Ministers about deregulation, the way in which the deregulation initiative has been presented to the House and the general argument that has been advanced. That argument has always been about taking the burden from industry.
Again, let me refer to the constituency of the hon. Member for Scarborough. There is a burden on one small business to observe the fire regulations and general health and safety provisions--a burden and a cost, which the evidence suggests may not have been met. That cost to one individual, however, also represents security, a safeguard and a benefit to others. That is the equation : the cost to one business is the right of another employee or consumer. Opposition Members are in the business of protecting the rights of such people.
Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about what happened in my constituency last week. Unfortunately, neither of us knows why those people died. It could well be that the person concerned smoked in bed, but--however hard we may try--we cannot introduce a law to stop people smoking in bed, although it may be enough to cause a fire. Until we know the exact reason for the fire, I do not think it right for the hon. Gentleman to use it as an excuse for his new clause.
Mr. Fatchett : At the time of the event, the hon. Gentleman simply argued that there was a need for tighter regulation and stronger licensing provisions. If ever there was an argument to support my views, it was his first and, I think, honourable reaction. We need to strike a balance that takes account of other interests. Throughout the Committee stage, we feared that the Government's interests that come to the forefront will always relate to business ; we feel that other costs and interests must be taken into account. We also believe that the provisions in clauses 1 to 4 will severely restrict our opportunity to debate these key issues properly. We have always said that we are not willing to give additional powers to the Executive, and we shall debate these issues again tomorrow and on Thursday.
The new clause is a second-best option. We should like all the Henry VIII powers removed because there is no justification for them but, if they are to remain, we believe that the specific issues of health and safety at work and fire safety and the general safety provisions should be removed from the first four clauses and from the general excessive
Column 204new powers to be given to Ministers. We believe that every Member of Parliament should feel that he or she has a voice and a part to play in this debate on behalf of his or her constituents. We believe that the existing procedures are unsatisfactory, and I therefore commend new clause 5 to my hon. Friends and to the House as a whole.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : On Second Reading, I spoke of the need for clarity on the issue of health and safety as it is reflected in the Bill. In Committee, I pressed the Minister several times to clarify exactly how he saw the balance between the burden on business and necessary protection. In a written question on 15 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) asked the Secretary of State for Employment
"which health and safety at work regulations he considers to be a burden on business."
The Minister of State, Department of Employment answered : "This is among the questions that I have put to the Health and Safety Commission and I am awaiting its advice."--[ Official Report , 15 March 1994 ; Vol. 239, c. 636 .]
How to ensure the health and safety and welfare of our work force is one of the most important issues facing us today, but we are having to try to secure the necessary protection in the context of clauses on which the Government have yet to receive clear advice from the body set up to advise them. Perhaps that advice has been made clear since 15 March--it certainly had not been made clear while the Bill was in Committee--and, if so, I invite the Minister to tell us which regulations have been identified as a burden by the Health and Safety Commission.
If the list deals entirely with pre-1974 regulations, the Government are approaching this important issue in entirely the wrong way. The solution would be a relatively minor amendment to section 15 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which would give the commission the power to advise the Minister so that matters could be dealt with more smoothly and in a more structured way. I presented the same argument in broad terms in Committee, but we are working in a vacuum.
The whole debate is in a vacuum because the Government have repeatedly refused to clarify what was meant by "a burden on business". I hope that the Minister of State, Department of Employment, understands that other Ministers have in previous debates described what they regarded as burdens on business. One extremely good example was provided in a late night Adjournment debate to which the Under-Secretary of State for Schools replied. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) dealt with the safety of outdoor pursuit centres, and the Minister described his call for regulation of those centres as a burden on business. He did so in the context of the tragic death of four young people.
If the House is examining the Bill in a vacuum, and if the only information at our disposal comes from statements made late at night in which Ministers of the Crown give their definition of burdens on business in relation to health and safety matters, it is no wonder that there is a major difference in the approach of our two parties. The whole health and safety debate has always centred on the difficult balance that exists. Any hon. Member who was involved in training in health and safety matters back in 1974-76 will remember the commission's early posters, which showed scales representing the balance between the cost of improving safety and the benefits to employees. It
Column 205is a difficult balance to strike and it must be dealt with subject by subject, regulation by regulation, and with great care. We cannot give sweeping powers to the Minister because the only information available is based on a set of vague generalisations given by his colleagues in relation to other matters. Until we debate specific regulations, we cannot make progress.
In a letter to members of the Committee, the Chemical Industries Association wrote :
"The chemical industry believe that much of the framework of existing regulations specifically affecting the chemical industry, eg, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the COSHH Regulations, is fundamentally sound ; in many cases, however, there is a need for greater clarity and consistency in interpretation."
This is especially relevant to my constituency, and the Minister of State will recall that last week I presented to him a petition on matters related to health and safety. The industry is pleading for better regulation and does not want sweeping powers to be given to the Minister. The Bill approaches the issue in entirely the wrong way, and I urge the House to support new clause 5.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride) : I support new clause 5 and wish to draw to the attention of the House and, I hope, that of the Minister an article that appeared in The Independent yesterday and that resulted in a leader column dealing with the implications of health and safety regulations. The article and the leader column dealt with the tragic case of a constituent of mine, Mr. William Neilson, who died on 9 June 1992, aged 61, of broncho-pneumonia, radiation-induced myeloid leukaemia, radiation dermatitis and radiation-induced myelodysphasia.
Mr. Neilson worked as an industrial radiographer for a company called Metal and Pipeline Endurance Ltd.--MAPEL. His work involved using portable equipment with components that emitted radiation more powerful and penetrating than that of hospital X-rays. The medical inquiry held after his death revealed that he had received a cumulative dose of radiation of about 15 grays. Grays are the means by which radiation is measured. The dose of radiation that he received was 15,000 times that contained in a single chest X-ray. 6.30 pm
What is disturbing about Mr. Neilson's death is that no one is accepting any responsibility for it--not his employer, MAPEL, and not BP at Grangemouth, where he worked as a subcontracted employee of MAPEL. The Health and Safety Executive has also said that it will not take any action in relation to the case. I argue that the case must call into question the existing health and safety protection afforded to people such as Mr. Neilson who work as industrial radiographers. About 8,000 people in the country today are undertaking vital work in the non-destructive testing of pipes and metal structures. According to the National Radiological Protection Board, they are the most exposed of all of those who work with radiation sources. In 1991 alone, 60 such workers received doses above the level requiring investigation and 10 received more than the maximum legal dose. We should compare that with the 40,000 people who work in the nuclear industry. None of them came near receiving the maximum dose of radiation, and only seven cases warranted investigation.
The fact that statistics are available shows that monitoring is taking place under the existing regulations.
Column 206Yet Mr. Neilson's condition was not identified early enough to save his life. No excess of radiation was ever recorded on the detection badge which he wore daily to his place of work.
Therefore, I am most surprised that the Health and Safety Executive should have dismissed responsibility for Mr. Neilson's death by saying that it would take no further action. I am also very surprised by the attitude of Mr. Neilson's employer, who said at the time of his death that Mr. Neilson was not working for the company. But at the time that Mr. Neilson received the dose of radiation which resulted in his death, he was working for MAPEL and BP, and he was supposedly under the monitoring control of the Health and Safety Executive and the relevant regulations, the Ionising Radiation Regulations 1985. Someone was responsible for Mr. Neilson's death, yet no one is prepared to admit it. That is simply not acceptable. The Bill will reduce the level of protection that is afforded to people such as the late Mr. Neilson and the other 8,000 industrial radiographers. If it goes ahead and the Government proceed with their intention, more deaths are likely to occur. I see that the Minister rejects that notion. If he rejects it, perhaps he should tell the House what action he has taken following the report in The Independent of yesterday. Has he asked the Health and Safety Executive to respond to that report ? Is the executive now undertaking an urgent inquiry ? Is it prepared to say that it has responsibility in this area and that it will investigate in detail what took place at the time ?
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : I have seen the report and I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. Yes, I have asked the Health and Safety Executive to report to me about the circumstances of that case, just as I have asked the Health and Safety Commission--which is a tripartite body--to look at the regulations. I have given clear instructions that no measures should be recommended that would undermine standards of health and safety. I think that it is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to seek to make parallels, but, in view of his interest in the case, I assure him that I will keep him informed about the response we receive from the Health and Safety Executive.
Mr. Ingram : I am grateful that the Minister has responded in that way. It would have been useful if he had made some public statement about the matter today. Clearly, there are grave worries about the future regulations which will apply to health and safety generally, and specifically to this field. I appreciate that the Minister is to keep me informed ; I hope that he will keep the House informed as well, because there is general concern about the future protection of such employees.
The question remains why the Health and Safety Executive dismissed that case in the way that it did. I suspect that it is because the organisation has been understaffed and its funds cut substantially. There have been major cuts in the grants allocated to safety representatives this year, and the Government intend to cut their support entirely.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that he is concerned about the matter. I am not surprised that he has responded in that way. When a major newspaper reports in detail and raises concerns of that sort, I would not expect anything less of the Government.
Column 207I ask the Government to accept the principle of new clause 5 : aspects relating to health and safety should not be included in the Bill. That will satisfy those people who are working in very dangerous circumstances--many of them risking their lives for the good of the country by undertaking much-needed work in industrial radiography. That is the message that should come from the debate tonight. The only way that we can really satisfy those who work in that area--Mr. Neilson's widow, to whom I have spoken today, would agree--is by saying that further protection will be given to people who work in that field, thereby avoiding future deaths. We can satisfy their demands by supporting new clause 5.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) : I support new clause 5. We have been told that the Bill is about lifting unnecessary burdens, while retaining necessary protection. I do not think that it will do that, and I want to spend a couple of minutes looking at the implications for health and safety of what is proposed.
The Government's game plan seems to be to move responsibility for fire safety from the fire brigade, where it has rested since 1961, to local authority building control departments. Under the Bill, the functions of the building control departments could be contracted out to the private sector, so the responsibility for fire safety could end up outside the hands of a public authority.
The Government have treated the fire service in an absolutely shameful way. It has been sidelined and ignored. A construction industry task force looked at fire safety matters and released a report entitled "Deregulation Task Force". The document was deposited in the Library after the Committee had dealt with clause 27 of the Bill and, therefore, we could not refer to it in our considerations. However, I have since had the opportunity to look through it in detail, and it is perfectly clear that the individuals who put their names to the report know absolutely nothing about the fire service. The task force was chaired by none other than Mr. Chris Spackman, the managing director of Bovis Construction. The task force is packed with people who have business interests in the construction industry and who are closely allied to Conservative interests. Astonishingly, the fire brigade was not invited to sit on the task force or to give evidence to the task force.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman's memory is defective. We went through all these points in Committee and I answered all the questions. In particular, I made the point that that task force document has since been superseded by the on-going fire service review and one of the five participants in the review is the chief fire officer of the county of Durham. How can the hon. Gentleman claim credibly that the fire service is being ignored or that its concerns are not being taken properly into account ?
Mr. Prentice : I do not accept that for one moment. The document which formed the Government's thinking was "Deregulation Task Force". No doubt its recommendations filtered through into the document which the Department prepared under the title "Cutting Red Tape". I have a submission from the fire authority in my constituency in Lancashire which makes some very modest criticism of the process. It says :
Column 208"It is disappointing to note that these proposals"
the proposals which have emerged from the process
"have not been discussed with agencies responsible for the enforcement of current regulations and legislation until after they were submitted, thereby providing only one side of the argument and setting the agenda for other interested parties to follow." It beggars belief that in that initiative, which was to involve the cutting of red tape and the lifting of burdens but also, in a sphere as vital as fire safety, the safeguarding of necessary protections, the fire brigade was not even consulted.
The construction industry task force, through Mr. Spackman of Bovis Construction and his acolytes, said :
"Problems of consistency and quality of input are considerable. Whilst the Building Regulations are capable of standard interpretation through official guidance, the Fire Regulations are neither scientific nor consistently applied. Individual Fire Officers can have either substantial or little training and respond to most situations using common sense and custom and practice precedents." What informed that conclusion ? We were given no evidence in Committee to back that assertion.
We ask the House to support the new clause because our contention is that responsibility for the fire regulations should lie with fire authorities. It seems self-evident that the people who risk their lives to put out fires, the people who 24 hours a day live, breathe and think about the complex of issues involving fire and fire prevention, should not be sidelined in that way. The fire brigade, not only in Lancashire but all over the country, has the knowledge, the skill and the practical experience of how fires behave and how people react in a fire, yet that is to count for nothing. In Committee we were treated to several vaudeville performances by the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs, who had a few funny stories up his sleeve, such as the one about the fire officer who wanted the sign on the fire door changed from red to green, and wanted the size altered half a dozen times, and so on. But the Lancashire fire authority tells me that, as we would expect from that Minister, such criticisms have been massively overstated. I am told that there was a review of the Minister's Department in 1993--the Department of Trade and Industry's "Review of the Implementation and Enforcement of EC law in the UK". That review touched on such matters, and it confirmed what I am saying. The scale of the problem had been massively exaggerated.
If the fire authorities have been falling down in their duty, why has the problem never been brought before the House before ? All fire authorities are inspected annually by the Home Office fire services inspectors, and every year the report goes to the Home Secretary, yet until now nothing has ever been brought before the House to alert us to the possibility that our fire authorities are falling down on the job.
The truth is that fire authorities are not falling down on the job. The whole exercise is ideologically driven--we shall return to that point on Thursday. It is driven by an absolute hatred of anything provided by public authorities, whether local authorities or fire authorities, and a determination to transfer to the private sector everything that is not nailed down.
I shall finish with a few statistics from my area. I have already mentioned the Minister's Laurel and Hardy act in Committee ; yet if the fire authorities were making such a hash of things, why has Lancashire fire brigade, which carried out 40,000 inspections last year, received only two complaints since 1991 ? If the fire brigades are falling down
Column 209on the job of inspecting premises under the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which they rigorously enforce because they have the duty and responsibility to ensure that people are not incinerated in preventable fires, why have there been only three prosecutions in Lancashire since 1991 ?
The fire brigade is doing a pretty good job, and there is no evidence for the Government's contention that its responsibilities should be transferred to local authority building control departments. I hope that the House will support the new clause. 6.45 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : I shall add briefly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has said. I warn the Minister, who is jolly decent cove and a jolly intelligent one too, that, for the reasons that my hon. Friend has explained, he ought to know better than to oppose the new clause. I choose my words carefully, and do not mean to make a joke, when I say that the Minister is playing with fire with his proposal to take powers from the proper fire authorities and to pass to less qualified hands the duty of inspecting premises to ensure that their fire precautions are appropriate.
The Minister should bear in mind the fact that fire authorities and the fire service are among the most popular groups of public officials in the country. Their people are literally heroes, and everyone knows that they have saved lives both by their urgent and efficacious interventions in fires and by preventing tragedy through the assiduousness of their preventive work on fire precautions. A few weeks ago in my constituency, encouraged by the splendid Fire Brigades Union--one of the oldest and best trade unions in the country--we did some street work with postcards and petitions, explaining to passers-by the Government's plans to take powers away from the fire authorities and fire services. That took place in an area that was once a Conservative constituency, yet I do not exaggerate when I say that the people there were surprised. It is difficult to shock people after 15 years' experience of the Thatcher-Major Government, yet people were not only shocked but horrified by the proposal.
In this building I recently had a conversation with the leaders of the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland. One of the most telling points that they made-- I should like to hear the Minister's answer to it--was that, if the fire authorities are deprived of the responsibility of making regular inspections of buildings, some of which are tinderboxes, with fires waiting to happen, the first time that fire service people will be inside some of those premises is when they have to batter down the doors with their hoses in order to attack a potentially devastating fire.
One of the experiences that the authority gains from its current responsibilities is that its regular visits to premises as part of the licensing process give it an intimate knowledge of the layout and interior of those premises, of the parts of the building likely to cause difficulties in a fire and of the approach that could theoretically be taken if a fire occurred. If we take that responsibility away from the fire authorities and the fire service, by definition they will be deprived of that important and potentially life-saving experience.
The Conservative party is supposed to be party with the slogan, "If it's not broken, why fix it ?" but of course, nowadays there is now a new breed of Conservative--
Column 210people who are not so attached to that essentially Conservative principle. I cannot for the life of me understand what the Government are doing, and that applies to all their present proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made clear, there is no evidence among public opinion anywhere that the current system is in any way broken or deficient. In all the years that I have been in the House since 1987, we have never once been told of any significant failings in the current system.
The truth is that the change is not being made as a result either of the need to implement better practice or of any complaint arising from public opinion. The essence, the secret, of the change--we shall hear it over and over again in the next three days--lies in the vested interests that were stuffed into the task forces. Of course, the Minister will say that there was another tier to the task forces and that a fire officer from Durham was eventually put on them, but I have never heard him explain why the fire authorities were not represented in the first place on the task forces that drew up the blue document--produced this evening--which informed their thinking and that of the review tier of the body that looked into the matter. The task forces, which have been the driving force behind the proposal before us, are stuffed full of vested interests, many of which make substantial financial donations to the Conservative party. They are more concerned with the price of the service than its value, knowing as they do the price of everything and the value of nothing. Of course, most Conservative Members, however sheepishly, will troop behind the Minister, but I warn them in my closing remarks, as I did at the beginning of my speech, that the Government are playing with fire. The first time that a devastating fire destroys property and kills human beings as a result of the change--believe me, one does not need a crystal ball to envisage that it will not be many years before such a tragedy occurs--the responsibility will be laid fairly and squarely with the Minister, whom I admire and whom I caution, even at this eleventh hour, to change course. That responsibility will lie with the Minister, with the Government and with the Conservative party.
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) : When the deregulation initiative was first mooted and when the Bill was first talked about, one subject that aroused more public suspicion than any other was the likely threat to health and safety. Ministers sought to dampen those worries and those suspicions all the way through, but they remain. As my hon. Friends have already said, those worries and suspicions remain on the definition of what is a burden on business. What are those health and safety regulations and standards that Conservative Members and, they believe, businesses find so difficult to bear ? The nearest thing that I have found to a Government definition of a burden on business is when they described what bad regulations are in their booklet on deregulation "Cutting Red Tape". One of the things that the document says is that bad regulations "waste time and money". What is a waste of time and money ? It rather depends on who is defining the issue. In a cut-throat market and in those industries where the deregulation initiative has already had its effect, practices apparently waste time and money if they cut profit margins, because that can often mean the difference between staying in business and going out of
Column 211business. That is when cost-cutting occurs. When cost-cutting occurs, that is when corner-cutting occurs, and when corner-cutting occurs, that is when health and safety standards start to suffer. That is not scaremongering. It is happening already. Let us look, for instance, at the coach industry, which has already been subject to deregulation. Only last week, we read in the papers about the coach crash in Kent in November. It was believed to have happened--arguments have been put forward--because the advanced braking system on the coach was not working. The Department of Transport has--it seems--issued three sets of orders relating to ABS braking, which could have prevented coaches being on the roads until problems had been rectified. Either those orders were not enforced properly or they were not capable of being enforced properly, but the result was that that accident happened and 10 people died, including the coach driver.
So far, nobody has been held responsible for that accident. Even the coroner said that there was no candidate in the company whose negligence could be proved to have caused those deaths, even though another driver had pointed out the problems on that coach's braking system some 13 months previously. Indeed, we were told that the driver involved was not aware of that problem.
Faced with the classic example of that coach crash in Kent, are we honestly saying that the problem is too much regulation ? Or is the problem, as I believe, not enough effective regulation and not enough effective enforcement ? That is important to me as I come from the west midlands, where, only a couple of months ago--indeed, on the very day that, in Committee, we were discussing what is now clause 28, which relates to health and safety--a report was published by the west midlands health and safety advice centre called "The Perfect Crime". That report detailed a study undertaken into workplace deaths in the west midlands area--some 28 work-related deaths--between 1988 and 1992. Its conclusion, backed by Sir Anthony Scrivener, Queen's counsel, was that, of those 28 cases, at least four could have resulted in a manslaughter prosecution and seven should have been referred to the police for criminal investigation and passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. Eight of the cases were inadequately investigated by the enforcement agencies and required further investigation, and five could have involved prosecution under health and safety law.
The families involved in those four cases in which, perhaps, a manslaughter prosecution should have been brought--the families of Dennis Wall, Dennis Clarke, Reginald Price and Tara Singh--expect their Government to recognise the incalculable burden that they have suffered in losing their loved ones. Not surprisingly, they are perhaps less than patient with a Government who see burdens only when they are burdens on business. If that is the only language in which the Government are prepared to talk and the only currency that they are prepared to understand, perhaps they should do their own calculations on the £16 billion cost of workplace-related accidents and on the £6 billion that accidents at work cost businesses. If the new clause is not added, the Bill will contain no provision that says that health and safety standards are a no-go area when it comes to the deregulation initiative. We have been assured by Ministers on Second Reading and in
Column 212Committee--no doubt, we shall be so assured again today--that their intention is not to remove what they describe as necessary protection. However, time and again in Committee during debates on health and safety and, indeed, during debates on other aspects of the Bill, we have asked what they mean by "necessary protection". What is the bottom line ? Which standards do they think are not appropriate for deregulation ? We have never on any occasion heard a clear answer from Ministers.
If ever there were a reason for the new clause to be added, it is not what I have said or what my hon. Friends have said, but the words of the Minister. At the first meeting of the Committee on 15 February 1994, I asked the Minister a direct question. Many Conservative Members have referred to the Health and Safety Commission today and its role in the deregulation initiative and in the task forces. I asked the Minister whether he could assure us that no health and safety regulations would be removed if that removal did not have the support of the trade unions and of the Health and Safety Commission. The Minister said :
"I am not saying that that would occur only when trade unions were involved, but we would obviously follow the recommendations of the Health and Safety Commission."
A few moments later, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) asked the Minister a slight variation of that question. He asked :
"Will the Minister now give a commitment that the powers in clause 1 will not be used on any occasion on which the Health and Safety Commission objects ?"
The Minister gave the following reply :
"I regard it as going against the tripartite nature of the Health and Safety Commission for the hon. Gentleman to single out trade unions for special privilege. I hope that he will withdraw that remark, in view of the nature of the commission.
On the Health and Safety Commission, I said--I think that I am quoting myself correctly--that I regard it as most improbable or most unlikely . . . I would not like to go further than that."--[ Official Report , Standing Committee F , 15 February 1994 ; c. 27-28.] The Opposition's message is that we expect Ministers--I believe that the public do as well-- to go further than that. Health and safety standards must not be the casualty of the deregulation initiative. The families of all those who are injured at work--the families of the nine people who lose their lives every week at work--expect better from their Government, and their Government can give them better by accepting the new clause.