Previous Section Home Page

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : Over the past hour, my hon. Friends have shown how strong our feelings are about the Bill, especially in terms of its possible effect on health and safety. Those of us who were members of the Committee are aware that we are a highly privileged bunch of hon. Members because we have at least discussed deregulation measures in detail. The purpose of the Bill is to remove that privilege from Members of Parliament, so that regulations will not have that proper scrutiny.

As we discussed the specific items on the face of the Bill in Committee, we kept coming back to the inadequate definitions which are so worrying, and we shall come back to them on Thursday. What is a burden on business ? At what point do the costs to an industry become so great that it is important that the burden is lifted ? At what point does "necessary protection"--no adequate definition has been given to us--come into effect ? At every end and turn, the

Column 213

Government, through the Bill, have sought to offer to business the guarantee that if it shouts loud enough that regulations are too great a cost to it, they will act in the interests of business rather than in the interests of the public. I thought that the Government were supposed to act in the interests of the public.

That point is felt most sharply in health and safety. In health and safety terms, what is a burden for business may be a man or woman's life at work. A human life does not and cannot have a price. The fire officers and the members of the Fire Brigades Union to whom we have talked during the passage of the Bill have reminded us, time and again, that every fire regulation and every health and safety at work regulation has come out of a tragedy.

Whenever there is a tragedy or a death, the people around say, "This must not happen again. How can we ensure that it does not happen again ?" A regulation is then introduced for a particular industry or a particular building. To remove those regulations because they are a cost to business will clearly put lives at risk. I hope that the Government will consider the following point. I am almost certain that in a few minutes, we shall be told that we have been scaremongering, as we were told several times in Committee. The Government could consider tonight the point that, even within the context of the Bill, by accepting that health and safety regulations and fire regulations should fall outside the group of regulations which the Bill can be used to deregulate, they would withdraw the accusation of scaremongering and would lift the threat to the lives and limbs of people at work.

The Government should simply accept the new clause and take out of the Bill anything to do with health and safety, life and limb and the threat to lives. The Government could take that simple action tonight. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government believe that public opinion is such that they will bow not just to the Opposition, but to public opinion. I hope that, because the public believe that health and safety is so important, the Government will accept the new clause.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : We must be clear that the Bill is, in part, about restricting the right of workers, under health and safety legislation, to a say in their working environment. That is why the new clause is important. It would maintain a high standard of health and safety in manufacturing industry by ensuring that no order that threatened the health and safety of any person could be made. I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is prepared to accept the new clause. If the new clause is not included in the Bill, the Government will be free to bring back 19th-century working conditions. That is what the Bill is all about. It will create working conditions that will attract the worst employers.

The real burden of health and safety falls on those who suffer from accidents or ill health caused by their work, as my hon. Friends have said strongly this evening. According to figures recently published by the GMB, the cost to employers of work accidents and ill health is between £4 billion and £9 billion. The cost to society is reckoned to be between £10 billion and £15 billion. Clearly, employers, employees and society cannot afford that continuing cost. The Government should endeavour to ensure that the record becomes better and they should not create a situation which is likely to make things worse. That is why we must support the new clause. If it is not accepted, we can expect the record to worsen.

Column 214

The real problem in health and safety is not that legislation is too restrictive, but that many employers fail to comply with the existing laws. The Health and Safety Executive has drawn attention, time and again, to non-compliance in sectors such as construction, textiles, chemicals and, I am afraid to say, local authorities. The Government claim that they are easing the burden on business, but that is a ruse, as the Minister knows. In circumstances where it suits the Government, they have imposed unnecessary burdens on business. The administration of statutory sick pay is just one of the burdens that the Government have imposed on business. At first glance, the Bill may not appear to be that unreasonable in the area of health and safety. Clearly, laws need to be relevant and understandable. However, when the veneer is scratched away, we see clearly that there is more than meets the eye to the Bill. The deregulation of health and safety must be seen in the context of the Government's hostility to the European Commission's social action programme. The Government are opposed to the health and safety legislation that is required by the "six pack" of European directives. That is the real intention of deregulating health and safety--it has nothing to do with abolishing obsolete legislation. If the Government want to do something positive about health and safety, they should implement a new consultative machinery between the Health and Safety Executive and employers. They should increase the number of field inspectors and ensure that more resources are available for the training of shop floor health and safety inspectors. I hope that hon. Members on the Opposition Benches realise that if the new clause is not accepted--I am sorry, I meant to say Government Benches.

Mrs. Helen Jackson : They will be soon.

Mr. Clapham : It is true that Tory Members will be on the Opposition Benches soon. If the new clause is not accepted by the Government, the situation in industry will worsen, to the detriment of employers, employees and the community generally.

Ms Glenda Jackson : As my hon. Friends have said, it is the Government's inability to define what is meant by "burden" and "necessary protection" which causes us the most disquiet and which we are justified in being concerned about, because what we are discussing here are protections that will put at risk human health and, in extreme circumstances, take away human life.

The burden with which the Government are most concerned to lift from employers--be it in business, industry or the service sector--is that of responsibility. It is that responsibility, which carries with it a moral element--it certainly should in the field that we are discussing--that the Government wish to remove as a protective element for the British work force. We should not be surprised by that, because the Government have advertised the British work force in Germany not on the level of their skills or ability but on the fact that they will work for less than any other European workers. The Government have also boasted that they have kept this country out of the EC health and safety directives. This country is becoming one of the most dangerous places in Europe in which to work. It seems that the Government's proposals on the face of the Bill, which will preclude any future Parliament from examining such proposals in any detail, are something

Column 215

which the whole House should take seriously, and to which it should give serious consideration. That is why I trust that the House will vote in support of our new clause.

We are at a time in the development of industry and business when workers are constantly being expected to use new materials and new procedures. We are in an area where dangers come from we do not know what. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) pointed out, our existing health and safety legislation procedures usually came after some major and tragic accident. If the new clause is not accepted by the House tonight, we are at risk of increasing the possibility of such tragedies in a way that we have not seen before. Some of the processes and procedures which workers are now having to use are still very much an unknown area. One can only look at the life that we as individuals know. It used to be that when we needed to go to the dentist and we needed an X-ray, the dentist and his assistant would stay in the room. We now know that that is a dangerous procedure--the dentist and his assistant now stand behind the protective screen or leave the room. If we look at the use of hypodermic needles in medicine, it used to be that they would be tossed with a cavalier disregard into any sort of receptacle. Since the discovery of how HIV and AIDS are transmitted, hypodermic needles and other such implements must go in protective boxes, cartons or bags.

We are constantly developing new procedures, processes and materials in a modern industrial society, but our knowledge of the possible dangers from those processes and procedures is not keeping pace with that forward thrust. That is why it is an extremely dangerous proposal on behalf of the Government simply to savage and sabotage those protections such as they have allowed to remain for the work force in this country. It is also the reason why I hope that the House will vote for the new clause tonight.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) : I am gratefulfor the opportunity to speak. Hon. Members will remember that I was unhappy at Second Reading not because of what was on the face of the Bill--things such as the market charters and other important things. This issue does not affect people's lives--it decides whether they live or not. It is probably the most important issue that we will discuss tonight.

When the Minister talks about burdens, he must recognise that there is not only a burden on people in terms of personal suffering as a result of accidents at work ; there is also a burden on the state. It has been estimated that the cost to the country of accidents at work is between £10 billion and £15 billion, and that 70 per cent. of all accidents could have been avoided. At present, it seems that we should not be relaxing regulations--we should be ensuring that they are properly enforced.

7.15 pm

The Government's response is to make cuts in the Health and Safety Commission. They have cut spending by 5 per cent., and 120 jobs in the commission have been lost this year. However, we need to look beyond what the Health and Safety Commission and the health and safety legislation do, because people's health and safety are determined by other legislation. As hon. Members said, most legislation usually comes about as a result of some

Column 216

sort of disaster. It is usually the stable door approach. Some people would describe it as the tombstone approach--as the tombstones mount up, the pressure for legislation mounts up. We have seen that time and time again.

We have certainly seen that with regard to fire regulations. Before 1970, all fire regulations came about because of a major disaster. Since then, to our shame, every piece of legislation has come about because of a major disaster. What we have now are a Government who are prepared in one breath to say that they will ensure that proper safety is there, and at the same time in the background they are prepared to erode people's safety. I can give many examples of that. I can understand why the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) was happy to dismiss everything about Scarborough and say that they have not quite made up their mind about the problem. When we discussed the building and fire regulations in Committee, we were told that we were scaremongering and terrifying people when there was no need for it. I am happy to be a scaremonger if it makes the Government think twice about the legislation that they want to change. I was happy to be a scaremonger with regard to the regulations on furniture fittings. The Government were examining those regulations--they wanted to repeal the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988. The regulations were amended in 1989, but they were still not properly in force in 1993.

The Government wanted to amend the Gas Cooking Appliances (Safety) Regulations 1989 with regard to second-hand cookers. People recognised the danger of that. The Government wanted to look at the Heating Appliances (Fire Guards) (Safety) Regulations 1991 and the Nightwear (Safety) Regulations 1985, which were introduced after a blaze of publicity--I am sorry ; I did not intend to make that pun. We all saw the pictures on television of children whose nightgowns had caught fire. The Government wanted to examine the Toys (Safety) Regulations 1989, although only a couple of years ago a child was killed after throwing a dangerous toy on to a fire.

The Government wanted to look at all those things. That is why I cannot trust the Government and they should not be given a blank cheque in terms of fire safety. In Committee, we were told that the things that the Government were doing were all innocuous. They said that local building Acts were of no consequence and that they were getting rid of outdated Acts.

Within a fortnight of the Committee voting on that, "World In Action" showed what building regulations meant. It showed a good example in one of the companies which was advising the Government on deregulation--Sainsbury. The programme showed a Sainsbury store and the local building regulations said that the store should have sprinklers and divisions in the roof space to stop the spread of fire. Those were ignored, and there was an appeal to the Secretary of State about the regulations. The appeal was upheld and the sprinklers and the divisions in the roof space were not put in.

The building burned down, not because of any fire inside, but because a wheelie bin caught fire outside. The fire spread to the roof and across the building, which burned down. Luckily, no one's life was lost, but that could have happened so easily. If the fire had occurred during the day, and not in the evening, the fire brigade was quite certain that it would not have been able to evacuate people from the store. That is one example of the Government saying one thing but doing another.

Column 217

I shall turn quickly to security at airports. I was quite happy to be a scaremonger after I found out that Government and the task force said that security at airports was belt and braces and that there was too much security at airports. Within days of that decision in Committee, somebody mortar-bombed Heathrow airport. I hope that the Government's view on that has changed now.

When we discussed the changes to public service vehicle and heavy goods vehicle licensing, there was talk about changing the rules governing drivers' hours which would allow them to drive for longer. It is only in the past few days that we have seen, following the M2 coach crash, that the driver had exceeded his hours and the speedometer had not been properly checked. The regulations which were there already should have been enforced more rigorously. We do not need less regulation, but more.

We get knee-jerk reactions. Following the fire in Scarborough, we are told that there will be a licensing system. That suggestion was rubbished when we were in Committee. Following the M2 disaster, we were told that there would be moves to stop coaches going into the fast lane. Again, any talk from the Opposition about the safety of HGVs and PSVs was rubbished in Committee. When we talked about the security of airports before the mortar- bombing of Heathrow, it was rubbished in Committee.

It is the Government's hypocrisy that gets me. They say they will promise people safety when they know that people with vested interests have sat on the task forces. For example, the task force on construction was chaired by Chris Spackman, the managing director of Bovis Construction, and included Derek Bernard Rimmer of Slough Estates and Dr. Margaret Lowe of Ove Arup. They all have vested interests and they will ensure that none of the measures are properly applied.

I shall finish by mentioning an interdepartmental fire safety scrutiny observation by the National Association of Fire Officers. In some ways, it sums up what the Government are doing. On the front page of the document, it says that a bonfire of red tape may prove an unfortunate phrase when human life is at stake.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : Blessed are those who expect nothing, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for they shall not be disappointed.

I never really expected any sensible and informed speeches from Opposition Members, and my expectations have been amply fulfilled in the past hour or so. It is a great misfortune that we cannot debate serious issues in a rational and proportionate way. The Opposition do themselves no favours with the kind of speeches that we have heard this afternoon, not least from the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). She is never inhibited by any connection with the facts, and declared that this country was the most dangerous place in Europe. On the contrary, the latest Health and Safety Commission annual report shows that expected

Ms Glenda Jackson : Will the Minister give way ?

Mr. Hamilton : I will in a moment, but first I will give the hon. Lady some statistics. She lacked any statistics in her speech and a combination of my speech and hers may advance the debate. The HSC annual report shows that expected overall fatal injury rates have dropped to the

Column 218

lowest levels ever reported and now stand at 1.3 per 100,000 employees. Non-fatal injury rates for employees also fell slightly last year for the third successive year.

The fatal injury rate is now less than one quarter of the rate in the early 1960s, less than one half of that in the 1970s, and 20 per cent. lower than that of the mid-1980s.

Mr. Fatchett : The rate of accidents is important.

Mr. Hamilton : As the hon. Gentleman points out, that is the key factor. The rate of accidents per 100,000 employees has fallen also, I am delighted to confirm to him.

Ms Glenda Jackson rose

Mr. Hamilton : I am delighted that the hon. Lady is about to contradict the facts.

Ms Jackson : Not at all. Yet again, the Minister is referring to figures which have been achieved in the past. Our argument is that, if the Bill goes through, such figures will be an impossibility in the future.

I believe that I did not say that this was the most dangerous place to work in Europe. I believe that I did say that, if the Government have their way, Britain will certainly become the most dangerous place in Europe in which to work.

Mr. Hamilton : I am afraid that the hon. Lady will discover when she has been here a little longer that, in this place, we are judged by what we have said, rather than by what we think we have said. That is sometimes very inconvenient.

The assorted members of the national union of shroud-wavers, scaremongers and conspiracy theorists sitting on the Opposition benches will be rejected by the people of this country. Everybody who thinks about it for a moment recognises that, if we have regulations which impose unnecessary costs upon businesses, those costs will flow through. Ultimately, they must be paid for by the very people whom Opposition Members claim they want to protect and defend, and whose interests they seek to advance.

Nobody with any sense takes the absolutist position that, on all matters concerning safety, we must do as much as we can without any consideration of costs to stamp out certain risks. They are all cases of balance. After all, if we were to take the view that we wanted to stamp out all road accidents, a simple way of doing so would be to ban all vehicles from using the roads. There would then be no accidents on the roads. But no sensible person takes that view. We all ultimately--consciously or subconsciously-- make judgments about risks and we must bear in mind the costs that we are imposing upon society by the regulations that we introduce.

Among the many fantasies produced by Opposition Members is that we are in some way going to abolish all fire regulations, or that we are to reduce them in way that will increase substantially the risks to the public. The Government have no intention of doing that, and of course it would be a stupid thing to aim to do. I must admit that even this Government are not infallible, and we have from time to time made mistakes. However, I have stated categorically that our aim in the reviews that we have set up is to identify areas of overlap and duplication and where there is a lack of clarity between the responsibilities of enforcement bodies.

Column 219

We want recommendations on the ways of dealing with those areas and we wish to address the practicability of bringing all the policy responsibilities for fire safety together in a single department to improve the clarity of the regulations and the effectiveness of their enforcement.

Mr. Galloway : Why were not the fire authorities and the fire service represented on the task force ?

Mr. Hamilton : The task force was appointed to give the business view to the Government. [Interruption.] Of course that was the intention. It is extraordinary that Opposition Members think that business- -the employers of the people whom they claim to represent--should not have their view heard by the Government. Opposition Front-Bench Members who slink around the dining rooms of the City and industry attempting to make friends among industrialists might have some difficult questions to answer if that were not the case.

Any sensible person knows that we must take into account the interests of industry, employees, professionals and the fire service. The views of business do not in any way require the Government to accept the recommendations, nor have we said that that would be the case. Having received that view, we have now instituted a wide review and an efficiency scrutiny of the areas of overlap and duplication. There are five members on the review team, as I mentioned earlier. I shall give everyone the names so that in future Opposition Members might not have the opportunity to scaremonger so much.

Mr. Stewart Kidd is the director of the Fire Protection Association, a subsidiary of the Loss Prevention Council. It certainly has no vested interest in increasing losses from fires. It has every vested interest in ensuring that there is greater safety to reduce its losses. Mr. David Smith is the president of the Institute of Building Control. It does not sound to me as if he is likely to be a fire-breathing extremist of the kind that Opposition Members have fantasised about.

Mr. Bill Yates works for Shell, a company that operates in the area of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would accuse that company of having the opinions of which his hon. Friends have spoken this evening. Mr. Alf Thompson is the chief officer of Durham fire service. Mr. Richard Saxon is a partner in the Building Design Partnership and, horror of horrors, a member of the construction deregulation task force.

7.30 pm

Mr. Heppell : The Minister read out a list of names. I am fairly certain that that list was not on the original task force. Is the Minister talking about the one that was set up after complaints were made or the original one ?

Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman has woken up, I am glad to hear. I have already said that the deregulation task force was put together to give us the business view. The Government were not obliged to accept its view. The Government have not yet taken any decisions on any of the issues that it raised, but we have set up the second review, which is designed to give us a balanced view of the issues that I have set out.

So I am afraid that Opposition Members have been wasting their time and the time of the House in the past

Column 220

hour. They have been firing their muskets up alleyways down which the enemy is not coming, as someone once said of a speech made by Winston Churchill in the House.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) : Will the Minister give the House a categorical undertaking that the responsibility for fire safety will not be transferred from the fire authorities ?

Mr. Hamilton : I do not know whether it is the hon. Gentleman's view that reviews should be prejudged or that the Government should take decisions in advance of appointing them. That was an absurd and preposterous question to ask. We are happy to be judged on safety by our experience of 15 years in office.

Since 1975 the Health and Safety Commission has repealed or modified some 350 pieces of old, outdated and detailed prescriptive legislation. They have been replaced with about 100 sets of modern regulations which focus on the goals to be achieved by employers. That is more flexible and practicable for all involved. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, we need the Bill because the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 forbids us to repeal outdated and obsolete legislation by any means that are likely to be practicable. Consequently, it prevents us from doing in relation to pre-1974 legislation what we can already do in respect of post-1974 legislation.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : Will the Minister give way ?

Mr. Hamilton : I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he was not here for the debate and I see that many Members have come into the Chamber. They have probably come to hear my speech rather than Opposition Members' interventions. I think that it is more likely that they have come in expecting a vote to take place, and I know that I have already been speaking for too long. [Hon. Members : -- "Hear, hear."] On that note of unity, perhaps I should sit down. [Hon. Members :-- "Yes."] By popular request. In that case, I can take a hint and I will sit down.

Mr. Fatchett : If ever there was an argument for new clause 5, it was the Minister's speech. It was an appalling speech and one that the Minister will come to regret. We were dealing with serious issues and the Minister was not prepared to take them seriously. My hon. Friends were not scaremongering. They were raising serious issues and factual cases. The Minister could not even bother to reply to the points that they made.

The most telling comment that the Minister made was his definition of a burden as a cost to business. He needs to understand that there is a balance that relates to employees, consumers and the general public. In the Scarborough fire case, there was a burden on a small business to bring the hotel up to acceptable and legitimate standards. The fact is that lives were lost and people were injured because that did not happen. That is the basis of the balance to which my hon. Friends have referred. It is a great shame that the Minister could not respond to those important points.

It is also a great shame that the Minister did not recognise the fears that the task force working parties were set up to reflect interests, and in particular interests, that have backed the Conservative party and will get what they want from the Government's deregulation initiatives.

Column 221

New clause 5 deals with important issues and the Government are sending one clear signal. Last Thursday at Question Time, the Prime Minister said that he was prepared to take tougher action following the Scarborough fire. The fact is that the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs and the Minister of State, Department of Employment are driven by an ideology that favours deregulated labour markets and a free-for-all for entrepreneurs without any protection for consumers and employees. We reject that outdated ideology. That is why I ask my hon. Friends not to give more power to Ministers but to protect the House and those outside by supporting new clause 5. Question put , That the clause be read a Second time :

The House divided : Ayes 244, Noes 283.

Division No. 234] [7.35 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Allen, Graham

Alton, David

Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Battle, John

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret

Beggs, Roy

Beith, Rt Hon A. J.

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F.

Benton, Joe

Bermingham, Gerald

Berry, Roger

Betts, Clive

Blair, Tony

Blunkett, David

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)

Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)

Burden, Richard

Byers, Stephen

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Cann, Jamie

Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)

Chisholm, Malcolm

Clapham, Michael

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cook, Robin (Livingston)

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Corston, Ms Jean

Cousins, Jim

Cummings, John

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)

Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John

Dafis, Cynog

Dalyell, Tam

Darling, Alistair

Davidson, Ian

Next Section

  Home Page