Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 140 - 162)



Mr Olner

  140.  Could we perhaps, in this final quarter of an hour, turn our attention to the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. Could you perhaps tell the Committee what the final figure for workplace fatalities was in 1996-97?
  (Mr Hillier)  In 1996-97, the rate was 1.2 per 100,000 workers, the fatality rate.

  141.  Has it been possible to determine a reason for the rise in fatalities, since the last annual report?
  (Mr Hillier)  We were very concerned about that and we have done quite a lot of work in relation to it, and the puzzle really was whether it was a blip, a sort of fortuitous blip, up, or whether there was some underlying, endemic cause of it.

  142.  It is strange terminology, a "fortuitous blip"; it does not sound very good for those on the receiving end?
  (Mr Hillier)  Unfortunate blip, I should say. The rate in the United Kingdom, of course, is the lowest in Europe, and so, given that it is at a relatively low level, and I must not be complacent about that, one might get variations from year to year. Now we have had the early data from this last year and we were obviously very closely concerned to see what would happen in 1997-98, and the indications are, and we are still cleaning up the figures, that the rate is now back down to what it was the year before last, which was the lowest on record. So I do not want to draw too much comfort from that, but it is going in the right direction at the moment.

  143.  But have they revised their strategy, in the Health and Safety Executive, as a result of that rise?
  (Mr Hillier)  Yes, I think we did take some important steps, because when you looked at where the accidents were happening it was quite obvious that there were big rises in agriculture and construction, which are notoriously hazardous industries, so we concentrated more resources on that. We did a number of specific things in those industries to try to raise the profile of health and safety and to get the rates down. And, again, the early evidence is that that has happened. For instance, in agriculture, we undertook what we call a blitz, that is put a whole lot of inspectors, in a concentrated period of time, visiting a lot of farms. So we visited something like 4,500 farms, we issued about a thousand enforcement notices, we prosecuted 14 cases, and, among other things, that had the result of raising the profile very smartly in that sector.

  144.  Could you perhaps advise us what the asbestos-related statistics are?
  (Mr Hillier)  I cannot tell you what the current statistics are, but, of course, the biggest problem, as you will know, from asbestos is that we are reaping the harvest of actions, or inactions, in earlier years, before we understood the science of asbestos; so that, from now, for the foreseeable future, well into the millennium, there are going to be about 3,000 people dying from asbestos-related diseases. The current hazard in asbestos is to do with asbestos which is buried in buildings, lining walls, and so on, and people do not know where it is, that is one area where the Commission is giving a lot of attention to how best we can ensure that we take full account of the risks associated with that. There is also the whole question about white asbestos, and what we do in relation to prohibition of white asbestos, which is in the Commission's sights at the moment.

  145.  Have you deliberated on that, have you come to a conclusion about white asbestos?
  (Mr Hillier)  The intention is to produce some regulations towards the end of the year, but before we did that we needed to be sure that the alternatives to white asbestos were safer than the white asbestos itself, so a study has been carried out by the Institute of Environment and Health, and the results are now being peer reviewed, if you like, with various other committees, and we hope to have the results of that at the end of July. But the indications from that study are that, taken in the round, the substitutes are safer than white asbestos, so the Commission will take its decisions in the light of that conclusion.

Mr Bennett

  146.  So when will people have to stop using white asbestos?
  (Mr Hillier)  Only Ministers can tell you that. The Commission will give its view, later on this year, and we will have to see what Ministers then decide.

  147.  So the regulations could be placed before Parliament before the autumn?
  (Mr Hillier)  Yes, that is the sort of timescale we have in mind.

  148.  These efficiency gains, that are supposed to have been made by the Health and Safety Executive, can you give me some examples of them?
  (Mr Hillier)  They range from rather large initiatives, like introducing our Focus computer system to our Field Operations Directorate, and that results in direct inputting of data and reports, and so on, by the inspectors themselves——

  149.  So the inspectors can spend more time out inspecting and less time copying up the results?
  (Mr Hillier)  They can put it straight in, so when they have visited an establishment they can report directly into the system, rather than going through a whole lot of bureaucratic byways, and that is where you cut out a lot of work.

  150.  So you have cut out the administration; does that mean the money is being spent on more inspectors?
  (Mr Hillier)  It has, largely, because, if you look at our staff numbers, the result of these efficiencies has been that we have lost staff, overall, we have had to lose staff because of what has been happening to public expenditure, and we have managed to make ends meet, effectively, by introducing a range of different efficiencies. And so what has tended to happen has been that we have protected, as far as possible, the front-line staff, the front-line inspection staff, and it is the administrative back-up, people in my sort of area, resources and planning area, who have taken a bit more of the hit.

  151.  So are there actually more inspectors now than there were?
  (Mr Hillier)  No, there are not, because the declining resource line has meant that we have had to make some cuts there, and I think it was in about the last four years we have reduced by about 80 inspectors, overall, who are actually inspecting, in Inspecting Directorates. But the situation has changed this year, because the Government has given us an extra £4.5 million, in 1997-98. The bulk of that money will go onto recruiting new inspectors; in fact, that is what we are doing at the moment. So we can expect the numbers to rise, assuming that we get a good outcome from the CSR, the Comprehensive Spending Review.

  152.  The extra inspectors were for last year, were they not?
  (Mr Hillier)  The extra money is coming this year, and, as I say, we are recruiting at the moment.

  153.  So, really, the efficiency gains have not been something that actually people working in industry have noticed, it is merely doing the same job cheaper?
  (Mr Hillier)  It depends what you mean by that. I think we have managed to keep up our key outputs, in many areas, and this——

  154.  What do you consider your key outputs?
  (Mr Hillier)  I do not know if we are going to come on to resource accounting, but we have produced——

  155.  I think we are moving in that direction, yes.
  (Mr Hillier)  Right. We produced an output performance analysis last year, in which we list the key output measures, and there are ten of them, and on the operational side, and I will leave to one side at the moment the policy outputs, because there are some important ones there, but a key output would be to maintain, as far as possible, our regulatory contact rate. And, in fact, we are proposing an increasing line in our regulatory contacts, because the Commission holds to the view that it is important to maintain our visibility, and it has a regime, a published regime, under which the objective is to inspect every high-risk establishment once a year, and, every medium-risk establishment, to make a regular contact with it, a regulatory contact with it, once in every six years, on average.

  156.  Is there a correlation between the risk and the number of fatalities?
  (Mr Hillier)  There does not seem to be. Of course, there are going to be leads and lags in this. And another factor we should not forget is that we tend to focus on the injuries and fatality statistics on the safety side; some of the figures on the health side are much more difficult to grapple with, and involve not just occupational risks but also societal risks.

  157.  Just going back to those prosecutions for a second, were the penalties the courts meted out reasonable?
  (Mr Hillier)  No. We think they are too low, and you would expect us to say that. The average for all courts is just over £5,000 a year, at the last count, and we do not think that the courts are taking sufficient account of some of the more serious offences.

  158.  There are two approaches, are there not: one is to persuade them to, within the scales, go for higher on the scale; the other is actually to change the legislation and to put in tougher penalties, in the first place?
  (Mr Hillier)  There is quite a lot of scope, without changing the law, for quite heavy penalties to be levied against people who recklessly breach the law, and so, without getting into the question of whether you change the law, as I say, there is quite a lot of scope for the courts to do more, and I think the Government is with us on that, and there are consultations taking place between Departments about how we can raise the profile of health and safety, if you like, among magistrates.

  159.  Resource accounting, it is on the timescale to meet the Treasury's deadline?
  (Mr Hillier)  I listened to what John Ballard said on the DETR side, and I sort of tick most of that. It is tempting fate a little, but I think we are slightly better placed than the Department is. You heard about all their difficulties, we are a more homogeneous organisation, we are ahead of the pack. We did produce our OPA last year, which is, I think, I am boasting a little on our behalf, but I think it was the first in Whitehall, and we have tweaked it a little this year. So I think we are doing reasonably well, and we are feeling quite comfortable about our position.

Mr Olner

  160.  Could I ask you if customer satisfaction is a valid measure to judge your effectiveness by?
  (Mr Hillier)  Yes, and no. Who are our customers, is one question, but you cannot expect people who are feeling our regulatory impact necessarily to feel grateful for that. However, we do have an awful lot of people who come to us for help and who come to us to purchase things, and we do monitor what they think about us.

  161.  How many people who come to you for help are you allowed to help, or do help?
  (Mr Hillier)  We can only go by whether they say they are satisfied. Sometimes we might give them an answer which might not be terribly helpful to them, but, nevertheless, it is the answer we have to give, given the situation. And the figure that we have is that, year on year, something like 86, 87 per cent of people who seek help from us are satisfied with what they are told by us, and with the timeliness, and so on, of how we deliver our help.

  162.  Some of the previous comments that Mr Bennett made, about the lack of inspectors, that has not sort of really closed that down a little; you have not been able to say to somebody, "Sorry, we can't help you because we haven't got any inspectors"?
  (Mr Hillier)  I think quite a lot of people would like inspectorial help to come and advise them, I have met a lot of people myself who would like some free advice, by which they mean a highly expensive inspector; not necessarily people who are in very hazardous industries. We have a limited inspector resource and we have to focus it on the areas of greatest risk, and that is what we try to do.

Mr Olner:  On that note, Mr Hillier, Sir Andrew, I would like to thank you and your team for coming and presenting evidence. I think you will gather, by the amount of time you have been sitting down there, that what you have had to say was of supreme interest to the Committee. Thank you very much.


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