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Westminster Hall

Thursday 20 January 2005

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Health and Safety Commission and Executive

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Work and Pensions Committee Session 2003–04 HC 456 I. ]

Motion made and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watson.]

2.30 pm

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : The House owes you a particular vote of thanks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having the wisdom to understand that the last time this important subject was down for debate, the distractions in other parts of the House were such that no sensible debate could take place. Thanks to your guidance, we will be able to spend some constructive time this afternoon doing justice to this subject. We are grateful to you for that service.

The Work and Pensions Committee published its report in July 2004 on the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. We had just started to examine the subject, as it had just been transferred and brigaded with the Department for Work and Pensions after the 2001 election. We were anxious to answer the important question of whether the 1974 health and safety framework set up by the Act of that year was still fit for purpose. The answer to that is yes. The House should be reassured by that. Everyone to whom we talked, internationally and throughout the United Kingdom, no matter what side of the employment divide, was clear that subject to some concerns, which we will come to in the course of the debate, the framework and hierarchy within which the public policy was delivered was appropriate and robust. That is worth recording as the main finding of the Committee's work.

There are obviously concerns, and I can see Members in the Chamber, particularly those with trade union backgrounds, who have a great deal of direct experience in this area—much more than I have. No doubt, they will raise their own concerns. The Committee highlighted some areas that deserve further and better attention. They include concerns about resources—rather obviously because that is always a key part of public policy development—target attainment, legislation on corporate killing, which I am sure will feature in the debate, occupational health, and work force consultation. Perhaps one of the bigger but less recognisable problems facing the Health and Safety Executive is the significant challenge to health in future.

Since the publication of the report, the Government have rightly adopted a new policy for reducing working days lost in the civil service. There is a new programme called "Government Setting an Example", and the HSE will have to deal with that. The Government's target is
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to reduce working days lost by 30 per cent. by 2010, so another layer of responsibility has recently been added to the important work carried out by the HSE.

In the report's conclusions and recommendations, to which I draw hon. Members' attention, the conclusion that deserves the most attention, because it determines how we take policy forward, is about the direction of travel of the HSE: whether its apparently new approach to and emphasis on promoting business cases, developing partnerships and advising and educating, is to be substituted or given more priority at the expense of some of the more tried and tested ways of enforcing compliance through inspection and established procedures in the working environment. It should be helpful if the Department and the Minister helped us to understand whether we are right to be worried about that.

The conclusion that my colleagues came to, which may be old-fashioned and wrong, is that in a situation where resources are unarguably limited, the promotion of untested approaches that emphasise information and guidance in preference to inspection and enforcement flies in the face of the existing evidence. It is an important issue which we will obviously discuss.

The Government's response, which we received in October 2004 was more positive in some areas. Their response on migratory workers, for example, was positive and on procurements some good reinforcing messages were coming from the Department. However, the most disappointing response—which is neither new or unusual—was on resources, about which we were hoping for something better.

Looking around the Chamber, I realise that my colleagues are probably more expert in this area than I am. However, since the 1974 Act was put on the statute book, levels of injury have fallen significantly—the evidence is clear. Furthermore, Great Britain's record compares favourably on an international basis. Great Britain, at 1.7 per 100,000 workers, has the second lowest rate of annual workplace fatalities, which compares to an EU average of 2.8. Some of our European partners, such as Sweden are doing better than we are, but we are doing relatively well and that has to be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, it is slightly sobering to be reminded that there were 235 fatal injuries to workers in the last year for which figures were available—in 2003–04. That was an increase from 2002–03, so there is no reason for complacency.The increase is also true of major injuries. They were up 9 per cent. on the previous year, standing at 30,666 which is quite a lot of pain and misery for a large section of our employed work force. Finally, incidents of self-reported work-related ill health stood at 2.2 million in 2003–04, which accounts in total for 33 million lost working days. These are heavy prices that we are paying in the working environment. It is right that we should be paying attention to them.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (Con): I am aware, as the hon. Gentleman is, of the pain and sadness caused by any workplace death and by serious workplace injuries, but there is more to it than that in terms of the economy. As I am sure he will acknowledge, the cost
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of every death, and in particular the long-term cost of looking after those who are seriously injured, is very important as well.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : That is absolutely right. It is a helpful intervention as it takes me on to my next topic, which is resources. There is a cost-benefit equation. If we are careful and secure the appropriate level of support for inspections and workplace environment safety, we can save a lot of money.

Colleagues will recall that the 2002 spending review set a baseline for resources, which rose in the fiscal years 2003–04 and 2004–05. The figure then fell back to £271 million in 2005–06 and it will remain at that level until 2007–8. It does not take an economist to work out that when rising costs are taken into account, that is a reduction. Some argued to the Committee that that was a significant reduction in actual spending power. In addition, the overall budget settlement that was set out in the 2004 spending review committed the whole Department for Work and Pensions, where the HSE/HSC is now brigaded, to achieve annual efficiencies of at least £960 million by 31 March 2008, and at least half of that saving must be cashable. There was therefore a new pressure resulting from the 2004 comprehensive spending review on top of the one which was announced in 2002.

The fine print of the Treasury's technical notes shows that to live within its own financial settlement, the Department for Work and Pensions will have to make annual savings year on year of 2.8 per cent by the end of March 2008, and the HSE/HSC will have to take its fair share of that unless something different happens.

It was interesting to the Select Committee—we alluded to it in our report—that the August 2004 minutes of the HSC state:

The HSE was right about that. The minutes go on to state that that would have

One can see that the HSE is well aware that it is under some pressure.

As if that were not enough, there were also the announced staff cuts, which will apply across the Department. A net reduction of 30,000 full-time equivalent posts and the relocation of 4,000 posts out of London and the south-east are to be achieved by 31 March 2008. This part of public policy is being delivered within a tight fiscal envelope.

It is true that the Government made it clear that they were prepared to consider the HSE as a front-line service. We welcome that, as it gives the organisation some protection, and rightly so. The Government response said that they would ensure that HSE/HSC

We are grateful for that, but there is some scepticism about the ability to achieve some of the Government's targets with the resources that are available. It may be difficult to do that.
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One recommendation that attracted more than the usual number of press headlines after the publication of the report was that we should double the field operations directorate in order to do the job properly, and that we would need substantial additional resources during the next three years to be absolutely sure that the work that needs to be done is carried out. We received compelling advice on that point from Prospect and other organisations that know about such things. The truth is that we still do not know exactly what the spending profile will be or what the staff cuts will be for the HSE. It may be too early for the Minister to share information on that.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent presentation of the report on behalf of his colleagues. I wish to make one point before he moves off staffing. The Select Committee's recommendation was to increase the work force. We heard evidence from the trade unions that an increased number of people are now in employment. Does he agree that that reinforces our argument for the need for more inspectors?

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is a distinguished member of the Select Committee. She is right to say that we received powerful and cogent evidence that, even if nothing else happened, an expanding work force required further consideration of such matters and additional resources. Her comment is helpful and takes me to my next short section on targets.

The main targets were identified in 2000 in HSE/HSC's strategy document, "Revitalising Health and Safety". The targets were to run to 2010, and there are interim targets along the way. The three major indicators are all very ambitious: to reduce the incidence rate of fatal and major accidents by 10 per cent. by 2010; to reduce the number of working days lost per 100,000 workers from work-related injury and ill health by 30 per cent. by 2010; and, finally, to reduce the incidence of work-related ill health by 20 per cent. per 100,000 workers by 2010. I do not believe that any members of the Select Committee felt in their heart of hearts, knowing what the HSE/HSC is facing, that there was any realistic prospect of achieving the targets.

If that is the case, it is a serious matter that we must consider carefully. The autumn performance report for the Department for Work and Pensions showed slippage against all three targets in 2004, and there is no clear evidence of progress since the base year. We are right to draw attention to that. In addition, given the scale of the task ahead, including the huge job to do on health and the need to reduce working days lost in the public sector, we began to wonder whether it is not necessary to devote more resources to this important public policy area. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could give us some idea of the expectations as measured by the Government's official targets.

Although it is important, I shall skim across the next section because other Members have more to contribute to it than I do. It is an important area of omission in the legislative Department because the Committee clearly identified some complacency in how to deal with the legislative commitments that the HSE made in its 2000 document "Revitalising Health and Safety". In that
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document, it identified the urgent need for higher fines and clear legislation. I will be party political for 27 seconds—that was a manifesto commitment. That is the end of the party political contribution.

It is scandalous that we have not had a draft Bill. The Committee was prepared to spend serious time giving it pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government have promised one on many occasions. Others know more than I about the issue, which, I am sure, will feature later in the debate.

I hope that the same is true of the removal of Crown immunity. The employment community is looking for answers. There is no doubt that, as the evidence confirmed, it is a tricky business that involves dealing with prisons and hospitals. Everyone understands that Crown immunity is not something that one wanders into casually, but how long does it take to get a draft Bill? Even if the draft were rough at the edges, if there were serious people willing to take time considering it in Select Committees to try to find a way through, I hope that the Government would respond positively and quickly.

My penultimate point is about inspections. I am sure that other colleagues will also make this point, and I am repeating what I said. If it is a choice between education and seeking to influence matters in a proactive, anticipatory way, as opposed to formal enforcement activities, there are questions to ask about that choice. There are also questions to ask about how inspectors spend their time—whether they are engaged in proactive activity, anticipating accidents and going in to try to prevent them, or spending their time investigating accidents.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case on behalf of his Committee. However, as he was talking about inspectors, I bring to his attention the fact that, according to the Public Accounts Committee's report on the 2003–04 Session, there is one inspector for every 3,333 sites in the construction industry. How can an inspector possibly keep a handle on that many sites?

Sir Archy Kirkwood : That is an important question. I do not think that it can be done, but I defer to the hon. Gentleman's greater experience in the area. I am grateful for his support. I hope that we will be able to pursue some of those matters and get evidence to illuminate that question from the first-hand experience of hon. Members, which is one of the key questions of the afternoon.

At present, we are able to investigate only a small proportion of incidents. The best figures that we could find were that 11.4 per cent. of major injuries were investigated. Of course, all fatalities are investigated, as is right and proper. The HSE investigated 5.6 per cent. of all incidents that are due to be reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—RIDDOR, for the cognoscenti. That is also a small percentage. Finally, 6.4 per cent. of work places in the jurisdiction of the field operations directorate were inspected. That confirms and reinforces the intervention. We must be careful that we are covering the territory to the length and depth that we think it needs.
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The Committee came strongly to the view that inspection backed by enforcement was the most effective approach in motivating duty holders to comply with their responsibilities under health and safety law. Therefore, we recommend to the HSE that it should not proceed with the proposal that we think it is working on, which would shift resources from inspection and enforcement to fund an increase in education, information and advice. We have evidence that that is under consideration. If resources for inspection are scarce, they should be spent in the tried and tested way.

I shall address an issue that is not covered at length in the report but adverted to in passing. Since the publication of the report, we have had a chance to consider the Hampton review more closely. Colleagues will remember that the review was announced by the Chancellor in the 2004 Budget, and Philip Hampton was asked to consider with businesses and regulators, and in consultation with the Better Regulation Task Force, the scope for promoting more efficient approaches to regulatory inspection and enforcement while continuing to deliver excellent regulatory outcomes. In the interim report of that review, which was published with the pre-Budget report papers on 2 December 2004, I found the following worrying sentence:

In response, Philip Hampton has presented some policy solutions for consultations, including a number of suggestions that possibly contradict some of our recommendations. The first proposal is to ensure that in future no inspections take place without a good reason. To be fair to Mr. Hampton, it has to be said that he is dealing with the generality of the regulatory world, only a part of which is looked after by the HSE and HSC. However, if that proposal were rigorously and unthinkingly applied to HSE and HSC territory, I would be deeply concerned because it would clearly indicate a different approach to the suggestions in the Committee's report. We expressed concern about the low level of investigation of accidents and proactive inspections for reasons that I will explain.

Philip Hampton's second proposal was to concentrate more on advice than inspection outside high-risk areas. We must recognise that the world is now focused on a lighter-touch regulatory burden, and I am as in favour of that as anybody. However, we must be careful, and I hope that the Minister can reassure us that this approach will not be used as a front behind which significant changes can be made subliminally to the future tactics and direction of the HSE.

The Government have generally responded positively to Philip Hampton's work, and the Prime Minister seems to be committed to ensuring that that agenda is driven through. The Centre for Corporate Accountability expressed concern that the prime source of information for the Hampton review was conversations with employers, and it argued that it would be fair to talk to the work force before any final conclusions and decisions were made. We need
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reassurance that if the Philip Hampton agenda is gaining currency and momentum, employees and trade unions will be fully consulted before it is brought to bear on this important area of public policy.

A couple of terrible accidents occurred during the course of the inquiry—for example the fire in the Glasgow plastics factory in May. Such accidents bring the point home to us that unfortunately this area of policy gets attention only when there are disasters. It is a crucial area of direct importance to anyone with an interest in the work force environment in the United Kingdom. Emerging risks such as stress, smoke-related illness and road traffic accidents all need urgent attention. It is not a subject that can be tackled adequately on the cheap. I hope that the Select Committee report has made a positive contribution to the consideration of future debate, and I look forward to this debate and the Minister's response.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the next speaker, can I help hon. Members? It is important that the Minister be given adequate time to respond to the debate. She has told me that she would like at least 15 minutes to respond. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind when making their contributions. Similarly, I ask the Front Bench spokesman of the Liberal Democrat party and of Her Majesty's Opposition to bear that in mind. At least six Members have indicated to Mr. Speaker or me that they wish to contribute to the debate, so again I hope that Members will be disciplined.

2.55 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab): I wish to place on record my congratulations to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) and his Committee on this timely and thorough report. As many hon. Members will be aware, sadly, on the day that the Committee was taking evidence from Scottish witnesses—11 May 2004—the dreadful explosion at the Stockline plastics factory in my constituency took place. It was the worst industrial accident in Scotland since the Piper Alpha disaster almost 20 years ago. A four-storey building built more than 100 years ago was reduced to a pile of rubble within a couple of minutes. Nine people lost their lives—two of them parents of infant children—and 40 people were injured, many seriously. Some lost limbs and some suffered serious head and spine injuries. All the workers, even those who managed to walk out, suffered from severe shock as their workplace was thrown into darkness and chaos.

The explosion occurred not on a stand-alone site on an industrial estate, but close to the city centre of Glasgow, immediately next to a shopping arcade and almost within touching distance of blocks of flats. Some of the injured included local people who were walking on the street. To some extent, perhaps we were fortunate that debris did not blow out any further from the site, as that would have greatly increased the number of injuries to the many people who were walking about—the explosion occurred at lunch time—or driving past in their cars and to local residents who were in the shops.
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I want to put on record again today my sympathies for the bereaved and injured, who are still recovering from that dreadful incident, which will stay with them for the rest of their lives. I also want to take this opportunity to praise again the magnificent response at that dark time from the local community, who were unstinting in their generosity, and from members of the emergency services, who were drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom and showed great professionalism and skill. The additional investment over the past few years in new specialist recovery equipment and training was undoubtedly a key reason why the final fatality total was not much higher. The emergency services' remarkable and relentless efforts to recover the victims at that difficult time was a real source of comfort.

However, after the initial shock, questions inevitably begin to be asked. It would not be appropriate today to discuss the cause of the explosion, as the investigation is still ongoing, but we hope that some answers will come in the next few months. I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Minister had a private meeting with workers and their families in November last year. I know that they very much appreciated not only the opportunity to speak to her directly but the obvious concern that she expressed.

It is vital that there is a full and exhaustive inquiry into the factors behind the incident. I welcome the approach of the procurator fiscal's office in Glasgow—it is conducting the inquiry in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive—and its efforts to keep families and workers up to date with developments. I also commend the response of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in setting up a support group at an early stage to ensure that the voice of workers and their families is properly heard in what will inevitably be a long legal process, especially as none of the workers were members of a trade union at the time of the incident.

The Stockline workers and their families are entitled to full answers. They deserve no less, and I will press for the fullest of inquiries. It should not be acceptable that people can go to their work in the morning and end up in a pile of debris a few hours later. However, on the basis of the Committee's report I want to raise a number of more general issues that have arisen as a consequence of that dreadful event which I hope the Government will consider when determining changes in policy.

The health and safety record in Scotland is much more mixed than that of the United Kingdom as a whole. The numbers of both fatal accidents and major injuries in Scotland have increased over the past few years against an overall decline in the UK. In 1999–2000, there were 40 work-related fatalities in Scotland, but in 2002–03 there were 46. Over the same period, the number of major injuries jumped from 2,695 to 2,796. Also of concern is the fact that the number of convictions dropped over the period, with 125 in 1999–2000 but only 94 in 2002–03.

Wide disparities between Scotland and the rest of the UK are identified by the Centre for Corporate Accountability. Scotland is the worst performing of the seven regional offices, with the midlands ranked first. The centre points out that only 26 per cent. of deaths in Scotland resulted in prosecution, compared with 46 per cent. in the midlands. Those differences are marked and as we approach the point at which 50 per cent. of the targets under the revitalisation strategy should have
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been reached, it is clear that Scotland is unlikely to meet those outcomes. That could indicate the unwillingness of a significant proportion of Scottish employers to endorse the strategy. It may also mean, as argued by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, that they are more willing to take the risk of not fulfilling their legal obligations in the absence of adequate deterrents or the reduced likelihood of being prosecuted.

I do not believe that this is an issue for which blame can be laid on HSE inspectors. The report highlights the evidence from a number of different organisations of the severe pressures that they currently face, to which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire referred. I also recognise that in raising prosecutions in Scotland, there is the additional burden of showing corroborative evidence. There is also the disappointingly low level of fines imposed by Scottish judges compared with our English colleagues. An average of only £20,000 as a fine for a fatality in Scotland certainly does not assist the work of the HSE.

Accordingly I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the particular challenges that are evident in the Scottish statistics are given specific attention. It is important that there is a universally agreed strategy and better co-operation between the HSE, the Scottish Executive, the Crown Office and local authorities to increase standards, and that sufficient resources are made available to ensure swift progress. Such a strategy should identify not only how to spread good practice but how to provide employers with training, especially in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. That needs to be backed up by a targeted increase in enforcement practices. Sadly, there will always be a minority of rogue employers who will take a chance on their health and safety requirements on the basis that it will save them money and that the chances of being caught or being caught and having to face an onerous penalty are slim—so why not take the risk?

Just as with any other form of criminal activity, the rate of detection and appropriate penalties are the only effective deterrents for such employers. When assessing risk priorities there can be a danger of concentrating only on those areas that have been the subject of either intensive lobbying or are based on an assessment of recent court judgments. Those indicators have validity, but they may omit areas of work or types of workplace which on a completely objective assessment also pose a high risk of personal injury and death. The status of plastics factories in the current assessment would appear to me to fall in the latter category.

The plastics industry is characterised by many SMEs scattered throughout our towns, cities and industrial estates. Many of them are non-unionised workplaces. Employees frequently work with highly toxic chemicals and high levels of dust deposits. Very simple failings can lead to a major explosion if risks in the workplace are not properly understood, so the need for a strict regulatory environment would appear to be self-evident.

I was concerned to note that, at the time of the explosion, the chief executive of the HSE in Scotland,
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Mr. Stewart Campbell, was quoted in the Sunday Herald on 22 May as saying:

That raises the question why the plastics industry was not a priority, but falls and slips were. Was that decision based on the number of reported incidents over, for example, the past five to 10 years rather than on a scientific assessment of risk? The fact that there have been no major incidents over a period does not mean that there is not a risk. We need only look at recent flooding incidents in this country to show that risk does not necessarily manifest itself at regular intervals.

In 2002–03, there were two major plastics factory explosions in the USA, which killed 13 people and injured more than 50. Although the HSE issued new guidelines as a result of those incidents, it did not change their priority status. Can my right hon. Friend advise me today why not and why, in her correspondence to me, she accepts that some processes in the production of plastics are of potentially high hazard? Can she advise me how information on the new guidelines was disseminated throughout the industry and, given the high number of non-unionised workplaces, how extensively her Department believes the information has reached both employers and employees in the relevant factories? Will she say whether she is prepared urgently to reconsider the priorities of the HSE in light of those matters?

The Committee's report rightly highlights the apparent lack of consultation with employees in non-unionised workplaces. The TUC points to a number of recent academic studies that show much higher injury rates where there is no union presence—a difference as high as 24 to 50 per cent. I understand that in 2003 the HSE ran a number of pilots in which trade union-appointed worker safety advisors went into non-unionised organisations. The report on those pilots showed a promising record. More than 75 per cent. of employers said that they had made changes as a result and almost 70 per cent. of workers had seen an increase in their awareness of health and safety issues. Obviously, I would argue that joining a trade union is an excellent way to increase safety at work, but I also welcome the Committee's recommendation that the HSE publish proposals to develop improved rights to consultation for employees.

The Government's challenge fund is a worthwhile initiative, but, frankly, it will not be used by rogue employers and at the current level of funding it will reach only a very small proportion of small businesses during the next three years. Lack of union involvement appears on objective scientific analysis to be an important risk factor. It deserves to be treated as such and to be tackled with appropriate statutory regulation, rather than on just a voluntary basis which will continue to fail to pick up the worst offenders.

Finally, I would like to say a few words on the report's comments on a Bill covering culpable manslaughter—in Scotland, that is referred to as culpable homicide. I very much welcome the fact that since the report was issued, the Government have undertaken to issue a draft Bill and that in Scotland the Scottish Executive have
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announced similar proposals for consideration. However, I urge both Administrations to reconsider the absence of any new offences on individual directors, as I believe that that would be a major weakness in our attempts to strengthen the law.

In Canadian law, which was radically reformed in 2003, a party to an offence—for example, a company director—can be prosecuted as an individual if they aid and abet the offence. The Canadian example also provides for a wide range of penalties rather than merely fines, and extends the liability to injuries as well as deaths. Any future proposals should fully consider penalties such as corporate probation, prohibition of business activities associated with the offending, dissolution for particularly serious and repeat offending, and equity fines that reduce the value of shares, thus preventing the cost of large fines from being passed on to consumers and the smaller client firms of the company concerned.

We have achieved a great deal since the 1974 legislation was introduced, but none of us are under any illusion about the task that we face to ensure that every employee can benefit from a safe workplace. I again congratulate the Committee on a well thought out report and urge the Government to ensure that any future changes in legislation and policy are focused on the most vulnerable groups and that we do not lessen the enforcement culture in a manner that encourages rogue employers to operate at will.

3.11 pm

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): This is an important debate. I want to concentrate on the issue of directors' responsibility—I have a private Member's Bill on that coming up for debate in the not-too-distant future. This is also a chance to raise the issue of Mr. Tom King, an elderly gentleman who lives in my constituency and who lost his only son in a disastrous oil rig accident in Scotland some years ago. Despite going down every channel and following every path that he could, he has never been able to get justice for himself and his family following the tragic death of his son.

I welcome one of the key recommendations in the report: to place legally binding health and safety duties on directors. I was most upset and sad that the Government rejected that without any real consideration. Instead, they insist on continuing to rely on a combination of existing law, which was great in its time and is good today but needs to be strengthened, and a voluntary code of practice, without the strength of law behind it, which is no good whatever. One worker or member of the general public is killed in workplace and work-related accidents every day of the year. The Health and Safety Executive, which is no left-wing think-tank, and the trade union movement have turned round and said that two thirds of the deaths that occurred in 2003–04 could have been avoided had directors taken on proper responsibilities for health and safety in the workplace.

Let us look at the voluntary code of conduct, which does not have any legal backing, and what is happening in actual fact in the workplace. First, the code of conduct says that directors should assume responsibility
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for health and safety. That is ideal, but what is happening in the workplace? One third of large companies are ignoring the code of conduct altogether on that issue. Secondly, the code of conduct says that company boards should nominate a director specifically responsible for health and safety. Two thirds of large companies have not done that. Thirdly, company boards are asked to discuss—merely discuss—the welfare of their workers and the health and safety issues of their work force at their normal boardroom meetings. More than half do not even bother to do that.

The facts show that, without the full backing of the law, the voluntary code of conduct is not worth the paper it is written on. There are no incentives for directors to participate in the voluntary code and there is no punishment if they ignore or breach it. At the end of the day, not only are the workers who are creating the profits for those companies putting themselves in peril, but good companies are being affected detrimentally because they are participating in the code of conduct and bad companies are ignoring it altogether. That is why I praise the Work and Pensions Committee—the Chairman, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), gave a very good account of its work at the beginning of the debate—which has called for responsibilities to be placed within the boardroom. I agree, which is why I will shortly introduce my private Member's Bill.

I will take your guidance and be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I would like the Minister to address a number of points. We must remember that every day that goes by and every day that there is a delay in introducing corporate responsibility in the boardroom, another worker or member of the public dies. What would the Minister say to people who have been bereaved and who have to face the fact that their loved ones went out to work one morning and did not come back at night? How do we explain to those people that we are not introducing a proper law of corporate manslaughter?

Why should we rely on a voluntary code for health and safety when the full force of the law is brought down on directors on matters of company financing? It is absolute nonsense that a company director can get away with murder through negligence when a worker is killed, but is locked up for years if he is caught fiddling the books. How, morally, do we explain that nonsense to the working people of this country? I do not think that we can.

Why should we have to rely on a voluntary code when, owing to the very good work of my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), there are quite rightly legally binding regulations for other aspects of industry, such as for gangmasters and in the security sector? What is the argument? How can they have those regulations, yet they are not good enough for other workers who, on many occasions, are just as much at risk of being killed in the workplace?

I ask the Minister to reconsider her rejection of the Work and Pensions Committee's proposals. I know that legislation will come along, which has been referred to today, but without legally binding responsibilities on directors, that legislation will be as useless as what we have now. We will never be able to pin anyone down, which is why so few prosecutions of directors and people in positions of responsibility take place. I urge her to
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reconsider that, and I urge the Government to support my private Member's Bill when it comes before Parliament to ensure not only the safety of workers in the workplace, but to put responsibility where it should lie: with the fat cats in the boardroom.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the next speaker, I say to the hon. Gentleman who has just concluded his speech that the occupant of the Chair is addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although I am very happy to be called Mr. Winterton, I received a knighthood under this Labour Government, and I am very grateful to them for that.

3.17 pm

David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I do not know whether to address you as Sir Deputy Speaker now, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

First, I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. He diligently presided over many of the Committee meetings and if it were not for his impartial politics—he does not really involve himself in politics—he would not have run the Committee as efficiently and effectively as he did, and his report reflects that.

I welcome the Government's response in relation to the report in part. I am pleased that they have accepted some, if not most, of the issues that were put forward in our recommendations. The Committee covered a substantial amount of work through the visits and the evidence sessions. I believe that the conclusions and recommendations are pretty accurate, based on the evidence that we received.

During our evidence sessions, the Committee was mindful of the Scottish dimension. It is important to recognise that the Scottish Trades Union Congress is independent of the TUC. Many people do not realise that; indeed, it is older than the TUC. It is important to recognise, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) stated, that it is not just a question of the Scottish dimension in that sense. The Scottish legal framework is entirely different, and the administration of health and safety is carried out in a different way, too.

We took evidence in my beloved Midlothian constituency. It was the first time that the Select Committee had visited Midlothian, and it was well-recognised for doing so. I pay tribute to my colleagues for doing that. We took evidence from the Scottish Hazards Campaign, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the GMB, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and the Construction Confederation, representing 75 per cent. of the industry. I shall return to that because it is an important part of the process.

While in Midlothian, the Committee visited the building site of the new Royal Bank of Scotland world headquarters on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The main contractor, a firm called Mace, set up the structure and organisation by putting trust and respect at the top of the agenda. I shall concentrate on the building industry because I was well aware that some of my colleagues on the Committee were widening its scope quite substantially. A number of lawyers serve on the Committee, so I can imagine what direction they will be
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coming from. As I said, I shall concentrate on the building industry, because I believe that that is one area in which we can make a fundamental change for good. In my trade union days, I happened to be one of those unfortunate people who had to go to people's houses to tell them that they had lost a loved one—in one case, a son. That is what drives me on the question of how best we can improve health and safety at the cutting edge. The issue is not only about fatalities, but about the long-term stress, injury and suffering that people experience following accidents.

The building site that we went to has 1,000 people on it; it will have 3,000 when work is completed. The site was more like a good factory than a building site; I have never seen a building site like it before. The safety record was exemplary. It was proved beyond doubt that a willingness by management to work with UCATT was an essential ingredient in delivering the health and safety programme. Here was a work force for whom absenteeism and sickness were virtually non-existent. Regular meetings took place between the contractor and UCATT, ensuring that safety precautions were a priority. The canteen facilities were excellent—we should remember that this is on a building site. They had televisions continually putting the health and safety message across. The key ingredients were the right working environment, a winning culture, in which everyone can succeed, a healthy work force, strength in training, the development of core and transferable skills—a very important area in industry—communication of success and reward for achievement.

Let us contrast that with what happens elsewhere throughout the UK. We received evidence that even when health and safety inspectors gave notice of their coming on to a site, telling the management the day and time of their visit, management representatives still did not comply with the legislation. UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie gave evidence relating to what happened in 2003. The HSE did a blitz throughout the Glasgow area, and despite the fact that everyone was told in advance of the visits to the sites, 70 were issued with prohibition notices after the visits and 94 per cent. were issued with improvement notices. I emphasise that that was after the health and safety inspectors had told them that they were coming, including the day and the time. That shows how most employers treat health and safety: they treat it with contempt because the penalties are not appropriate. This is an important area that Ministers must address. How much longer is society willing to allow building workers to leave their home and go to work in the knowledge that they are working in what is possibly one of the most dangerous industries in Britain, and that they might not come back?

A major contributor to accidents is the lack of site training. I see the HSE as the last resort. The biggest benefit that the Government could provide is a relationship between employer and employee whereby that work is done on site, because that will be the factor that reduces the number of accidents. If we have to depend on the HSE—which would be ill equipped even if it was fully equipped—that would be as a response to an accident, rather than being on the scene before an accident.

What I am saying is especially true of subcontractors and those who are self-employed. A substantial number of people who do not have English as their first language
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now work on sites. That is a new dimension to some of the major problems that we face. One example concerns the Scottish Parliament building. When it was being built and inspectors arrived on site, a number of the contractors did not understand the signage that they were looking at, never mind the rules and regulations. That is a good example of a public building for which we were not demanding certain standards.

We must encourage the construction industry and all who are employed in it to start working in a relationship of trust. How do we achieve that? The answer is to give the management and the work force a high-calibre workplace; to invest in time, resources and people at all levels; to have strong communications that allow the sharing of knowledge; to have safe and productive working conditions; and to have a well planned logistics strategy.

That is the policy of a company called Mace. It also works with a safety league table for all its contractors. I think that there were some 60 contractors at any given time on the site. A league table of safety figures was produced every week, and if someone was at the bottom of that league, the major contractor pulled them in to find out what was going on. It was important that that incentive was there.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government have a procurement role? They should ensure that the major contractor follows the health and safety procedures, and the major contractor should ensure that the subcontractors do likewise.

Mr. Hamilton : I was going to come to my hon. Friend's point later, but I will do so now.

The Construction Confederation's evidence stated that 40 per cent. of nearly all contracts in the UK were with the public sector—Government, local authorities, Parliaments or Assemblies—but health and safety is not part of the assessment of best value when the contract is agreed. If we do not get that right we cannot talk in financial terms about best value, as a company that has bad accident rate statistics could be taken on. The confederation proposed a list system of registered companies, and those on that list should be the only ones that can tender for the contracts.

Under European legislation, foreign companies can now bid for public contracts but they are not required to have the health and safety standards that we have in this country. For example, in Spain, safety standards in the construction industry are somewhat lower than they are here. The Government can lead by discussing the matter with the unions and with the Construction Confederation, which represents 75 per cent. of the industry. They could have their own penalties for taking people off the list if they did not comply with some of the standards agreed by the unions.

I return to the issue of the Royal Bank of Scotland site. One misconception is that contractors try to break the regulations and do things on the cheap; this site will come in before target and under budget, but it has high standards. I have been to the site several times and talked to the director, and what has been gained is a high
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attendance record and the value of job sharing and flexible working. There are computer sets on the site, and employees can gather information and knowledge for when they go to the next site. That translates itself into better working conditions and indeed better responses to the company. That is seen as a long-term investment, which is important.

Some employers and employees see the unions on construction sites as a threat when it comes to health and safety issues, when they should be seen as an asset in preventing accidents. As I said, I worked in the coal mining industry for 20 years, when health and safety was at the top of the tree in every discussion with the National Coal Board. The benefit was that the board was national and publicly owned, which meant that the profit motive was not the key issue. Profit is extremely important; we all tried to make a profit for the industry and the company, or the colliery where we worked, but every week, the unions would assist management in ensuring that health and safety was uppermost in everyone's mind. It was not uncommon for management to dismiss or discipline employees and the union, which was part of that disciplinary process, would not support a member who broke regulations that put other people in danger. That was accepted in the industry.

When I left school at 15 years of age and went into the coal mining industry we had to buy our own health and safety equipment. Hon. Members can imagine my shock when I first met building workers to find that that practice still exists. Many construction companies deduct the cost of a worker's helmet, gloves and boots from their first wage packet. We must address that issue because that shows clearly that such companies are not interested in health and safety issues.

The report of the HSE found that union-organised workplaces were up to 50 per cent. safer than those in a non-unionised area. Many companies, especially small-to-medium-sized firms, value the trade unions' input in terms of understanding what their responsibilities are. When I was young in Midlothian, there were 12 companies that employed 1,000 people; there are now 1,000 companies in Midlothian employing fewer than 12 people. They are not union-organised, nor are they work force-organised. Those employers often know every individual in the company; indeed, in many instances they are personal friends. Many of those small companies are fighting to survive, and health and safety issues are not their priority. It is fortuitous and good that the trade union movement has said that we should be examining the possibility of roving health and safety representatives, who would go round the various areas, not with a negative agenda, but to assist many such companies.

The Construction Confederation said in Midlothian that there had been a pilot scheme in the midlands in 2004, through the confederation, with roving representatives who went round 30 small and medium-sized enterprises, looking to see how they could assist. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any information on that scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill indicated that she was aware of that pilot scheme. I would like to know whether a report on it is available.
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Many small companies that have fewer than 21 employees have indicated that they would benefit greatly from the roving commissioners. Greater enforcement of health and safety legislation would expose the minority of companies which flout it because they think that they will not get caught. Even when they do get caught, they consider that the benefits that they gain by not accepting the health and safety legislation compensate for the slap on the wrist.

I agree with my hon. Friends who said that there should be a tightening of the corporate manslaughter Bill. I am disappointed that it has had to be delayed again, after the Select Committee appointed three people to consider it. I hope that that Bill will be implemented, because it will be a major development in ensuring that employers take a serious position on health and safety issues.

The Construction Confederation representatives said that they felt quite bitter about the Government imposing certain regulations on them, while at the same time not assisting the industry in doing what it could to ensure that only those who complied with health and safety legislation should be on tender lists. I support the confederation's position on that matter. It is not a question of hammering employers; I support all good employers. The industry, by its nature, will continue to be dangerous. The Government should try to ensure that when a man or a woman leaves their home in the morning, they will return breathing, and with every limb intact. We can do much to ensure that. I congratulate the Chair and members of the Work and Pensions Committee on coming up with recommendations which, I believe, can achieve some of our goals

3.33 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): For the record, I state that I am a member of the National Union of Mineworkers, that my constituency is sponsored by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, and that I chair the all-party group on occupational safety and health, which is sponsored by the Trades Union Congress and the British Safety Industry Federation.

I congratulate the Committee on a first-class and comprehensive report. It illustrates the structure of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive and shows that, within the framework of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, they have facilitated major improvements over the past 30 years.

I fully support the Committee's recommendation 15, at paragraph 142, which concludes that the evidence shows that it is

in ensuring that employers comply with their health and safety duties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) referred earlier to his experience in the mining industry. He will be aware that the Robens report of 1972 was the report from which the 1974 Act evolved. Lord Robens had finished his 10-year stint in the mining industry and was aware of the important part that lay safety representatives played in making British collieries the safest in the world. He used that experience in the recommendations that he made and that were taken up in the 1974 Act.
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In my contribution, I want to refer to two sections of the report: first, section 8, which deals with the changing world of work, in relation to which I want to make reference to the construction industry and the NHS; and secondly, section 16, in particular, recommendation 33, about which I want to say a little bit about occupational health support.

It is clear to everyone that the world of work has changed dramatically in the past two or three decades. We have seen much more outsourcing and the introduction of agency workers, and those changes present greater challenges for health and safety. Greater outsourcing has undermined the safety culture in some industries. We saw that in the accidents that occurred on the railways when the focus was on outsourcing. It is good to see that much of the work on the railways that was outsourced has been taken back in-house.

The construction industry in particular is fragmented because of the way in which it is organised. The sub-contracting culture has fragmented it and makes health and safety difficult to control. A recent study commissioned by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians showed that problem quite clearly. The study concentrated on false self-employment. It is the only industry in the UK where the self-employed have their tax deducted at source, and the report made recommendations that the Treasury has taken up. I understand that a pilot study may be introduced to consider the way in which one defines work status in the construction industry. Things are beginning to move, but I note that in last autumn's Building Worker, the paper produced by UCATT, the outgoing general secretary, George Brumwell, who was also a health and safety commissioner, said that he was still concerned about what is happening in the building industry. He said that

about 70 a year—

We need to concentrate our efforts there. There is a way forward, through enforcement and partnership, and I suggest to the Minister that we need a round table with the unions, their solicitors, the solicitors for employers and, in particular, the British insurance industry.

We must reach an understanding whereby sub-contractors on building sites have to sign up to the overall health and safety policy of the main contractor. That policy should be vetted by the Health and Safety Executive. The sub-contractor should be encouraged to sign up to it and offer training to its workers by virtue of reductions in their employment liability contributions, to be agreed by the insurance industry. If we concentrated in that way, using enforcement as well, we could start to get to grips with the accident rate in construction.

David Hamilton : Would my hon. Friend agree that, as a by-product of his proposal, the Treasury would gain more money? Many of those bogus self-employed people are regulating themselves, therefore their wages are not being calculated. Financial fraud is being committed by many of those bogus workers.

Mr. Clapham : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The report produced by UCATT suggested that the
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Treasury is missing out on between £1.5 billion and £2 billion. By defining employment status properly for application, the Treasury would benefit.

Another industry where we have seen enormous changes is the NHS. We see agencies working within the NHS and one of the main causes of injury is needlestick injuries. It is estimated that there are up to 100,000 such injuries each year, and they cause great anxiety because there is always the potential of transmitting a blood-borne disease, such as HIV or hepatitis B or C. Last year, the union Unison suggested that 80 per cent. of such injuries could be avoided by the introduction of a safer needle policy. There are needles that retract and needles that can be capped.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that she should have a word with her colleagues at the Department of Health, who some time ago promised to issue guidelines for the whole of the NHS. Those guidelines have not yet gone down the line, but they are required. Some hospitals have a strict needlestick policy, such as my own district hospital in Barnsley. That hospital is leading the field in its safer needle strategy, and the Royal College of Nursing has referred to it as an example. There is a lot to be done to encourage hospitals to adopt a safer needles policy and to spend extra on buying in needles that are safe.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend leaves the NHS, is he aware that in recorded injuries—in contradistinction to those that are not recorded—the worse sector in this country in which to work is the NHS? In terms of recorded injuries, it is actually worse than the construction industry, although there are many more serious injuries in construction that do not get recorded. Does he agree with me that it is shocking that the vast majority of nurses, who have the highest rate of needlestick injury and back injuries, are employed by the Government? The Government are responsible for the sector that has the worst record of reported injuries in the country.

Mr. Clapham : My hon. Friend's intervention was pertinent. I hope that the Minister will take it on board and pass it on to her colleagues at the Department of Health.

An occupational health service is extremely important. I have referred to the changing world of work. The number of people now covered by an occupational health service is less than it used to be. When the large industries, such as British Coal and British Steel, were producing their labour forces were covered by their occupational health service. In the coal mines, for example, the specialists employed were doctors. Many collieries had a doctor who visited regularly. Some collieries had a doctor based at the medical centre. All that has gone and many of the workers in the new, smaller industries are not covered by an occupational health service. It is important that that point is addressed, as it was by the Committee, which referred to the NHS taking on that core job of providing an occupational health service. That could be done, but I urge caution as well. It is not just a matter of providing the service, but of ensuring that research and longitudinal studies are done.
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In the British coal mining industry, for example, our occupational service was second to none, yet communities were let down because no longitudinal studies were done. During the 1960s and 1970s, and into the 1980s, tens of thousands of men left the industry with respiratory diseases each year. The cause always went down as smoking. Had those studies been done, they would have shown clearly that the dust was an issue. There had been great technological developments in mining, such as improvements to the cutting of coal, but they were not complemented by technological developments in dust suppression. Indeed, as a result of much of the technology there was more dust. We can now see the result: the Government are taking on the largest compensation claim that has ever been accepted anywhere—for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which will, it is estimated, cost the Government £7 billion. So it is important that research in the field of occupational health is continued.

Asbestos is another issue on which we need to ensure a universal approach to providing treatment. The latest study suggests that, between 2000 and 2050, there are likely to be 186,000 deaths as a result of cancers caused by exposure to asbestos. That is a terrible legacy, but one that we can do little about. There is something that we can do, which is ensure that the Department of Health provides a treatment and care strategy for those who have developed cancers because of exposure to asbestos. I hope that the Minister will take up that point with her colleagues at the Department of Health, because it is important that we put in place a strategy that will provide not only treatment but care for the victims of asbestos exposure. The legacy is inevitable—we will not be able to avoid it. However, a treatment and health strategy would be a great help to the victims.

In conclusion, the report identifies what, to my mind, is required to make the 30-year-old Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 more relevant to today's industry. The recommendations that it makes would robustly strengthen protection for workers.

3.48 pm

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I also congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on his Committee's report, which is excellent. I will give one qualification to that, which picks up where my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) left off. It is that, in an excellent document of 100 pages, there are only 10 pages on occupational health. That shows the balance that, unfortunately, we always face on occupational health. However, the damage done to the health of our nation by preventable issues about health—as opposed to safety—in the workplace, means that there are enormous dividends to be gained by society in general and by individuals who would not have their health ruined by focusing on occupational health.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to look back at the scandals of the past, such as asbestos. The asbestos industry knew very well what the dangers of that mineral were and what challenges it posed to those who work with it and their families and communities. The fact that the industry was so cavalier in its refusal to face up to its responsibilities is indicative of our potential asbestos inheritance—many thousands of people will be
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affected by asbestos in future and it will cost the public an enormous amount. The incredible thing is that almost all of that was easily preventable at the time.

It is worth dwelling on what is perhaps a past issue, although its consequences are still with us, in case we risk taking the same cavalier attitude to other aspects of the world of work. We are not carrying out longitudinal studies, as my hon. Friend urged, to examine for example the impact of the use of new chemicals and procedures in the workplace, which pose challenges to the health of those involved. We need a massively better and more sophisticated health regime in the world of work. One thing that we could give as a gift to the future, which would be comparable to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and the private Member's Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), would be a framework for occupational health to take us way beyond anything that we have considered before.

I strongly advise my right hon. Friend the Minister that the national health service should not be seen as a repository for occupational health. It is best to tackle that in the workplace rather than tackling its consequences in hospitals and surgeries. We have to move away from the idea of dealing with occupational illness and take a much more proactive view of occupational health. That costs money, and the HSE and others will need to be properly resourced to undertake the task.

Mr. Rendel : I hope to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, and talk in more detail later, but one of the risks that the hon. Gentleman may want to consider in talking about preventing long-term risks is smoking—not least passive smoking—at work.

Tony Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Committee makes strong reference to passive smoking and that debate will almost certainly move into the mainstream political agenda in the near future. Although there may be different views, there is a consensus on the increasing need for limitations on the automaticity of the right to smoke and therefore to pollute the environment of others. That is important because of the prevalence of smoking in society, but it is only an example of the activities that we must begin to re-examine in the modern world. The cavalier view taken in the past of individual or employer rights cannot be sustained, and we must re-examine it.

I now turn to the more traditional debate about the safety culture. Disappointingly, the advances that came from the 1974 Act, and the culture and regime that it established, have not delivered what they could have. That has been for a number of reasons including under-resourcing, which has been a feature over the years. The Committee was right to point out that the HSE is not yet adequately resourced to do the job that we want it to.

One thing that we can take as an axiomatic is that there should be no party politics in health and safety. Cutting costs around health and safety can never be legitimate. Many good employers deplore the fact that they end up in competition with employers who erode the cost base and effectively compete by putting the lives and safety of their employees at risk. That cannot be acceptable in modern Britain, so I hope that the debate on health and safety will be cross-party.
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A number of my hon. Friends have already made the point that we ought to be saying that bad employers who are so cavalier are criminals—no other language provides a proper description. Those who put the safety of the work force at risk are criminals. When it is by neglect, it is criminal; when it is by knowledge and near-design, it is even more intolerable. That is why I strongly support the private Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow.

As hon. Members have said, the time is long overdue for the Government to introduce legislation. My right hon. Friend the Minister has not been in the post long enough to take responsibility for those delays, so I hope that she will take that criticism gently for herself, but as a legitimate criticism of the slow pace of Government.

It is regrettable that the Government have behaved in this way. I know that one reason given for the long time that it has taken to bring matters to a conclusion has been the lobbying by the permanent secretaries in different Ministries, who have been concerned that they would be liable to prosecution if Departments were found to be negligent in their own stewardship of health and safety. It is not acceptable to have special pleading from the mandarins, however dear to our hearts they are. They should end up in the dock just like any other employer, if they fail in their duties to their employees. As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) said, that should apply to Members of Parliament too, if necessary. If we are bad employers, individuals could suffer the consequences.

The importance of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow is that it sets out a clear and simple way to determine liability and responsibility. It is not good enough to say that companies take on responsibility: named individuals must know what their rights and duties are. There is always a good defence in law. Many legal experts have told me over the years that it is easy to put into any Bill a legitimate defence that a director took proper and adequate steps to create a framework that provided proper and adequate safety for the work force. If accidents happen within that framework, the named directors have an adequate defence. But it is intolerable that, when things go terribly wrong, no one person ends up in court.

Over the years there have been terrible accidents of international fame in this country—the Herald of Free Enterprise, Piper Alpha and King's Cross. I could go through a whole list. Hundreds and hundreds of people have had their lives taken away by the casualness of others, but not one person has ever ended up in court, facing charges as an individual. If they had, it could have led to them being sent to prison and given the exemplary penalties that we would expect to see if someone drove recklessly in a motor car or behaved recklessly in any other way. How can we say that to cook the books is a serious criminal offence, but to kill a colleague or an employee is of much less consequence? That cannot be right in the type of society that we want.

I am conscious that others want to speak in the debate, so I shall conclude. I believe that the HSE does a good job but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, from time to time I have criticised what it does. My criticisms are not of the quality of its work at the operational end, but I have concerns about the direction
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and strategy adopted by its most senior management. Some of those criticisms have been voiced in the report and some in today's debate.

One thing that we want to do in our society is make sure that every employer knows that the good employer is not put at risk by health and safety legislation, but the bad employer stands a good chance of being found out and will then suffer the consequences directly and immediately. We expect to find that exemplary system of penalties in every other walk of life; we should expect the same when it comes to the safety of people at work.

3.59 pm

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): Although I am not a member of the Work and Pensions Committee—one lives in hope—I am a proud member of the Transport and General Workers Union which, together with the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—UCATT—has long campaigned for safety in the workplace and, more important, for responsibility in the boardroom. If we are to achieve those two goals, legally binding health and safety duties should be placed on company directors.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) on his private Member's Bill on directors' duties, which lie at the heart of the Work and Pensions Committee report. He certainly was a tower of strength to me when he assisted with my Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill. I am deeply appreciative of that.

I am concerned not just about the Government's commitment to my hon. Friend's private Member's Bill but about the commitment of the Opposition parties as well. I hope that they will demonstrate commitment to the Bill and ensure that it gets on to the legislative programme.

Another major area that I am concerned about is the announcement just this week that the trade union learning fund, which does a great deal to help shop stewards and health and safety representatives educate their members and colleagues in the workplace, will be cut should a Conservative Government come to power. I ask the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) to use his good influence with his party's Front Bench Members and ask them to reconsider their position.

As I said, my contribution will be about the role of company directors. I shall pose questions that I believe need answers and outline the current position.

Do company directors have a role to play in ensuring workplace health and safety? I have to say from the outset that no individuals in a company are more important to ensuring safety in the workplace than directors. Company directors have the power to decide the level of resources that the company puts into health and safety, the extent to which managers in their companies prioritise health and safety, whether their company is subject to proper health and safety audits, whether it is proactive in identifying unsafe practices, and how those practices can be changed.

Do company directors have explicit legally binding health and safety duties under the law as it stands? Unfortunately, they do not. Under current company law, directors have no explicit statutory duties to ensure
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that their company complies with health and safety law. Instead, all the principal duties under health and safety law are placed on employers—that is, on the companies.

Does placing health and safety duties on a company mean that those duties are placed on the company's directors? Again, regrettably, I have to say no. Placing legally binding duties on a company does not place legally binding duties on its directors. A company's legal identity is separate from the directors who manage it, and duties placed on the company do not require individual directors to take any particular action in respect of health and safety.

Are there legally binding health and safety duties on other individuals? Fortunately, there are. Although the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 places no explicit duties on directors, it does impose statutory health and safety obligations on the self-employed, on employees and even on members of the public under sections 3, 7 and 8 respectively.

Mr. Love: While my hon. Friend is on that issue, would he agree that the fines that can be imposed under the 1974 Act are, frankly, derisory and that there is no such thing as a custodial sentence? The flagrant lack of commitment to the obligations of the Act are undermining health and safety, which is not appropriate in this day and age.

Jim Sheridan : My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point, which goes to the heart of the problem. He also has a proud history as a member of the TGWU and as someone who has dealt with health and safety issues. He is absolutely right. The current fining system is derisory. It does nothing to help health and safety in the workplace. Perhaps if serious charges were brought against directors, it would concentrate the minds of those responsible for health and safety. That is long overdue.

Are other legally binding duties placed upon company directors? As has been mentioned, the law imposes statutory financial duties on company directors which, if breached, can result in jail terms of up to seven years. For example, directors have legal duties and can face criminal prosecution for failing to pay tax on time, VAT and national insurance.

Again the Work and Pensions Committee supports legally binding directors' duties on health and safety. In its July 2004 report, "The work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive", the Committee called on the Government to introduce statutory health and safety duties on company directors. It concluded:

That goes back to the point that my hon. Friend made earlier about responsibility for health and safety.

Do the Government support legally binding directors' duties on health and safety? To our shame the answer is no. In their October 2004 response to the
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Work and Pensions Select Committee report the government stated:

The Government have now asked the Health and Safety Commission to undertake further evaluation to assess the effectiveness and progress of the current legislative and voluntary measures, and to report its findings and recommendations by December 2005.

Have the Government changed their position on legally binding directors' duties on health and safety? Yes. Their rejection of the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommendation that directors' duties be introduced marks a complete U-turn in Government policy. In their June 2000 strategy statement on health and safety, "Revitalising Health and Safety", the Government not only instructed the Health and Safety Commission to draw up voluntary guidance, but pledged themselves to introducing legally binding health and safety duties for company directors saying:

I would welcome the Minister's response to that.

Is the voluntarist approach working? As some of my colleagues have already said, the answer unfortunately is no. Domestic and international research submitted to the Work and Pensions Select Committee clearly shows that companies identify statutory regulation, rather than voluntary codes, as the most important factor for motivating positive health and safety performance. Research commissioned by the HSE into the effectiveness of the HSC voluntary code has shown that since it was introduced the boards of directors of one third of large firms have not assumed any responsibility for ensuring their companies operate safely; two thirds of company boards have no specifically appointed health and safety director; and only 40 per cent. of boards discuss health and safety on a regular basis.

Will the Government's promised draft Bills on corporate manslaughter and company law introduce statutory directors' duties? Unfortunately, the answer is no. In the Queen's Speech, on 23 November 2004, the Government announced their intention to publish a draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill and a draft Company Law Reform Bill. However, they stated that neither Bill will introduce directors' duties on health and safety. I find that unacceptable.

Finally, is there an economic case for legally binding directors' duties? It has to be said, yes. Figures from the HSC for 2003–04 show that more than 3 million people suffered from work-related ill health and more than 38 million working days were lost due to workplace injuries and work-related ill health. Legally binding directors' duties would therefore ensure effective management of health and safety risk which in turn would help increase the productivity of the work force by reducing incidents of workplace illness and injury. It would also improve the company's reputation in the eyes of workers, customers, competitors, suppliers, other stakeholders and the wider community. In addition, it would minimise the likelihood of prosecution and consequent penalties and create a level playing field between the law-
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abiding companies which adhere to the current voluntary guidance and unscrupulous companies that ignore it.

In conclusion, if all parties in the House are keen to demonstrate that they want to improve health and safety, I genuinely believe that they have an ideal opportunity with a private Member's Bill which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow. I would sincerely hope that not only the Government but all Opposition parties do everything that they can to support it.

4.11 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My first proper job was as a trade union official in the 1970s, in which I trained other trade union officials in health and safety, among other issues. I thereafter became a solicitor, specialising in cases of industrial accidents and working with victims on obtaining compensation. I have therefore been professionally involved in this area for some 30 years. I remain a consultant to my law firm although I am not taking any cases. Thirty years after the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 it seems to me appropriate that the Work and Pensions Committee should conduct a review of its operation and what has happened since.

There are so many issues raised in our report that it is very difficult to decide which ones to focus on. It is a matter only of regret that there are no Opposition Back Benchers, save for the Chairman of our Select Committee, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), to participate in this debate and to hear the excellent contributions of Labour Members.

The world of work has changed dramatically since 1974 and the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. There are now far fewer people in heavy industry and more working in offices. If one compares 2004 with 1978—the earliest figures that I could find—one finds that some 47 per cent. fewer people work in manufacturing and construction, but 44 per cent. more work in the service industries. More than 1 million people work from home and 2.2 million people use their home as a base. A job for life, which used to be the norm, has been replaced by agency, part-time and, increasingly, migrant workers. But those old hazards are still around.

We have heard graphically from my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) about the problems in the construction industry. I draw attention to paragraph 137 of our report, where that point is brought home. There it is shown that, despite warnings given to employers on three separate occasions, a month, a fortnight and a day before inspections were to take place, when a blitz was carried out, 444 sites were visited, 259 improvement and prohibition notices were issued and there were 10 prosecutions. That shows how little interest there is in health and safety on most construction sites. However, having visited the site referred to by my hon. Friend, I know that it does not have to be that way.

Some old hazards are still very much ignored, and I shall refer later to the problems of road accidents, which are linked to work. We can now see the consequences of the then-emerging risks of 30 and 40 years ago—of asbestos and the terrible disease of
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mesothelioma about which we heard earlier; of noise deafness; of vibration white finger; and of various occupational cancers. Had those risks been taken into account 30 or 40 years ago, they might have been avoided and those terrible illnesses prevented. New hazards are now emerging, and I question whether we are liable to fail to address them, just as we failed when those of 30 or 40 years ago were storing trouble for the future.

Our report refers to passive smoking. Some 1,000 deaths a year are attributable to passive smoking and I am pleased that the Government seem now to be taking the issue seriously. However, there is very little progress on the question of stress. In 2003–04, nearly 13 million working days were lost through stress. For every 100,000 workers, there are 56,000 lost working days. During our inquiry we saw very little evidence that stress is taken seriously by the HSE, or by local authorities, whose job it is to enforce the law where stress is most likely to arise—in offices and in the national health service. We heard evidence that there had been only one prosecution ever for offences giving rise to stress. The setting of targets, to which the Chairman of the Committee referred at the start of the debate, shows that there has been very little progress, and it does not inspire confidence in the proposed change of approach.

Kevin Curran, the general secretary of my union, the GMB, told the Committee—in paragraph 110 of our report—that the HSE had been slow to respond to the question of migrant workers. He said:

So do I, and so did the Committee.

Migrant workers face many barriers. There is a language barrier. Warning signs, particularly on construction sites, may be utterly incomprehensible to migrant workers, and health and safety instruction and training may be given only in English—a language that may not be understood by those on construction sites. There are cultural barriers, too. We heard that, for example, the crane hand-signals given on construction sites differ throughout Europe, and serious accidents could happen. We heard also that migrant workers fear what might happen to them if they make a complaint—that they might get the sack or not receive the protection that the law affords. We saw a lack of enforcement, and a lack of knowledge of the problems of migrant workers. Such problems lead to the circumstances of the cockle pickers in Morecambe bay. Even now, we have little idea of the scale of the problem of gangmasters—a problem that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) was designed to tackle.

As chairman of the all-party Chinese in Britain group, I have heard much evidence about how people from that community are exploited not only at Morecambe bay, but throughout the country. There is some good practice, but it has not been generalised, and there is an urgent need for research and a targeted strategy to deal with the problem. In paragraph 111 of our report, we call for urgent research to improve the understanding of the occupational health and safety risks to migrant
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workers, in order to work out a targeted strategy to manage those risks. I am pleased to say that the Government responded by stating that they share our concern, and that there was to be an interim report to the HSC in December last year. So far, however, as far as I am aware, it has not been made available to the Committee. I hope that the Minister can report on its progress.

Work-related road safety is an old hazard, but there is now much greater awareness of it. We have white van man speeding to meet unachievable delivery targets and having an accident, and the sales rep falling asleep at the wheel of his Mondeo, because of the impossible distances that his company has asked him to cover. The statistics, referred to in paragraph 218, are staggering. The HSE reckons that there are approximately 860 to 1,130 work-related fatal accidents a year on the roads, compared with only 226 accidents in the traditional workplace. It estimates the number of serious injuries due to work-related road traffic incidents to be between 8,980 and 11,870 a year—a staggering statistic.

Those figures are estimates, and we do not know the accurate figures, because it is not a HSE priority. It leaves the matter to the police, but the police look at an accident after it has happened to try to work out why it occurred. They look only at driver error or mechanical defects; rarely do they go back to the employer to decide whether the employer's system or maintenance programme was at fault. It all ultimately comes back to the driver. Similarly, far too many health and safety offences in the outside world come back to the individual employee. They are blamed when it is often the employer's fault.

The reason why we do not know the figures is that there is no obligation under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 to report such accidents to the HSE, which is the very least we should expect. I was pleased that when the Minister gave evidence to the Committee, she agreed to take that issue back to her Department. Perhaps she will tell us whether she now agrees that something should be done. The HSE must have the resources to do the job properly, and at-work road accidents must be treated as accidents at work, which is what they are. There should, at the very least, be an approved code of practice to help people to decide how such accidents should be considered and dealt with.

We have heard a lot today about inspection and enforcement, and I do not want to say a great deal about that, save that the Committee was far from convinced about the change of emphasis that the HSE proposes—moving away from inspection and enforcement as its primary tool. There is no doubt that the HSE needs more resources to do the job. Having said that, I did some research for today's debate, and it is fair to point out that compared with 1977 we have about 250—or thereabouts—more inspectors. I find that rather surprising, because we all think that there are fewer than in the old days. That is good, but it is clear from our report, particularly when considering occupational health, that inadequate resources are devoted to the HSE. I am pleased to say that, in their response, the Government recognised that the HSE is a front-line service, so I hope that it will escape the depredations of the Treasury when it looks for the cuts proposed in the Gershon review to the staffing of the DWP's resources.
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What we say in paragraph 142 is absolutely correct:

We have already heard quite a bit about inadequate penalties, and we refer to that in paragraph 179:

The HSE points out that large company health and safety fines are only a 10th of the general level of financial services fines for larger companies. It is a disgrace that the courts and the law take fraud and financial services offences more seriously than offences that kill, injure and maim.

It is important to look at the question of innovative penalties. We heard some examples of that earlier. The chief executive of the HSE, Bill Callaghan, gave us some examples, and it is not beyond the wit of man to devise penalties that would fit the crime, as the Mikado would say, much more effectively than the arrangements currently available.

I am concerned about the lack of urgency in the Government's response. Private Members' Bills have been promoted, but they have not got anywhere because of objections and the fact that they were blocked by Conservative Members on—as usual—a Friday. That has happened on two separate occasions. The Government have said that they will introduce proposals, but we have seen very little sign of them so far. They were not in the Queen's Speech, and they will clearly not be introduced this side of the election. We were told that there would be a revised policy statement on enforcement, including innovative penalties, by September 2007. That is simply not good enough.

If the Government cannot find the money and resources or are not willing to put the effort into taking action, perhaps we should look at privatising health and safety. Who better for the privatisation than the trade unions? They have magnificent experience in the health and safety sphere through the system of safety representatives and committees. We are in a time of private finance initiatives and public-private partnerships, so perhaps the Government should contract out more of their health and safety activities to the trade union movement, which would do the job effectively. Of course, the biggest shift in health and safety was the creation of the health and safety representative system in 1977 and the committees in 1978. It may have been a sea change in the way in which health and safety was approached in the workplace, but almost 30 years later, the system has flaws in it that badly need to be addressed.

First and foremost is the fact that the regulations are simply not enforced by the HSE. In January 2000, we were told that HSE inspectors had served just one improvement notice under the 1977 regulations in 22 years. There were no prosecutions at all. There have been a few enforcement notices under the consultation regulations, and three under the safety committee regulations.

From my 30 years' experience of practising in this area, I would say that there are significant shortcomings, particularly concerning the question of the right of
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inspection of every workplace. I used to do work for the Fire Brigades Union, and it was not allowed to inspect places where exercises were to take place offsite, despite the fact that they would be made dangerous to catch the firefighters out. That is not a good way of embarking on training, and safety reps ought to have had the right to inspect. We wanted to challenge that; we were told that we were not allowed to take the matter to court because we needed the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which was not forthcoming. It has never been forthcoming on any request from the trade union movement to enforce the regulations.

Unions must have the power to inspect the workplace, wherever people are at work. There should also be a duty on employers to respond to recommendations from the safety representatives. At the moment, employers have no obligation to say what they believe, or whether they are likely to reject or agree to recommendations from safety reps, and they certainly have no obligation to give reasons. That cannot be right, but ultimately, if the Government are not going to enforce the law, the trade union reps ought to be able to do so.

In 1998 the Law Commission recommended that the requirement for the consent of the DPP to a private prosecution should be abolished. That has still not happened, but it must. Of course, there have to be protections so that if a prosecution brought on a private basis fails, the trade union should face the costs consequences. That would be a useful check and balance in the process. However, simply not to allow prosecutions at all, when the HSE manifestly fails to bring them, is wrong. On the same basis, there ought to be a right for safety reps to issue improvement and prohibition notices—again, subject to the right of appeal to the employment tribunal and to costs sanctions in the event of that right being used improperly.

The Government do not agree with any of that. They say in their report that that would not lead to improved standards, or create the correct balance. In fact, they think that it would affect the balance of rights between the safety rep and his members, which I find extraordinary. They say that it would

—bizarre—and that it would have

Those are all fallacious arguments. If the safety representatives had more power, as they did in 1977, we would see a significant improvement in the relationship and in the increasing emphasis given to health and safety in that company.

Those arguments are the same as those put forward in the early 1970s when the question of giving safety reps powers arose in the first place, and they have been proved to be false since then by what has been achieved by the safety representative movement. If those arguments were false then, they remain false now, and we call for additional powers. If the Government will not do the job, let the unions do it.

We have heard a great deal about directors' duties and I agree with what has been said. We have to ensure that those who hold the purse strings are held to account for the failures of their companies, and that must include
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the Crown. As was pointed out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), the biggest offender in the area of health and safety is the NHS. It is bizarre that the Government will not hold themselves to account. The Government have previously given commitments that they will change the law to remove Crown immunity, but we see little prospect of change in that direction.

I conclude my remarks by coming to our most important recommendations, which refer to the need to reform the law on corporate manslaughter. I have been campaigning for that for almost 20 years, ever since I represented the victims and the families of those who were killed in the King's Cross fire. I sat through a 93-day public inquiry, and I was horrified by what I heard, and equally horrified that no action whatever was taken against anyone responsible for that terrible tragedy. Since that time I have dealt with many other bereaved families, and with those injured in small accidents at work, in appalling circumstances, and in big tragedies such as the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and many others, and on every occasion, no one was brought to book. That cannot be right.

We made a manifesto commitment to introduce such a law. I do not know how many times I have raised the matter in the House—in written questions, oral questions, a ten-minute Bill, and by tabling amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill. I have lost count of the number of assurances that the Government have given me that they will deal with the issue. Those assurances have come from the Prime Minister down; I raised the matter in Prime Minister's questions almost two years ago. So far, we have seen nothing. We were promised a Bill before Christmas the year before last, and before Christmas last year. Again, the Bill has been put on ice. Where is it? Will we see a draft Bill before the general election? Many of us doubt that.

We already know that the Bill will be watered down and that it will not hold individual directors to account. I find that bizarre. If individual directors can be held personally to account for serious offences under the Companies Act 1985, why can they not be held individually to account if their companies kill somebody? That has already been ruled out. I understand that the Government might be getting a bit concerned about Crown immunity again. If nobody individually—a Minister or a head of a Government agency—can be held to account, what is the problem?

It is not a question of the penalties in terms of fines. As part of the penalties, the courts ought to be able effectively to issue an improvement or prohibition notice, but backed, unlike in employment tribunals, with the sanction of contempt of court if it is not carried out. That would be a very tough sanction and it is something that we ought to consider.

I hope that the Minister can satisfy the Chamber that the Government are taking the issue seriously, and can give us a clear timetable for when this long overdue measure will be put before the House. It will almost certainly not be passed before the election, but let us at least see the colour of the Government's money. It is not as though there are any objections in principle throughout the country. The Confederation of British Industry agrees with the measure, the Institute of
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Directors agrees with it and the trade union movement agrees with it. The only people who do not seem to agree with it are one or two Ministers who are concerned that their Departments may end up with egg on their face if they kill somebody. Well, if they kill somebody, it is all the more important that they should be held to account. However, the law would not be about prosecuting people; its purpose would be prevention. It is intended to get companies, Government agencies and so on to take their responsibilities seriously.

Throughout, we found that a problem was that health and safety in this country is not taken anywhere nearly as seriously as it should be. That is the thrust of our report. The Government must respond positively with new laws and the resources that we need, and industry must respond positively in its approach. We must do much more to ensure that when people go to work, they come home safely in the evening.

4.32 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): I am delighted to have a chance to participate in the debate, although I am not and never have been a member of the Committee. I am aware that many of those who have spoken have a great deal more expertise, knowledge and experience than I possess in relation to this matter. It has been interesting and elucidating to listen to much of the debate and to hear many of the points made by those who have that level of experience.

I am here not least to welcome the report. Although it is probably more than my life is worth to say anything else given that my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) is sitting beside me, I would have said that in any case because it contains a great many excellent recommendations. Perhaps one of the few sad things about the report is that the Government's reaction to it does not seem to be as favourable as it might have been. In particular, they do not seem keen to put in the resources that the report says may be necessary to meet all its recommendations, and that follows a year or two's lack of progress on health and safety.

The statistics seem, if anything, to be going backwards rather than forwards. It is, therefore, perhaps not a good moment for the Government to start considering taking resources away from the HSE, at least in real terms. That point is particularly valid following my hon. Friend's response to my intervention. He pointed out that there is probably a good case for saying that extra resources put into health and safety, and therefore perhaps into the HSE, could well be cost-effective in terms of the savings to society of the costs that would otherwise accrue as a result of further deaths and injuries in the workplace. It seems a short-sighted policy on the Government's part to consider cutting back resources rather than increasing them.

In general terms, one of the great problems with health and safety is the lack of awareness of it, which was alluded to a moment ago. It is well known in the Army that sentry duty is boring. One of the difficulties that the Army often has is trying to ensure that its sentries stay awake. Indeed, one of the greatest crimes that a soldier can commit is to fall asleep while on sentry duty. It is a similar situation for us. In a sense, we are all sentries while at work. We should all be on the lookout
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for that rare occurrence of real danger—that unexpected moment when an employee puts themselves or one of their colleagues in danger by either doing something or failing to do something. It is easy to take health and safety for granted and assume that, because things have been relatively stable in the recent past and there have not been any great excitements, that will always continue. It is therefore easy to forget to be on one's guard about health and safety issues all the time.

There are a number of ways in which the tedium and boredom of trying to make sure that one is always aware of health and safety issues can be overcome. One is positive incentives. Many years ago, I worked in the oil industry for some years. That industry must be very careful about health and safety because, as has been mentioned in a number of examples, when things go wrong in the oil industry, they can go catastrophically wrong. A large number of deaths can occur at once because of, for example, a refinery fire, a fire on board a North sea oil rig or a tanker going aground, as happened in my company while I was working for it, with disastrous ecological consequences. So it is an industry that is careful about health and safety.

One of the ways in which the company tried to make us aware of the issues was to give us positive incentives for a period in which there had been no time-loss injuries. I am happy to say that, as a result of that incentive, I still have a timer that means that the lights in my house go on at a certain hour if I am away on holiday. I hope that that prevents people from burgling me because it means that they think that I am still at home. I value that timer. The incentives brought home the importance of health and safety to all employees in the company.

Tony Lloyd : I am curious about whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is a good idea to advertise the fact that he has his lights go on while he is on holiday?

Mr. Rendel : I am happy to advertise that nobody will know whether the light is going on because I am there or because I am not there. That is, of course, the point. However, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking such an interest in the good care of my property and my home.

The second way in which we can be sure that employees are aware of health and safety matters is by the use of inspectorates. That is where the HSE comes in. It can be of value in two ways. First, in considering whether the procedures are going wrong and need to be changed and, secondly, in looking for things that have not been noticed and have not gone wrong, but where there may be gaps on which further work could be done to avoid unconsidered future risks, which are often the ones that cause danger. Of course, inspections also spread good practice from one company to another. If we did not have a body such as the HSE that went round looking at all sorts of workplaces, there would be much less chance that good practice would spread from one workplace to another.

The third way of raising awareness of health and safety is through fear of prosecution. That has been talked about a lot in reference to the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn). On behalf of my party, I am happy to say that we support the Bill
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and would like to see it in place. I cannot guarantee that all 55 members of my party will be there to support it in person. It would be nice to think that we could all make it on the relevant Friday, but sadly plenty of things are on at the moment, as hon. Members will be aware, and it may be difficult to get all of us there. However, I hope that some of us will be there to support it in person. It is welcome. It is a strange anomaly that the people who have ultimate responsibility for running our workplaces are freed from any danger of being prosecuted for doing something silly or for omitting to do something sensible, which is equally dangerous, in the place for which they have responsibility.

I want to mention two important aspects of the issue. The first concerns migrant workers. One or two hon. Members touched on that subject, but it deserves to be brought more prominently to the Chamber's attention. Migrant workers are likely to suffer extra difficulties, partly because they are a vulnerable group. Why are they vulnerable? First, they may have difficulty knowing what our health and safety laws are, and many of them, coming from abroad, may not be familiar with the language. That makes it more difficult for them to be sure that they can obtain their rights and that their workplaces are safe. Secondly, a number of them may not be here legally, which makes it difficult for them to complain if they see problems at their workplaces which may lead to extra danger. Thirdly, many of them are in comparatively low-paid work and in businesses where the profit margins are comparatively low. The people running them may not be willing to spend much extra money on ensuring that their employees are safe. I hope that the HSE will pay special attention to their needs. So I welcome in particular the Committee's call for more research to be done into the extra danger that they may face and the difficulty that they may have in ensuring that their workplaces are, as far as possible, free from risk.

The second issue, which I mentioned in an intervention, relates to passive smoking and the risk that it poses to those in work and the difficulty of avoiding it. Following the problem that British industry and its insurers have had with asbestos, and the amount of money that the insurers have had to pay out because of the problems suffered by those who have worked with asbestos, it is incredible that British industry is apparently so unwilling to see the risks to their employees caused by smoking.

If I were a director of a major British company and I knew what I know now about the dangers of passive smoking, which have been pretty widely publicised over the years—indeed, the dangers of smoking at all have been widely publicised, but companies have an obvious responsibility for the dangers of passive smoking—and I thought that a Bill like that of the hon. Member for Jarrow might be introduced which would make me responsible for failure to take account of the dangers to my employees and would make me potentially liable for that in 10 or 20 years' time, when people began to sue the company because they had suffered as a result of having passively smoked the smoke from the cigarettes of their fellow employees, I would be really worried that I could be sued for failing to take account of passive smoking and failing to exclude it from the workplace for which I was responsible.
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I hope that soon the insurers of British companies will ensure that company directors take that risk on board and stop it happening. If they do not, the insurers themselves will risk having to make huge payouts, much along the lines of the asbestos payouts. Not all companies have faced the problem of asbestos, although most of us will probably find asbestos somewhere in the building in which we have worked. I have no doubt that there is asbestos somewhere in this building, for that matter.

It is important for company directors to take that on board. The best way for our country to avoid the dangers of smoking and passive smoking is to prevent people from smoking in the first instance. My good friend Trevor Brown, who I have no doubt is known to my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, will not forgive me if I did not make that point, because there is no question that only one or two cigarettes can, in some cases, lead people to become addicted. The best way to stop people smoking is to stop them taking it up in the first place.

A ban on smoking in the workplace and in public places seems to be on its way and is bound to happen. I hope that the Government will introduce a ban on smoking in public places in the fairly near future, but certainly it is up to those in charge of workplaces to introduce such a ban as soon as possible. If they do not, they are letting themselves and their insurers in for a huge problem. A ban is one of the best and quickest ways to improve health and safety at work and to reduce the financial risk faced by companies and the people who run them. I hope that the Minister will give us some positive words on that.

4.45 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I, too, very much welcome the Select Committee report, the magisterial way in which it was presented by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) and the serious and well-informed contributions that have been made today. If some of us came to learn more, we will have done so on this occasion.

It would be proper for me to begin by declaring an interest. We all have interests as Members of Parliament as employers of parliamentary staff. It has been right to remind ourselves of that in the debate. I also have a small interest as an agricultural employer, and have spent a good bit of my own time in manual work alongside my own staff at various times. I have a relatively close knowledge of agri-chemicals and pesticides and have seen hugely beneficial developments in that industry over my lifetime. They are not simple products. It is easy to get, if not acute reactions, dermatitis or other occupational exposures. However, people are much more careful than they were. The protective equipment is better and universally used. The targeting of the dose in terms of third-party exposure is much better than it was. That is to be welcomed particularly as, along with the construction industry, agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries.

It is an example of a growing improvement—not always in a straight line and not always assured—in standards of health and safety over the years. For that,
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quite rightly, the HSC and the HSE can claim a good deal of the credit. They are in my view a force for good and not a force for evil. I should like to make that very clear and respond to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire that we should, as far as we can, make these issues non-partisan. I will return to that in one or two contexts later on.

To say that we are doing quite well is not in any sense to condone complacency. There are things that we could do better. Some occupational areas and geographical areas, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) pointed out in her powerful contribution, are not doing as well as they should. We should therefore pay them proper attention. I have some personal interest in this matter over a number of years. I participated in the all-party group on occupational safety and health and I have taken an interest in the entirely fortunate relocation of the ministerial responsibilities for the HSC and the HSE under the Department for Work and Pensions. That is the right place to put them. I also make no secret of the fact that I have worked quite closely with the TUC as well as with people in industry on this issue. I have been happy to do that. I am involved in one of the specific initiatives that has been involved with latex allergy arising out of NHS exposures, in the main.

We should at least start from the basis of trying to ascertain what we can do together. I welcome many of the recommendations in the report, although not all of them. I probably find myself in the middle between the Select Committee and the Government. In certain cases I am not sure whether I am more sceptical than the Government. The HSE should develop its own strategy and strategic thinking. It has been generous with its time to brief me on what it is thinking. We need the right level of objectivity throughout and we need to consider what we can improve and what is practically helpful.

I can assure the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) that we will consider the two pieces of proposed legislation objectively. We will give him a fair answer at the appropriate time as he makes his case.

As far as possible, I approach such issues by trying to align the moral case—we do not want people to be killed in the workplace, and nor do most employers, although the way in which they interpret their obligations will vary—with the business case, which is that it is foolish to damage one's work force and better to ensure business continuity and the use of employees' skills. I have a reservation about that. We tend to put employers into one of two polarised categories: the good and the bad. In the middle are many people who are not malicious but who are probably ignorant, careless and not sure what to do. Transferring them to the good category is at least as important as ensuring that the bad guys are punished. I am not suggesting that the bad guys should not be punished—of course they should.

It is clear from the tone of the Government's response to the Select Committee that they also have some reservations about the report, specifically—I share this reservation—the proposal to double the inspection effort on conventional lines. It would be attractive to do that, but it may be unrealistic at a time when all the parties are looking for economy in Government spending. It may well be that more expertise is needed in certain industrial sectors. Reference has already been
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made to the huge transformations in industry in recent years, and the report refers to the fact that there is still a strong concentration on high-risk industries—for example, chemicals or nuclear industries—which one can understand, but perhaps we need to be a little more sensitive now that more people are working in offices or at home.

I share the Government's wish for cost efficiency. We must try to get the greatest possible productivity out of people who have high expertise and who generally work effectively as health and safety inspectors or advisers.

I also wish to enter a slight reservation about the function of litigation. Not much has been said about civil litigation. I do not seek in any sense to attack law firms that are represented on the Government Benches or the individual who has a claim to make—of course they should make that claim. I believe that we have all had constituents with that experience, and occasionally we may have wanted to join in and help the process or deal with trade union-supporting solicitors. That is not the issue. Pursuing the individual case will not automatically drive a better commonweal. That may even be true about prosecutions, but I did not want to signal that we should take prosecution off the map—of course we should not.

From the tone of the discussion so far, I think that the Minister needs to explain and give a better flavour of how enforcement policy will develop. I am much at one with the Committee on that. We want an enforcement policy that will isolate and identify people who are behaving improperly and stop them from doing so.

Having said that, I have a good deal of sympathy with the HSE's wish to move towards a risk-based assessment for what it is doing, and we also need more of a partnership-based approach in trying to get people to do better. That should not be misinterpreted as what I believe the Americans would call producer-capture. This is about managing, reducing and minimising risks, and trying to iron them out of the system. That need not always mean huge extra expenses.

I was particularly sympathetic to the Select Committee's recommendation in respect of greater availability of material on the internet. At least companies would have easy access to that. It is a cheap way of communicating good practice, and it should be encouraged.

Turning to some specific points, I would like first to deal with asbestos, which is a subject that I raised with the executive. Although I am not suggesting that any asbestos is completely safe, it seems that the general public and the press are not aware that there is huge variation in types and circumstances. It is therefore important to get the advice clear and to ensure that contractors give the advice as straight as they can to what are possibly non-expert purchasers and others who are involved. The information should be given without distortion and on its merits. If substances are comparatively low risk, or there is no perceptible risk, they should be treated separately.

Mr. Dismore : I think that I have heard this argument about asbestos advanced from the Opposition Front Bench before—in a previous debate in this Chamber, in
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fact. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that there is a form of asbestos that is safe and should be used?

Mr. Boswell : I thought that I had made it clear that I do not in any sense wish to say that any asbestos is safe. What I did say, and what I will repeat, is that there may be different degrees of toxicity in relation to different substances. I think that that is incontestable. Of course, a great deal depends on the risk and the exposure in the particular circumstances. That is all that I am saying, and all I am calling for is an objective look at that and the appropriate advice. Following on from that, it would be helpful if the Minister could, either now or in due course, say something about Artex as a particular product.

I shall say a few words about workplace smoking, because the Government's document "Choosing Health: making healthier choices easier" may have exposed a potential illogicality that they will have to consider or explain. With regard to any proposals that exclude categories of establishment that serve only drink—bars—but include those serving food, I suggest that if the interest is primarily but not exclusively in protecting the work force, it is difficult to establish a logical distinction between those categories. The Minister may wish to comment on that.

Research has not featured as much it should do. The report could have done more in that respect. I hope that research will feature in the Minister's response. We need to know much more about the circumstances in which people become fatigued, the combination of long-run factors, and longitudinal studies, to which the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) referred. We must also make more use of the resources that we have through health and safety research and externally based experts, who can bring more expertise into this area.

There is an important role for training across the board in industry, but particularly in developing a wider approach to skills. There is a slight tendency for people to think in box-ticking terms and to say, "This is your personal safety equipment. Tick that you understand how it works." That is very much an attitudinal issue. In relation to construction, where we all have concerns about what happens, I would like the industry to move, as it is beginning to do through the Construction Industry Training Board, towards a certification scheme that is designed to cover at least all full-time employees, so that people are not allowed on sites unless they have their card saying that they have been trained to an acceptable standard.

Jim Sheridan : The hon. Gentleman mentions training. As I said in my contribution, his party has announced that it will stop funding the trade union learning fund, which goes a long way in terms of risk assessment and training safety representatives in the workplace. How does that announcement equate with what the hon. Gentleman has just said about training?

Mr. Boswell : I heard the hon. Gentleman's comments on that matter and I know a little about the trade union learning fund. It has done some good work. The question is one of priorities and whether that work can be allocated in another way, but I heard what the hon. Gentleman said.
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On vocational rehabilitation, there is a strategy, last promised for the autumn of this year. Those of us who are interested in this area have been waiting a long time for that.

I now cross seamlessly, I hope, to another Department and occupational health. That still comes under the Department of Health. The Minister will have heard a good deal about occupational health. I have considerable sympathy with what has been said on that. We have emphasised the acute situation—the safety situation—for good reasons. We now need to consider many of the long-term stresses that are building up in the work force. They are new stresses. It is not only a matter of people's lungs, dust and direct exposure to toxic chemicals, but of repetitive strain injury, the way that people sit at work stations, the nature of the job that they are asked to do and whether employers discharge a duty of care in managing and considering those factors. There is a large portfolio of work ahead, which will not be quite the same portfolio as in the past. That is not wrong, as long as we provide adequate resources, move them into areas of greatest need, and do not forget that there has to be an enforcement function.

We need to remember that, in the terms of this debate, health matters every bit as much as safety. That does not mean that safety does not matter, but that the two are both extremely important. Workplaces should avoid or minimise danger, but they should also be conducive to high occupational health standards. Underpinning that should be a common commitment on both sides of industry to high standards of good practice. That commitment should recognise the mutuality of interest of both the moral case for avoiding injury and the business case, which makes it more sensible for business to conduct itself to achieve high occupational standards. The HSE will not be the only player in this field. Much depends on engaging the active consent of responsible business opinion on both sides of the argument. However, we will proceed much better with the assistance of the executive and in light of the report.

5.2 pm

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy) : I echo the words of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) in complementing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the wise decision that you took last time we were due to meet because of noises off that would have, without doubt, distracted us from this important issue. It is a pleasure to be debating this subject under your chairmanship and to find you in such a mellow mood—a fact for which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has reason to be grateful.

I have listened to the debate with great interest. The Select Committee's report, to which we have responded, is wide-ranging and covers all of the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. Before I plunge into a more detailed response, I welcome the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) to the debate and acknowledge the knowledge and experience of the agriculture industry that he brings to the subject. I am grateful for his comments on the location of the HSE under the ministerial sponsorship of the Department for
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Work and Pensions. I agree that that is the right place for the executive—it has come home. We take seriously our responsibilities to steward the HSC and HSE properly and to support their work.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, on receiving such a resounding accolade from members of that Committee here today. This is an important opportunity for us. We have had an appropriately long time to consider the serious issues that the report has raised. I welcome the report, although I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that it was hard reading.

We considered the Committee's recommendations carefully before responding, and this debate allows me to put forward the Government's case and hear the concerns of the Committee and other hon. Members at first hand. The debate has given me considerable food for further thought, but has demonstrated a wide divergence in views on the direction being taken by the HSC and the HSE. We all seem to agree that they do invaluable work and need to be supported in their mission to ensure proper control of risks at work and make workplaces better, safer and healthier. We all share that aim, even if we part company on how best to achieve it.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire for reminding us of Britain's health and safety record; his comments were echoed by other hon. Members. It is one of the best records in Europe, indeed, in the world. Significant improvements have been made since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 was passed all those years ago. That success is due to the work of organisations, inspectors, regulators, individual workers, employers and trade unions and the legislative framework underpinning the health and safety system. I pay tribute to all who have contributed to the improvement in health and safety.

As other hon. Members have said, the Government should not be complacent. We must reduce still further the numbers of accidents and cases of work-related disease. We recognise that the workplace is changing, as the Committee noted in its report. That brings new challenges to which we must adapt; the commission must respond to those challenges and the executive should reflect them.

The labour market has evolved to one where self-employment, agency-working and flexible patterns of work have become much more common. That is partly what makes it so dynamic and, dare I say it, so successful. However, we must ensure that our processes change with it. I agree with hon. Members who spoke in the debate that there should be much more emphasis on health at work.

In the past, health issues have not attracted the attention that they deserve. The Government are committed to taking that new route; although there have been improvements in health and safety generally, we are concerned that national safety performance has plateaued since the mid-1990s. We must build on the demonstrable successes of the past 30 years but I firmly believe that we cannot do more of what we have done in the past; we need a change of gear and emphasis. We need to take the agenda forward in new ways and to try out and test new ideas, learning about what works and what does not work so well.
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The setting of national improvement targets was an important first step. The targets are essentially correct, notwithstanding the anxiety that has been expressed about achieving them. Although the process of setting the targets and considering them has highlighted some difficulties in terms of measurement and establishing a baseline, it served to cast a spotlight on outcomes, on just how well we are doing in preventing accidents and ill health. It is precisely that process that led the commission to recognise that the targets on their own would not be sufficient, and that they needed complementing with a more effective means of delivery. That is why the commission's strategy was developed.

I noted the concerns of members of the Committee and those of other hon. Members about targets. They were set in response to the plateau in performance, as part of revitalising the health and safety agenda. The targets are, rightly, challenging, and the Government, the commission and the executive realised that a new strategic approach was needed to deliver them. It is still too early to judge whether those targets will be met.

On occupational health in particular, there can be long latency between intervention in the workplace and a measurable outcome. We need time to monitor the impact of the intervention of the commission, the executive and others in occupational health. On stress and muscular-skeletal disorders, for example, there are early signs that the commission and the executive's multifaceted approach—partnership working, advice and so on, including enforcement where needed—is beginning to bear fruit.

The strategy has been endorsed by the Government, and I am firmly committed to supporting the commission and the executive in implementing it. I see it as providing the strategic direction needed to achieve the improvements that we all seek, and I want to see it fully implemented.

However, doing all that will not mean a softening of our approach on enforcement or a shift of resources from enforcement towards voluntary measures. Enforcement will still be a key part of the HSE's arsenal, and the strategy explicitly recognises that enforcement, or fear of it, is an important motivator. However, it rightly recognises that enforcement is simply one of a number of tools. I want to deal with one or two specific points that were made about inspectors and enforcement.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire stressed the role of inspectors in his report, and I draw attention to our response. Simply doing what the HSE has done before will not deliver the required improvements in health and safety performance. There is no evidence that simply doubling the number of inspectors will achieve significant improvements.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) referred to the vexed issue of building sites and the construction industry, which rightly remains, as he said, a key concern. He made other comments as well, to which I shall return. Inspectors cannot on their own drive up health and safety standards, and were never intended to do so. Joint working with the trade unions and employers is a prerequisite for improvements in health and safety on construction work sites. I agree with what has been said about procurement.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) presses the Government to use their powers as a major purchaser of building and construction work. His description of the Committee's site visit to his constituency was interesting and telling. The visit clearly made a big impact on the Committee. The Government are interested in grasping the opportunity to influence health and safety in the construction industry. In the health and safety taskforce which I chair, Government Setting an Example, which brings together Ministers from across Departments, including the Departments of Health and of Trade and Industry, we are examining what more the Government can do to use procurement to influence health and safety. Therefore, we fully accept that view. Indeed, the guidance from the Office of Government Commerce also supports that view. As I said, the taskforce is examining the issue as we speak.

The HSE is working not only to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its interventions as inspectors; it is also making more time available for proactive activities, as well as completing reactive work more efficiently. We must remember that the HSE's primary aim is prevention. It is working to increase the balance of proactive to reactive work from 50:50 to 60:40, as I said in my response to the Committee.

We must also remember that many staff other than inspectors are employed in front-line activities and make an important contribution. Again, as I said in my response to the Committee, a set of initiatives is being implemented to broaden the range of such staff and increase operational productivity.

Jim Sheridan : Before my right hon. Friend leaves the question of procurement, will she take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian? We must have regard not only to the major contractor, but to the way in which he or she offsets to the subcontractor. Many subcontractors engage migrant workers who are frightened to report accidents, because they would lose not only their job, but their accommodation as well.

Jane Kennedy : I am grateful for that intervention. I take on board what has been said, and I have listened carefully to the contributions of hon. Members, many of whom touched on that subject. It is remarkable how quickly half an hour disappears, but I will seek to respond to all the points raised.

This matter is so important that it is worth dwelling on. I said to the Committee that, in response to the concerns that have been expressed not only in the report, but today about what appear to be changes in the balance of the executive, we are satisfied that the HSE has no such proposals. We support the executive in maintaining a balanced approach. Getting that balance right will probably be an area for debate in the future.

Rob Marris : The Minister talks about the balance, and I understand that there is no evidence that more enforcement will lead to what we want—namely, prevention—but I put it to her that in the past two years we have seen less enforcement and that that has been followed by an increase in fatalities and accidents.
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Whether it is causally connected I do not know, but less enforcement does not seem to have resulted in what we want.

Jane Kennedy : I do not necessarily accept my hon. Friend's analysis, although I understand why he makes it. When we see the record, I will read the debate carefully. I have not seen the evidence to which he alludes. The plateauing in performance happened some time ago. It was a matter of concern to the Government, and as a result we set the targets. We have begun to measure performance only since then, and we must allow a bit of time—research has been mentioned as well—to study what is happening before we make the sort of judgments that my hon. Friend has sought to persuade me to make.

The Hampton report was referred to. It is a serious piece of work, deserving of a careful response from the Government after its full consideration. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire will be aware that the review is still in its consultation phase. The Health and Safety Commission considers that the executive has got the balance between inspection and enforcement and information and advice just about right. The commission will also say that to the Hampton review, so I hope that that reassures the Committee.

Many of the Committee's recommendations require significant additional resources. We have stated that the HSC will be protected as a front-line service, but additional resources must be linked to delivery and an improvement in performance. As a front-line service, the HSC should be protected, but it cannot be exempted from improving as part of a drive for more effective and efficient ways of working. As the strategy is implemented and the evidence develops, resources will be prioritised and targeted at those areas where they will make a greater impact than in the past.

Tony Lloyd : On the question of getting the balance right, one of the long-term criticisms about the way in which the HSE operates is that it has always been reluctant to prosecute, because prosecution is resource-intense—it takes up a lot of staff time. The criticism has been that it has preferred to operate by way of advice rather than enforcement. Behind that are implications for resources, but there is also a balance to be struck: the HSE needs to be urged to prosecute when prosecution is better than advice.

Jane Kennedy : I do not disagree with a lot of what my hon. Friend has said, although one keeps resources constantly under review. The HSE and the commission form an independent organisation, which is well supported by industry and the trade unions. That requires us to keep under constant review the resources it has available, and I undertake to do that. As Ministers, we can always spend more on the services that are dear to our hearts, but the HSE, like many other public services, has to ensure that its processes and operations are as effective as they can be, given the budgets within which it has to work.

I shall quickly touch on occupational health, because that is a subject in which I have a particular interest. It is a complex area, and one in which the impact of
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interventions is seen over a much longer period. The most taxing issues on the occupational health agenda have now shifted from the effects of the harmful materials that we work with. Hon. Members referred to that, describing how in the past workers were left largely unprotected when working with harmful materials. Now, we need to concentrate more on our interaction with the working environment—on things such as the physical stress on our bodies that leads to musculo-skeletal disorders, and mental stress arising from the demands of modern working life.

The executive has been developing a series of pilot schemes to test models for delivering occupational health support. I want to move rapidly through what I have prepared to say; I shall skate over rehabilitation, although hon. Members will know how important that issue is to me, given my work elsewhere in helping people who have physical and medical conditions to return to work after a period out of work.

I want to touch on the legal framework, and also to respond specifically to some of the powerful speeches that hon. Members made. Our view is that the legal framework is largely complete. The challenge is to achieve better compliance rather than to introduce more legislation. However, there are exceptions to that. The outstanding issues regarding further legislation are the introduction of a new offence of corporate manslaughter; the removal of Crown immunity; and greater penalties for health and safety offences.

The Home Secretary has said that a draft Bill for corporate manslaughter will be published—it says here—this autumn. It will be published. I reassure hon. Members that we are also committed to introducing legislation on the removal of Crown immunity and on greater penalties, as parliamentary time allows. We stand by that commitment.

Mr. Hepburn : If the Government are not to include directors' responsibilities and duties in any future corporate manslaughter Bill, how will we create the culture of boardroom responsibility that is needed to stop deaths in the workplace?

Jane Kennedy : I will come to the question of boardroom responsibility, but at the moment I should like to deal with impending legislation.

I agree with the views that have been expressed. A new and effective offence of corporate manslaughter reserved for the most flagrant cases would improve proportionality in responding to work-related deaths. The new offence would also improve access to justice in distressing cases, and would increase the pressure to improve among the relatively few employers with wholly inadequate risk management in their workplaces. I concur with many of the supporting comments that have been made on the need for that legislation, and it is important that I take the opportunity to put that on the record.

David Hamilton : Regardless of any legislation that may be passed in the Westminster Parliament, the Minister will accept that Scottish legislation is somewhat different. Is it possible, or even likely, that the
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Scottish Parliament might take a different view, if such legislation continues to be delayed by Westminster, and pass its own legislation in Scotland?

Jane Kennedy : It is possible, although it would be unfortunate, and I would regret it if that course of action were taken. We are committed to bringing that Bill forward. The delay simply demonstrates how difficult it has proved, in a very complex area of law, to reach a point at which we can publish something, with a collective Government position, that can be discussed in public.

I share the frustration that has been expressed about the low levels of fines. I have discussed that matter before, but I reassure hon. Members that I am seeking an opportunity to change the penalty framework. There are actually very big penalties that the courts can use, but they do not apply them. That is the case in England and Wales, and in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) drew a critical comparison between the performance in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. She said that the plastics industry needs a strict regulatory environment, although there are complexities involved in that and I described them in my letter to her—I wanted her to receive it before this debate.

My hon. Friend also questioned us on the priorities set by the HSE and asked whether plastics should be one of those priorities. The number of reported incidents is one factor, but I will disappoint her when I say that I do not believe that the priority level of the plastics industry should be changed. However, before she intervenes to protest, I want to take the opportunity to explain why we reached that view. The executive recognises that there is some disparity in the statistics that cannot be explained by a different mix of industries. It is starting research to see whether an explanation can be found, and I look forward to receiving the findings of that research. The statistics were quoted and it is important to remember that the construction and the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries remain two of the key priorities for the Health and Safety Executive precisely because around half of the fatal injuries to workers occur in those industries. It would be folly to ignore that.

Equally, my hon. Friend asked why slipping and tripping are priorities when the plastics industry is not. Again, based on the statistics published by the HSE just
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last month, more than one third of all reported major injuries were caused by slipping and tripping. Even worse, the most common over-three-day injuries to employees continue to occur when handling, lifting or carrying, which are fairly simple working practices but can cause major injury. It is right that those should be key priorities for the HSE.

On non-unionised workplaces, the HSE assesses the health and safety conditions applying in those workplaces. It makes a judgment of the risk when determining the priorities on the basis of visits to such workplaces, events, including accidents, and early assessment. It has experience of the industries and believes that to use influencing factors such as trade union representation would make it more difficult to assess the priorities and keep them up to date.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) spoke about making employers' liability insurance compulsory, which has focused the minds of directors, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) recognised. There is evidence that, increasingly, health and safety is being taken seriously at board level. The Government recognised that we had to examine our own performance, which is why the health and safety taskforce is set at ministerial level. A survey in 2003 showed that the number of companies in which health and safety was being addressed at board level had increased from 58 per cent. to 66 per cent. We have taken the view that there is less need to regulate and we believe that the threat of legislation is sufficient at the moment. The U-turn that the Government were accused of was perhaps a slight turn, but not a complete U-turn.

This is not a party political point, but the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made another spending commitment today when he referred to resources. I shall respond to that before we adjourn and I apologise for not responding to all the points that have been raised. Directors and managers are not free from all responsibility for health and safety at work. Breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act is a criminal offence and offenders are prosecuted. The Health and Safety Executive enforces the Act, but rightly recognises, that, increasingly, it will have to work to forge partnerships in industries where it may not have had good working partnerships previously.

Question put and agreed to.

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