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10.30 am

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): We have had a good debate, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on raising this extremely important topic. If I may, I shall anticipate what is likely to be the third or fourth line of the
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Minister’s speech by putting on the record my acknowledgment that, compared with other European countries, the UK has quite a good record on this issue—the Minister is deleting those lines as I speak.

A recent parliamentary answer from the Minister stated:

That is good, but our debate has shown that there is an awfully long way to go and a lot of scope for increasing workplace safety.

This debate focuses particularly on the construction industry, but the context, which hon. Members have sketched out, is that there are more than 200 workplace fatalities each and every year. What is also relevant—the debate does not touch on this directly—is that there are also a lot of non-fatal accidents that can have serious consequences. In fact, in the last year for which information is available, there were almost 30,000 major-injury accidents that did not involve fatalities but which, as we can imagine, left people with lifelong injuries in many cases.

I do not have the individual figure for the construction sector, but we can all guess that it was likely to have been heavily accounted for in that category. Even in the short period since I was first elected in 2001, I have met quite a few people in my constituency who have sustained serious injuries in the construction sector. Many of them cannot work again in that sector, and sometimes they cannot work at all. That is devastating for them and their families, and it involves a major cost to the taxpayer, because such people will often be stuck on benefits for long periods as a consequence of the injuries. Thirty thousand major but non-fatal injuries a year means that about 100 people experience such injuries every working day. Reducing both sets of figures is a big challenge.

Hon. Members have also mentioned that the construction sector, perhaps understandably, accounts for a large proportion of fatal accidents each year. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone cited the figure of 504 fatalities for the six-year period from 1998, of whom the majority were employees. However, as the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has said, we are also talking about members of the public, who can also lose their lives as a consequence of the conditions in those sectors. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has said, that figure of 504 represents about a third of total fatalities over the period. Alongside agriculture, construction accounts for a lot of fatalities, and both sectors obviously deserve a lot of attention in Government policy.

Members’ speeches in this debate have ranged widely and raised issues for the Government to consider in respect of improving health and safety in the workplace and reducing fatalities, which is obviously the most important issue. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) talked about holding companies with a bad safety record to account for future Government contracts, which is sensible.

There is scope for a wider debate than we can have in our restricted time today. Understandably, the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has raised
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not the whole issue of workplace safety, but the specific issue of prosecution and conviction rates in the construction sector. He made a number of charges, based on the report, about prosecution and conviction rates. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the concerns are justified. In a nutshell, the concerns are that the number of fatalities has been going up in recent years—the figures are bumpy from year to year, but overall they are too high. However, the conviction rate has been falling to a low level—it was 11 per cent. in the last year for which information is available, which is a lot lower than in previous years.

Members also mentioned that the time leading up to trial seems to have lengthened to a large and noticeable extent in recent years and that there are significant regional variations, not only in fines but in the extent of prosecution. That is in the context of the significant job cuts at the HSE as part of the Government’s overall attempts to reduce staff at the Department for Work and Pensions and elsewhere. In its bluntest terms, the charge is straightforward—the HSE is not doing its job of securing enough convictions in cases that involve genuine negligence. That is the case that has been put to the Minister, and we should like insight into it.

When the UCATT report came out, Mr. Podger, the HSE chief executive, made a statement that cast doubt on some of the figures that had been cited. He also said that it was a distraction from the real issue of reducing fatalities rather than simply prosecuting. Most people would see those things as being tied together. Mr. Podger also said:

something that hon. Members have referred to—

He added that

It would be helpful to hear from the Minister the extent to which the low prosecution rate is accounted for by there being a large proportion of self-employed individuals in the sector, for whom there is simply no adequate evidence, and by companies that go into liquidation. Were the arguments deployed in the chief executive’s response to the report relevant only to a small number of cases, or are they serious reasons why the prosecution and conviction rates are so low?

Will the Minister also say something about migrant workers? The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North expressed concern about whether the figures had been inflated by such workers. Is that true? I have not seen the figures, but if it was true, it would be a concern and might hint at loose health and safety regulations in the sector. Will the Minister also comment on what is supposed to be an HSE internal audit report, which a couple of hon. Members have cited? I understand from the original union report that the internal audit report concludes that the HSE inspectors are not prosecuting in enough cases. Does the Minister accept that internal criticism by the HSE? Is that report in the public domain? I genuinely do not know. If it is not, will she consider having it published to cast light on the issue?

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I have seen the latest figures on the offences prosecuted by the HSE. If the charges about the HSE’s behaviour in respect of prosecutions were justified, we would expect a general decline in HSE prosecutions. In recent years, there has been a dramatic decline—2,000 or so cases were prosecuted in 2001-02 and only 1,000 in the latest year. The number of convictions has also halved. Why is that? It appears to be a dramatic decline, which in some ways reinforces the concerns that have been expressed.

Will the Minister tell us, in relation to the parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), why the time between an incident and prosecution has increased so dramatically in recent years? It has almost doubled.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has raised some serious issues, and I hope that the Minister can address them or at least put our minds at rest.

10.40 am

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and all the hon. Members who spoke in this important debate in order to press the Government on a serious issue, which is getting worse.

In the six years to 21 March 2004, 473 construction workers and 31 members of the public were killed, which means that 504 people in total died from construction accidents. The average figure for all fatal and major injuries between 2000 and 2003 was 111 per 100,000 employees. In 2003-04, that rose to 121 and in 2004-05 it was above 118. On 27 April, the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive, Mr. Geoffrey Podger, said that he expected a 20 to 25 per cent. increase in construction deaths in the year to 31 March 2007. The situation is regrettably getting worse.

What is happening in the HSE while that is happening? It is reducing the number of inspections, and it is expected to cut some 280 jobs and £8 million from its budget by March 2008. Some £3 million will go from publicity spending, £2.3 million from workplace budgets and a further 5 per cent. cut will be made to the budget between 2008 and 2011.

We know that field operations and inspections fell by 40 per cent. between 2001-02 and 2005-06. There were 55,195 inspections in 2004-05, the lowest on record at the time, and that figure fell again in 2005-06 to only 46,032. As I say, that was 40 per cent. less than the figure for 2001-02. The HSE chief executive’s leaked memo to staff of 10 August said that the cuts would lead to

I have learned in an e-mail from an official in the HSE, received in February this year, that within the construction division there are plans to have only 171 inspectors, whereas there are 182 now—a reduction of 11. I know that final decisions were going to be made at the end of March on resource allocation. Will the Minister give us the exact figure for the construction division in 2007-08?

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The reductions have taken place in the name of the Gershon review, which was announced in the 2003 Budget. The review was supposed to

The story seems rather different when we see what is happening on the front line of the HSE.

Of course, not only the HSE has a role in this. We have to consider the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts, too. The HSE is prosecuting less overall. In 2003-04, 963 prosecutions took place, but only 712 took place in 2004-05. We have heard from many hon. Members that in 1998 there was a 42 per cent. conviction rate for construction deaths, whereas in 2003-04 that fell to 11 per cent. We have heard that, according to the HSE, 70 per cent. of construction deaths involve management failure. The HSE internal audit said that there should be a 60 per cent. prosecution rate for construction deaths. Like the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), I hope that the report will be put in the public domain. It would be strange if it were not.

I am wary of prosecuting according to a percentage target alone, but questions have to be asked when the HSE admits that it is prosecuting only about half of the number of construction deaths that it believes it should. We have heard of the regional variations too—

Mr. McGovern: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Selous: I want to get on quite quickly, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

In the south-west, 31 per cent. of cases of construction deaths are prosecuted, whereas in the east midlands the figure is only 9 per cent. Fines vary hugely. In the north-east, the average fine is £18,650, while in the east of England, my region, it is £78,556.

Mr. McGovern: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Andrew Selous: No, I will not.

Justice is being hugely delayed. In magistrates courts, the number of days between the incident and the approval of the prosecution has risen from 155 days in 2000 to 251 in 2004-05. In Crown courts, the number of days has doubled from 244 in 2000 to 488 in 2004. There were problems with the legal systems in the early years, but why is there that extra delay now?

The CPS has some questions to answer, too, for example, in the case of 17-year-old Daniel Dennis. On 29 December, the High Court ordered the CPS to reconsider its decision not to prosecute. That 17-year-old was killed. He had been given no training in safety or in working at heights; he had no harness, and harnesses are not expensive; and the skylight area that he fell through to his death was not fenced off—yet the CPS decided not to prosecute. That decision has been overruled by the High Court.

The courts have questions to answer about the variability of the fines. I have more shocking news on the fines than the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) mentioned. In 15 construction deaths, the fines were £5,000 or less. In some cases, the fines were less than £1,000. The worrying thing is that the HSE is recording less data. It no longer records the number of HSE inspections, the
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number of regulatory contacts, or the median fines for a safety offence. It should do so. I would also like to see it record the nationality of those killed, their employment status, the name of their employer and principal contractor, and their ability to speak English, as well as whether the incident took place on a domestic or non-domestic construction site.

We debated the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 last week—we voted for them, and encouraged the Government to go further and to extend them to cover an extra 200,000 cases where the design element does not apply. That would ensure that the scope of the regulations to cover the design element was built in earlier, was easier to understand and covered more cases than the Government want to.

We have heard about the problems with English speaking. The Government are reducing funding for English for speakers of other languages and that is a major area of concern. We are concerned that construction employees will not understand health and safety inspections. Speaking to the deputy chief executive of the HSE, I learned of a company that had signs in the canteen telling employees that they had only a certain time for their lunch break in many languages, but out in the workplace area the signs were only in English. I am glad to say that that company was thoroughly inspected as a result, but as we have heard, fewer inspections are taking place.

We support the Corporate Homicide and Corporate Manslaughter Bill, which is before the House today. Indeed, we would like it to go further than the Government would, so that it includes deaths in custody. What is the Minister doing to reply on the subject of the Professor Richard McCrory review and the HSE? We have heard nothing about that from anyone else today. Professor McCrory brought out a report on 28 November 2006 entitled “Regulatory Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”. In relation to that report, he said that criminal prosecution has a role to play—I agree with that—but

He set out a number of principles, saying that they:


The report proposes an administrative toolkit of extra fines, profit orders and so on. The HSE is considering it, but given what we have heard today it is urgent that the Minister should tell us when the HSE will be able to use the extra sanctions that the Cabinet Office review of regulators said should be made available. Those are important issues, and it is a scandal that there have been 504 deaths. There are serious questions for the Minister to answer, and we look forward to hearing from her on them.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I am delighted to be able to answer the debate. I congratulate my
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hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the opportunity to debate this important issue. Like my colleagues, I wish to acknowledge his long-standing interest in promoting health and safety for workers, particularly construction workers. He never misses an opportunity to highlight the dangers in the construction industry.

Many questions have been asked and, to be frank, it will be impossible for me to answer every one. I shall try to deal with some of the general issues that have been raised, and I shall respond to specific points, including the catalogue given by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in the past few minutes, by written procedure.

I thought that we could have a debate that was not essentially party political, but on penalties, as I said to him last week upstairs in Committee, the hon. Gentleman must reflect on the fact that his own Front-Bench team scuppered a Government-supported Bill to increase the level of penalties. He must take the powerful message that he gave to us today back to his Front-Bench team, of which he is a member. That Bill was well supported across the House, and it was to the Opposition’s shame that they scuppered a Bill that would have dealt with some of the issues that have been raised here today.

We are concentrating on deaths in the construction industry and, as we have heard, although the construction industry work force is only about 7 per cent. of the total work force in the United Kingdom, it has 28 per cent. of worker fatalities. That is why the debate is so important. We can bandy around statistics, but the reality is that each death is a tragic event for a family somewhere in Britain. As we heard powerfully from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, every week in this country a family suffers as a result of the death of one of its menfolk. I think the fatalities are exclusively male.

I am aware of the issue, as are other hon. Members. In my constituency, only three weeks ago, an experienced construction worker fell from scaffolding and was tragically killed. The issue of deaths in the construction sector has been given greater and welcome emphasis as a result of the publication of the UCATT report on prosecution, conviction rates and sentencing in the industry. I recognise that an early-day motion was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), who has long experience in the industry and brought it to his contribution today.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern), for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and for Jarrow for their contributions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who as a Government Whip, as I know from previous experience, cannot say anything. I noticed that he was here for most of the debate. I also thank Opposition Members for their contributions.

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