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"From 1 April 2004 to 31 March 2008, the Health and Safety Executive took no prosecutions as a result of employers' failure to manage high temperatures in the workplace.
Although outside the period specified in the question"-
"legal proceedings have recently been initiated by HSE in relation to a workplace fatality in 2006-07 in which heat stress was implicated."-[Official Report, 23 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 73-74W.]
Let me just remind Members that, from the surveys that were undertaken by the bakers union, the TUC and other unions, we have report after report of heat stress and its serious effects on workers' health. Yet we now discover that the HSE is not monitoring heat stress and there has not been a single prosecution during the period that I asked about, from 2005 to 2008, and only now has one prosecution been commenced.
Kelvin Hopkins: I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the HSE entirely. Without a legal maximum temperature, however, the HSE is working on the basis of what is reasonable, and is it not more difficult to prosecute against something that is unreasonable than it is to prosecute against an absolute, such as a legal maximum temperature?
John McDonnell: That is exactly what has resulted in this debate. We know from our surveys that there is a problem out there. At the same time, however, we now know that the HSE is not monitoring it in any detail and we also know that it is not being addressed by legal action. Either our surveys are all wrong and people are working in ideal conditions across every sector of industry, or the regulations are wrong because they are not being implemented or cannot be implemented because of their vagueness and at times-I must say-their vacuousness.
So what has come as a result of all the work that we-the bakers union and other unions, and the trade union group in Parliament-have put in, and as a result of the responses that we have had to our parliamentary questions? Well, what has happened is a major campaign in the last few years, which has taken up the pace during the last year in particular. I pay tribute to the work that has been undertaken by the bakers union itself.
In the last year, the trade union group in Parliament wrote to my hon. Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, who I must say has been nothing but helpful on this issue; he has made himself available for meeting after meeting to try to help to resolve this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North placed an early-day motion before Parliament on a couple of occasions, which received 42 signatures initially and that number is building. We then wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I see that he is now retiring from Parliament, which I regret because he was very helpful on this issue. He wrote to the HSE and asked it to review the current legislation and guidance.
That review was undertaken and co-ordinated by a Mr. Ray Kemp; indeed he is Professor Ray Kemp. May I say that some concerns have been raised about the nature of that review? I would welcome some response from the HSE about how it appointed the individual who undertook that review. I just mention this point; I do not want to undermine people's reputations in any way, or anything like that. However, I am anxious. I saw on Mr. Kemp's website that he advertises himself as someone who
"has also directed large scale EIAs"-
"and public consultations in support of planning applications".
"oil and gas processing plant, waste disposal facilities, incinerators, airport expansion".
I have a slight anxiety about someone who advertises themselves as being "in support of" planning applications rather than as someone who just independently assesses those applications. However, I will leave that point for other Members to consider and I would welcome a response from the HSE about its appointment procedures.
Anyway, what came out of that review was basically a number of stakeholder meetings. What was interesting about those stakeholder meetings, involving both sides of industry, was that although no consensus was reached, a majority of those stakeholders-60 per cent. of them-concurred with the view that the current regulations were confused and not satisfactory, and that there was a need for change. All of us have been in those situations and it is difficult, particularly when there are both sides of industry there, to get absolute consensus. However, to have a majority of 60 per cent. saying that something needs to be done and that there needs to be clarity about the new processes and the new regulations is quite significant, I think.
"On balance, it is suggested that the workplace temperatures issue is not one that justifies active regulatory intervention but rather improved joint working between all parties to the issue-government, Trades Unions and Employers. This best reflects the new HSE Strategy for the Health & Safety of Great Britain".
"should be pursued through joint working and tripartite discussions".
Unfortunately, that is where we have been for a number of years and it is a system that has not worked. I find that the arguments that Mr. Kemp seems to have put about are not just unconvincing but almost specious in part.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am afraid to say that that is so typical of successive British Governments. Time and again, they seek some kind of reasonable, voluntary conclusion, which, in the end, does not work and they have to legislate. There is a range of matters, including drink-driving and seat belts in cars, on which Governments have first sought a voluntary arrangement, and when that did not work, they have put forward a statutory proposal.
Let me just briefly go through the arguments that Mr. Kemp has put forward. He argues that thermal comfort depends on a number of factors and that setting an upper limit would be counter-productive from a health and safety perspective. I fail to understand that argument. This is not an issue where we are saying that there must be only a maximum temperature and nothing else. What we are saying is that there must be a maximum temperature that exists alongside a series of other measures that recognise the differentiations that exist in different sectors and also different individuals' perception of thermal comfort.
Mr. Kemp also said that scientific evidence does not point to a value for a maximum recommended temperature. Well, it is true that people feel heat differently, but they also feel pain and cold differently, and yet in those cases we have been able to put into practice maximum ranges that no employer should allow their work force to be vulnerable to. Again, I find it extremely difficult to accept that argument. It gives the employer maximum discretion but leaves the employee largely unprotected.
"there is no evidence that thermal discomfort is a significant workplace hazard."
Our surveys demonstrate that it is. The fact that the HSE is not recording incidents properly and not prosecuting reflects weaknesses within the HSE system. Every other survey undertaken has indicated that thermal discomfort is a significant workplace hazard that needs to be addressed.
Another argument, which has been mentioned in this debate, is that the introduction of a maximum temperature would be costly to employers. The HSE and the Department are engaging in an impact assessment to consider the costs of introducing a maximum temperature associated with measures necessary to produce thermal comfort in the workplace. That argument has been used for decades to prevent developments in health and safety.
I want to speak on behalf of the good employers. At the moment, bad employers are making good employers vulnerable. Bad employers can inflict thermal discomfort and risk on their work force by cutting costs, which also allows them to undercut good employers in the pricing of their products. That has always been the case with issues of health and safety. Regulation tries to create a level playing field for everybody.
However, there are costs involved at the moment for all of us as we pay into the national health service for the treatment of people enduring and suffering from the lack of a maximum temperature. They are vulnerable to working in unsafe environments, and it has an impact on their health.
The report failed to come to grips with the reality of the working environment endured by members of the bakers union and other workers across a range of sectors. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North hit on one reason for the resistance to a maximum temperature. We must understand it in the context of what has happened in health and safety over the past 20 years or so. There has been a stepping back from establishing clarity in the regulatory regime for the workplace. We have moved towards risk assessments, which is setting us back decades.
"the UK has one of the best health and safety records in the world".
That is not the case any more. I do not like to say it, but it is true. In the global health and safety risk index 2009, the UK came 30th out of the 176 countries listed. Among OECD nations, we are ranked 20th. The true picture is that in many instances we are falling back rather than going forward.
Professor Steve Tombs and Dr. David Whyte have identified a lack of reporting. In some instances, as many as 80 per cent. of accidents and even fatalities at work related to the working environment are not reported. Andrew Watterson from the university of
Stirling has argued that due to a lack of publication even of fatalities and their links to ill health, the number of people who die from occupational diseases is dramatically underestimated, as is the impact-particularly the long-term impact-of the working environment on health.
The issue also relates to what has happened to the HSE itself. Cuts have been made to the HSE's overall expenditure, resulting in a fall in prosecutions. The overall picture since 1997-98 is that HSE prosecutions have declined by 32 per cent. and local authority prosecutions on health and safety grounds have declined by 34 per cent.
Inspections by the field operations directorate, the HSE's largest inspecting section, have decreased by 26 per cent. and regulatory contacts fell by 19 per cent. between 2003 and 2004-05, the latest date for which I have figures. HSE investigations of major injuries fell by 43 per cent. between 2001-02 and 2006-07. In 2006-07, the HSE investigated only one third as many three-day injuries as in 2001-02. Not only are the regulations not clear, inspections, prosecutions and regulatory visits have declined dramatically.
Kelvin Hopkins: Does that not reflect the culture of deregulation, which has caused so much damage to the economy and other aspects of our lives? It is just another facet of deregulation, which is wholly misguided.
John McDonnell: Certainly not. I hope to sum up fairly quickly, Mr. Brady. At the beginning of the debate, we were on our own, but we have now been joined by a number of interested Members. I am pleased. I could make all sorts of puns about turning up the heat on me, but I will move on.
The lack of inspections, prosecutions and visits reflects a cut in HSE resources, which the Government must address. As my hon. Friend said, it also reflects the changing climate of opinion in Government and across all political parties. I fear some of the statements made in recent years. I warn the Opposition as well, having heard some of their statements on what they would do to deregulate if they came to power, that it would undermine the health and safety regime even further, in terms of ensuring successful investigation and prosecution in the work environment, to undermine the HSE's resources and the direction that it is given.
I urge the Government to reconsider the issue, find a new way forward and give new impetus to the protection of workers from exposure to thermal discomfort. First, it would be useful for the Government to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem that we face and the need for action. In the past years, the Government have come some way on the issue. Ministerial meetings, the commissioning of a review by the HSE and the impact assessment have gone some way towards improvement, but further statements must be made to reassure people in such working environments that the Government take the issue seriously.
Secondly, we must recognise that consensus will not be achieved. It is not achievable across the stakeholder groups. However, a 60 per cent. majority agree that action must be taken and change is needed, and the Government must move forward on that basis.
Thirdly, the Government need to make a statement that the HSE needs to be more proactive in its approach. I will explain briefly what I think the HSE could do. It could investigate the number of times that it has been approached with complaints about workplace heat and the number of other reported incidents in which heat could be a factor. It could also perform on-site investigations of a selection of workplaces across all sectors immediately to give us fresh evidence of the scale of the problem that we face. Finally, it could investigate the wider social implications and long-term impact of daily exposure to heat.
After doing those things within a limited time scale-for example, six months-the Government could then introduce proposals for new regulations setting a maximum temperature and demonstrating clarity for employers and employees about the temperatures in which work should be done. Measures should then be introduced to ensure that health and safety is not put at risk.
We can turn the issue around with good will in the Government's response today. Many people are looking to the Government to take measures to protect them in their work environment. They have waited too long for clarity and decisiveness of Government action on the issue.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on his superb speech, in which he said just about everything that there is to say. It was a veritable tour de force. In my few words, I will add my support for what he said.
With my hon. Friend, I attended the meeting with Lord McKenzie of Luton, who is not just a noble Friend but a long-term one, as we both live in Luton and have known each other for 35 years. The meeting was enjoyable. As my hon. Friend said, I tabled the first early-day motion on this subject, which received 42 signatures, showing the support for this matter among hon. Members.
In the 1970s, I worked in the TUC's economic department during the period of the social contract, part of the purpose of which was to introduce the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. We saw that as a beginning from which we would move forward- not a point that would be chipped away over subsequent decades. Perhaps we should revisit the principle of using the 1974 Act as a base for making conditions better for working people over the decades.
My hon. Friend talked about temperatures. I asked colleagues from the bakers union about typical temperatures in bakery workplaces. Sometimes there are temperatures of 38.6° C, or 102° F, and they can even be in excess of 40° C, which in Fahrenheit-I will not say in English money, because Fahrenheit is not English-is 104°. At least if one is working outside in such temperatures, one has the breeze and shade, but in the enclosed space of a bakery, they are simply not tolerable.
My hon. Friend made the point that people feel heat differently. Sometimes when I have an overcoat on, other people are walking around in T-shirts and clearly do not feel the cold in the way that I do. I can tolerate a
little heat, but I cannot tolerate cold. Other people are the other way round. In a group of half a dozen bakery workers, it is possible that one would not be able to tolerate heat. The others might say, "What's the problem, Jim? We're coping but you're not." We have to accommodate everyone and should have a temperature that is reasonable and acceptable for those who find heat more difficult to contend with, not just the average person or the tough guy who can get by in hot circumstances. We must consider human variation.
I have a particular interest in this debate, because my grandfather was a bakery worker and my great-grandfather was the village baker in Blaby in the 1880s. It is a Hopkins family tradition, although I have long since lost any connection to baking. I do enjoy bread, of course, and I want to know that the bread I eat has been produced by workers who are properly accommodated in terms of pay and working conditions. I do not want to feel that the bread I am eating has been produced in situations of extreme discomfort. At times such as this when unemployment is relatively high, people hang on to jobs and might be tempted to accept conditions that would not be acceptable if they were not desperate for work. In such circumstances, we want trade unionism, but we also need statutory protection for workers in the workplace. That is what this debate is about.
My hon. Friend talked about other European countries. Sadly, time and again, the regulations protecting workers are considerably better in many continental countries than they are in the UK. We have to regulate working conditions, particularly the temperatures that bakery workers have to tolerate, and perhaps in other spheres, too. I do not want to make a long speech because my hon. Friend made a wonderful speech of almost 40 minutes in which he said just about everything there is to say. I congratulate him and give him my total support. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take note and that legislation will be promised and implemented before long.
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