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24 Feb 2010 : Column 86WH—continued

10.14 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I apologise for missing the start of the debate. It was due not to high temperatures, but merely a broken-down bus. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Brady.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on initiating this debate. This is an important issue in which, as he is aware, I have taken some interest. In response to a parliamentary question I asked the Minister last year, he said that over the previous four years there had been 53 incidents in which high temperatures were a major problem, including one in which there was a fatality. In the context of the number of industrial injuries that occur every year, that is a relatively low figure, but it is nevertheless significant.

Like the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), I find it difficult to understand and accept the arguments made by the Department and the Health and Safety Executive as to why we do not have a maximum operating temperature. In certain jobs, such as work in bakeries and foundries, high temperatures are a problem that affects the workers. For many office workers, it is important that there is a maximum temperature.

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When my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) asked a parliamentary question last year about what the House authorities recommended as the maximum operating temperature, I was surprised that the reply from my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) was that they work on the basis that it should be 21° C. If that is an acceptable temperature for Members of Parliament and their staff, we ought to set maximum temperatures for everybody else.

I understand the approach the HSE has taken in dealing with the range of factors that affect people's ability to work, but the same argument ought to apply to the minimum temperature. We have statutory minimum temperatures of 16° C for people working in a sedentary position and 13° C for those doing physical work. There is a range of conditions at the colder end of the scale that affect a person's comfort. The same argument should apply to the maximum temperature.

In a parliamentary answer that I received last year, the Minister said that the Department had asked the HSE to undertake a review and consult stakeholders. I was therefore looking forward to seeing the same sorts of controls. Whether for a minimum or a maximum temperature, there will always be discussion about what constitutes discomfort. The importance of the minimum or maximum temperature is that it sets the bare limit to which everyone is entitled at work. During a review, the HSE sent out a questionnaire with a closing date of 11 February. I do not know if that is the issue to which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred.

John McDonnell: For the sake of clarity, the HSE commissioned an investigation and report from Professor Ray Kemp. The survey subsequently sent out by the HSE related specifically to the impact assessment, including the impact of introducing regulations. The danger is that the HSE seems to think that it can deal with just one sector, rather than with industry as a whole. Such a sectoral approach would cause even more confusion.

Paul Rowen: I am grateful for that clarification. I agree that although the review is part of a process, there must be a wider discussion of the value of a maximum temperature.

I agree with the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Luton, North that it is a worrying trend that the HSE's resources have been cut and that there has been a fall in the number of inspections and, consequently, the number of prosecutions. A few weeks ago, I addressed the HSE staff conference, which is seriously concerned about how it can deliver the workload expected of it. The net result of further changes can only be a diminution in the ability of the HSE to deal with its statutory responsibilities.

There is great merit in establishing a maximum workplace temperature. As has been done in Germany, it is possible to set an upper limit for people doing physical work and a slightly lower limit for those doing sedentary work, but that will not help with all the other issues that must be dealt with as a result of temperature discomfort. Those issues can still be dealt with, but there should be a statutory maximum and, as I said, I cannot understand the argument for having a lower limit, but not an upper one. We either accept that there must be limits and ranges within which people can work or we do not.

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The current position of having a statutory lower limit and an advisory upper limit is clearly unsatisfactory. There have been no prosecutions, and there are no proper records of the number of people affected by higher temperatures, because the existing regulations have no teeth. They need teeth, so that they can protect workers who have to work in higher temperatures.

10.21 am

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Brady. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate and on his extremely well-informed and considered opening speech. As hon. Members will have gathered, he has long campaigned on the subject and has raised it many times in questions and debates. As he made clear, he has also been the author of early-day motions that have attracted the signatures of a considerable number of hon. Members. Most recently, on 15 December 2009, early-day motion 491 attracted the signatures of 48 hon. Members. If a large number of hon. Members pen their name to an early-day motion, the matter should be taken seriously.

The hon. Gentleman set out in a proper way some of the problems that can arise from exposure to high temperatures and made the case for a maximum temperature. Certainly those are all issues that must be addressed and I will turn to that matter in a moment. We are also indebted to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) who made some important points, including a crucial remark about individual sensitivity to heat. He spoke with the authority of someone who, as we learned today, comes from a long line of bakers.

Both hon. Gentlemen have made it clear that, as with many other factors in the workplace, there can be no doubt that high temperatures can pose health and safety issues in the workplace in certain circumstances. As was also made clear, the Health and Safety Executive receives complaints about high temperatures in the workplace and, sadly, a small number of accidents at work in recent years have occurred because of the exposure of individuals to high temperatures at work. Very sadly-this was adverted to-there was one fatality as a result of exposure to high temperatures in 2006-07.

On going through the figures, I note that, compared with the numbers for other years, a cluster of injuries and one fatality occurred during 2006-07. Twelve major injuries resulted from exposure to heat in that year, as well as the fatality. I am not drawing things together, but I notice that the Health and Safety Executive has instituted legal proceedings over that fatality.

Kelvin Hopkins: Taking legal proceedings after a fatality is rather like closing the door after the horse has bolted. Do we not need legislation to ensure that the horse does not bolt in the first place?

Mr. Clappison: We agree that we certainly need an appropriate framework so that we can deal with the matter in an appropriate way. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that where serious accidents or fatalities have occurred, there is the question of whether the legal framework has been broken. I do not want to say any more than that because I know that proceedings have
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been initiated in the case we have mentioned. It certainly catches the attention that there was a cluster of serious cases in 2006-07. I do not know whether they occurred because of a single incident or what the background is, but it certainly underlines the fact that serious health and safety issues can arise from high maximum temperatures.

The question is, how should we deal with those issues? As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has made clear, no legal maximums for temperatures at work are laid down as a binding rule. However, the Health and Safety Executive deals with the issue of workplace temperature within the frameworks of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and the more recent regulations to which the hon. Gentleman referred, particularly regulation 7 of the Workplace (Health Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Those regulations deal with the temperature in indoor workplaces and state:

There is an associated code of practice that deals with temperatures in workplaces and sets out the matters that must be taken into account in taking reasonable steps in certain circumstances. The hon. Gentleman made some points about that framework and what he considers to be the disadvantage of it, and those matters will have to be taken into account.

Previous Health and Safety Executive guidance has stated that a defined and acceptable zone of thermal comfort lies roughly between 13° C and 30° C depending on the nature of the activity being undertaken. Again, the hon. Gentleman set out his case relating to that. He and other hon. Members have been campaigning on the issue for some time, and we note that in February last year, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), wrote to the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive to ask her to revisit the reasons for and against a maximum workplace temperature. That came after a process of reviews and debate on the subject.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): The hon. Gentleman is setting out the circumstances and the regulations, but I think hon. Members would be interested to hear his opinion-I hope he gets to that. When he does get around to giving his opinion, will he inform us and wider society how his opinion squares with the Green Paper published by the Conservatives during their 2008 conference, when the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said:

in health and safety "will be drastically curbed"? Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition said also last year that they

What powers will be drastically curbed?

Mr. Clappison: I will not be tempted by the Minister, who is going much wider than the subject of the debate. I have to say that his contribution is not in keeping with the rest of the debate, as he has referred to something much more general. If he wants to put his argument in such a way, I should say that he has heard the hon.
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Member for Hayes and Harlington go through in some detail what he considers to be the shortcomings of the present Government's efforts in this regard. They have at their disposal the whole apparatus of the civil service and its controls, and its relationship with the Health and Safety Executive. I was not going to go down such a route, but the Minister chooses to go down it, so I have to say that what the hon. Gentleman said should not make particularly comfortable listening for him.

John McDonnell: I have tried to approach the debate by attempting to secure a consensus largely because, if there is a hung Parliament, I am working on the basis that the Socialist Campaign Group will hold the balance of power between the parties. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I, too, am concerned about some of the statements made by the Leader of the Opposition and the specific quote from the Green Paper. However, I do not want that to be a matter of controversy today. I am trying to arrive at a position whereby we can move forward on the issue of maximum temperatures that has been signed up to today. Anything he can say that is of comfort about support for maximum temperatures would be extremely helpful in securing that consensus.

Mr. Clappison: I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's approach in so far as it is factual and evidence-based, as I am sure he would want it to be. We certainly feel that the issue should be addressed, alongside other issues that pose a threat to health and safety. As with every other potential health and safety issue, we would expect it to be tackled in an effective but proportionate, sensible and appropriate manner. We are waiting to hear the Health and Safety Executive's views in the inquiry commissioned by the previous Secretary of State, so it would be sensible to wait and see what it has to say.

I can assure the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington that we want the issue to be dealt with in an effective, proper and sensible manner, proportionate to the scale of the problem he has identified. That is our general approach. He cannot expect the Opposition to go much further than that on such a detailed matter, when there is a Health and Safety Executive at play, or to go so far as to set down a detailed maximum temperature today. We would want to approach that in an appropriate, sensible and practicable way, taking into account the seriousness of the matter. If the hon. Gentleman wants to get further than that, he is welcome to try.

John McDonnell: Just as a matter of warning, statements such as

send out the wrong message in the health and safety area, so I would like the hon. Gentleman to take that back if possible. Secondly, I suggest to him, as I suggested earlier, that we try to establish a time scale for a set of actions to be taken, so that the Government can make a decision. I would like that to happen before dissolution, but if that cannot be done then at least within six months, because we have been at this for so long. The latest process started last January, so it is over a year later. The hon. Gentleman could indicate that he, too, sees it as a matter of some urgency now, and that a time scale of six months for resolving it would be reasonable.

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Mr. Clappison: I might be wrong, but I think we are still waiting for a response to the initiative the then Secretary of State took last February. Perhaps the Minister will have something to tell us about that in a few minutes. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is a doughty campaigner, so what I will say to him is that, were we in a position to form a Government, we would always want to hear Members' opinions on health and safety matters and take them into account, especially when they are made in the detailed and well-informed way they have been made today. Ministers should always be prepared to listen to the views of the House, and I hope that that was implicit in my opening remarks.

I hope that I have set out our general approach on the matter and look forward to hearing from the Minister-quite apart from his earlier unfortunate remarks-a detailed response to the hon. Gentleman's speech.

10.33 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate. He referred to the industries based in his constituency and to the work of the bakers union, Usdaw and other unions that are concerned with the matter. I congratulate other hon. Members on their contributions and will come to their points when I conclude. The debate is a good opportunity for the House to consider the report the Health and Safety Executive commissioned on the current approach to workplace temperatures. The HSE is actively carrying out further work in that area to identify those sectors where thermal environment is an issue, and to scope the full extent of the problems presented and identify an appropriate and proportionate solution. I am aware that there has been considerable debate on maximum temperatures.

John McDonnell: Before we lose the point, I asked a question about the appointment of the person leading the HSE review. Will the Minister, perhaps by writing to me, clarify the process for the appointment of that individual and the process for appointments generally by the HSE for such key reviews?

Jonathan Shaw: It is important that people affected by organisations or individuals undertaking important reviews are confident that there is a proper process in place that identifies their expertise. Of course, it is not a pure equation, and people might not see the information they had hoped for at the end of a report, but they should have confidence in the process, so my hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. I will ensure that he gets those details, and I will publish the letter and put it in the Library so that all hon. Members can see it.

The issue of maximum temperatures in the workplace has been discussed for several years, as my hon. Friend indicated. The TUC has been calling for a change in legislation with the introduction of an absolute maximum temperature, as has been mentioned, of 30° C, or 27 ° C for those doing strenuous work, at which point workers should not have to work unless effective measures are put in place to manage heat, with failure to do so making an employer liable for prosecution.

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I certainly support my hon. Friend's call for clear and coherent requirements for employers on how they combat heat in the workplace, and that has been reflected in comments from other hon. Members. That is what the HSE review has focused on achieving. In considering the best way to achieve that, it is important to understand the existing regulatory approach. Despite the concerns raised today, understanding the scientific evidence must play a key part in informing that. The HSE advises that temperature is only one indicator of potential thermal discomfort in the upper range. The influence of temperature on health and safety in the workplace is dependent on the interaction of several factors: air temperature, clothing, relative humidity, radiant temperature, air movement and metabolic work rate.

Paul Rowen: I hope the Minister will respond to my point that such issues arise at the lower end of the temperature scale, and that has not stopped us having a minimum temperature, so why cannot we use the same process and have a maximum temperature?

Jonathan Shaw: I noted the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks and I will come to them later in my speech. Although those factors exist in cold environments, air temperature is actually a much better predictor of how a person will feel when cold, meaning that we can predict with much more confidence that controlling the temperature to a regulatory minimum should ensure that a workplace can achieve a safe thermal environment.

The same cannot be said of a hot environment, where factors such as humidity have a much greater effect on how a person will feel. Radiant heat is also an important consideration in that context. As a result it will always prove difficult to identify a suitable maximum workplace temperature for all workplaces. For example, how would that work for a foundry? For those reasons, the HSE currently advocates a risk-assessment approach to working in heat that takes into account the interaction of all factors that will influence how an individual feels in a given thermal environment. Detailed guidance on how to complete thermal risk assessments is provided through the HSE website. Recognising the complexities involved in that issue and the concerns raised about the clarity and application of the current regulations in the workplace, HSE has, as we have heard, undertaken a review of the workplace temperatures policy and guidance.

John McDonnell: On the difference between the minimum and maximum, I put it on the record that 99.9 per cent. of the population know when they are too hot or too cold. The complexities that have been brought forward regarding the maximum temperature could have been used for the minimum temperature, because we now use arguments about the wind chill factor and other considerations that affect how people feel the cold. I want to put it on the record that the vast majority of us feel that the process for finding the maximum temperature and the use of scientific evidence is a process of obfuscation and avoidance of responsibility.

Jonathan Shaw: I assure my hon. Friend that that is not an attempt to avoid the issue, which is why the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), undertook to ensure that that work was completed. We take the matter seriously.

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