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21 Mar 2001 : Column 120WH

Health and Safety Executive (Hull)

1 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): At full complement during the 1980s and early 1990s, the Health and Safety Executive office in Hull had eight inspectors, covering the full range of local industry with the exception of specific control of major accident hazards sites. In recent years, the office has been systematically run down to its present complement of three operational inspectors, with the intention of closing it later this year. That will reduce the number of inspections in the region by some 600 contacts per annum, and will result in inferior health and safety cover for many thousands of workers. It will probably lead to a great increase in accidents, and will prove less cost effective.

There are three main arguments for maintaining the HSE office in Hull: the industrial profile of the Humber region, the region's geographical isolation, and value for taxpayers' money. The Hull office is part of the Yorkshire and north-east region of the HSE, which also has offices in Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield. Inspectors from Hull will be relocated, and future health and safety in the Humber region will be enforced from the Leeds and Sheffield offices, both of which are more than 60 miles from Hull, yet we are asked to believe that there will be no detrimental effect on the service in the region.

A similar proposal to close the HSE office in Poole--an area not renowned as a hive of industrial activity--has recently been reversed. The Hull office is low-cost and more cost-effective than its Sheffield and Leeds counterparts. Its closure will leave a city that is one of the largest in England, and which has particularly high-risk industries, more than 60 miles away from the nearest HSE office--an unprecedented situation. Moreover, in the opinion of trade unions and others involved in the Hull exercise, the procedures that led to the decision to close the office were underhand, misleading and inconsistent with the Government's declared policy on the HSE.

The Humber sub-region has a unique economic structure. Measured by tonnage, the Humberside ports account for more than 20 per cent. of all import and export trade in the United Kingdom. They are busy ports that are not only vital to our island economy, but extremely dangerous places in which to work. They need regular and expert attention, and ample accident statistics reveal what happens when the systems fail. Given that Sheffield is some 70 miles inland, there can be no logic or rationale in moving HSE inspectors who cover such coastal activity from Hull to Sheffield.

Agriculture, which is another dominant feature of the Humber region's economy, also accounts for a high percentage of fatal accidents year on year. Yet the enforcing authority for this rural activity will be based at the heart of the urban manufacturing and commercial institutions of Leeds--miles away from where it is needed, and in some of the most expensive office accommodation in the north. Humberside is also the international centre of caravan construction, which is another industry renowned for heavy work, fast production and accidents. Construction is a risky business. Work situations can change daily and require a quick response. With the closure of the Hull office, there will be no such quick response in Humberside.

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Grimsby, which is on the south bank of the Humber, is the undisputed food capital of Europe. I should mention that in making this case I have the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). The food industry employs many thousands of people, and has an accident rate that is higher than that of most other industries. Its workers are even further from the protective services of the HSE.

Twenty-six top-tier control of major accident hazards sites are located across Humberside, including oil refineries and petrochemical sites. They represent the most serious potential for disaster and are situated on the coast, for obvious reasons. It would make sense to locate the COMAH inspectorate in the same area, so that visits can be frequent and thorough. Instead, it is to be based in Sheffield, although there are only six COMAH sites in the whole of South Yorkshire. Let us not forget that the dark shadow of the Flixborough disaster in 1974 still hovers over Humberside--although the site of that disaster would now be regarded as minuscule compared with the big COMAH sites that are now in the region. We still live with the memories and lessons of that tragedy on Humberside.

The HSE policy for Yorkshire and the north-east appears deliberately to distance inspectors from the industries and sites for which they are responsible. A typical day's work for a docks inspector travelling from Sheffield will involve driving a round trip of 150 miles, which in today's traffic could take up to four hours--and that is a conservative estimate. That reduces the working day by half, is paid for at great expense to the taxpayer and results in the loss of a great deal of expertise. Under the new proposals, the estimated annual mileage per inspector will be an incredible 26,500 miles. Every hour spent driving is one hour less inspecting; every mile driven is a drain on the financial resources of the HSE and on the physical and emotional resources of the inspectors involved.

It makes no sense for HSE inspectors to spend half their working days as highly qualified taxi drivers. That is why the decision to close the HSE office in Poole was reversed. Over a full year, the aggregate driving time is up to 66 working days per inspector. If the full quota of eight inspectors work out of Leeds and Sheffield, a total of 528 inspection days per annum will be lost due to unnecessary travel. That will more than double the cost of travel and subsistence claims per inspector, and will lose them valuable inspection time. Moreover, it is unlikely that improvement and prohibition notices will be followed up as vigorously as they would be if they were issued locally. If those notices are not followed up, they will be ignored, as happened in Hull last year. A prohibition notice was ignored at a demolition site, leading to the deaths of three people, one of whom was a constituent of mine.

As the quantity and quality of cover declines, the service inevitably becomes reactive instead of proactive--investigating accidents instead of preventing them. That is already becoming apparent in Humberside. Accident statistics reveal that over the past two years, as the Hull office has been run down, there has been a significant increase in loss of life, with 19 fatal accidents and almost 1,500 major injuries in the region. All that suffering and heartbreak is being caused to save the princely sum of £2,428 a year.

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It is not known exactly when the decision to close the Hull office was made, but it was taken without reference to the users of the service: employers, workers, trade union officials and local councils were consulted. The Government produced a document entitled "Revitalising Health and Safety", in which they promised to improve consultation and to extend promotional activities, working closely with local communities. Whoever wrote the document failed to draw it to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive officials in the Yorkshire region. No local group supported the decision to close the whole office. Indeed, the only good thing to arise from the exercise is that it has united all parties with a vested interest in health and safety in their opposition to the closure and the crass way in which that foolhardy decision was made.

The total absence of consultation is serious. When I asked a parliamentary question about the consultation process, I was told that a meeting had taken place between Mr. Bill Callaghan, chair of the Health and Safety Commission, Mr. Chris Willby, regional director of the HSE and local union officials. I want to set the record straight and stop the deceit--it is not clear exactly when the decision to close the HSE office in Hull was made, but it was certainly made before Christmas 1998. That meeting arose only because of representations made by local constituents and trade unions to the three local Members of Parliament and took place on 15 May 2000, more than 18 months after the decision to close the Hull office had been made and after the matter had been put in the local domain, drip by drip. There has been no consultation.

At that meeting, Chris Willby told trade union officers--Bill Callaghan was a witness to his statement--that the closure was necessary because the HSE was unable to recruit to the Hull office. Six weeks later, in reply to a series of written questions, I was informed that the HSE had not tried to recruit to Hull since 1997, so why was it stated that there was no possibility of obtaining candidates for important positions in Hull? I was told that the meeting on 15 May 2000 constituted the due consultation process prior to the decision being made, but no such meeting would have taken place without the insistence of local Members of Parliament. The decision to close was made at some time during 1998.

Another of my questions concerned the environmental impact of the closure. It is a legal requirement for organisations to undertake environmental impact assessments of their activities. It seems that no such assessment was made, and there was certainly no reference to any environmental impact assessment in the replies that I received. Subsequently, I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to place a copy of the Sykes report, with its appendices, in the Library, but a different document was put there. The title of the Sykes report that I wanted to see was "Accommodation Review--Future of the Hull Office" dated 22 March 1999. It shows the total savings from closing the Hull office as £2,428 per annum, albeit at a cost of 600 annual contacts. It states that the only reason for closing the office is a problem of remote management. I believe that 19 deaths and 1,500 major accidents show how remote the HSE management in Yorkshire and the north-east region is, and it will be even more remote at the end of the month.

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Moreover, the reply from my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was carefully drafted. The Department did not provide the report that I wanted, but instead provided the report entitled, "Accommodation Review: Yorkshire and north-east region business needs". However, even that was revealing. It gives the criteria necessary to meet the HSE's policy. First on the list is the need to be able to reach 90 per cent. of all premises within a travel time of one and a half hours. With current traffic patterns, it is not usual to travel from Leeds or Sheffield to Hull or Grimsby in less than an hour and a half. At peak times, one would be lucky to complete the journey in two or two and a half hours. Anyone who thought that those criteria could apply in that area must either have driven when there was no traffic on the motorway or have significantly broken the speed limit. Journeys are longer still for the many people coming to Humberside who live south or west of Sheffield.

Close consideration of the review would support the closure of the Sheffield office and an increase in the Humberside contingent. At peak times, it takes an hour to travel between Sheffield and Leeds, which are within 30 miles of each other. Hull is between 60 and 70 miles from those cities. The Sheffield area, moreover, has a lower death rate--15 in the past two years--and has only six COMAH sites, less than a quarter of the 26 in Humberside.

The whole process is littered with failure. There has been failure to consult, and failure to comply with Government policy as stated in the document "Revitalising Health and Safety". There has been failure to comply with the HSE's policies of working with the community and of holding environmental assessments, and failure to meet HSE criteria on target compliance. There has been failure to provide adequate answers to a Member of Parliament, and failure to provide effective health and safety cover for the people of Humberside.

Mr. Sykes made an insulting offer to representatives of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union on 13 February. He said that, if we are very lucky, premises in Hull will be used for a monthly surgery, where people can go to have their cases examined. Presumably, somebody will put the Saltend oil refinery in his haversack, dump it on the surgery table and point out its problems. If there is excessive demand, the surgery might be opened even more than once a month. How very nice. How generous. How insulting.

Great questions remain. Why has deceit been used and misleading answers given? Why has there been no proper consultation process? Why was an environmental assessment not properly carried out? Why is the HSE office in Hull being closed, despite the substantial loss in efficiency that will result? Why have 19 people been killed and 1,500 seriously injured? Those people deserved the same protection as workers elsewhere in the country. Those figures are likely to rise, and all for a paltry saving of less than £2,500.

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1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate. I have listened carefully to his points about the Health and Safety Executive's decision to close the Hull local office at the end of this year. I understand his concern, which he has every right to express in this Chamber, but I do not share his view that the standard of service in Humberside that the HSE provides will be adversely affected by the decision.

It is not fair to make the link, as my hon. Friend did, between the reduction of inspectors at Hull and what he claims as increases in deaths. I acknowledge that there have been a number of deaths. I concur with my hon. Friend's last point--as would my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and members of the HSE and the Health and Safety Commission--that people in Humberside deserve the same protection as in the rest of the country. The HSE's decision about deployment of resources does not diminish its commitment to the people of Humberside, which is equal to its commitment to people elsewhere.

The proposals are intended to improve overall service delivery as part of the restructuring of the HSE, over several years, to which my hon. Friend referred. There is a centralised telephone contact for information and, from 1 April, there will be centralised telephone, e-mail and internet reporting of incidents. Staff in Sheffield already handle telephone and postal complaints, and almost all meetings are held at the premises of duty holders.

Those changes date back to 1976, when the HSE reorganised its field force from one based on numerous small offices and small districts to a national structure based on fewer large offices. The introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 increased its, responsibilities. It had to become flexible and keep abreast of developments in industry, which required a different organisational base if it was to meet the increased demands and keep up with developments. Those and subsequent changes have allowed inspectors to develop a deeper expertise--which is a safer way for the organisation to operate--by concentrating on a smaller range of industries and delivering more focused plans of work.

Further changes took place in 1995, when the HSE reorganised its field operations directorate to a regionally based structure. That included the formation of the Yorkshire and north-east division with its main offices in Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle upon Tyne. Most small district offices had closed, but some were retained as outstations; the Hull office had only four inspectors at that time.

Although Hull was retained as an outstation, much of the inspection activity in the area was carried out from the Sheffield and Leeds offices. Following the formation of the area structure in 1976, the chemical industry and most construction work on Humberside were inspected from Sheffield because of the need to keep staff together to develop their expertise, knowledge and experience. In 1995, inspection of the engineering industry transferred to Sheffield, with agriculture and the services sector, including the docks, being inspected by inspectors based

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in Leeds and Sheffield respectively. Those changes have not affected the coverage or standard of inspection. The people of Hull have not noticed the gradual switch from inspectors based in Humberside to inspectors based in the Sheffield and Leeds offices. The HSE inspects the same premises, investigates the same accidents and participates in the same events, as it would have done if the Hull office had not been reduced. However, the range of inspector resources and expertise available in the Yorkshire and north-east region cannot be delivered by only three or four inspectors.

It is not only the HSE that has recognised the need to deploy its resources differently, and to enable its staff to work together to develop the expertise and depth of experience that they need. Several trade unions have also closed their offices as they rationalise their structures to provide a more effective regional service, so the HSE is not out of step with other organisations.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the efficacy and efficiency of the service is more important than the location of individual small offices. The HSE must use its resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. It must therefore have staff resources that can be deployed in a planned manner to meet strategic demands. That is an important part of the Government's revitalising health and safety strategy.

Inspection and investigation policies are set by the HSE nationally on the basis of risks arising from work activities, irrespective of location. Decisions to investigate accidents, incidents and reported ill-health are determined by their nature and severity, not by location. The HSE puts considerable effort into ensuring that its approach and standard of service is the same across the country irrespective of distance from the office. That applies as much to Humberside as to any other part of the UK.

Resources need to be flexible so that inspectors can be redeployed, often at short notice, to respond to changing priorities. Having small numbers of inspectors in small offices does not aid flexible deployment. I understand why the closure of small offices, such as that in Hull, might cause concern, but I reassure hon. Members that the decision was not taken lightly. It followed a thorough UK-wide review that considered the needs in the region and those in Humberside. The restructuring changes are in line with changes in the service industry and in other agencies.

When coming to its decision to close the office, the HSE also considered the need for a local office to serve the people of Hull. However, the office receives few personal callers and, as I have said, telephone and postal complaints are already handled by Sheffield staff. There is also soon to be a centralised telephone contact for the reporting of incidents. I think that the conclusion that there was a limited need for an office physically located

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in Hull was rational. The main need is for liaison and joint participation with local organisations to continue as before.

The HSE will continue to service the needs of those areas. In general, the same staff will continue to participate in local meetings and liaise with trade unions, local authorities and employers organisations. Where possible, the HSE will maintain and increase contacts with local organisations, in line with revitalising the health and safety strategy. It will continue to develop partnerships as it does in other areas of Yorkshire and the north-east division. The HSE also proposes to acquire premises in Hull in which to host meetings with employers, local officials and the public. My hon. Friend derided the notion of surgeries, but they are a more responsive way of linking with local stakeholders and meeting their changing demands. I am sorry that he derided that offer, because I think that that approach is very important. It could be a way of developing services in the future.

Staff considerations have been an important factor in the decision. At present, there is only one inspector in the Hull office, who is due to retire in June, and an administrative officer. Two operational managers remain in Hull, but the staff that they manage are in Leeds and Sheffield.

Staff development has also been an important consideration. The HSE has a large number of trainee and relatively inexperienced inspectors. To develop their careers, inspectors must be able to move posts to gain experience--in a larger office that would be possible. The pooling of expertise and experience is an important ingredient in encouraging and enabling staff to develop. For that reason, inspectors are increasingly reluctant to join a small office and, as a responsible employer, the HSE is reluctant to move staff against their will.

My hon. Friend mentioned consultation and referred to the meeting with trade union representatives in May 2000. The amount of work already being carried out from Leeds and Sheffield came as a surprise to the representatives at the meeting. The reasons behind the decision were discussed and understood, if not accepted.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Sykes report, about which there seems to have been some misunderstanding. The report referred to by my hon. Friend "Accommodation Review--Future of the Hull Office" was not the Sykes report. It is a different report, produced by the HSE estate management team about the financial implications. I will ensure that a copy of that report, if that is the one that he wants to examine, is placed in the Library.

In conclusion, the decision to close the Hull office should not be seen merely as a local decision. The centralisation of HSE offices resulted, in the first instance, from the increasingly complex demands placed on HSE, and a desire to maintain safe and equal standards across the country.

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