14 Mar 2002 : Column 315WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 14 March 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Health and Safety at Work

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

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I welcome this afternoon's Adjournment debate on Government policy on health and safety at work, because it gives us the opportunity to discuss in depth the progress of various initiatives and the work that remains to be done.

The Government are committed to the health and safety of workers. That is why the Deputy Prime Minister launched "Revitalising Health and Safety" in June 2000, which successfully provided much needed impetus to improve occupational health and safety. The debate gives us an excellent opportunity to set out what progress has been made and examine health and safety policy that we need to prioritise and further promote.

Immediately following the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, there was a dramatic reduction in workplace fatalities and injuries, but, over recent years, health and safety improvements have levelled off. Every year, more than 1 million people are injured at work, and approximately 2 million suffer from ill health caused by work. Last year, tragically, 295 workers were killed due to work-related activity. That is unacceptable, and the human cost is immeasurable.

The economic burden of health and safety failures runs to almost £18 billion a year. Exposure to asbestos is one example, and I am pleased that my Department will use its pneumoconiosis compensation scheme to make payments to those affected by the recent Fairchild judgment. We are discussing with colleagues in other Departments what further action can be taken in the long term and we await the appeal to the House of Lords by those affected by the judgment.

Health and safety in the workplace is a central moral idea. Workers should be able to expect to return from work in the same condition that they went. However, action to improve health and safety is not only a moral imperative—the cost of which falls on employers—but an investment for employers.

I am aware of the competitive nature of business, but health and safety management must be a fundamental component of good business management, increasing productivity and, therefore, competitiveness. That is why the Government decided to increase the resources of the Health and Safety Executive. We provided an additional £63 million following the 1998 comprehensive spending review and added a further £45 million in December 2000.

The extra resources over the past three years have allowed for an overall increase in HSE staff, including 120 inspectors. I am sympathetic to many issues raised

14 Mar 2002 : Column 316WH

in the Prospect campaign for additional resources, especially more front-line inspectors, but, for good reasons, demands on the HSE will always outstrip the resources that are immediately available. The Health and Safety Commission will bid for resources in the 2002 spending review and the Government will consider its proposals carefully.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): HSE funding is important, so I must tell my hon. Friend why I hope that he will look sympathetically at the need to increase resources. I recently dealt with a case in which the HSE would not directly investigate a gas explosion that injured three people in my constituency. Indeed, the whole community could have been killed had things gone more seriously wrong. The HSE said that it could not investigate because, among other things, it was investigating another gas explosion, which killed someone three miles away. That kind of rationing is not acceptable.

Dr. Whitehead : My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the need to investigate accidents and to inspect workplaces regularly. To some extent, those aims may be set against each other, and priorities should be set in a way that ensures that both are met. That is a question not only of ensuring that additional resources are available, but of giving priority to increasing the number of inspections. The HSE has done that. Indeed, the number of inspections has gone up to cover 10 per cent. of workplaces. The priority programme introduced by the HSE provides for resources to be concentrated in a way that enhances inspections and the availability of inspectors.

My hon. Friend, of course, is right about resources, which is why the bid has gone into the 2002 spending review. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has carefully considered the bid and fully supported its submission to ensure that the HSE obtains the necessary resources over the next spending period.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): My hon. Friend says that more than resources is involved, and I accept that. Will he tell the House whether he envisages introducing further legislation? I ask because my constituent, James Browne, has campaigned tirelessly to get to the bottom of why his son, Neil, was killed in February 1995 while working as an electrical contractor. Mr. Browne believes that his son's employer should have provided better training, which could have prevented his son's death. Will my hon. Friend consider whether further legislation is needed on, for example, the responsibility of big companies in that regard?

Dr. Whitehead : My hon. Friend also makes a strong point. He suggests that some people firmly believe that legislation is required to take forward several items on the health and safety agenda, and the tragic case to which he refers may strongly underline that view. Indeed, "Revitalising Health and Safety" makes several proposals for legislation, including clarifying the courts' sentencing powers for health and safety offences; introducing fixed penalties for some health and safety offences; enabling private prosecutions in England and Wales without the consent of the Director of Public

14 Mar 2002 : Column 317WH

Prosecutions; clarifying the law on the health and safety responsibilities of directors and senior managers; and removing Crown bodies' immunity from health and safety enforcement.

The document therefore identifies a range of possible issues for new legislation, which we are examining. There is no final view on which will be brought forward, because several involve other aspects of Government business and other Departments. However, when parliamentary time is available, we intend to legislate on a number of issues raised by "Revitalising Health and Safety" and the subsequent responses.

The document contains a long-term strategy with strong emphasis on working in partnership. For the first time, targets will be set for the health and safety system. Those include reducing the number of working days lost per 100,000 workers from work-related injury and ill health by 30 per cent. by 2010; reducing the incidence of fatal and major injury accidents by 10 per cent. by 2010; reducing the incidence of work-related ill health by 20 per cent. by 2010; and achieving half those targets—a milestone—by 2004.

The targets must be considered in the context of what has been achieved so far. The 1974 Act has stood the test of time and we see no case for major reform, but the strategy in "Revitalising Health and Safety" makes a number of proposals for amending health and safety legislation. We may be able to legislate on some areas sooner than others. In the meantime, we shall continue to work with the HSC and the HSE under existing legislation to deliver improved safety in the workplace.

The setting of targets by "Revitalising Health and Safety" has been a catalyst. It is encouraging to see the private sector committing itself to delivering its own targets, which contribute to the national effort. So far, 25 traditional industry sectors have done so, with a further eight to follow suit. Trade unions and local authorities have made a significant contribution in each of those sectors, demonstrating the true partnership approach that the "Revitalising Health and Safety" initiative needs to succeed.

Many sectors have set targets that go beyond the initiative. It is right that industries and organisations that currently perform badly, such as construction, should deliver health and safety improvement beyond the national targets. Setting targets in the food, paper, rubber and quarry industries has shown that they can motivate management, employees and trade unions to work together to change their approach to managing health and safety.

The HSC decided that it needed to prioritise and focus resources and efforts on areas where major improvements are necessary if the targets are to be met. It selected eight priority areas: three sectors—agriculture, construction and health services; and five hazards—falls from height, workplace transport, musculo-skeletal disorders, stress, and slips and trips. The hazards occur in industries where large numbers are employed, the incidence of injury or ill health is high and we have the levers to achieve change and success in combating those hazards. We are only nine months into the programmes and it is too early to tell from the

14 Mar 2002 : Column 318WH

accident figures how successful they are likely to be, but the HSC is confident that its work is progressing satisfactorily.

In October last year, we had the second Working Well Together conference, which reviewed progress in delivering the action plans agreed at the February construction summit called by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The message is that a huge culture change is needed in the construction industry if fatalities, injuries and ill health are to be reduced. That requires greater client involvement, more partnership down the supply chain and improved competence at all levels. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and I have asked the HSE's chief inspector of construction to report to us regularly on the progress that industry is making. We are determined to achieve improvements, particularly in the construction industry.

The priority programme for agriculture was severely disrupted by the foot and mouth epidemic, but most restrictions have been lifted and inspections and safety awareness days are being resumed. By the end of March, several thousand self-employed farmers and workers on family farms will have attended free safety awareness days.

Workplace transport accidents are also an issue. On 15 January, I had the pleasure of launching the HSC discussion document, "Preventing Workplace Transport Accidents". It seeks views on the matter and will eventually influence HSE activities and inspection programmes. About 70 people die every year in workplace transport-related incidents. Significant improvements can be made in that area, as they must be made on the railways.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I appreciate that the debate is about health and safety in the workplace and the prevention of accidents, but may I raise with the Minister a transport incident that occurred in my constituency? A lorry shed its load, two elderly people were killed and three cars were written off. The insurance company that covered the vehicles said that there was no claim on it because the vehicles did not collide and the company dealing with personal liability said that there was no claim on it because the lorry was incorrectly loaded and overweight. Surely there is a loophole here. Does my hon. Friend agree that something needs to be done? How many lorries and other vehicles run about illegally on our roads every day, with the potential to kill and maim?

Dr. Whitehead : My hon. Friend's point goes to the heart of the issue of workplace transport priority, which has been put forward by the HSC. There has always been an issue as to what constitutes workplace transport—that is, transport around the workplace—and what is transport that goes from the workplace but is not in it.

There has been a specious divide between the position of a driver who sheds a load or causes injury while driving around the workplace—that comes under one regime—and one who drives through the gate, goes round the corner and sheds the load as a direct result of some requirement of part of his working day, which

14 Mar 2002 : Column 319WH

comes under a different regime. The recent Dykes report, which I have discussed with Mr. Dykes, points out that a third of all fatalities on the road are work related—people are involved in fatal accidents while going about duties that they are required to do by their employers.

The incident that my hon. Friend mentions concerned a lorry that was involved in just such an accident. I have discussed the issue with the HSE and we have looked at how matters concerning workplace transport and transport relating to the workplace can be better combined. It is important to pursue that further if the cause of workplace health and safety is to be advanced. Improvements relating to workplace transport can be extended to the railways, and the HSC has published today a progress report on part 1 of Lord Cullen's inquiry. It is vital to exert maximum pressure to achieve the necessary safety improvements.

I could list many achievements from each of the eight priority programmes, such as the publication of revised guidance for employers on work-related stress that was launched in June 2001, the back in work initiative, slips and trips road shows around the UK and identification and sharing of good practices in patient handling in the health service. The newest and arguably the greatest challenges, however, lie in occupational health. They are often in industries that are not regarded, at times by their managing directors, as ones in which accidents in the workplace occur. Overwhelmingly, the main concerns about conditions in such offices and other places where people use computers relate to so-called musculo-skeletal disorders, or MSD; effects on the joints, tendons and muscles; and the effects of excessive stress.

Britain needs a healthier and more productive work force. The Government are determined to reduce health inequalities, whether attributable to work or otherwise. That involves preventing workers from being made ill and ensuring that those excluded from work though sickness or disability—about 2.3 million of them—are rehabilitated as quickly as possible. Furthermore, the workplace is a strong setting for delivering information to help people to lead a healthier lifestyle. That opens up exciting possibilities.

The wider agenda requires a new approach that reaches out to attract national commitment. The cultural change needed cannot be achieved by Government regulation alone, although that has its part to play. We must convince everyone involved of the positive benefits of tackling the issues, including bottom-line financial benefits, and make it easier for them to tackle those issues. The recent cross-Government strategy, "Securing Health Together", is aimed at that. It is one of the planks of "Revitalising Health and Safety".

Partnership is vital to success. I am pleased that many of the initiatives involve industry, employees and the trade unions together. The joint Confederation of British Industry-Trades Union Congress initiative, "Creating Partnerships for Prevention—Joining Up Health and Safety", is an excellent example of different and innovative approaches. A more joined-up approach in the Government to bring the main health and safety

14 Mar 2002 : Column 320WH

elements—fire safety, building regulations and occupational health and safety—into one directorate has contributed to partnership and working together.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): On the question of joined-up government, is the Minister aware of "Undermining Construction", a report produced by the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians? It makes it clear that the Treasury and the Inland Revenue, by encouraging false self-employment, contribute to the number of accidents in the building industry. Does he agree that that number of accidents would be reduced drastically if he convinced the Inland Revenue and Treasury to be much tougher on that issue?

Dr. Whitehead : Consideration of several aspects of the construction industry is important. It had and still has a poor health and safety record in terms of ensuring that those employed in it are properly protected. As my hon. Friend knows, certain practices could be said to have contributed to that record. It is important to recognise that the recent Government-led initiatives to bring elements of the industry together begin to point the way to ensuring that health and safety is taken seriously at the centre as an element of employment. It will be an important step forward if, as a result of that, better consideration is given to the way in which people are employed in the industry, thereby facilitating health and safety.

An issue for the construction industry and many other industries is the presence and operation of safety representatives. The case for such representatives and employee involvement more broadly is already well made, but the body of evidence for their efficacy keeps growing. Recent research published by the HSE, in a document called "Employee Involvement in Health and Safety: Some Examples of Good Practice", shows that companies that ask employees for their views on health and safety issues can cut down on accidents.

I must thank the Learning and Skills Council and the TUC, working with the HSE and my Department, for their efforts to put in place arrangements to fund and provide training for safety representatives. I look forward to positive results from the initiative.

It is also important that we recognise that the primary responsibility to manage risk effectively and provide healthy and safe workplaces rests ultimately with employers, and company directors in the example of large organisations. The HSE guidance, "Directors' Responsibilities for Health and Safety", was published last summer following a consultation that elicited an excellent response from unions, employers and other organisations.

Bill Callaghan, the chairman of the HSC, and I have written to the top 350 companies in the country to remind them of the challenge to set out their policies and targets for improving health and safety performance and to record their achievements in their annual reports. That is an important initiative and we shall report on its progress shortly, and on those companies that have yet to respond to it.

The challenge applies equally to the Government. All Departments are being encouraged to publish their health and safety performance in their annual reports,

14 Mar 2002 : Column 321WH

and to assign health and safety responsibility to a senior official at a level equivalent to that of director. It is important to keep the pressure on. Although a lot has been achieved to secure improvements in the health and safety system, there is still a long way to go before we meet those challenging targets in 2010.

Our next major milestone is reaching the 2004 targets. I am confident that we are on track to achieve that. On 29 May, we are holding a conference entitled "Take Action" to review progress on target setting and to name and acclaim good practice. I am confident that, working in partnership with the HSC, the HSE, employers and the unions, the Government will face the challenges and deliver the targets we have set ourselves.

Mr. Davidson : The Minister says that he is willing to name and acclaim those companies that contribute to implementing Government policy. Is he willing to name and shame those companies that do not?

Dr. Whitehead : My hon. Friend may have picked up on my reference to the letter that has been sent to the top 350 companies in the country. I am minded not only to acclaim companies that have responded to the initiative, but to ensure that those companies that have not are identified. It is important to do both.

I recently visited a quarry in Telford that won an award from the industry for its health and safety record. It was apparent from the working practices that the management, the work force and everybody involved in the company treated health and safety as a central concern. That was reflected in terms of the number of fatalities and injuries there, in an industry that is inherently dangerous. It has difficult working practices and a historically high injury rate.

It is right that that company was named and acclaimed, because it not only has an exemplary safety record, but it makes a good living, partly because it is pre-eminent in health and safety practice. That means that its employees need fewer days off work and it suffers fewer shutdowns because of injuries on the line. Workers stay with the company for a long time, because they value their positions.

That company is doing well as a result of its very good health and safety record. It is right to name and acclaim, but it is also right to identify those that shamefully neglect health and safety as a way to secure cut-price profits or to get through the working week. They are damaging not only the health and safety of their workers, but their own prospects, so it is important that we both acclaim and shame.

Mr. Lloyd : That is helpful and I agree with the Minister, but does he agree that there is still a missing dimension to the process? Although it is good to name and acclaim, because that encourages the health and safety culture, and good to name and shame, it is also important to prosecute. Prosecuting and giving penalties—those are inadequate and should be raised—are an important way to send the message that good firms have nothing to fear from the new health and safety culture, but rogue firms do.

Dr. Whitehead : Yes, it is important in HSE practice to take measures that may end in prosecution, if

14 Mar 2002 : Column 322WH

appropriate. The HSE recognised that it should investigate more reported cases, and the amount of firms investigated has risen from 6.7 per cent. to about 10 per cent. Some of those investigations will result in prosecutions, and an increased number have been undertaken. However, stop notices or improvement notices may be put on a company, which will ensure that it improves without preventing it from doing business.

We should proceed with a combination of approaches, including prosecution, notices, naming and shaming and naming and acclaiming, where appropriate. The HSE has a good record of managing its approach to inspection, enforcement and prosecution and using the weapons at its disposal.

The health and safety of people at work is fundamental to successful business. I described one business in which the health and safety of the workers made a vital contribution to productivity and profit. Firms should not only comply with health and safety law, but go a stage further and make a thoroughgoing commitment to a better working environment. That is the attitude that "Revitalising Health and Safety" wants to engender and which will serve us well as we debate the subject.

I welcome the debate and look forward to hearing hon. Members' views on the issues to which I have referred. I hope that together we may ensure that the health and safety agenda is put on the map for future years.

3.2 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Again, this Chamber gives us the opportunity to debate matters for which there is little time on the Floor of the House.

We shall hear speeches from Labour Members, who will cite individual cases and, thereafter, call for health and safety legislation to deal with them. We all respect the fact that 1 million people killed and injured in the workplace, which is the figure that the Minister quoted, is 1 million too many. However, he rightly set out the case that making legislation too onerous and burdensome and gilding European legislation makes United Kingdom firms uncompetitive and forces them out of business. Those who lose their jobs will certainly suffer health and safety problems, and the country will have to put up taxes unnecessarily.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I have a lot of issues to cover and I shall not give way many more times.

Mr. Clapham : I want to pick up the hon. Gentleman on his point about the profitability and competitiveness of British industry in relation to health and safety legislation. Is he aware that the British deep mining coal industry is the safest in the world, has the most stringent safety legislation and is the most competitive in Europe?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but legislation is not necessarily what creates good health and safety regimes. Everyone who has an interest

14 Mar 2002 : Column 323WH

in health and safety should promote it through their firms, but excessive legislation is not always needed as support.

We should bear it in mind that proper risk assessments must be made. We should ask, "What is the risk involved and do we need legislation?"

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I shall give way once more, and that will be the last time.

Roger Casale : Of course some companies will introduce proper health and safety measures to protect their work force in the absence of legislation, but we need legislation to promote best practice everywhere.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : We have had all-embracing legislation since the 1974 Act was passed. Of course, where issues arise, it may be necessary to change the law, but as I shall show when I cite some European directives in a moment, we are going too far in the direction of "nanny state knows best." There used to be a maxim that sensational cases make bad law, and it is unrealistic to call for legislation every time something goes wrong.

I want to raise three issues. The first is based on a representation that we received from the Engineering Employers Federation. The second, which has been brought to our attention by Calor Gas, relates to charging. The third is white asbestos. There is concern that the HSE is, in some cases, unaccountable and that its remit to maximise profits does not recognise commercial realities, which I shall illustrate in a moment.

The Government have proposed possible legislation to introduce a category of corporate manslaughter and an offence of corporate killing. The EEF says:

It continues:

The EEF goes on:

Hon. Members of all parties are concerned that we are increasingly passing legislation that turns a civil matter into a criminal offence. Having a criminal record is serious, and the Government should think carefully before they make more civil matters criminal offences. The EEF says that the correct way forward is for employers to work in partnerships, which the Minister mentioned.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 324WH

The EEF welcomes some new Government proposals, such as placing a duty on local authorities to give the HSE information about enforcement. It welcomes the proposal to give the HSE access to National Assembly for Wales and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs data. Above all—a matter of concern to this House—it welcomes the removal of Crown immunity from the Palace of Westminster.

The EEF cites the burden of European directives, in particular four proposed directives on vibration, noise, optical radiation and electro-magnetic radiation, saying that the vibration directive is of particular concern to manufacturing industry. The limit value—the point beyond which exposure would become criminal—is set too low, so that many everyday processes will be criminalised. The EEF says that the directive also contains requirements to limit exposure to whole-body vibration:

We are worried that some of those EU regulations are not properly thought out or researched and not based on hard fact.

The second issue relates to the remit of the HSE. The HSE is required to maximise receipts. That was brought to our attention by Calor Gas, which is a leading supplier with 11 sites rated top tier and 23 sites rated lower tier. It has operated in the United Kingdom since 1935 and has never had a fatality at any site. In March 1999, the Government introduced a new, more burdensome system of charging for HSE inspections, safety reports, assessments and enforcement. Under a subsequent comprehensive charging review, the cost to the company will be £250,000 more than under the old regime—the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1984. The new regime is the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999.

The company believes that it is being unfairly treated. It has storage capacity for 849 tonnes of liquefied petroleum gas and employs 86 people. The health and safety report that must now be made will take approximately 800 hours. The oil industry has storage capacity for 12.5 million barrels and 300 employees. Its health and safety report will take only 325 hours. Calor Gas believes that that is unrealistic.

The company is particularly concerned that it referred the cost of the extra time spent on the health and safety report to the appeal body, but did not receive a satisfactory answer. It was told that the HSE has no real interest in keeping the cost competitive. It seems totally wrong that the HSE can demand a report with no democratic accountability or proper appeal mechanism. That is a case ripe for the involvement of the European Court of Human Rights.

The company says that the charges fail the better regulation principles of proportionality and transparency, are not predictable and provide a perverse incentive to prolong work by the HSE. The charges cannot be challenged impartially and independently, although that principle is enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 325WH

The third and most serious issue concerns white asbestos. There is a new European directive—there always is—and the Minister said in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) on 12 March 2002:

The Government, not content with gilding that particular lily, put out to consultation a requirement that all public and commercial buildings must be surveyed for asbestos and a proper management regime put in place. That is perfectly reasonable for blue and brown asbestos, but the jury is out in the case of white asbestos—[Interruption.] If hon. Members listen for a minute or two, I shall allow them to intervene.

Numerous parliamentary questions have been tabled by Conservative Members and the Government always rely on scientific evidence in the papers of Professor Peto and Professor Doll from 1985-95. They examined the deaths at the Turner and Newall factory at Rochdale, which Labour Members know well, and by linear extraction only estimated from that hotspot that the number of deaths throughout the country would be 3,000. They were unable to allocate those between brown and blue and white asbestos. Indeed, it has emerged that Turner and Newall used only white asbestos after 1945.

One might think that that makes the case on white asbestos, but Dr. Alan Gibbs, a Cardiff histopathologist, discovered from electro-microscopy that no lungs of people who died from mesothelioma contained white asbestos fibre. That has been accepted by the HSE. He is not a statistician who has taken a hotspot and linearly extrapolated from a graph or any other theoretical material. He is a medic who has examined lungs, and he has not found that a single death from mesothelioma—the cancer caused by blue and brown asbestos—involved white asbestos.

Mr. Lloyd rose—

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Hang on. Labour Members need to be patient.

Dr. Gibbs published that evidence in a 1995 paper for the Medical Research Council and the Institute of Environmental Health. The Government also rely on evidence from Hodgson and Denton, but they are two statisticians employed by the HSE, and they took the same evidence from the Turner and Newall factory. If the Peto and Doll evidence is flawed, so is that of Hodgson and Denton.

The Americans take the matter seriously. They have examined evidence from scientists all over the world, and they have downgraded their health and safety regulations in relation to white asbestos. After the

14 Mar 2002 : Column 326WH

11 September tragedy, it was estimated that 40 tonnes of white asbestos were released into the atmosphere by the collapse of the world trade centre. The Environmental Protection Agency publicly advised that there was no danger to the public. If the American EPA gave that advice after 40 tonnes of loose white asbestos fibres had been released into the atmosphere, something must be wrong with the thin evidence on which the Government are relying.

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

Mr. Clifton-Brown : If hon. Members are more patient, I shall allow them to intervene.

White asbestos has a totally different chemical composition from blue and brown asbestos. Blue and brown asbestos are iron silicate, whereas white asbestos is magnesium silicate and is similar in composition to talcum powder. Every one of us breathes in 2,000 fibres a day.

Dr. Whitehead : Wrong. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that talc is similar to white asbestos, as coal is similar to diamonds? In respect of the properties of white asbestos and talc, one is fibrous and the other is not. That is the fundamental difference, which the hon. Gentleman appears not to take into account.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : We can all make such ripostes. White asbestos is classed by the European Union as a class 1 carcinogen, but so too are hot alcoholic beverages and nickel compounds such as the euro.

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

Mr. Clifton-Brown : No. I have just given way to the Minister. We need to examine the scientific evidence in an open and impartial way. I call on the Minister to do that.

What will be the effect of regulations that are based on—let us face it—flimsy scientific evidence? If any damage to buildings is occurring, all asbestos must be removed. It is estimated that that will involve a survey of 1.2 million buildings, at a huge direct cost to the taxpayer. A range of common building products, such as asbestos cement and artex sealing, will be included in the survey and any degradation to such asbestos compounds will mean that they will have to be removed. It is estimated that compliance costs to the country will be between £1.2 billion and £8 billion, although a recent written answer stated that it will be £4.8 billion, and, under the Government's revised guidance to allow amortisation over 50 years, it might be reduced to £3.6 billion. Whichever the cost, those are big numbers.

Commercial costs may be much bigger because many property experts predict that if a building is more than halfway through its commercial life, it is cheaper to demolish it. We have already heard stories of cowboy operators who remove asbestos illegally and dump it illegally with no record of where it is kept or of the type of asbestos that it is.

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

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I want to make it clear—then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman—that I am not

14 Mar 2002 : Column 327WH

arguing that the regulations should not apply to blue or brown asbestos, which are killers because they are carcinogens. White asbestos is in a different category.

Mr. Dismore : Prior to coming to the House, I practised for 20 years as a personal injury lawyer. I dealt with quite a few asbestos cases, including some in which people were only ever exposed to white asbestos. The last case with which I dealt before I was elected to Parliament, for example, concerned an engineer who was involved in the original commissioning of the Bankside power station, which is now the Tate gallery. He was exposed only to white asbestos, and he contracted mesothelioma. If it did not come from white asbestos, where did it come from?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman—this is a bit gruesome—had that person's lungs analysed. If he did, I should be interested to receive the details. We are all fallible. I presented the information that is coming to me. If the lungs were analysed and if white asbestos fibres were found to have caused the mesothelioma, it would, of course, be useful evidence. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give that evidence to the inquiry for which I shall call.

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should pop up and make that intervention, as we are seeing an increasing number of litigation lawyers advertising that they deal with asbestosis claims; the legal bills are rising all the time. If such claims are based on flimsy scientific evidence, it is another cause for concern.

It is not only the property industry that is concerned, and it is not only the legal industry's costs that are mounting; insurance costs are also mounting hugely. Sun Alliance recently published its six-monthly profit figures, which had declined from £459 million last year to zero this year. Although its report says that that was partly due to 11 September, it also states that asbestosis claims were the biggest single cause.

Mr. Clapham : Asbestosis?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I said asbestosis.

The latest cause for concern—this is the European Union putting its oar in again—is that Directorates-General III is trying to classify white asbestos cement, which is encapsulated, as being the same as loose blue asbestos. That will further escalate costs, but such cement is not dangerous. The Government have admitted that asbestos is not dangerous when it is encapsulated within a building material. If such a measure were enacted, a licence would be required to remove white asbestos and to dispose of it.

Furthermore, there are accusations within the EU that the commercial companies producing alternative products are pushing that legislation. In asking the Government for an independent inquiry, I challenge them on whether the alternatives are safe. One of the main alternatives is cellulose, a fibrous product, which I understand has not been tested as a carcinogen. It has certainly not been compared with white asbestos.

Hon. Members have tried to intervene on me and some of the information that I have been given may well be wrong. None of us is infallible, but whatever the

14 Mar 2002 : Column 328WH

rights or wrongs, I hope that the Minister will realise that this is a highly serious issue involving billions of pounds of compliance costs, which may be unnecessary.

Mr. Dismore : And thousands of lives.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Perhaps the cost is thousands of lives; who knows? There may be better ways to deal with the problem. The problem, and those who believe that white asbestos is not a problem, will not go away. The official Opposition are today calling on the Government for a full inquiry, to which I hope the Minister will agree, to allow all the evidence to be presented and evaluated.

I do not want to denigrate safe health and safety practices, but in all our businesses, including this place, we should look for better practices in health and safety in order to reduce injuries and deaths in the workplace. It is not always a case of more inspectors, more legislation and gilding European legislation. We need to look sensibly at the problems, the risk assessment and how that risk can be minimised. Even when we leave the Chamber and cross the road, there is a risk. There is a risk present in most things that we do in our daily lives, but we cannot legislate for everything.

3.24 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I shall respond briefly to a couple of points made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). His speech amounted to a discussion of re-legitimising the use of white asbestos, which he referred to as almost the equivalent of talcum powder. He disputed the scientific studies, but his case certainly could and would be disputed. The characteristics mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister in his intervention are relevant.

The argument advanced by the hon. Member for Cotswold was almost the same as the one that we heard for years about smoking. That industry used the excuse that the scientific evidence was flimsy. The hon. Gentleman makes the same argument for those who want to bring back white asbestos. As for his point about not making civil offences into criminal offences, a lot of people's lives have been lost and are being lost due to negligence or deliberate malpractice. That warrants being treated as a crime and should even result in imprisonment for those who bring about such loss of life.

Whatever happened to the Conservatives' deterrence theory? If there is no penalty, there is no incentive for employers to improve their practices, and there is more loss of life as a result. I thought that the Opposition's approach to a most serious debate that involves many people's lives was disappointing.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Harry Cohen : Very briefly.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I should like a chance to clarify what I said, as I believe that the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. My point was not that there should not be penalties. For some of the more serious offences, there should be very severe penalties indeed, perhaps involving heavy fines and even imprisonment. That is different from imposing a criminal penalty for what is

14 Mar 2002 : Column 329WH

essentially a civil matter. A criminal penalty, as the lawyers on the Government Benches will know, involves someone's character being stained for the rest of his life.

Harry Cohen : For the victim, an offence means the loss of his life or serious injury. I hope to see the hon. Gentleman and his party join me in the Lobby, when we have the opportunity, to vote for introducing an offence of corporate manslaughter.

Mr. Davidson : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way before he has made progress on his own speech. Does he agree that anyone listening to the Opposition could form the view that the Tory party had become a subsidiary of the Canadian white asbestos industry? The Opposition seem to be much more exercised by that matter than anything else. Does my hon. Friend share my regret that the Opposition spokesman said nothing about construction and did not have a word to say about false self-employment? It must be said that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was doing fine until he spoke.

Harry Cohen : My priority, which should be Parliament's priority, is victims and their families. That is the basis on which we should take action.

I welcome the debate. I sought an Adjournment debate on the same topic for a considerable while. I welcome the Government's commitment to health and safety at work, which my hon. Friend the Minister spelled out. I should say at the outset that the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians, the trade union of the construction industry, gives a regular donation to my political party and that I am on its panel of parliamentary advisers. That is not a vested interest on my part, but a common interest. My concerns for health and safety—such as getting asbestos banned—predate that arrangement with UCATT.

Death and occupational sickness in the construction industry are running at high levels. Deaths are at their highest for a decade. Fatalities have reached more than 100 a year for the first time in a decade, bringing the total for the past 10 years to 921. The construction industry, with 7 per cent. of the British work force, accounted for nearly 36 per cent. of all industry fatalities last year. Workers in the construction industry have the highest rate of working days lost due to work-related injury, at 650 days per 1,000 workers.

A report by Amey Vectra to the Health and Safety Commission estimated that ill health cost the construction industry £760 million per annum. At the CBI conference, its director-general, John Cridland, pointed out that

That is the extent of the cost of occupational ill health.

That cost is worst of all in the construction industry. In February 2000, at a summit organised by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government put much emphasis on improving health and safety. Several targets were set to reduce the incidence of fatalities in major industries by

14 Mar 2002 : Column 330WH

40 per cent. by 2004-05, and by 66 per cent. by the end of the decade. Targets were also set to reduce the incidence of cases of work-related ill health by 20 per cent. by 2004-05, and 50 per cent. by the end of the decade, and to reduce the number of working days lost per 100,000 workers from work-related injury and ill health by 20 per cent. by 2005, and 50 per cent. by the end of the decade. That was welcome.

There was an October follow-up conference to revitalise the health and safety action teams, but I fear that the Government did not have the same enthusiasm at that conference as they had in February. Since then, the employers' organisation, the Construction Confederation, has engaged in what looks like backtracking from the pilot scheme that was set up in the construction industry. It has moved away from that pilot project, which shows the resistance and recalcitrance of the construction industry employers in that regard. We can no longer rely on them to make improvements voluntarily. The Government must seriously consider placing requirements on those employers, if the targets are to be met. That is vital, as are enforcement penalties if the employers do not meet the targets.

The situation in London was detailed in the Daily Hazard of November 2001. It pointed out that in the previous year, 33 people were killed at work, and 16 of them were construction workers in London. The magazine added:

That outlines the situation.

I have another example, from The Big Issue, which states:

The fact that the case was not taken forward by the Crown Prosecution Service highlights serious inadequacy in our criminal justice system. The article in The Big Issue continues:

That shows the shortage of inspectors. The health and safety trade union document "Prospects for Safety" quoted an anonymous health and safety inspector who said:

That is shocking.

Other quotes indicate that inspectors do make a difference. For example, one inspector says that when he goes on site, helmets are immediately put on. Inspectors make a difference, but one can understand how soul-destroying their work load is.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): We all have great concerns about any death, particularly in the construction industry. A significant amount of large-scale construction takes place in my constituency. However, it strikes me as bizarre that only one in 20

14 Mar 2002 : Column 331WH

accidents that result in injury are investigated, according to the hon. Gentleman's quote. I simply cannot believe that. I ask that he investigate further and provide full information to the Minister. Clearly, there are obligations on any employer, particularly in the construction industry, to ensure that there is a full report, and the Health and Safety Executive is brought in if there is a serious accident leading to fatality.

Harry Cohen : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I will not follow up on it, as other hon. Members will not have a chance to speak. However, it is clear that there are not enough inspectors for the many accidents that occur. That is the central point. They do not do nearly as many inspections as they would like to do.

Insufficient money has been allocated. "Prospects for Safety" states:

It goes on to give figures. There is a relatively small increase, which comes about because of what the HSE charges the nuclear, rail and offshore sectors. The document continues:

The Government are not putting enough money in, and "Prospects for Safety" comments:

That would be £35 million well spent.

I shall summarise what needs to be done. There must be new regulations for control of asbestos at work. Workers should have the right to know where the asbestos is, and a trade union representative should be involved in the management of that risk. A campaign for corporate accountability has been launched. Its membership includes bereaved people, the TUC and others. It calls for legally binding safety duties on individual company directors, a new law on corporate killing, a substantial increase in the number of health and safety inspectors, a power for union safety representatives to serve provisional improvement notices and many other changes.

The Government must take action. In particular, a new corporate manslaughter offence must be included in the next Queen's Speech and enacted in the next Parliament. There must be no Crown immunity for this place or any other. For example, the Army got away with reported deaths because it claimed Crown immunity. Let us get rid of that, but get many more health and safety inspectors and more cash in the system. We could start with an extra £35 million.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 332WH

3.39 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): This is an extremely important and serious subject, though perhaps not politically glamorous. It is well worth debating.

The Government appear to be trailing some of their ideas for legislation, which we will doubtless consider shortly. Their ideas have been trailed twice already in the Queen's Speech, and I hope that we see some action before long. As the Minister frankly acknowledged, health and safety is a deteriorating problem. The figures given to me by the TUC show that in almost every major sector of employment last year, the number of major accidents increased.

There is a paradox that I do not understand—I came to the debate today partly to help me understand it. We are getting two contradictory messages. The first message is that our system of health and safety enforcement is extremely weak. According to my figures, only one in 12—rather than one in 20—major accidents, including serious accidents such as amputation, are investigated externally. That should answer the question of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Of the cases that are investigated, only one in 10 results in a prosecution, and in those prosecutions, the average fine is about £5,000, which is ridiculous for a large company. We have a regime which, on many levels, seems to be lax, accommodating and tolerant of accidents.

The second message is a complaint, which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) tried to make and which I hear every time that I speak to business, about red tape and regulation. When I ask for examples, almost all concern health and safety. How do we reconcile those two factors? I shall come back to how we might reconcile them, but first I want to discuss some issues concerning legislative change.

The big question is corporate killing. In the light of past experience, where it has been almost impossible for the Crown Prosecution Service to launch prosecutions under involuntary manslaughter provisions—the most topical is Railtrack—there is a clear need for a change in legislation. That would attract wide support in business. I was surprised when the hon. Member for Cotswold referred to the Engineering Employers Federation paper, because he read it selectively. One line that he did not read puts a totally different light on it. The EEF said:

In fact, most responsible employers would have no problem with such an offence, because in many respects they are subject to the threat of imprisonment already. People in a small company that is not public can go down for manslaughter. Those involved in aspects such as food safety can go to prison. The Scottish butchers who sold contaminated meat that led to a food poisoning epidemic a few years ago went to prison. This is not a new principle, and most businesses would accept that the most heinous cases should result in criminal penalties.

The problem, which is much more subtle than the hon. Member for Cotswold allowed for, is how we can couch the legislation so that the people who are prosecuted in the big companies are the real offenders and not scapegoats. We can all envisage a situation in a big company in which a relatively weak member of the

14 Mar 2002 : Column 333WH

management team is given the health and safety job, or the company is told that it should have a token woman or member of an ethnic minority in a management position, so it gives them the safety job. Those would be the people who go down if there were a prosecution. Such scapegoating could happen, so the legislation should be careful to avoid it. That is a subtle point, which relates to legislative drafting, not to the principle of corporate killing.

Another issue for legislation concerns statutory immunity for Government. I did not hear that point mentioned, although the Minister read through his list rather quickly and I may have missed it. Why are the Government not subject to the same rules as the private sector? If a senior civil servant is responsible for health and safety in a Government building and, as a result of extreme negligence, another civil servant is killed or seriously injured, why should the civil service not be subject to the same scrutiny and penalties as the private sector? There is no moral or other justification for Crown immunity in the civil service. Many private businesses would accept tough standards of health and safety if they believed that the Government applied the same rigour to themselves as they demand of them.

The Minister spoke about all the targets that the Government are setting. During parliamentary questions, I asked how many Departments are setting themselves proper targets for reducing sickness, but I did not receive a satisfactory answer. Are the Government asking the Health and Safety Executive for help to reduce sickness, as they expect the private sector to do? The Government must lead from the front, not set prescriptions for business.

The Minister spoke about penalties. In many respects, penalties in relation to health and safety are hopelessly inappropriate and trivially small. I did not understand the Minister's point about fixed penalties. That almost reduces health and safety to a parking offence. Token fixed penalties are not appropriate. Serious abuses incur large and painful penalties that are proportionate to the injury and reflect the resources of the company involved. I am not sure how a fixed penalty regime helps enforcement. Perhaps the Minister will explain.

I did not hear the Minister mention rehabilitation. Will he say whether the new legislation will encourage rehabilitation—an aspect in which British industry does so badly? In Sweden, one in two injured employees eventually goes back to work, with the help of the company. In this country, the figure is only one in 10. Trade union research suggests that only one in three British companies has a policy to help with rehabilitation. Will the legislation contain a provision to bring pressure to bear to make rehabilitation part of a company's duty?

Will there be provision for strengthening the position of workplace representatives? A few weeks ago, workplace learning representatives were given enhanced status under new labour legislation. Will those provisions be extended to safety representatives who are crucial for the improvement of safety consciousness? I am talking not only about union representatives. I do not know how many hon. Members received the submission from St. John Ambulance, but it argues that the ability to respond to industrial accidents improves

14 Mar 2002 : Column 334WH

enormously if there are trained first aiders in every workplace. St. John Ambulance asks whether something can be done by example, if not legislation, to give first-aiders a greater status in the labour force. I hope that the legislation will address those issues.

I refer again to the apparent paradox of relatively weak enforcement and businesses constantly telling us that they suffer from over-regulation and red tape. I am sure that the increased number of inspectors do a useful job. Much of their work is unspectacular. It is not about penalising or pursuing companies, but about prevention and advice. All that is useful. However, companies often tell me that the number of powers that the HSE has to enter industrial premises has risen from 150 to 300 in the past 20 years. Many inspectors operate independently. As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) said, they may be under a lot of pressure. However, they often work in an entirely unco-ordinated way. One hears stories—some may be apocryphal but sound plausible—that an HSE inspector enters a premises and demands that a floor be laid in the interests of safety, and a few weeks later another says that it should be taken up under a different safety provision.

Such duplication and confusion in the inspection system is a major bugbear. No doubt the Minister has considered the matter before. There should be a designated single inspector who looks at a company in the round, particularly small businesses. Clearly, a careful approach would be needed, because if one inspector were allocated to one company for a period of years, unhealthy relationships could develop. A system is needed that makes it much simpler and easier to implement companies' regulatory obligations.

The second specific question about enforcement concerns risk assessment and cost-benefit analyses, which the hon. Member for Cotswold spoke about. I have one good example of that which, if it is true, is an appalling reflection on the system. It was brought to my attention about a year ago by an organisation called the British Compressed Air Society, which represents a group of companies that deal with pneumatic equipment. It was concerned about a rather technical but important area of industrial safety: whole body vibrations through equipment. Arm vibrations and the problems of pneumatic drills are a separate issue.

Apparently, the British authorities, either in the Department or the HSE, prepared their own regulation, which they then took to the European Union to turn into a European directive. They did not consult the industry or the unions: they acted within the industrial safety machinery. Once they had obtained European approval for the directive, someone in the British Government decided that a risk assessment was needed. That was carried out and it was concluded that the costs of the new regulation would exceed the benefits by a factor of seven. Costs of billion of pounds would now be inflicted on the industry, quite unnecessarily. As the industry explained, it could meet the Government's objectives with a proper risk-bases approach. It could adapt the equipment in a way that met the objectives. However, the Government pressed ahead. They had got European approval and the directive is now in the process of being implemented.

I hope that the Minister can confirm whether that story is true. If it is, and there is no reason why the BCAS should have told me an untruth, it illustrates the

14 Mar 2002 : Column 335WH

extraordinarily cumbersome way in which the Government deal with regulatory problems, the lack of prior consultation with both sides of industry and the fact that they either do not carry out a risk assessment or ignore its findings. There are some important lessons to be learned.

The debate is narrowly constructed around the issue of health and safety at work. As health and safety is part of a wider culture, it is probably appropriate to refer to the news stories this morning about how the recommendations of the Cullen and Uff reports have not been implemented. In the Cullen case, 20 of the 40 recommendations that were accepted by the then Secretary of State have never been implemented. Only one in five of the Uff recommendations have ever been implemented. As the Minister has a responsibility for railways, as well as for health and safety, perhaps he can explain to us what has gone wrong. Is it a failure of the companies? Is a failure of Government? Why is the safety culture that we want industry to take seriously not being applied in an area that is of enormous public concern?

3.54 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): May I say to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that John Monks's investment in speaking at the Liberal Democrat spring conference certainly paid dividends. I recognised the TUC brief all the way through the hon. Gentleman's speech. I agreed with much of what he said, but I did not go along with the idea that no woman or black person could be in charge of health and safety. That may be a difference between Labour and Liberal Democrat Members.

The most remarkable speech that we have heard so far was that from the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I was astonished that, although he conceded that there were problems with health and safety, he did not talk about them and offered no solutions, even ones that might be different from mine. He talked instead about retrenching the health and safety regime, but if the Conservative party has nothing to add to the debate other than a request for existing legislation to be retrenched, it is out of touch with the needs of modern Britain.

Even now, we see Tory Members of Parliament leaping up and down and becoming highly agitated about industrial disputes. However, Parliament and the country must recognise that, although 500,000 days were lost last year through industrial stoppages of all kinds, 6 million to 7 million days are lost every year through injuries at work or health breakdowns for occupational reasons. The scale of health and safety need is massive, compared with the issues that have preoccupied the Conservative party for a generation.

It is about time that we realised what that problem means, as it results in a loss of efficiency in industry and a huge cost to the nation. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) quoted the figure of £23 billion, I think. It is interesting that one of those who drew attention to that figure was the deputy director-general of the CBI. The issue concerns not only employees, but all of us and how we develop the safety culture that we need.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The hon. Gentleman has slightly misrepresented what I said. I am very concerned about

14 Mar 2002 : Column 336WH

any aspect of health and safety where people are injured or killed. No one condones that in any way. The Opposition are not against health and safety legislation, but we want good, well targeted and, above all, necessary legislation. That does not prevent us from criticising the Government when we think that they have got things wrong.

Mr. Lloyd : I do not disagree. Indeed, I found the hon. Gentleman's speech interesting. He was effectively saying that the Conservative party is in favour of health and safety, but we cannot afford too much of it. That is radically different from what even the CBI says.

I do not want to dwell on the hon. Gentleman's speech, but he made another two astonishing points. One was about not criminalising civil offences. If I drive my car recklessly or carelessly, however, there is no circumstance in which that would not be considered a criminal offence, because I have put the safety of my passengers, my fellow citizens and myself at risk. The idea that we can do that in the workplace and it should be only a civil offence is barbaric. It takes us back to the baronial rights that I thought even the Conservative party had gone beyond.

The hon. Gentleman is equally wrong about white asbestos. He said that insurance companies were concerned about massive payouts, not for mesothelioma—although that is a dreadful form of cancer—but for asbestosis. The hon. Gentleman may have doubts about the mesothelioma-causing properties of white asbestos, but I hope that he has none about the asbestosis-causing properties of white asbestos. If he has, he is sadly wrong.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Again, the hon. Gentleman has misrepresented what I said. I did not say that there would be no circumstances in which criminal sanctions should be invoked in health and safety legislation; I said that there was an increasing tendency for the House to pass legislation in which criminal sanctions are involved in essential civil matters. That is totally different from what the hon. Gentleman said.

Of course there will be people who contracted mesothelioma—a dreadful disease that leads to a dreadful death—from blue asbestos and brown asbestos, and there should be proper legislation and proper compensation where workers have been proven to contract it. However, that is different from saying that the scientific evidence—at least the evidence that I have been given—shows that white asbestos is as dangerous as blue or brown asbestos.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. Before we proceed, I must point out that some interventions are at the limits of tolerance. Many hon. Members want to catch my eye. I appeal for co-operation in limiting interventions so that as many Members as possible can contribute to the debate.

Mr. Lloyd : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not give way again to the hon. Member for Cotswold, who is a nuisance.

Asbestosis is not a bag of laughs in any circumstances: it is an extremely unpleasant condition. Beyond any doubt, it is caused by asbestos, including white asbestos.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 337WH

The key factor in health and safety is the culture. Firms that set out to achieve a high standard of health and safety can do so. For many years, the chemical firm DuPont ran a 100 per cent. non-accident regime. The staff, from the management right the way through the work force, tried to achieve that goal, and the company did what it set out to do. All firms should follow that example. We need to examine how best to develop that culture.

I was pleased to hear the Minister emphasise the need for partnership. If full partnership across the work force—from top management down to the bottom—were ever needed in any aspect of corporate life, it must be in the creation of a health and safety culture. I strongly endorse the suggestion of examining the role of the safety representative. There remains a gap in respect of the right of properly accredited safety representatives—usually sensible people—to stop the job when it becomes dangerous. Some jobs, especially in the construction industry, can be incredibly dangerous, yet the work force may not have the protection of automatic dismissal when the safety representative finds an unsafe regime. We do not develop a safety culture as we should.

Several hon. Members referred to the need for proper sanctions for corporate killing. The gap in the law is huge. It is years since the Herald of Free Enterprise and Ladbroke Grove incidents, but we are still discussing whether prosecutions should take place. There must be proper sanctions and, for the most heinous crimes, people should go to jail. In any other walk of life, killing people or putting lives at risk is considered so serious that those responsible are put in jail with no compunction. The comparison with motor offences is immediate and obvious.

It is now 18 months since consultation on the White Paper closed. That involves another Department, but I ask the Minister for joined-up government. The message should go out that we want suitable legislation in the next parliamentary Session.

I should like to say a few words about the Health and Safety Executive. Many dedicated people make good things happen and spend their careers trying to improve the culture and climate of health and safety. The Health and Safety Executive remains significantly underfunded. I was pleased to hear what the Minister said about the bid. Perhaps it is up to Back Benchers to pressurise the Treasury to ensure the success of that bid. The Health and Safety Executive has to ration funds, mainly because it does not have the resources to pursue prosecutions. Last year, 1,500 prosecutions out of a total of 2,000 were successful. That can be seen as good or bad: prosecution is not the only way of making progress, but it can be important in extreme cases. We must bring transgressors before the courts, but not enough of them are being put in that position.

The courts let the Health and Safety Executive down by the penalties that they impose. The accurate figure for fines is not just below £5,000 across the board, as we should not include large fines of £100,000 or more. A simple calculation of what someone would be paid by an insurance company for losing a finger shows that an

14 Mar 2002 : Column 338WH

employer is asked to pay less than an insurance company. That cannot be right. It is not a practical deterrent.

Many other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall conclude. I am grateful to the Government for this debate. The subject may not be glamorous, but it is massively important, so I congratulate the Minister. He said that the newest and possibly greatest challenge is occupational health, but there is nothing new about the issue. Ever since the old nursery rhyme "Pop goes the weasel" was written, we have known that occupational hazards kill our fellow citizens. Occupational health is a new challenge only because we have not attended to it before. It is, however, an enormous challenge and we must get it right, because otherwise we are taking part in the brutal slaughter or the erosion of the health and quality of life of many of our fellow citizens. That cannot be just.

4.5 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), and promise that I will not jump up and down on the subject of industrial tribunals. He has seen me do that too often and too recently, so I shall behave myself on that issue. I am aware of the time and will attempt to be brief, but I wish to preface my remarks with an apology, because I may not be able to stay for the whole of the debate.

Many hon. Members have said that health and safety is vital to all our constituents. I am sure that all hon. Members have had tragic cases brought to them, some of which involve negligence, some are genuine accidents and some are due to poor working practices. Fortunately, the record of Conservative and Labour Governments is generally good on this issue. During the last 10 years of Conservative government the number of fatalities halved to 249 in 1997. Clearly, that is still too many, but it compares well with the 1,310 fatalities in Germany in the same period. Good progress has been made, and the Labour Government elected in 1997 inherited a generally good situation, although not across the board.

The Government plan to pursue further changes. In December 2000, they announced a new health and safety Bill, and we await action on that. I welcome the intentions that underlie the "Revitalising Health and Safety" programme, although the Minister will understand that I am not thrilled at the prospect of another Government 10-year plan. I hope that it does not suggest a lack of urgency on the part of the Government on what are important issues.

Several guiding principles must be followed when shaping health and safety legislation or developing initiatives. One of those is the test of reasonableness. I suspect that, in the past few days, we have all reminded ourselves of the 1974 Act. The important opening principle set out in that Act is that all employers should provide, as far as reasonably practicable, a healthy and safe workplace. That test of reasonableness is critical, because it seeks to balance definable risks against the practical actions necessary to minimise risk. I am wary of suggesting that risk can be completely eliminated.

We must get the balance right, or we risk ending up with silly extremes that undermine the whole argument for health and safety. A case was brought to my

14 Mar 2002 : Column 339WH

attention recently that involved a man who was refused a job because he was too tall. A misinterpretation of the regulations led to concern that he would damage his back. I am sure that all hon. Members are familiar with similar cases, and I do not wish to involve the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) in a debate, but I am sure that no such concern would apply to me.

We must avoid extreme cases. Yesterday, an announcement was made in Brussels of the introduction of the physical agents vibration directive. Although we await the final details of the directive, as I understand from some of the reports, if it were to be enacted as it stands someone using a road drill could not do so for more than 47 minutes in a working day. Clearly, such a situation would be unacceptable. I cannot imagine how the Government would ever get their road building programme under way.

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

Mr. Prisk : I will not give way because of the time pressure.

I am aware of the potential cost of the directive. Can the Minister confirm that the cost of implementing it would be between £3 billion and £4.8 billion, as the HSE has set out? Will he tell us if and when the Government intend to enact the directive? I believe that there is a maximum three-year period. Do the Government intend to enact it as it stands, or will they review its proposals? Can the Minister guarantee that the Government will not try in any way to gold plate or enhance the nature of the directive, if and when it is implemented? Gold plating, to which several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), have referred, is an important and worrying matter that we must bear in mind. We must ensure that regulations are not disproportionate to the risks involved.

Another principle of good health and safety initiatives is that legislation should set minimum standards. If we are over-prescriptive in our legislation, or if the standards set are unrealistically high, that can be counterproductive and undermine good will. That good will is essential, because without it, the ability to create a culture that embraces the idea of a healthy and reasonably safe working place is undermined. That is why I welcome the partnership approach in some of the Government's initiatives.

I am a chartered surveyor by profession, so the construction industry is familiar to me. The working well together initiative is a good example of active partnership in a sector that needs much work. However, only with leadership from within the industry can such initiatives succeed. I hope that the Minister will agree that work by organisations, including the National Federation of Builders, is helping to provide that important leadership.

I ask the Government to recognise the need to ensure that the regulatory burden is appropriate and, in particular, to have due consideration for small businesses. Last year, 4,642 new regulations were implemented, which could represent a considerable burden for small businesses. In framing health and

14 Mar 2002 : Column 340WH

safety legislation, I ask Ministers always to bear in mind the problems of the smallest firms, especially those with less than 10 employees.

On that note, I welcome the publication of the Government's regulatory reform action plan, with its proposals to reform the complex fire and safety legislation. At present, there are some 120 different measures relating to that. I am pleased to see plans for consolidation, but that is only the beginning. There is much, much more to do.

My final point on the framing of Government policy for health and safety legislation is to stress that there is no such thing as absolute safety. We should always make that clear. Accidents will happen, as hon. Members have said. They happen in the workplace and elsewhere. It is important that neither the legislation that we pass nor the language that the HSE and Government use encourages the belief, even inadvertently, that we can create absolute safety and somehow insure against all risks. I genuinely believe that that could encourage people to be less careful, which, ironically, would be counterproductive to what we are trying to do in the first place.

The United Kingdom under both Labour and Conservative Governments has a generally good record. Creating healthy and relatively safe workplaces is very important. I call on the Government, in developing their policies, to ensure that they recognise the test of reasonableness in the measures that they introduce and in their implementation. They should accept that legislation should establish minimum standards, and that good will and voluntary good practice are just as important as legislation. They should also ensure that they never encourage a notion of absolute safety, because if they do, they will undermine their good intentions.

4.14 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): I declare an interest as I chair the all-party group on health and safety, and the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians sponsors my constituency party. I also want to thank the Minister for his hard work in ensuring that interim measures were introduced to pay compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 to people suffering from mesothelioma cancer, who are awaiting next month's hearing in the House of Lords. That was an important development.

I want to refer briefly to construction, but I shall avoid going over ground that has already been covered. I shall also discuss the need for an increase in the number of Health and Safety Executive inspectors. Finally, I want to talk about the role of the trade union safety representative, which needs to be enhanced. Before I do that, I want to refer to a couple of points, one of which was made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the other by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk).

I refer the hon. Member for Cotswold to several recent reports, one of which was from the interim chemical review committee, which is a committee of the United Nations environment programme. It suggests that all forms of asbestos should be subject to international trade controls to eliminate the risk

14 Mar 2002 : Column 341WH

associated with the material. Studies in France and Japan suggest that white asbestos is clearly a carcinogen. It may not be as dangerous as blue and brown asbestos, but none the less it presents a danger.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford referred to the new directive, which is likely to come in, to protect people who use vibrating equipment. Has the Minister considered gold plating that directive? There are already 113,000 claims registered by men who are suffering from vascular and neurological damage from using vibrating tools in the mining industry. If the hon. Gentleman were to come and sit with me on a Saturday morning at my surgery, he would see men whose fingers are like four white stubs. They come to see me about the arrangements for paying compensation. We must ensure that that directive is effective. If it is to be effective, the Minister needs to consider its application carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) stated that there have been 105 deaths in the construction industry in the past year. As he knows, the Deputy Prime Minister was so shocked by the appalling statistics covering the construction industry in the past 10 years that in February 2001 he arranged for a construction summit, which resulted in an action plan being drawn up to be applied to the industry. It would have involved all partners, but unfortunately the Construction Confederation has withdrawn from that partnership. A number of pilots were to have been set up across the industry, but the Construction Confederation has for some reason decided to withdraw its participation. Will the Minister try to persuade that body to become involved again and get the pilots back on track, because they present a real opportunity to take positive action? We should take a radical look at the construction industry and consider how we can persuade employers, unions, the HSE and insurers to work together to ensure that we attain a culture in which the number of accidents in construction is cut.

I turn to the argument for an increase in the number of health and safety inspectors. I take note of the Minister's comments on the bidding process. The strategic plan for 2001-04 includes the projection that the issuing of notices and prosecutions will increase by 14 per cent. and 10.5 per cent. respectively. However, the HSC data for 2000-01 show that the HSE is likely to fall short of its projections. If that were to happen, it would be because there were too few inspectors.

I refer the Minister to the campaign being conducted by Prospect, the trade union that represents health and safety inspectors. It calculates that, for an extra £35 million, the number of inspections could be doubled. At present, a factory works unit can expect a visit from an HSE inspector once every 10 years, but the extra investment would cut that by half. I ask the Minister to consider the serious proposals that Prospect has made, and the possibility that we could double the number of inspections for that outlay.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the inspections should be targeted at those companies that have a bad health and safety record, so that if there were a serious breach of health and safety,

14 Mar 2002 : Column 342WH

the company could be inspected every six months or every year? If there were no serious breach, a company could be inspected every three or five years. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that might be a constructive approach?

Mr. Clapham : We certainly need to ensure that there is service right across the industry. The HSE may consider how it could ensure that a company with a bad record was inspected more regularly than others, but we would still need across-the-board inspections. We should leave the HSE to draw up its agenda for dealing with companies with a worse record.

Mr. Lloyd : My hon. Friend is right in saying that we must have universalism. Advice is needed in the agricultural sector, as it is a dangerous sector in which to work, although it is not always recognised as such. However, the most important issue relates to occupational health, which concerns long-term chronic illness and death, rather than injuries. That is why we need universal inspection.

Mr. Clapham : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. While we are speaking about occupational health, I refer the Minister to the fall in the number of people covered by occupational health schemes. I read somewhere recently—I regret that I cannot remember the reference—an article containing statistics provided by the Government's chief medical officer. It stated that, in the past 25 years, the number of people covered by occupational health schemes has fallen from 52 to 32 per cent. That is why we need more inspectors. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. We do not want a repeat of the problem that afflicts my constituency and all mining areas, where cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have resulted in 177,000 claims being registered. In my constituency, we have the highest rate of disability anywhere in the country. That is the legacy of the coal mining industry.

I believe that occupational health schemes should be plugged into teaching hospitals and universities. The coal mining industry had an occupational health scheme that was second to none, but it failed to link up with teaching hospitals and universities to ensure that longitudinal studies were undertaken. As a result, tens of thousands of men left the industry each year due to disability. The occupational health scheme never drew the connection between the numbers leaving and chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It is important that where schemes operate, they are linked to teaching hospitals and universities.

I now turn to the announced role of the health and safety representative. Health and safety legislation brought many improvements. One of the best improvements was the trade union health and safety representative, who was trained and was able to ensure that risk in the work place was mitigated. We now need to consider carefully how we enhance that role. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) suggested that trade union safety representatives should be given the right to stop the job. Trade union representatives in Australia already have that right, and it would be a step forward in tackling some of the current difficulties in United Kingdom work places, particularly in construction.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 343WH

When the Minister considers new legislation, will he bear the railways in mind? The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) referred to the rail industry. There is concern about drivers' hours, which are not covered by European regulations because they were excluded from the original directive. The new directive introduced in 2000 could be extended to cover them. Will the Minister consider that carefully? I am told that the 1994 regulations that apply to train drivers and their hours are not suitable. Train drivers work long hours, and Lord Cullen made reference to that when he reported on the Ladbroke Grove accident. Will the Minister consider extending the new directive to cover train drivers' hours?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Before we proceed, it may help those present if I indicate that I intend to call the Minister at 5.20. Hon. Members can see how many of their colleagues want to contribute, and may tailor their contributions accordingly.

4.29 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I confess that it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I stand to say a few words. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) has been a regular jousting partner of mine in the Standing Committee on the Proceeds of Crime Bill—I am not sure that it has been an equal contest. He came to me first thing this afternoon and said: "Well, it is health and safety. Are the Tories in favour or against?" I would like to think that he was only joking, because we clearly take such matters seriously. I will canter through what I was going to say in a few minutes because I appreciate that many other hon. Members want to have their say.

One difficulty with health and safety is that it is all too often trivialised. Today's front page of The Daily Telegraph—not natural reading for Labour Members—makes great play of the EU directive on physical vibration. Perhaps I am being flippant, but considering the state of London's roads, at times I would be grateful if workers were at their drills for as long as 47 minutes in one day.

I take on board the comment by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) that health and safety is a major issue that has affected the mining industry. I hope that it will not be trivialised, but raised in importance. I agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) who said that too often insufficient resources are put into the enforcement of rules and regulations, particularly for the planning side of local government.

I was grateful that the Minister recognised that the private sector has an important role to play in partnerships. The construction industry is particularly important, and I have already made it clear that it is a big industry in the Cities of London and Westminster, where we have an unacceptable number of fatalities.

Next door to the offices that I occupied when I ran a business before entering Parliament last June was a large construction site—indeed, those who have recently travelled two or three miles eastwards will have seen that much of the City of London is a construction site. Two

14 Mar 2002 : Column 344WH

or three high-profile accidents on that site led to fatalities, and I talked to safety representatives about what had happened.

There seemed to be no real evidence that consultancy status had had a particular effect. The problem was that relatively young construction workers who were on drugs or had been drinking fell from great heights to their deaths. I do not want to trivialise the issue, and I accept that management should have ensured that employees were not putting themselves at such risk.

Risk is an inherent part of daily life, and we cannot reduce it to nil. It is difficult for hon. Members, but particularly for Labour Members, to fully appreciate that accidents will happen, some of which will be fatal. Related figures on risk have been put into statistical terms for the rail industry, which has been given the prospect of enormous investments in new and innovative safety schemes. Inevitably, the railway industry—I am not attaching blame to the Government for this—must take a sensible view on risk, because all modes of travel have risks. A certain number of deaths per 1 million passenger miles is inevitable. That is not to say that great care should not be taken; many recent incidents on the railways have been due to individual driver error or human error.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) hit the nail on the head when he talked of the importance of common sense in examining all health and safety issues. As I said, prior to entering Parliament, I ran a small business—an office business with a dozen staff. I was worried about the level of over-regulation. I was one of two directors and we moved office on three occasions during my seven or eight years there. On each occasion, small-scale internal works were carried out in the offices, and health and safety officials had to visit our site several times to sign bits of paper. At one point, we put a kitchen in for the good of employees, and we had to have a health and safety inspection.

I had no objection to health and safety inspections or the bureaucracy that went with them. However, such inspections in tandem with payroll costs and further regulations cause great difficulty for a small business. I tried to quantify how much of my time as a director was taken up by Government regulations. It was about 10 or 15 per cent., plus time spent dealing with payroll and VAT issues. That is of great concern.

I would like to think that I was a model employer, and that most of my former employees would be happy to agree with that thought. However, it is easy to see that such a burden falling on the shoulders of a director in a relatively small business—perhaps even smaller than the one that I was trying to run—could cause real problems with profitability, particularly if the economy began to slow down.

Mr. Davidson : The hon. Gentleman may or may not have been a model employer, but he certainly is a model Tory. I asked, half in jest, if the Tories were for or against health and safety, after listening to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). It is clear that they are against it, because the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), whose greatest risk is detergent burn from laundering cash, has not accepted that rules and regulations must be made in considerable detail. Otherwise, employers cheat; they

14 Mar 2002 : Column 345WH

often cannot be trusted to be decent and to abide by rules. In such circumstances, bad employers benefit to the disadvantage of good employers.

Mr. Field : I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman has such low regard for employers. I think that the overwhelming majority of businesses are run entirely in the right way. If the hon. Gentleman feels that strongly about private employers, why is he not pushing much harder to ensure that Crown immunity is withdrawn? Clearly, the same concerns should apply to the public sector.

I appreciate that time is getting on. I shall wind up with this last thought, which is slightly outside the issue of health and safety at work. Many of the new norms for health and safety at work may apply to the private property rental sector. If we are to encourage affordable housing in London for the public sector workers who may require it, there is a risk that a significant number of the directives that apply to businesses will also apply to, and be gold plated in, the housing rental market. I hasten to add that I have no interest whatever in that market, but a private Member's Bill is being introduced. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply to the debate.

4.37 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) should not be duped by an individual piece of scientific or medical work. Some people still believe that the earth is the centre of the universe, that AIDS is not caused by a virus and that adult cells are better than stem cells.

We do not know how much blue and/or brown asbestos people have been subjected to, and we do not know whether they are an important part of the etiology of mesothelioma. I revere the odd dissident, but the balance of evidence is that white asbestos is involved in the etiology of mesothelioma. One must accept a consensual basis of science and medicine; that is what most people put to the test. For example, I know that the triple vaccine is much better than the single vaccine at preventing infection. We must not be fooled by the odd individual piece of work. Indeed, it is not the chemistry but the shape of the particle that is important, so there is no need to refer to chemistry. It is how the crystal is formed and shaped and its needle-like properties that induce health problems.

In the interest of allowing other Members to speak, I will make just one or two quick points about health and safety. Some people think that we are lucky not to be living in the age of the industrial revolution, and that we no longer have six-day weeks, 13-hour shifts and child labour, but I am not sure that such conditions do not still exist in many areas of the country. Seventy-one per cent. of people who fill in forms in workplaces report ill health due to their work. I am prepared to believe that their irritability, fatigue, sleeplessness, back pain and individual problems are related to their workplaces.

The social class basis of ill health and accidents persists. It has been the same since statistics were first calculated. Those who live in deprived areas, who have low-paid work, who live in poverty conditions, who

14 Mar 2002 : Column 346WH

work in the areas of the country where jobs require low skill or low industry, suffer more ill health—and so do the children. That statistic has not changed, whether it is for cancers, accidents or whatever. People in social class V are less advantaged than those in social class I. It has always been like that, and whenever politicians and trade unionists suggest changing health and safety conditions, business always screams blue murder and fights the improvements inch by inch, whatever they are.

The Government must treat health and safety much more seriously. They have committed themselves to tackling health inequality. The gaping divide between the health of those who are well off and those who are poor—we now call them socially excluded—is still part and parcel of Britain today, and it must be eliminated. Many new problems are appearing in British workplaces. Stress and mental health problems are starting to appear. Musculo-skeletal disorders have been mentioned. Violence and fooling in workplaces is a major problem, due to bad management. The organisation and downsizing of companies is edging many workers towards breaking point. We still overwork in this country. We still have the longest hours in the European Union, and we do more work for less pay. Sickness absence and suchlike problems are combined with unhealthy workplace practices.

Occupational health services are unevenly distributed. They are common only in large, unionised workplaces, with 96 per cent. of the health sector, but only 48 per cent. of education and 35 per cent. of the voluntary sector covered. Not all occupational health schemes offer the same services. Surveys suggest that although most offer first aid, proactive work such as health surveillance is offered by only half, and only a third offer advice about the prevention of injuries. Occupational health services are more often involved in disciplinary matters than in rehabilitation. That means that they are busier trying to get rid of people who suffer ill health than helping people back to work. The TUC is calling for a legal requirement that employers should have such a rehabilitation policy as part of their safety policy.

Occupational health should feature much more in the education and training of doctors. All doctors will come across people whose health has suffered due to their work. The HSE has been working with the General Medical Council to get more occupational health work in the curriculum for doctors, and I hope that medical schools will help in that. It is beginning to have some success. I welcome those developments, and I urge the GMC to adopt the proposals forthwith.

A more holistic and proactive approach could be taken to occupational health. I highlight that fact with some recent research on violence and mental health care. Violent attacks might be a special case in terms of health and safety, but as the violence task force recently pointed out, that problem is more prominent than was thought. It affects not only mental health workers, but social workers, care assistants, the police, medics, teachers, parking wardens, staff at benefit centres, and even Members of Parliament. Workers in call centres comprise one in 50 of the British work force, and they complain of frequent verbal abuse.

A clear holistic and proactive approach to the problem has been taken up by the nursing unions and nursing councils. They have become involved in

14 Mar 2002 : Column 347WH

assessing the prevalence of the problem. The training of staff, the design of buildings, the analysis of NHS policies and the identification of risk factors all feature in that report. It found an amazing fact, which I quote from the report. An anonymous person says:

However, she says that she is subjected to violence at least three times a week in her workplace—the South London and Maudsley in-patient mental health unit.

I urge the Government to consider the new problems that are emerging with occupational health and with the new diseases. Some issues involve more than hard hats—sad as the problems in the mining industry are and difficult as it has been to achieve the present legislation to deal with them. We must continue to work on those issues, but in any health and safety initiatives we must recognise and do something about the new diseases and health problems.

4.45 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I welcome the debate. If anyone had any doubt about the position of the two main parties, they had only to listen to the constructive speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and the disgraceful speech made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). If the Opposition are serious about becoming closer to the trade unions, his speech was not the way to go about it.

I shall focus on fatal accidents and corporate manslaughter. Before I became a Member of Parliament I was a personal injury lawyer—I suppose that I still am, as I am a partner in a firm, but I have not had any cases since I was elected. My constituency is sponsored by the GMB. During my professional life, I represented many families bereaved by avoidable accidents. Coincidentally, the first fatal case that I dealt with fell on the same day as the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 came into effect, 1 October 1978.

The fatalities with which I was involved—the deaths of individual employees, motorists and pedestrians—usually went unremarked in the press. However, the feelings of loss and the sense of injustice suffered by the victims' families were the same as those of people whom I helped who had lost loved ones in major incidents such as the Zeebrugge ferry disaster or the King's Cross fire.

During my investigations, I inspected what was left of King's Cross tube station three days after the fire. Nothing that I had previously experienced could have prepared me for the sights and smells of the fire's devastation. As I took statements from victims, distraught relatives, firefighters and tube staff, and as I sat day after day through the 93-day public inquiry and repeatedly heard of the failure of the senior management of London Underground, it struck me as outrageous that neither the company nor any of its managers would face criminal proceedings for the 31 deaths. That was because of the inadequacy of the criminal law.

The same problem prevailed after the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. In his inquiry report into the disaster, Mr. Justice Sheen said:

14 Mar 2002 : Column 348WH

The prosecution in that case also collapsed because of the same inadequacies of the criminal law. Those inadequacies have been highlighted recently by railway disasters such as the Ladbroke Grove rail crash.

It is not only the headline-grabbing fires and rail crashes that concern me. In the past 10 years more than 3,000 people have been killed at work, and hundreds of members of the public have met their deaths due to corporate neglect. Last year there was a 32 per cent. increase in the number of fatal accidents at work. Public confidence in industry and in the enforcement authorities suffers when the perpetrators of serious accidents escape prosecution on a technicality, rather than having their culpability tested in court to the same standards as apply to a private individual on a charge of manslaughter.

Only three companies have been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter. OLL Ltd. was prosecuted for the Lyme Regis bay disaster. The second case involved Jackson Transport, a young employee of which was drenched in a deadly chemical when wearing only a boiler suit. The third was in August, when a construction worker fell from the barn that he was building, where he was working with no safety equipment whatever. The company suffered a £25,000 fine, and that was the end of it.

Those three convictions expose the absurdity of the law of corporate manslaughter as it stands. Corporate guilt rests entirely on someone being able to prove the individual guilt of a senior company officer. However reckless or grossly negligent the company as a whole, it will escape conviction if no individual person—no "controlling mind" of the company—can be found guilty of manslaughter. The law is thus biased against small "one-man band" companies, in which it is easier to identify the individual manager or director to blame. Large companies escape because the accident is due not to the fault of an individual, but to the collective failure of the company's management systems. The bigger the company, the less chance there is of a successful prosecution.

I believe that only imposing duties on the most senior officers of a company will ensure that safety is given the same priority as profit. Safety awareness, and the great responsibility that it entails, should lie with those at the top—the chairman and chief executive—not with the employees, such as train drivers or ships' crews, who are always put up as the fall guys.

In 1996 the Law Commission recommended proposals for reform. When we were elected in 1997 an interdepartmental working group was set up. On 1 February 2000, the Select Committee report on the Health and Safety Executive recommended that the Government introduce legislation on corporate killing as soon as possible.

On 18 April 2000 I introduced a ten-minute Bill with a threefold purpose. It would have created a new criminal offence of corporate killing when the conduct of a company's management fell far below that which could reasonably be expected. Secondly, if a company were

14 Mar 2002 : Column 349WH

convicted of corporate killing, the court would not only have been able to punish the company severely, it would have had the power to order the company to put right the failings that had caused the death. Thirdly, it would have imposed on the senior management of the company—its chairman and managing director—an overarching responsibility for the health and safety of its work force, and, equally importantly, that of the public. When companies kill, it would have put their directors in the dock to answer for their actions and failings. If convicted, they would have faced not only the full rigours of the law, but the equally important power of the court to order them to put matters right for the future.

This is not about bashing responsible companies, it is about promoting safety. Most companies do a good job, and look after their employees and the public properly. However, some do not, and they use loopholes in the law to escape their just desserts. After I introduced that Bill, I received a letter from a Home Office Minister, who said that the Government accepted the principles behind it and confirmed that the Government would deliver—they were aware of the need to reform the law, and the Bill had added to their desire to do that.

In May 2000 a consultation paper was issued, containing many excellent suggestions. However, it would not have penalised directors for personal liability, other than by disqualification. That was a serious weakness in the proposals. The consultation ended in September 2000. Of the 166 responses, only one employer organisation was opposed to the new offence; everybody else was broadly in support. I was pleased to see the commitment on page 33 of our general election manifesto last year that:

I tabled a question after the election and was told in June 2001 that the Government intended to publish final proposals as soon as they had completed consideration of the responses to the consultation. They were determined to bring forward clear and workable legislation that would hold undertakings to account for serious wrongdoing and would legislate as soon as parliamentary time allowed. In November 2001, I was again told that legislation would be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allowed.

Two days ago, I was told that since the end of the consultation period the working group had met three times and had had informal meetings, no further meetings were scheduled and its report was expected soon; we might expect to see a digest of responses published shortly. There was no reference to legislation as soon as time allowed. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that was an oversight.

It is six years since the Law Commission published its proposals in March 1996. The subject has become such a popular and important topic for discussion that it is even on the A-level law syllabus now. It is a year and a half since the end of the consultation, and in that time hundreds of people have died at work because of the failings of businesses that kill their employees—and their customers as well—instead of providing the services that people are entitled to expect.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 350WH

The longer it takes for legislation to be introduced, the longer it will be before senior directors take their responsibilities seriously, and the more people will die. If we are to prevent further tragedies such as the Hillsborough disaster, the Clapham, Southall or Paddington train crashes and the Bradford City, King's Cross or Piper Alpha fires, tough new laws must be introduced, fast.

4.53 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): This has been an interesting debate. It has also been educational, not only in terms of the very positive contributions from Labour Members, but because Opposition Members, particularly Conservatives, have a very old fashioned view of health and safety at work. They appear to believe that health and safety are in opposition to profit, but that is not the case. In the modern work force, those two things go together. Progressive employers know that if their employees are off sick the company is not making a profit. In the modern work force, employees are not only the most important asset of a company, but highly trained and hard to replace, because unemployment under the Labour Government is so low, especially in the south-east.

Might I presume to educate Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)? When the hon. Gentleman referred to white asbestos—I am aware that The Daily Telegraph has been running a campaign on the issue—he talked only about mesothelioma. He appears not to know that asbestos—blue, brown or white—can also cause lung cancer, pleural plaques and asbestosis.

The hon. Members for Cotswold and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) referred to the recent European Union talks on vibration and the pending directive, and the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford seemed very surprised that the directive could lead to a 47-minute-a-day maximum for somebody using a road drill. I dealt with thousands of cases of vibration white finger before I was elected last June, so I know about vibration, and that limit is not at all unrealistic. My recollection is that in scientific terms the threshold is 2.8 ms2, which is a measure of the vibration. Often, when that threshold is taken into consideration, the time limit for use comes down to well below an hour.

I want to talk about insurance, particularly employers' liability insurance—a subject on which I hope the Minister and his colleagues can help me, either today or later. A scandal has been brewing in the insurance industry, particularly over asbestos liabilities, which were also mentioned by the hon. Member for Cotswold. Some insurance companies are crying the blues about having to pay out for asbestos claims. They took the premiums, but now they do not want to pay out, and the Government have had to set up the financial services compensation scheme as a kind of industry pool. Labour Members, and Conservative Members, too, I think, will know about the fiasco of Chester Street Holdings, which was a stitch-up by Iron Trades Insurance. Because of that episode, the taxpayer had to bail that company out to some extent, and set up the industry body.

We need an employers' insurance bureau like the motor insurance bureau. The financial services compensation scheme applies only when the employer

14 Mar 2002 : Column 351WH

and the insurer have gone bust. It does not, as I understand it, apply when the employer did not have any employers' liability insurance, or the insurance company could void the policy, or the policy could not be traced. Such gaps will become increasingly apparent in asbestos cases because of the length of time—the gestation period—between when a person worked for a company and when their first symptoms emerge, which can be anything between a minimum of about 14 years and a maximum of about 40 years. We need proper records.

In that vein, I urge the Government to consider changing what limited companies and other organisations have to include in their annual reports. For example, in their annual return to Companies House, limited companies should include details of their employers' liability insurance and their public liability insurance so that subsequent claimants could find out who the insurers were.

In the annual return companies should also name the officer responsible for health and safety. That officer should remain responsible until Companies House is notified otherwise, so that should that officer leave the company, the onus would be on him to ensure that the records were amended. That would allow private or HSE prosecutions of an individual, leading either to imprisonment or to heavy fines.

We need a nominated individual in companies, and each company should include in its annual return an annual safety audit. I urge that on the Government. The inclusion of the insurer's details, the name of the officer responsible for health and safety, and an annual safety audit should cover not only limited companies but all firms, partnerships and bodies corporate in both the private and the public sectors—and the Crown.

I welcome much of what has been said today, and what is in the papers published on this issue by the Government, particularly on corporate killing. I also salute the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on that subject. Sadly, he probably has more experience of that than any other Member of Parliament.

I welcome what the Government are saying about imprisonment, because if employers realised that they might be imprisoned, that would give health and safety legislation some teeth. That sanction should be more frequently used, alongside heavier fines. I also welcome what the Government are saying about extra money for the Health and Safety Executive, and the fact that a bid is being made in this year's spending round.

I urge the Government to continue putting their own house in order as regards the health and safety of Government employees. According to the TUC brief, few Departments have yet set targets in line with the national targets set out in the "Revitalising Health and Safety" initiative for reducing the number of major injuries, occupational illnesses and the resulting sickness absences. Perhaps the Minister will disclose more about that at the conference on 29 May.

I have some sympathy with the position adopted by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford about our health and safety legislation. It needs to be simplified, and I urge that on the Minister and his colleagues. However, simplification should not weaken the legislation but strengthen it. I broadly agree with the

14 Mar 2002 : Column 352WH

hon. Gentleman's proposition—although perhaps not on the detail—that some of the complexities of health and safety legislation can be counterproductive.

I often use the analogy of the video remote control of 10 or 12 years ago. It had about 100 buttons, but because it was so complex, people would use only four of them. The video companies got smart to that and started producing controls with only 10 buttons, and people now use six of them. The relative rate of use has increased massively, but so has the absolute rate. People use it more because it is easier. That is the sort of simplification that we want in health and safety legislation, because private and public sector employers would know more clearly where they stand and would be more encouraged to implement and follow it to help prevent the industrial diseases and ill health that plague our economy.

5.1 pm

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said, this has been an instructive debate. We now know that the Conservative party has no intention of introducing new health and safety legislation should it have the chance, and we have also learned that it has little understanding of the conditions faced by thousands of people in the workplace.

My hon. Friend identified an often overlooked aspect of health and safety—work-related accidents on the road. Such accidents have claimed a dramatically high number of lives and the figure is on the increase. The facts are startling. More than 1,000 people die every year in work-related road accidents in company cars or commercial vehicles. That is more than the number of people killed in all other workplace and industrial accidents. Statistically, company car drivers are the worst motorists. Last year almost one in three was involved in an accident, and they are significantly more likely to have been involved in a road accident than any other group of drivers.

It is not surprising that overburdened workers are putting their lives at risk on the roads. The RAC motoring report for 2002 found that the pressures of modern workplace life and the constant lack of time tempt drivers into unsafe driving habits. Three quarters of company car drivers make telephone calls while in their cars. More worryingly, 16 per cent. of them admit that they are always put under pressure by their bosses to drive to meet deadlines. More than 1 million company car drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel during the past year—so much so that they have to make a conscious effort to stay awake.

The statistics demonstrate the financial incentive for companies to change. The average cost of repairing a company car is £750, and it is nearly £1,400 for a van and £4,500 for a commercial vehicle. Those figures take no account of the cost of lost productivity and employee time. Whether they are the employers of some of the country's 400,000 taxi drivers, the nation's half a million heavy goods vehicle drivers or the owners of the 2.5 million company cars, the responsibility on British firms is clear.

As the Minister said in his opening speech, the Government are committed to health and safety at work. We have a legal infrastructure. I believe that we

14 Mar 2002 : Column 353WH

do not need to change the legislation; we need instead to change company culture. With 90 per cent. of businesses not taking action on the health and safety of their employees on the road, we need a wide-ranging comprehensive overhaul of attitudes towards off-site health and safety.

The current voluntary approach means that few companies take action to tackle the problems of safety that affect so many of their employee drivers. Many companies hire staff without giving any thought to managing their risk of accidents, beyond a cursory glance at a driving licence. Fewer than one in five drivers at work has received any training in safe driving or health and safety. The RAC, whose expertise stems from its role as an employer of some 3,000 fleet drivers, with a 1,200-strong patrol force, runs risk assessment and driver training sessions to improve the safety of its drivers. Its drivers are deemed to be at work from the moment they enter their vehicles, and health and safety obligations are applicable from the moment that the engine is switched on.

I admit to hon. Members that I am about to take part in a similar driver safety test at the RAC headquarters in Bestcot in the west midlands, not too far from my constituency, so when I have completed that, I may be able to offer hon. Members a few tips for driving home to their constituencies after weary debates on a Thursday afternoon.

Research shows that businesses with high awareness of health and safety issues also tend to have a better road safety record, so if the general standard of a company's health and safety ethos can be raised, measures aimed at preventing accidents on the road are also more likely to be implemented. The Minister mentioned sectoral targets. Perhaps we should consider trying to establish some voluntary targets for road safety throughout industry.

It should no longer be acceptable for a company's health and safety obligations to begin and end at the reception desk or factory gate. Reducing work-related road accidents will be a win/win situation. Society will benefit from an increase in general levels of road safety and fewer instances of personal tragedy, and business will benefit from reduced losses and increased productivity.

5.6 pm

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I start by declaring an interest because my trade union, the GMB, supported my campaign and supports my constituency party. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) rightly said, the interest that I am declaring is really a common interest rather than a vested interest, because we all have an interest in raising standards of health and safety.

It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) mentioned long car journeys at the end of the parliamentary week. One of the advantages of being a London MP is that we do not have to make those long trips, which are very dangerous for many hon. Members. We should consider many aspects of what goes on at the House of Commons from a health and safety point of view—not just the hours,

14 Mar 2002 : Column 354WH

but the mice that run around in the restaurants. I wonder what the Health and Safety Executive would say about that.

That is not a flippant point. If we are to show that we are committed to health and safety, which is about setting standards, we must demonstrate that those standards apply across the board. Conservative Members have been somewhat tested today. Every time anyone intervened on the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), he seemed to move on to a different line of argument. If Conservative Members are so committed to health and safety, why have certain issues been neglected for so many years, not least in the Palace of Westminster?

This is an issue about standards—standards that not only protect people at work, but improve quality, and so can boost profitability as part of a sustainable approach to developing a modern economy in the years ahead. In determining those standards, we should fully involve the trade union movement. There should be no retreat from the progressive raising of those standards, but we should also recognise that to do that requires a proper level of funding. That is why I have written to the Minister on behalf of my trade union, the GMB, to call for more funding for the HSE, and why I am calling for such an increase now.

In the few remaining minutes, I want to put forward a second argument in favour of increasing funding to the HSE. Like many Government agencies, the HSE relies on a charging regime to generate some of the revenues that it needs to carry out its work. In some cases, the charging regime operates unfairly and can distort or deflect from the HSE's priority of protecting the work force. In recent years, executive agencies and quangos have been pushed towards being more market-oriented. That trend was inherited from the Conservative party. Some have been privatised, while others have been pushed towards the market and appear so to relish that new freedom that they are more interested in making money than in carrying out their public duties. Although I greatly admire the work of the HSE, we must closely examine how the charging regime operates in practice.

I want to comment on the new tighter charging regime and the control of major accident hazards, and I listened carefully to representations from Calor Gas on how that regime applies to it. I do not have time to provide full details of the Calor Gas case, but we must ensure that the HSE operates in the public interest, especially in relation to its charging regime. I will write to the Minister about this case, and I look forward to his reply.

The charging regime is important, as it boosts HSE revenues, but there should be clear criteria for judging whether such regimes operate in the public interest. One such criterion should be predictability. Another criterion should be transparency, which is important in any approach to better regulation. As I will set out in my letter to the Minister, the current charging regime as it applies to Calor Gas fails on both those criteria.

There is also a danger that a charging regime for inspections introduces a perverse incentive. There may be cases where the HSE attempts to inspect and report more than necessary simply to make charges. I do not cast aspersions on any individuals in the HSE, but that general tendency may well be there. We certainly see

14 Mar 2002 : Column 355WH

similar examples in the way in which parking tickets are issued in parts of Westminster. Adding a profit motive can distort the HSE's key priorities of protecting the work force and ensuring public safety.

The Health and Safety Executive also runs its own disputes panel. Given the new human rights legislation, we must consider whether that is fair or whether it is better to have an independent critical examination of disputes.

Will my hon. Friend say when there is likely to be a comprehensive review of charging, and can he assure us that parties who are not subject to the overall duty to maximise receipts will undertake that review? Will he also ensure that the review will result in a charging system that does not carry the perverse incentive to prolong inspections unnecessarily, and that there will be a system of independent benchmarking of the Health and Safety Executive's work? Will he review the unsatisfactory disputes panel procedure, which at first sight appears to be a breach of human rights? An independent, impartial tribunal might be the effective antidote to the distorted priorities of maximising receipts. As I said, the Health and Safety Executive's overriding priority should be to protect and safeguard the interests of the work force. That is they way to secure the public interest in the longer term.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must declare that I have entered my interests in the Register of Members' Interests as I am a chartered surveyor. I do not believe that what I have said today impinges on that in any way, but I make that declaration for the sake of clarity.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : That point of order is duly noted.

5.15 pm

Dr. Whitehead : As declarations are the order of the day, I should put on the record my constituency development agreement with Unison.

This has been an interesting and useful debate. It has been informed by several Members who have a deep knowledge of the subject, a commitment to the furtherance of health and safety and an understanding of the issues that we face. I am grateful to those Members for their comments, which when the record of the debate is read will be seen as a substantial contribution. It will be difficult to respond in detail to all the questions that have been asked, but I shall be happy to write to hon. Members if I cannot cover particular matters. I imagine that that will result in lively correspondence.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Will the Minister include me in the correspondence? I represent Grangemouth, where the test case for the charging of Calor Gas took place. The changes affecting the Health and Safety Executive would impact greatly on the work force in my constituency.

Dr. Whitehead : My hon. Friend may wish to write to me on that matter. As charging has been mentioned, I should say that the Government intend to review the operation of the charges once they come in, especially in

14 Mar 2002 : Column 356WH

connection with the Control of Major Hazards Regulations 1999. Indeed, a review is under way and will report shortly on the effect in several charging areas. I imagine that that will inform the efficacy of the charging regime. The HSE is not under any injunction to maximise profits or income. The purpose of charging is to recover the costs of inspection, not to make a profit, and the charging regime is enjoined to work on that basis.

There is no doubting the role of health and safety in improving people's quality of life. Everyone has the right to carry out their job in safety, and we have heard different examples of the misery that health and safety failures can cause workers and their families, and the accidents that occurred, but which could and should have been prevented. We have heard about concerns that have perhaps been neglected hitherto, including accidents involving employees engaged in transport activities out of the workplace. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) paid particular and informed attention to that issue, which is an important part of health and safety although the accidents do not happen in the workplace.

I emphasised that it is not only workers who benefit from good standards in health and safety, but employers too. I opened the debate by noting that proper health and safety systems are not a financial burden for businesses, but an essential investment. We must be clear that good health is good business. Partnership, as the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) said, is an important element in ensuring that good employment practice and health and safety go hand in hand. Good standards in health and safety contribute to competitiveness by ensuring that there is a fit, available and motivated work force, preventing the economic and social exclusion of families, minimising the costs of accidents and lost working time, and promoting productivity and competent management.

I recognise that a key message from the debate is the clear responsibility of Government to enforce standards where necessary and appropriate. That point was emphasised in different ways by my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) among others. Enforcement is a powerful deterrent, and is crucial to deal with those who flout the law and commit the most serious breaches.

Earlier this year, the Health and Safety Commission published its revised enforcement policy, which has been designed to achieve an effective balance in what enforcers do. I support that approach. I am pleased that HSE inspector numbers have increased to deliver on the commitment to secure compliance outlined in the HSC and HSE strategic plan.

In the short time left, I shall deal with some of the specific points that were raised. It is not true—the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) suggested that he had information on this—that the United Kingdom Government initiated the new European Union directive on vibration. However, I was involved in discussing elements of the directive, and we have ensured that it works proportionately and provides measures that fully protect the work force and ensure that exposure over time and various other factors are taken into account. The discussions, particularly

14 Mar 2002 : Column 357WH

between the Commission and the European Parliament, and the resulting directive, have been a good method of ensuring that an area that was scandalously neglected is now protected.

I think that my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned the effects of white finger and people who are effectively paralysed as a result of exposure to whole-body or other forms of vibration, such as hand-arm vibration, in their working life.

I regret that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) did not concentrate on the issues that I thought he might have discussed. He spent quite a lot of time talking about white asbestos. I suspect, although I have no concrete evidence, that the information that has informed the debate on white asbestos that a number of Conservative Members have recently taken up arose from several reprehensible articles that recently appeared in The Daily Telegraph under the byline of Christopher Booker. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may have used some of that information, among other things, to cast doubt on the independence of certain studies of the effects of white asbestos exposure.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that white asbestos poses a significant risk to the health and safety of those who are exposed to it, including a risk of mesothelioma, albeit not to the extent that blue and brown asbestos do.

Mr. Lloyd : I am troubled because there seems to be an impression that mesothelioma is a serious disease, whereas asbestosis is a minor, throwaway condition. For the benefit of the debate, will my hon. Friend confirm the fact that asbestosis is a cruel, crippling and vile condition?

Dr. Whitehead : Yes. I could not describe asbestosis more exactly than my hon. Friend has. Exposure to white asbestos, and indeed all forms of asbestos, produces not only mesothelioma but asbestosis. Moreover, when one is dealing with white asbestos it is almost impossible to be sure that it is just white asbestos, because it is almost always contaminated with elements of blue and brown asbestos. The idea that one can treat it as if it were talcum powder is fanciful.

What sticks in my throat about that campaign are the aspersions that it casts on the independence of those making claims about the effect of white asbestos on health and safety. The information for Mr. Booker's articles comes from a Mr. Bridle, who happens to be a representative of the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association in the UK, which claims to have representatives in 17 countries and links with the Asbestos Institute in Canada. Mr. Bridle is not exactly an independent witness in his own right.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The Minister talks about independent scientific advice, but I have already pointed out that two of the individuals on whom he relies heavily for his answers are employed by the HSE. There is a wide body of scientific opinion throughout the world on this matter. I have already mentioned that the Environmental Protection Agency in America has

14 Mar 2002 : Column 358WH

reduced its health and safety requirements for white asbestos. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, will the Minister accede to my request this afternoon to have an inquiry into the whole matter?

Dr. Whitehead : The hon. Member may be aware that there have been a number of inquiries around the world. Although one or two individuals are pursuing inquiries and claim that white asbestos does not have a significant effect on the health and safety of those exposed to it, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that white asbestos, although less potent—

Mr. Clifton-Brown : What evidence?

Dr. Whitehead : Some of the reports that the hon. Gentleman has quoted do not say quite what he thinks they say about exposure to white asbestos. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence clearly shows that white asbestos has an effect. I believe that the action that we have taken on white asbestos is right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and the hon. Member for Twickenham talked about roving safety representatives. I am happy to confirm that the innovative pilot on worker safety advisers is now getting under way; it was slightly delayed by the withdrawal of the Construction Confederation. I am pleased that other construction companies have come forward so that the pilots, which I believe will produce a great deal of information about the effect of worker safety advisers, will now take place across a full range of sectors of industry, including construction.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North and for Barnsley, West and Penistone, raised issues of occupational health. The Government's occupational health strategy was outlined in "Securing Health Together", which was launched in July 2000. It stated that employers should be fully aware of opportunities for rehabilitation, and the targets for reducing ill health and ensuring that people do not lose days at work but can return to work after rehabilitation. That is an important element of the occupational health regime, which is sometimes regarded as less important than safety. I regard the two elements of health and safety in the workplace as equally important.

A number of hon. Members also referred to staffing and new legislation. I mentioned in my opening remarks that our aim is to ensure that funding for appropriate staffing is available to the HSE. It is good that 111 new inspectors have been recruited recently. With more inspectors, and an increasing number of reports following inspections, we are ensuring that resources are used well. I hope that they will be used well in future.

Mention was also made of corporate manslaughter legislation. As a result of the responses to the consultation paper, the Government certainly intend to look closely at that complicated and sensitive issue, to get it right. Hon. Members asked whether directors should be scapegoated. It is important that they are not scapegoated in that way, and that legislation does not cause that to happen. The Government still aim to have legislation on the statute book as soon as parliamentary time allows—

 IndexHome Page