Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Miller of Hendon: The Minister dealt with my amendment in a slightly more conciliatory way than he dealt with some amendments last Thursday. Although I cannot pretend to agree with everything he said, I thank him for his helpful remarks. I shall read them carefully, but meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1386

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 66:

Page 7, line 30, at end insert--
("( ) In making regulations under this section the Secretary of State shall have regard to any practical factors which would render any record-keeping requirements unreasonable.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley. It seeks to apply reasonableness in a different way. In his previous argument, the noble and learned Lord the Solicitor-General left me precious few chinks into which to drive a wedge in order to deal with the matter. The amendment seeks to apply the test of reasonableness to the drafting of the regulations that the Secretary of State may make. More specifically, it seeks to apply the contents of those regulations. In moving the amendment I have in mind the agriculture and horticulture industries, in which there are circumstances in which, for example, a requirement to record times of starting and ceasing work might be inappropriate.

In the agriculture and horticulture industries at harvest time, particular the horticulture industry, for reasons of quality control--of which the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who is in his place opposite, will know from the retail end--people work peculiar hours from time to time. Employers may specify a time of day before which employees cannot start work and a time at the end of the day beyond which they may not work. Between those points, people work piece work and will be paid by unit of output. They will often come and go within those hours in quite a random way. They will pop off to take the children to school and again to bring them home. Employees may even pop off--bearing in mind that this is largely in rural communities--to give their husbands lunch. That is not an unusual way of working.

I remind the Committee that all those practices take place under the requirements of the Agricultural Wages Board. The agriculture and horticulture industries are used to working with a statutory minimum wage. Schemes where the practices work and are used on a regular basis are often already monitored by the board and are generally accepted by it.

However, there would be a real problem, in such a situation, if there were to be a requirement to put down start and stop times. Perhaps I may illustrate the problem at its most extreme. The biggest employer in the country in this area might have 500 workers at a peak harvest period working for him on a piece work basis.

I am sorry, I realise that I have been speaking with my hand in my pocket when I am not supposed to. I apologise, it must be because the subject is agricultural.

An employer might have 500 workers coming and going in fields in various locations, all intended to produce the highest quality produce in the shortest possible time. What the individuals will earn may vary enormously, some will earn at a high rate, some at a relatively low rate, depending on their proficiency, experience and concentration. The test that the Agricultural Wages Board has applied in the past to that type of work is that people should have a fair opportunity to earn the minimum wage within the requisite time. That is at a fair hourly rate. Where the board is satisfied that that is the case, it is all right.

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1387

I return to the point of the amendment, which is to apply the test of reasonableness to the drafting of the regulations. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will treat this request for reasonableness with slightly more sympathy than he did the previous one. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I hope that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord did not misunderstand my reaction to the previous amendment. I treat the requirement of reasonableness with immense and genuine sympathy, but I take the view, as do the Government, and as would any reasonable individual, that the court is not the best body to fix the regulations. Excellent though the courts are, the last thing they are good at is--

Lord Dixon-Smith: Perhaps I may intervene to say that I did not wish to imply that there was anything unreasonable in what the noble and learned Lord said.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, indicated candidly that by mistake I answered many of his points beforehand. I sympathise with much of what he said. Many of his points are of real importance in determining the form that the record-keeping regulations should take for the purposes in particular of agricultural workers. As he pointed out, we are keeping the Agricultural Wages Board system and the national minimum wage system going together. We recognise that it should be done while placing the minimum burdens necessary in terms of record-keeping on people employing agricultural workers.

However, for all the reasons I indicated, while we are committed to reasonable regulations on record-keeping, the best way to achieve that is not through an amendment such as this. For all the reasons I gave, conciliatorily I hope, to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, I respectfully ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his reply which was helpful. Inevitably, we shall need to study it, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 not moved.]

Clause 9 agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I beg to move that the House be now resumed. In moving the Motion, may I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1388

Fire Regulations, Scotland

7.28 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to alter the building regulations relating to fire in Scotland to bring them nearer to those applying in England and Wales.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not wish to delay noble Lords hurrying off to dinner but I must begin with a brief apology to my noble friend Lord Sewel on the Front Bench. I did not intend him to have the duty thrust upon him. As he knows, I have been interested in the subject of fire safety over a number of years because of my long-standing connection with the construction industry. I had hoped to discuss my worries with his colleague in the Scottish Office at a meeting. Unfortunately, his colleague declined to meet me and I was then obliged to thrust the burden onto my noble friend, who might have been saved that additional chore.

I want to refer back to a debate we had in this Chamber on 13th July 1992--a long time ago--when we discussed the changes in the English and Welsh regulations which were in train at that time. During that Unstarred Question debate I referred to the Scottish regulations and the difference between those and the English and Welsh ones and, in passing, the Northern Ireland ones also.

The main differences between those sets of regulations relate to the periods of fire resistance which have been much longer under the Scottish regulations, and to the requirements for the use of non-combustible building materials in certain parts of buildings where the Scottish regulations are more onerous than are the English regulations were and certainly more onerous than are the revised regulations of 1992.

The English regulations relaxed both those requirements and, in the course of the debate, it became clear that Scotland was expected to harmonise with England and Wales--oddly enough, not with Europe. In other words, Scotland had to "catch up", as the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, put it at that time. It is clear that there was a move afoot to regularise the regulations in the United Kingdom, whether or not they were appropriate.

At that time the other place debated an Early Day Motion which urged that changes in the Scottish regulations,

    "might proceed only after the new departures have proved themselves in practice to Scottish satisfaction"--

"satisfaction" being the key word. Encouraged by the interest shown by the other place, I asked in that debate for,

    "an assurance from the noble Viscount that no attempt will be made to coerce the Scots in this matter until the Scots are satisfied that the new English regulations have proved themselves".--[Official Report, 13/7/92; col. 88.]

That struck me as being an eminently presbyterian way to proceed; that is, to go by the evidence and come to a conclusion after the evidence showed itself to be valuable. The noble Viscount was reasonably accommodating. That did not surprise me because he is

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1389

a very nice young man. He said that the difference between the regulations would be reviewed, but not necessarily removed. That was important. Then he said,

    "It may be decided to monitor the effect of some of the changes ... before adopting them in Scotland".--[col. 93.]

By parliamentary standards, that seemed promising. It was not an actual pledge (I will not go so far as to say that); it was not even a promise; but it was a hint, and a hint is a useful thing in parliamentary terms.

On the basis of that hint, some time later in September 1996, I asked the Scottish Office in a letter what evidence there was to show the greater effectiveness of the fire safety regulations in England and Wales in comparison with Scotland; that is, I was wondering how far, if at all, the process of monitoring had gone and how effective it had shown itself to be.

As would be expected, I received a polite and informative reply, but it contained what to me was a surprise. Despite the hint regarding the monitoring made by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, the letter said,

    "There have been no studies comparing the effectiveness of the two systems of building control with regard to fire safety".

That took me aback, for the hint--it was not a pledge nor yet a promise--had vanished into the hinterland. Despite the fact that there had been no studies made, harmonisation was going ahead.

I know, and my noble friend Lord Sewel knows perfectly well, that comparisons are difficult and that fire safety does not only depend on regulations; it depends on many matters. However, one thing seems to be clear. Scotland is safer than England in relation to fire. Why do I say that? Earlier this year I obtained an array of statistics by way of a written reply--a very full reply. Those were analysed for me by the Fire Safety Development Group and the following facts emerged from the analysis.

There were 5,333 fires in industrial premises in England and Wales in 1966. Those resulted in an average casualty rate of 6.5 per 100 fires. In Scotland there were 552 similar fires in the same period and those resulted in an average of only 4 casualties per 100 fires--a distinct difference. The FSDG concluded that if present trends continued, England and Wales would suffer an increased casualty rate by the year 2000 with 357 casualties. The analysis showed that, were the Scottish rule to be adopted in England and Wales, the casualty list would drop to only 224. In relation to the Scottish statistics, the FSDG estimated that the Scottish casualty rate would also increase slightly, resulting in 23 casualties. Gloomily, it reckoned that if Scotland were to move to the English and Welsh standards, the casualties would increase to 37. An increase from 24 to 37 is substantial and should urge caution on the Government.

A similar picture emerges from the statistics on wholesale premises. There, too, the Scottish casualty rates can be shown to be smaller than the English and Welsh ones. It is not unreasonable to be convinced that Scotland is safer in relation to fire than England and Wales. No doubt the picture is less dangerous than those projections show because projections may or may not come to fruition--if that is the right word. It is

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1390

unlikely--I hope I am right in saying this--that the Government will go the whole hog and apply the English regulations to Scotland wholesale. I hope that the changes will be less wide ranging.

My question is Unstarred and I must therefore ask it: why make the changes at all? Common sense suggests to me that if any changes are to be made at all, they should be made to the English rules in order to make England safer. Since I lived most of my life in England, I regard that as important. In any case, I remind my noble friend Lord Sewel--lest he overlooks this fact--that, with any luck, Scotland will soon have a new parliament. What will it make of the new proposals if they are passed by a Westminster Parliament before Scotland has had an opportunity to make its own judgment upon them?

7.39 p.m.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howie, for bringing forward this important subject for debate. However, he poses a problem for us in that he has the subject very well in hand. Once he had made his speech and posed his questions there was little that could be said between that and the Minister's response. Therefore, I shall probably not detain your Lordships' for too long. I am also grateful to the noble Lord for having referred me to his Unstarred Question of 13th July 1992 which gave me an opportunity fully to understand the background to his Question today. He has been most rigorous in pursuing the matter.

I am most certainly not an expert in fire safety or fire regulations. Indeed, until last week, I was fairly happily ignorant of them except in as much as I have had tussles with English fire officers from time to time while trying to gain relaxation of one kind or another in the various hotel developments in which I have been involved. However, once my party decided that that qualified me to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Howie, I made some effort to find out exactly what the subject matter of this Question was about.

The matter of fire safety is not one that should be taken lightly or with too much humour. I say that because my very first experience of fire safety regulations goes back to the 1970s when a family company which I now own wholly had a hotel just outside Aberfeldy. To our great chagrin the fire regulations were put through and we were forced to spend a considerable sum of money on upgrading the safety of the hotel. However, about three weeks after we had done that we had an accidental fire. Had those regulations not been put through and had we not been obliged to do that work, I am perfectly certain that many of our guests would have died. So, overall, however lightly one may look at some aspects of this matter, the question of fire safety is extremely important and one we should all take very seriously.

Perhaps I may make one point while going slightly off the subject of Scotland versus England and Wales. What I have noticed when dealing with fire officers in England and Wales is the immense diversity of advice one tends to receive from different fire officers in

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1391

different areas and the considerable variations with which different fire officers choose to apply the regulations. I am certain they all do it within the latitude which they are given by the law--not for a moment am I suggesting that they step outside the law--but it has always interested me how different fire officers in different areas can make such wide differences of judgment.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howie, for referring me to his debate of 13th July 1992 because I found the answer to my question in the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen. He said:

    "The England and Wales approach is based on technical guidance, whereas the others"--

Scotland and Northern Ireland--

    "set specific technical standards".--[Official Report, 13/7/92; col. 91.]

While I fully understand that in Scotland and Northern Ireland one knows exactly where one is but one may not be able to do anything about it even if everyone agrees that where one is is not where one ought to be, in England one is able to deal with the regulations in a more flexible manner. I find that on balance, having been an operator both north and south of the Border, it is actually easier to know where one stands without having to debate it with the fire officer. But that is clearly because the approach in England and Wales is based on technical guidance while in Scotland it is based on technical standards.

The key to the issue is safety. I am able to curtail my remarks because I have kindly been sent the same briefing material that the noble Lord used for giving your Lordships the statistics. I am indebted to Mr. Douglas Smith of the Fire Safety Development Group for those. One phrase in the document struck me:

    "Analysis of the latest Home Office statistics proves that during a fire it is safer to be in Scotland than it is to be in England and Wales".

If that is the case, then England and Wales should be harmonising themselves with Scotland rather than the other way round.

Finally, perhaps I may take up the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie, which was eminently sensible. Grace a Dieu, we are to have a Scottish parliament in the very near future which I believe will be fully empowered to deal with matters of this nature. Therefore, why on earth should the Union Parliament, dominated largely, as it is, by the English, need to bother itself with that? Why not just leave the matter for two years so that we can--me included if I manage to get there--deal with it ourselves?

7.44 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, for raising this important issue, particularly with respect to the recent consultation paper, Fire Safety Legislation for the Future, which has been out to various interested bodies. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that this is a matter of life and death. The statistics quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, bring home the seriousness of the issue.

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1392

I know that in England and Wales there is concern over whether there is a need to change the fire regulations. The consultation paper was issued by the Home Office. Surely this should have been done in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which after all is responsible for the Health and Safety Executive and the building regulations division. Fire safety is a complex interaction between design, management and other processes.

As far as concerns Scotland, in general the proposals in the paper represent a long-awaited move towards proper fire certification. Rationalisation of the current fragmented fire safety law must be an improvement. Policing of such changes would fall on the fire authorities, which are already under severe manpower and budgetary constraints. Will the Government provide extra funding for these changes? I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Where existing arrangements in Scotland are adequate, I hope that the Government do not change them just for the sake of change. I would be interested to hear from the Minister the results of the consultation process. How many consultation papers were sent out? Who responded to them and how were they responded to? Did the responses show agreement or did they show concerns? No doubt changes in the fire regulations in England and Wales have been useful. Have those been monitored; and have they been taken into account in the consultation document?

I shall be most grateful to hear from the Minister any answers he can give me but I am only too willing to have them in writing.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon on asking what I think is a Question about our intentions. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, for their contributions. All brought a particular perspective to our debate. The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, spoke about fire safety legislation, which is slightly different from the topic we are dealing with in the debate, which is the building regulations relating to fire in Scotland. If I can help him on the points that he raised I certainly will, but I give no assurance on that whatever.

My noble friend Lord Howie of Troon should not apologise for raising this issue. It is always a delight to hear my noble friend contribute to our deliberations in this House as we know that we will get a well grounded, knowledge-based and learned contribution, as indeed we had this evening. He tried to take me to task for the failure to monitor the difference between the effect of the English and Welsh regulations and the Scottish regulations. I was not expecting that attack. I shall fall back on the tried and tested formula that it was clearly the fault of the previous Administration in that they did not carry out the monitoring that they said they would. No doubt the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, will tell his colleagues of the severe reprimand that they have received this evening.

15 Jun 1998 : Column 1393

To cut through to the gist of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie, I believe that he is asking me to say whether we have any intention in Scotland to harmonise down to the English and Welsh regulations. We have no plans to do that. I believe that encapsulates the whole point. It is very well known that there are differences in approach between Scotland and England and Wales. The point has been made that in Scotland there are statutory regulations but in England and Wales matters are based on guidance. I shall not go into the precise differences in the content.

The point was made by my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon about the case for harmonisation. In a way there is an attractive case to be made there. Clearly, designers wishing to work throughout the United Kingdom have to familiarise themselves with the differences in regulations.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page