Health and Safety at Work

Mr. Field

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 is 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

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 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.