Orders of the Day — Health and Safety at Work

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:25 am on 29th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley 5:25 am, 29th July 1982

My right hon. Friend is quite right. It is regrettable that nurses and other health workers are being forced by this heartless Government into taking that action to demonstrate their value to the community.

I want to know what the Government are doing about health and safety at work. The Government have never given time to this important subject. The only occasion on which it was discussed was in an Adjournment debate that I initiated several months ago. Of course, the Government are prepared to devote hours and hours of parliamentary time to attacking the unions. We have had two major Bills legally to enslave them and attack their funds. However, the Minister will know that in most years more days are lost through industrial injury than through strike action. Nevertheless, the Government have done nothing to improve legislation on industrial injury, to which I shall come in a moment.

Let me give some figures. In 1976, 15 million days were lost through industrial injury in estimated days of certificated incapacity. That figure did not include, for example, people who suffer from pneumoconiosis, byssinosis, or occupational deafness, and people who are out of work for more than six months who claim industrial disablement benefit. Therefore, the people who are injured at work over a long term are not included in the figure of 15 million. The figure for days lost through industrial disputes was 3,284,000. In 1977, 15·7 million days were lost in certificated incapacity, and 10,142,000 in industrial disputes. In 1979, in the winter of discontent, 29 million days were lost in industrial disputes, and 13·1 million days through certificated incapacity. The Library could not provide me with the figure for 1980 of estimated days of certificated incapacity, but 11,964,000 days were lost in industrial disputes. My guess is that more days will be lost through certificated incapacity. That does not include people who are off work for the odd day or two because of minor injury.

Therefore, it is fair to say that each year the number of days lost through industrial injury far exceeds the number of days lost through strike action. Nevertheless, the Government are cutting back expenditure on the Health and Safety Commission. That means, of course, that stiff are also facing the squeeze.

Criticisms can be made of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The administration is cumbersome, and, in some cases, it has been ineffective. It has been reorganised once against the wishes of the factory inspectorate and a re-reorganisation is currently being considered by the administration which runs the executive and which administers rather than inspects.

Signs of the cumbersome nature of the administration have already been brought to Parliament's attention, but, nothing has been done. With regard to warrants, a key area of the expression of the power of inspectors, the executive has issued general warrants for inspectors, contrary to section 19(2) and (3) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 which specifically provides: Every appointment of a person as an inspector under this section shall be made by an instrument in writing specifying which of the powers conferred on inspectors by the relevant statutory provisions are to be exercisable by the person appointed". That means that any inspector can grant exemptions in a specific area where there are powers and regulations to do so. For example, an agriculture inspector can grant exemptions from a mines and quarries regulation. That has been accepted in evidence to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The evidence in the report of February 1980 states that in theory any inspector could grant an exemption. In practice we have administrative arrangements that certain people can grant exemptions for certain things. I should like to remind the Minister that the Act laid down requirements that the executive and the commission do not have the right to flout Parliament. Where Parliament says that an inspector's warrant shall state the specific powers, that should be carried out.

On 25 March 1980, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew Parliament's attention to the fact that The Committee learn from the Department of Energy's Explanatory Memorandum … that such instruments of appointment do not specify or distinguish powers of the kind purportedly granted by Article 15 of each of these Regulations, and that only 'administrative arrangements' govern the exercise of such powers. Therefore, the Committee concluded that the application of the powers in such a way was ultra vires. That is important because it reflects the way that administrative convenience is put before the specific operation of the legislation. That is reflected in other areas of activity.

There is extreme tardiness in producing proposals for legislation. On the question of lifting heavy weights, for example, in September 1976 the chairman promised me that guide notes for inspectors about the lifting of heavy weights would be produced by Christmas 1976 and a statutory instrument by 1977. That was five years ago.

I have promoted two Ten-Minute Bills to place a limit on weights lifted manually. For example, in agriculture the limit is 180 lbs and in textiles it is 120 lbs for adult males. There is no differentiation according to the age or fitness of those adult males. In addition, it inhibits a person's right to claim industrial injury benefit in the courts if he is faced by a statutory instrument which lays down a weight limit that is as high as the agriculture weight limit. That means that a person who works in agriculture and who injures his back is inhibited in that way.

Nothing has been done since 1977. There has been an impasse on the commission between the TUC and the CBI. There have been two working parties, and the second working party has produced a consultative document at long last within the past few weeks. That begins by saying: The number of accidents associated with manual lifting and handling has been a matter of concern to responsible bodies for a period of many years. They are dead right. It has been a matter of concern for many years. The Health and Safety Commission and the Minister have been significantly lethargic about bringing something before Parliament to remedy the matter.

I quote again: There has been a dramatic increase in the past twenty years of reported injuries from manual handling in premises subject to the Factories Act 1961 from 40,000 to more than 70,000 per year. Hence the necessity for a new approach to manual handling. On the commission's own figures a significant proportion of the 350,000 back injuries could have been avoided if the guides and regulations had been introduced several years ago. The consultative document is good and the proposals have much merit. I merely complain that it has taken far too long to bring them forward. The commission has reached an impasse. Because of the commission's construction, a consensus is always sought. That is not the best way of legislating to prevent industrial injuries.

Therefore, the Minister should consider something that existed prior to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Where there is an impasse, an independent chairman should be appointed to institute an inquiry and to make recommendations to the Minister independently of the Health and Safety Commission. As a result of such facilities, the woodworking regulations 1970 were introduced, which had previously been the subject of delay. Such a system was proposed during debate on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill 1974, but the amendment was rejected. The value of the machinery has been demonstrated. It might well have been a means of resolving the handling of heavy weights.

Slowness and indifference can cause difficulties, as can confused codes of practice that are not clearly linked to statutory requirements. When connected with asbestos, slowness and indifference turn into a crime. In 1975 and 1976 the former Member for Sowerby, Mr. Madden, took up the cause of asbestosis victims at Acre Mill, Hebden Bridge. It was owned by a firm called Cape Asbestos and became, for a while, renowned throughout the country. At the time, there was slipshod supervision on the part of the Factory Inspectorate and Max Madden obtained an investigation by the Ombudsman. As a result, the then Secretary of State for Employment, now the Leader of the Opposition, established an advisory committee on asbestos, which was chaired by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission.

The committee reported in November 1979. There were two earlier reports on thermal and acoustic insulation and the measurement and monitoring of asbestos in the air. In all, 41 recommendations were made. The General and Municipal Workers Union said that the report was not stringent enough, but it made 41 recommendations and if they had been implemented a significant step would at least have been taken along the road towards combating the dangers of asbestos. Before the Minister answered my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I asked the Library how the 41 recommendations made in 1979 had fared. The reply was as follows: Your enquiry about the report of the Advisory Committee on Asbestos of 1979 has come to me for reply.As you noted, 41 recommendations were made. I have spoken to that section of the Health and Safety Executive which deals with hazardous materials and they tell me that none of these has yet been formally implemented. However, a great deal of work has been carried out leading, it is hoped, to eventual implementation. Ultimately, of course, ministerial sanction will be required for this to be done. Negotiations simultaneously on two draft EEC directives seemed to have introduced some delay into the process. I emphasise those last few words.

No doubt documents will be circulated and there will be many meetings about the wording of the regulations and whether one country will be satisfied with the views of another. Meanwhile, the toll of injury goes on month by month. It is astounding that over two years after the publication of a report by a serious committee, who examined the matter for three years, not one of the 41 recommendations has been formally implemented. Preparatory work has been done, but that does not affect the people who go into the factories every morning, or give them the rights that they should have.

It is almost unbelievable that anybody should allow EEC procrastination to prevent regulations from being implemented. Good God, we have a Parliament; we do not have to stand around and wait for the EEC to make up its mind. We could introduce regulations and change them if the EEC ones were better. I do not know whether that idea seems revolutionary now that we are in the Common Market, but I should have thought that it showed a certain amount of common sense and would have benefited those people who go into the factories every morning and want to see some improvement in their lives.

I do not often praise the media, but we are indebted to Yorkshire Television, John Willis the producer and the workers who made the programme "Alice, the fight for life". We are indebted to the late Alice Jefferson who contracted mesotheliomas—cancer of the lungs—from asbestos contact 30 years ago. She is not somebody we could have helped by the new regulations.

The debate and the television programme are a valedictory acknowledgement of Alice Jefferson's guts in fighting the disease that ended her life after working for nine months in an asbestos factory. It took Yorkshire Television to make a programme and produce the information that made people say "Look out, asbestos is a dangerous material. What happens to our bodies when they come into contact with this material?" It was not the Government, the employment medical advisory service or any other part of the Government machinery that provided the information. The General and Municipal Workers Union has been nagging away at the problem for a long time, but it took an important television programme to bring it to public notice.

A number of interesting points were made in the programme and I am grateful to the producer for sending me a transcript. Turner and Newall was quoted as saying before the programme that this year: Much of the steam has gone out of the anti-asbestos lobby and there is not that much concern in the United Kingdom. Another asbestos boss in the same year said: Now that the health scare is over profits should rise again. There was no reason why Turner and Newall should not rest content. The Government were attacking trade unions, like the General and Municipal Workers Union, which were arguing for better compensation terms and working conditions, proper scrutiny, and proper licensing for laggers to cut out the cowboys who, according to the Prime Minister, are the free enterprise entrepreneurs who make a profit out of death and injury. That is a pretty rich reward for the £40,000 that Turner and Newall has contributed in the past three years to the Conservative Party.

British Belting and Asbestos at Cleckheaton gave the Conservative Party £11,500. It is interesting to refect upon how it treated a Labour Party representative. While I was a Minister at the Department of Industry I opened a mill at Morley which had been converted from an old woollen mill. The mayor of Leeds went round at the same time and said that it would be a good idea for a representative of the Labour Government to visit British Belting and Asbestos at Cleckheaton because it had had only a Tory around previously and the workers would like to see a Government representative. My private office got in touch with the firm. It knew that I had raised questions about asbestos when I was on the Back Benches. It did not lay out the carpet but said that I would be accepted only if I undertook not to criticise the factory. I rejected the condition and the visit never took place.

Turner and Newall has an annual turnover of over £600 million. On the Yorkshire Television programme it stood convicted of withholding evidence from the Simpson inquiry, the major inquiry that took place between 1976 and 1979. Four pages were removed which showed that it had breached the law. The supposedly safe Fortex process breaches even the existing legal limits which are not all that stringent.

The programme made it clear that Turner's claim in 1978 that deaths from lung cancer do not differ significantly from the national average was untrue. The lung cancer rate at that time among the workers was almost twice the national average and rising. Turners had failed to tell the workers of the dangers of working with asbestos. We are talking of white and not blue asbestos.

Workers were interviewed on the programme and asked whether they knew of the dangers. They made it clear that Turners had not informed them of the dangers, although the firm claims that it provided the information.

A worker stated: We've all got to go sometime. It's just that I know I'm going to go sooner than I should be going. I'm not afraid of it. But the knowledge is there, that you're going to go before your time, through no fault of your own. I feel very bitter about it because, if they'd told me of the dangers, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in. Really and truly, they should have told me. They knew. That is taken from a programme broadcast in 1974, and it is about a man who died in 1973. The same problem is rearing its head again. Workers have a right to know about the conditions in their factory.

Recommendation 28 of the 41 recommendations of the asbestos committee is that there should be a medical scheme with the following features: employers legally required to inform the organisation of anyone currently in or entering employment where precautionary measures have to be taken regularly to ensure compliance with the asbestos regulations and to provide facilities for him to be medically examined". The recommendation enshrines the concept of the right to know.

Questions were raised in 1973 and 1974 and nothing has been done. It is scandalous that workers do not have a statutory right to know what is happening.

Eternet, near Cambridge, was also mentioned in the programme. That and other firms were shown to be ignorant or deceitful, or both.

Turner and Newall is a regular contributor to the Tory Party, paying £40,000 over three years, yet when Alice Jefferson sought compensation it offered only £13,600. That generous employer forced her to crawl to Leeds Crown court to get the decent sum of £36,000. She was so ill that she had to be helped in and out of court. Turner and Newall treats its workers with contempt.

On the programme a doctor from the West Riding claimed that malignant diseases of the chest were in epidemic proportions. The programme also pointed out that: By 1969 the British government felt it essential to introduce new regulations. But in fixing so-called 'safe' dust levels they took absolutely no account of the cancer-risks, even though research shows cancer can be sparked off by relatively small quantities of asbestos. The same year—1969—the asbestos companies predicted that the mesothelioma cancer rate has reached the crest of a wave, which will decline in the next decade. In fact, a decade later mesothelioma cancer deaths had more than trebled, rising by 330 per cent. The 1969 regulations are still operative without change today.

Dr. Selikoff of the New York hospital that specialises in cancer research related to asbestos said: laggers I think in Britain have been followed by us for about the last 20 years. Their experience has been extraordinary. For example, men who were 30 or 35 years from onset of their work, about 40 per cent. of them die of one or other form of cancer—mesotheliomas, that is a cancer of the lining of the chest, the lining of the abdomen, lung cancer, cancer of the oesophagus, the stomach, the colon, the rectum, cancer of the mouth, the tongue, the larynx, the kidney, we followed 17,800 laggers from 1967 through 1976, there were 2,271 deaths among them instead of the 1,660 we expected, given their ages in 1967.Of these—1 out of every 5 men died from lung cancer. It was simply a disaster. When the workers die, their relatives often have difficulty getting compensation. Doctors sometimes fail to put "asbestosis" on the death certificate and workers are kept in ignorance of the true dangers. The 1979 inquiry was also kept in ignorance of the true dangers.

Turners claimed, for example, to the asbestos inquiry that of 48 cases of mesothelioma none of these could be described as cases of slight exposure. Margaret Chrimes worked there as a telephonist. Emma Marshall was the firm's office cleaner. They both died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

Turners told the asbestos inquiry in 1977 that the prevalence of asbestos disease in its British factories was no more than one in 300, yet Dr. Geoffrey Morris, then the company's chief medical officer and former lecturer in public health at Bristol university, was within a few months of concluding that the definite or strongly suspected cases of asbestosis at Turners biggest factory in Rochdale, far from being one in 300, was more than one in four.

I shall consider some of the recommendations of the 1979 committee. Recommendation 23 states: The requirement to provide protective clothing and respiratory protective equipment should be explicitly stated in the regulations and extended to include any workers whose person or personal clothing is liable to be significantly contaminated with asbestos dust. I remember in 1978 or 1979 that laggers at the Isle of Grain power station had to go on strike to get protective clothing. The workers caused a nuisance simply because they wanted protective clothing.

Recommendation 34 states: When the government's monitoring programme on asbestos in the general atmosphere is complete, the data should be assessed by the appropriate public bodies in the light of the medical evidence to determine whether any general limit on asbestos concentration in non-occupational environments is needed. Recommendation 36 states: Raw asbestos fibre and other loads liable to give rise to asbestos dust should be transported in such a way as to prevent the escape of asbestos dust. Recommendation 35 states: A new legal obligation should be introduced so that by 1 December 1980 no raw asbestos may be imported to the UK unless it is shipped in totally enclosed metal-clad non-ventilated ISO general purpose freight containers. Recommendation 40 states: All the existing legislation, regulations, codes of practice and guidance notes relating to asbestos should be brought together in one publication. Recommendation 41 states: Relevant legislation should be examined with a view to reducing the statutory limitations on the disclosure of information relating to asbestos. Recommendation 38 states: If experience shows that voluntary compliance with the present labelling scheme for consumer products containing asbestos is inadequate, it should be made obligatory by appropriate regulations. Those are good and useful suggestions which should have been implemented. However, according to the Minister in his reply to my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South the committee reported in 1979, making far-reaching recommendations for new controls which the Government intend to implement alongside the two directives on asbestos currently under discussion".—[Official Report, 27 July 1982; Vol 28, c. 453.] That has yet to be carried out. The Government must have information about the dangers from the Ministry of Defence, because it is heavily involved in repair and maintenance and the commissioning of new ships that make extensive use of asbestos in soundproofing and insulation.

The 1979 report is by no means perfect. It needs to be strengthened and there needs to be more medical supervision of workers, but the Government increased the fees for the employment medical advisory service examination by 540 per cent. in 1979 and a further 247 per cent. in 1981. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments reported on 14 April 1981: It seems to the Committee that a consequence of allowing `appointed doctors' to carry out the work of employment medical advisers will be further to increase the costs of the Health and Safety Executive and this will lead to an erosion of the Employment Medical Advisory Service. That possibility was confirmed in evidence given to the Committee. The very organisation that can provide a service in this area is being eroded by the Government and the increase in fees will not induce employers to use the EMAS services.

If the Minister says that an appointed doctor can be used, I say that company doctors do not shine as examples of objective assessors of the dangers of asbestos. The EMAS is being eroded, but we can ask what advice it has given the Minister about asbestos. The service has a duty under section 55 of the 1974 Act to keep the Minister adequately advised about safeguarding and improving the health of employed persons.

Should not EMAS hold its own inquiry into Yorkshire Television's findings? Will the Minister tell us when the 41 recommendations are to be implemented? We do not want to be told that it will be at some vague date in the future when the EEC discussions are completed. Why does the Minister refuse to supplement the 1979 report? Is it simply callous indifference or inertia?

It is not enough to argue that all the cases contracted the disease after contact with asbestos some time ago. It was stated in the YTV programme: So even in modern conditions, working at Turners could be dangerous. Donald Robinson has worked in several departments, but mainly in Fortex. —that is the new, less dangerous process, according to Turners. He thought that in modern times working at Turners was quite safe. Last year Donald, who is married with four children, was told he had the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Donald Robinson is aged 39. It is a modern, contemporary, current danger. That is why it is important that the 1979 report should be supplemented with an inquiry into the YTV findings. Because the Minister has refused a formal inquiry, the General and Municipal Workers Union has announced that it will hold its own inquiry. That should not be necessary. The Government should institute the inquiry as a matter of urgency.

The Government also ought to tell us how many improvement and prohibition notices have been issued over the past two years. Has the factory inspectorate been diligent in that? Will the Government increase the fines, which are pathetic? In 1980, 18 informations were laid and 16 convictions were obtained, resulting in an average fine of £244. In 1979 there were 12 informations, seven convictions and an average fine of £54.

The evidence collected by Yorkshire Television shows that more Alices may well be at risk today. The young men and women working with asbestos today may be the Alices of tomorrow, in 20 or 30 years. We have a duty as a nation to check every possible fact and provide every possible safeguard to prevent those sad words of the late Alice Jefferson from ever coming true again and ensure that such a tragedy never happens again because of the dangers of asbestos. She said in the programme, when she was told that she was going to die: I says 'How long have I got then?, and she says 'Three to six months' and when you think that and that it's just the result of working, you know, for a paid wage, for a job that we didn't think was dangerous; it never entered your head it was dangerous. Makes me feel right bitter, because I know I'm 47'". That is a quotation from a moving documentary about people whose lives have been and are being prejudiced. This country loses more lives each year through asbestos, according to the General and Municipal Workers Union, than we lost in the Falklands crisis. The Government poured massive resources into dealing with the Falklands crisis. They should pour massive resources into putting into effect the 41 recommendations, into getting EMAS to sift the evidence, and setting up a new inquiry, so that we can claim that we are free from the dangers of asbestos. If there is no freedom from the dangers of asbestos as long as it is present, we must have a major initiative now, urgently, to substitute other materials for it so that we can eradicate the danger once and for all. If we do that we shall be remembering Alice Jefferson for having made a massive contribution, together with all the other people who contributed to the programme, to getting rid of a grave danger.