Heritage Railways and Tramways (Voluntary Work) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:23 pm on 15 July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 1:23, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for bringing to the House this important debate, which I believe he has tried to secure since 2017. I congratulate him on his tenacity. The Government think that it is important to recognise and support the valuable opportunities that young people have through volunteering. I stress that modern health and safety legislation does not prevent children and young people volunteering on heritage railways or tramways, which I believe is a great experience for all involved. Also, the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Jones, referred to the difference these activities make to the local economies in which they are based.

However, it is important that such activities are carried out in a safe way, with employers, organisers and those supervising the activities making sure that any risks are properly controlled. The Health and Safety Executive requires duty holders to demonstrate that they understand any potential hazards that may come to young people when volunteering. Those hazards should be set out in the duty holders’ risk assessments, along with the steps they have taken to minimise them. To increase compliance levels in managing risks, the Health and Safety Executive uses a range of regulatory actions, from influencing behaviours across whole industry sectors to targeted interventions on particular sectors and activities. The Health and Safety Executive will continue to hold to account those duty holders who fail in their responsibilities to protect workers through proportionate enforcement action. Because the Health and Safety Executive takes a proportionate, evidence-based approach, the Government are convinced that modern health and safety legislation does not prevent children and young people from volunteering on heritage railways and that there is no reason to amend or repeal current legislation.

The law protecting children in the UK is a complex area, and this Bill touches on not only health and safety protections but also child labour laws and local authority by-laws. These are all devolved matters in Northern Ireland, and this Bill would impose changes there too. To repeal or amend the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920 may initially seem the best course of action; however, this involves a level of complexity and risk that makes it undesirable and unnecessary. This would still leave legislation owned by the Department for Education—the Children and Young Persons Act 1933—in place which limits young volunteers to undertaking light work only. In addition, many local authorities have by-laws under the 1920 Act which contain prohibitions on types of work that are not suitable for young people. Repealing the Act could have unintended consequences across a number of sectors.

The Government’s view is that there is no need to introduce additional legislation to ensure young people can volunteer on heritage railways. The Health and Safety Executive has policy responsibility for the 1920 Act, but in the case of heritage railways the Office of Rail and Road is the enforcing authority. Previously, both the Health and Safety Executive and the Office of Rail and Road considered what powers they have and how they would be applied in the case of young people volunteering on a heritage railway. Both regulators have reconfirmed that they would not enforce the 1920 Act solely to prevent children and young people from volunteering on heritage railways. The 1920 Act has never been used for this purpose.

A point worth emphasising is that modern health and safety legislation already applies to the activities of children and young people volunteering and requires a risk assessment approach to managing their health and safety. So, if there was evidence of poor supervision, exposure to risk or danger, the Health and Safety Executive and/or the Office of Rail and Road would take action under health and safety legislation, not the 1920 Act.

I think the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Jones, stressed very well the importance of young people having exposure to heritage railways, because it can inspire them in subjects they want to study and in careers they want to take, and we should make sure that opportunity is available to them. So, the Government support volunteers and volunteering. Volunteering can be a rewarding experience for young people and allows them to gain new skills, meet new people and make a difference in their communities.

I would like to recognise the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and the Heritage Railway Association for the important work they do in preserving this part of our nation’s cultural and industrial heritage, as well as for the opportunities that they and their members provide for children and young people on our heritage railways and tramways. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury mentioned that he had put on a tie today, which is a major achievement, for this Bill, so we should recognise that. I would also ask your Lordships to take a look at the tie of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, which is absolutely fit for today and a great credit to him to promote his field of work.

I live literally yards away from the line that goes from Tenterden through to Bodiam on the steam railway. On a really great day, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, I can smell the steam when I am sitting in my garden—it is that close. It is very evocative and encouraging. I have gone on Thomas the Tank Engine, gone there for Sunday lunch and gone on the Santa special many times. The difference that it makes to young people and the economy is terrific. The young volunteers on that railway line thrive on their activities.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, about trying to find a solution. I will come on to that later because I will make a definite commitment with a definite timetable.

The UK is a true pioneer in the history of railway, nurturing and benefiting from the talents of Brunel and Stephenson, among others. We are rightly proud of this legacy and must ensure that the next generation is endowed with the skills and passion to protect it. Volunteering is vital for the future sustainability of the heritage rail sector, with approximately 22,000 people giving their time and expertise to support heritage steam organisations across the country. We know from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail’s 2018 report, Young People and Heritage Railways, that almost 800 under-16s successfully volunteer without intervention from regulators.

This shows that modern health and safety legislation works. There is supporting guidance freely available, and the Health and Safety Executive and the Office of Rail and Road have previously offered—and are still willing—to work with the Heritage Railway Association to update their guidance for its members; to set out what tasks would be suitable for children and young people to perform on the railways; and to give heritage railway and tramway operators the assurance they require to be able to offer safe and appropriate volunteering opportunities.

As has been said, this is an ongoing issue, with a meeting between the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and my noble friends Lord Ashton and Lady Buscombe to discuss it further planned for the autumn of 2019. I understand that, unfortunately, diaries did not align, for which I apologise; I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for pointing out that the past three years have not been easy. Anyway, we must move this on and end the delay in resolving this matter. I make a commitment that officials from the Health and Safety Executive and the Office of Rail and Road, with support from DCMS—I am prepared to join that meeting—will offer to meet the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, to discuss this issue further, particularly how the HRA guidance can be amended to better support managing the health and safety risks for young volunteers.

The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, mentioned coal. The Government appreciate the unique importance of the heritage steam industry both in promoting the UK’s rich industrial heritage and for the wider visitor economy. We acknowledge the difficult circumstances facing the heritage steam sector at this time in light of the rising cost of coal on international commodity markets, due in part to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. We are in regular communication with the heritage rail sector to explore how we may be able to assist, including ministerial engagement with the Heritage Rail Association. However, ultimately, we view the decision on where to source coal for use in heritage steam and other industries as a private matter for the companies involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Snape, referred to insurance. The detail of each railway’s insurance policies is a matter between the insurer and the heritage railway operator. However, in 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail heard from a witness representing the insurance industry that the 1920 Act would not make any difference to the cost or cover of insurance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked why children are prevented from volunteering on heritage railways. As I have said, the Government support volunteering and recognise the benefits for all those involved. They are not limiting the opportunities for children to safely volunteer on heritage railways.

In conclusion, the Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, seeks to allow children to gain valuable experience volunteering on heritage railways and tramways. The Government support this aim. However, we believe that the current framework does just that: existing modern health and safety laws allow children and young people to volunteer on heritage railways, while protecting their education and health and safety. Nothing would be gained from a change to legislation when other, simpler and more effective options are available. The existing framework is fair and effective, which is why the Government do not believe that the Bill is necessary. Nevertheless, the Government are committed to working with the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and all interested parties to achieve a solution; we will meet in the autumn when the House returns.