New Clause 18 - Requirements to wear safety helmets: exemption for Sikhs

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 25th March 2014.

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‘(1) Section 11 of the Employment Act 1989 (exemption of Sikhs from requirements as to wearing of safety helmets on construction sites) is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (10).

(2) In subsection (1), for “on a construction site” substitute “at a workplace”.

(3) In subsection (2), in paragraph (a), for “on a construction site” substitute “at a workplace”.

(4) In subsection (5), in the opening words, for “on a construction site” substitute “at a workplace”.

(5) After subsection (6) insert—

“(6A) This section does not apply to a Sikh who—

(a) works, or is training to work, in an occupation that involves (to any extent) providing an urgent response to fire, riot or other hazardous situations, and

(b) is at the workplace—

(i) to provide such a response in circumstances where the wearing of a safety helmet is necessary to protect the Sikh from a risk of injury, or

(ii) to receive training in how to provide such a response in circumstances of that kind.

(6B) This section also does not apply to a Sikh who—

(a) is a member of Her Majesty’s forces or a person providing support to Her Majesty’s forces, and

(b) is at the workplace—

(i) to take part in a military operation in circumstances where the wearing of a safety helmet is necessary to protect the Sikh from a risk of injury, or

(ii) to receive training in how to take part in such an operation in circumstances of that kind.”

(6) In subsection (7)—

(a) omit the definitions of “building operations”, “works of engineering construction” and “construction site”;

(b) before the definition of “injury”, insert—

““Her Majesty’s forces” has the same meaning as in the Armed Forces Act 2006;”;

(c) at the end insert—

““workplace” means any premises where work is being undertaken, including premises occupied or normally occupied as a private dwelling; and “premises” includes any place and, in particular, includes—

(a) any vehicle, vessel, aircraft or hovercraft,

(b) any installation (including a floating installation or one resting on the seabed or its subsoil or on other land covered with water or its subsoil), and

(c) any tent or moveable structure.”

(7) In subsection (8), in paragraph (b), for “on a construction site” substitute “at a workplace”.

(8) In subsection (9)—

(a) for “relevant construction site” substitute “relevant workplace”;

(b) for “construction site” (in the second place where it occurs) substitute “workplace”.

(9) In subsection (10), for the words from ““relevant construction site” to the end of the subsection substitute ““relevant workplace” means any workplace where work is being undertaken if the premises and the activities being undertaken there are premises and activities to which the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 applies by virtue of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (Application outside Great Britain) Order 2013.”

(10) In the sidenote, for “on construction sites” substitute “at workplaces”.

(11) Section 12 of that Act (protection of Sikhs from racial discrimination in connection with requirements as to wearing of safety helmets) is amended as follows.

(12) In subsection (1)—

(a) in paragraph (a), for “on a construction site” substitute “at a workplace”;

(b) in paragraph (b), for “on such a site” substitute “at such a workplace”.

(13) In subsection (3), for “Subsections (7) to (10)” substitute “Subsections (6A) to (10).”.’.—(Oliver Heald.)

This new clause extends the scope of the exemption under section 11 of the Employment Act 1989, currently limited to construction sites, so that turban-wearing Sikhs will be exempt from legal requirements to wear a safety helmet in a workplace of any kind (subject to exceptions set out in section 11(6A) and (6B) as amended).

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The effect of the new clause is that turban-wearing Sikhs will be exempt from legal requirements to wear a safety helmet in all workplaces, subject to certain exclusions, and not only on a construction site. It also extends the limited liability provisions of the exemption to those persons, such as employers, who hold a legal requirement in respect of the wearing, provision or maintenance of safety helmets by the exempt Sikh individual.

As I previously mentioned, the new clause is the result of representations by the Sikh Council UK.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

The Labour party strongly supports and welcomes the new clause. We are pleased that the Government have listened to the representations of the Sikh Council and from the Sikh community, allowing Sikhs to wear turbans instead of head protection in all workplaces.

There is an existing exemption under section 11 of the Employment Act 1989, allowing Sikhs to wear turbans in place of hard hats on building sites. As we would all recognise that building sites are among the most dangerous working environments in the country, it is an anomaly that the exemption is not already in place for other workplaces and industries. Sikh organisations say that the exception has led to problems for turban-wearing Sikhs in other areas where the risk from failing objects is likely to be lower than in construction. Likewise, rule 83, which is under the “Rules for motorcyclists” section of The Highway Code, clearly exempts

“a follower of the Sikh religion while wearing a turban” from helmet rules.

There is a clear precedent for further deregulation and a clear incentive to act. Members of the Sikh community have faced disciplinary hearings and dismissal for refusing to wear head protection and others are unable to follow their chosen professions because of the insistence on the need to wear head protection. That is arguably discriminatory.

Before we move on, I want to reflect the representations I have had from the Sikh Council UK and members of the Sikh community on the importance of the turban within their faith and say a few words about the role that Sikhs have played in British history over the past couple of centuries. The turban is a hugely important part of a Sikh’s faith, and as a tolerant and open country our laws should reflect and promote that. To many Sikhs, the turban is the most important identification of their faith. By having a distinct appearance, Sikhs become accountable for their actions and representations made it clear that the turban makes them think more about their conduct, its reflection on wider society and what it says about their faith. It also makes them reflect on the teachings of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. That is why the Sikh Council UK has long campaigned for the change and broadly welcomes the new clause.

Turban-wearing Sikhs have been a part of the British landscape for at least two centuries, and nowhere is that better seen than in our armed forces, which represent the ultimate dangerous occupation. In 2012, Guardsman Jatenderpal Bhullar became the first turban wearer on guard duty outside Buckingham palace. That was an incredibly important moment, with a turban-wearing Sikh at the heart of the British establishment. We all know that Sikhs have been an integral part of our services for a long time. Rattray’s Sikhs was a famous regiment of the Army renowned for its martial prowess and never-say-die attitude. A young Winston Churchill nearly lost his life rescuing a wounded Sikh when he fought in the Malakand campaign of 1897. Twenty-one Sikhs from the Indian army’s Sikh regiment won awards for gallantry at the battle of Saragarhi. Sikhs are very much a part of our island story and we want that contribution to be visibly demonstrated in workplaces across the country. The clause represents an opportunity to do that.

We would, however, like to ask the Minister a few questions, to clarify anomalies and ambiguities in the clause. Will he clarify the territorial extent of the clause? Many of the other new clauses clearly specify where they apply, whether that is to England, to England and Wales, to Great Britain or to the whole United Kingdom. The new clause is not clear on that. For example, will Sikhs working in Northern Ireland be covered by the new clause? Will he clarify exactly what is meant by “workplace”? Will the clause apply to workers on call or those working as contractors, either from their home or other people’s homes? Will he inform us whether further amendments will require primary legislation or statutory instrument?

We recognise, as do community organisations like the Sikh Council UK, that in extreme cases—for example, our emergency services and armed forces, and in particular those serving on the front line—there might have to be some exemptions from this deregulation. It is important that we have clarity on the law. No one wants to see people in any workplace put into a position of unnecessary danger. With technological changes happening more quickly than ever before, it is important to keep the option of making such amendments as flexible and responsive as possible. I therefore hope that a Minister would always make such decisions as a last resort, on a case-by-case basis. Does the Minister agree that making future amendments by statutory instrument rather than primary legislation would be an important and worthwhile deregulatory measure?

What representations has the Minister received regarding section 12 of the Employment Act 1989, as amended by schedule 26 to the Equality Act 2010? It has been brought to our attention that that section could be interpreted as permitting an employer to use the defence of having a legitimate aim when forcing a Sikh employee to wear a safety helmet in the workplace. Since that could undermine the intention of the new clause, has such an interpretation been considered in its drafting, alongside any other representations? Do further steps need to be taken to correct the ambiguity?

As we expect to hear clarification from the Minister on those points, we look forward to supporting him on such an important piece of deregulation that will mean a lot to many people in our country.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I strongly support the new clause. I represent a community—Luton North—with a considerable number of Sikhs. Last Sunday, I attended a local Sikh temple for a celebration. I have been there many times, and was actually present at that temple’s opening 32 years ago, which was a great pleasure.

I also have an interest in health and safety. Many years ago, I worked at the TUC, where I was responsible for establishing its construction committee, one of the main considerations of which was site safety. Some years later, I attended a meeting of that committee as a representative of the National and Local Government Officers’ Association. Together with Frank Chapple, who was then the general secretary of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, I argued strongly that wearing safety helmets on site should be compulsory and a matter for the law, because many site workers would not wear a hard hat unless required to do so.

That was important, but, of course, I entirely understand and support the exception for Sikhs. Nevertheless, these days many Sikhs choose not to wear the turban—they pursue their faith in other ways. One assumes that Sikhs who do not wear the turban and who are working on sites will be covered by the same rules as all the other people on site—namely, they will be required to wear a hard hat.

Sadly, I have seen the staff of some small companies at small sites, doing work on homes or whatever, not wearing hard hats, and I worry about them. I would not be so patronising as to suggest that they put their hard hat on, but in reality a bolt from a bit of scaffolding falling 20 or 30 feet on to the skull of a human being can cause severe damage, possibly fracturing the skull. It is therefore absolute common sense to wear hard hats, and although the turban would give a bit of protection in such cases, I hope that those Sikhs who do not wear one will be required to wear hard hats.

I would like to see the law strengthened so that small groups of people working in the road or a small building firm working on houses would be required to wear hard hats on site because of the potential danger. I do not have any figures on skull fractures and the injuries caused to people by their not wearing hard hats, but I suspect that they are significant even now, although much better than in the days when wearing a hard hat was unusual.

It is particularly in the nature of males that we do not want to appear to be feeble by taking safety measures. There was a time when we did not wear seat belts in cars. It was only when they became compulsory that we accepted them, because we had to, although I was one of those who wore a seat belt before they were compulsory. Taking proper safety precautions on building sites, in factories and in other areas where there are dangers requires a degree of compulsion in law or many will not bother; many will take chances and cause injury as a result.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 10:45 am, 25th March 2014

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the contribution of culture to the encouragement or promotion of the wearing of hard hats. Does he think that the culture has changed over the time he has been involved? Have the unions played a part in promoting that change?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Indeed. I was working at the TUC when the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 was introduced. It was a tremendous step in the right direction, a tremendous advance, and we must always be careful, but I have to say that even in the past week I saw some men working on a damaged drain cover outside my home, using diamond-edge stone cutters with no hard hats, no ear defenders and no goggles. I think they were in danger of injury. We have to pay careful attention to health and safety measures of that kind, for the people involved, primarily, but there are also costs to the health service and to the economy of injuries and deaths at work. Health and safety, particularly in these dangerous areas, is of primary importance and I am very happy to support new clause 18.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

We have had an interesting debate. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Chesterfield about the meaning of “workplace”, the definition is sufficiently broad to cover a situation in which a Sikh is a visitor at a workplace other than his own, or in which a Sikh is driving or travelling in a vehicle or on a motorcycle. It is a wide definition.

On the point about a statutory instrument being necessary in respect of the exclusion for emergency response services and the armed forces, those exclusions only apply in hazardous operational situations by institutions such as the emergency services. That means that all other possible means of protecting the Sikh individual must be considered and rejected in accordance with existing legislation before they can be required to wear specialist head protection. Such a requirement will therefore only be made when it is absolutely in the best interests of that Sikh individual’s health, safety and welfare.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am grateful for that, as far as it goes, but will the Solicitor-General clarify, in the event of exemptions, which may be in situations such as the examples he has raised, or may be for new industries that we do not even know exist yet but for which, as they come forward, it would be considered helpful to have an exemption, what would be the process for enforcing that change?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

By using the word “necessary” for the exclusions to apply, this will remain appropriate whatever advances take place in technology and the like.

On the question of territorial extent, this covers the UK excluding Northern Ireland at the moment, but Northern Ireland is currently conducting a consultation on the proposal and, subject to ministerial agreement in Northern Ireland and the need to obtain a legislative consent motion, it is intended that these amendments to Northern Ireland legislation will also be tabled in the Bill in due course: we wait to hear about that. As regards section 12 of the Employment Act 1989 and any issue of ambiguity, section 12 provides that the application of a legal requirement to wear a safety helmet on a construction site which is imposed on a turban-wearing Sikh by an employer would not be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim such as to avoid indirectly discriminating against the Sikh individual under the Equality Act 2010. In other words, if an employer attempts to enforce such a requirement  on a turban-wearing Sikh, he runs the risk of indirect discrimination against that person.

Finally, I agree with what the hon. Member for Chesterfield said about the Sikhs. They are a fantastic group who have added so much to this country and their history is, as he outlined, a very important part of our cultural background as a country. The amendments will be widely welcomed in the Sikh community, which includes the Sikhs of Hertfordshire and the gurdwaras of Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 18 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.