I beg to move,
That this House
has considered preventing serious injury and fatalities while working at height.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to everyone who contributed to the all-party parliamentary group on working at height report, which we published just a few months ago. The acknowledgments on the back pages list the organisations in the sector that brought their expertise to bear.
A 1970s public information film told us:
“The effects of gravity can be grave.”
We all have a stake in our constituents being safe while working at height, including the workers in this very building, which is shrouded in scaffolding, including just outside the doors of Westminster Hall.
Last year, the APPG on working at height undertook an inquiry to understand the reasons why falls from height occur, and to examine their consequences for individuals and their families. It published a report in February, “Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injury and Fatalities while Working at Height”, which makes a number of recommendations that we hope will help to create a safer environment for the millions of people who work at height in the UK every day.
More than 60 respondents to the APPG took the time to share their experience and suggest ways to improve and build on the current guidelines and legislation. Working at height is not the sole preserve of those we might automatically think of, namely people in the construction sector. We must also consider the work of window cleaners, sole traders, small businesses, people in the oil and gas sector, farmers and agricultural workers, and many other professions besides. The evidence gathering helped us to shape the report’s recommendations and gave us a valuable insight into the challenges faced by those various sectors. The fantastic response from the public and industry highlighted the importance of this issue and the desire to see improvements across all sectors involved in working at height. I pay particular tribute to the Access Industry Forum, and to Peter Bennett OBE of the Prefabricated Access Suppliers’ and Manufacturers’ Association and the No Falls Foundation, which are based in my constituency and forged the idea of setting up the APPG.
At the report launch, we were humbled to hear from Paul Blanchard, who had a fall in 2010 when aged 55. After falling from a roof, he broke his back and 18 ribs, suffered severe head injuries and punctured a lung. He subsequently spent three months in a coma in hospital. His family were told twice that he might not survive, and that if he were to survive he would likely have significant brain damage. Miraculously, he pulled through, but was left with no sense of smell and damaged hearing, and was paralysed from the chest down. At the launch, he spoke movingly about how he is still coming to terms with the changes to his life and that of his family. His account is a stark reminder that a fleeting lapse in concentration can have devastating, lifelong consequences. That must be our main motivation to do all we can to improve the regulatory environment and the rules and guidelines. No one should ever not return home from work as a result of a fall from height.
Although we have a good record in the UK, 35 families last year lost a loved one due to a fall from height. I am sure you will agree, Mr McCabe, that that is 35 too many. The fantastic “Get a Grip” safety campaign, which was launched recently by the Ladder Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, aims to raise awareness of the importance of using ladders and step-ladders safely, both at work and at home, in an attempt to reduce accidents. The campaign features a short film comprising an interview with Abbi Taylor, whose father, Jason Anker, who also gave evidence to us, was paralysed after a fall from height when she was only three years old. Abbi talks candidly about the profound effects that her father’s accident had on her. She speaks about how he was not able to walk her down the aisle at her wedding or babysit his young granddaughter. It is an incredibly powerful message and helps to convey the hugely important message that there can be devastating, real-life consequences to using ladders, or working at height in any capacity, if proper precautions are not taken. I recommend Abbi’s video to everyone here, and would be happy to share the details if anyone is interested.
I would like to see more of that type of campaign, as we do not have the public information broadcasting that we used to have. I am keen for the APPG to explore and be more involved in that. As Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser for ROSPA, said recently:
“We are aware people have deadlines and other pressures, but by cutting corners you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. By making people think about what could happen to family and friends in the event of a fall, we can get people to think twice about their safety”.
I could not agree more. It is one thing to tell people about rules and guidelines, but quite another to tell them of the life-changing impacts that carelessness can bring about. We all see people working on buildings and ladders doing those kinds of things, and we sometimes wonder why people have done what they have done. Often, it is due to a lapse of concentration or because someone has cut a corner.
To tackle some of these issues, the APPG has made four recommendations and highlighted two areas where we want to consult further. First, we want to introduce enhanced reporting through the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—RIDDOR—which would at a minimum record the scale of a fall, the method used and the circumstances surrounding the fall. It would also be useful to link up with NHS data, which could provide further details. Previously, data was collected through the home accident surveillance system and the leisure accident surveillance system, but that ended in 2003, leaving a significant data gap.
Secondly, we recommend the setting up of an independent reporting body to allow confidential, enhanced and digital reporting of near misses and accidents that do not fall under RIDDOR reporting. That could then be shared with the Government and industry, to inform health and safety policy. We heard evidence from the Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme charitable trust, the UK Confidential Reporting Programme for Aviation and Maritime, and Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety, all of which have seen the benefit of such a reporting scheme. It would be particularly useful in addressing emerging new risks in newer areas of industry and construction. Things are changing, and buildings look very different. The occasions on which people may have to work at height, such as music festivals, are developing all the time, and we must consider how accidents can be reported.
The first two proposals attracted broad agreement from those who responded to the APPG’s inquiry. There is concern that safety improvements are hindered by a lack of empirical data, knowledge and understanding of the root causes of falls from height. The issue is compounded by a cultural obstacle when it comes to supporting people to report unsafe practices. The recommendation concerning improved reporting suggests a change to existing systems of data collection, as opposed to building something from scratch. Free-text boxes and not asking the right questions hamper the learning that can be taken from incidents. The Minister will be glad to hear that stakeholders believe that making those improvements would have little financial burden on the Government. It would be a quick win and would improve data quality and accuracy almost overnight. For those reasons, I would be grateful if the Minister gave the proposal serious consideration.
Our third recommendation concerns extending the “Working Well Together—Working Well at Height” safety campaign to a wider audience outside construction. There are now many industries that involve work at height that ought to be considered, and it appears that stakeholders would welcome such an initiative. The Health and Safety Executive analysed 150 falls from height that it investigated in the food and drink industry over three years. Its website indicates that 40% of workers fell from ladders; 17% from vehicles or forklifts; 10% from machinery or plant; 10% from platforms; 8% from stairs; 7% from roofs or false ceilings, 4% from scaffolds and gantries; and 4% from warehouse racking. A range of incidents can occur. Workplaces are increasingly complex, and workers are perhaps not as prepared as they could be due to the nature of work, including temporary and zero-hours contracts. Workers in those environments need to be protected wherever they are.
The APPG has suggested changes that draw on best practice or existing mechanisms. That is why our fourth recommendation is that the Scottish fatal accident inquiry process should be extended to all parts of the UK. In Scotland, Ministers are required under section 29 of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016 to report on fatalities. FAIs are mandatory for deaths occurring in the workplace, and the outcomes are publicly available online. Extending that to all parts of the UK would go some way to ensuring that all fatalities in the workplace, including those as a result of a fall from height, are properly and thoroughly investigated and reported, and that recommendations for change are made.
The APPG wants to look further at a digital technology strategy, including a new tax relief to help small, micro and sole traders to invest in new technology. That is more an issue for the Treasury, rather than the Minister, but we think it is important. We heard from the City of London Corporation about its initiative to improve understanding of working at height among facilities management companies, and from construction giant Balfour Beatty about its use of drone technology to carry out bridge inspections, cutting the risk for workers at height. Technology offers great potential and it should be available not just to wealthy companies but as widely as possible, including to small businesses and lone workers so that they can avoid putting themselves at risk. This is also a good time for Government to instigate a major review of work-at-height culture, which should include investigating the suitability of legally binding financial penalties in health and safety. Those funds could go towards raising awareness.
I have been contacted by people interested in preventing injury from dropped objects, for which the data is also quite sketchy. The HSE collects information on those struck by moving objects, which accounted for 13% of deaths and 10% of injuries, but there is no sense of exactly which objects were moving, in what manner, how they caused harm or what happened. Information suggests that dropped objects are in the top 10 causes of injury in the oil and gas industry alone. That requires much more investigation, and the APPG intends to look into it further.
Work is being carried out in the United States, with the ANSI/ISEA 121 dropped object prevention solutions standard, and in Aberdeen with the dropped objects prevention scheme, or DROPS. I encourage the Minister to investigate whether those schemes could enhance the HSE’s work.
I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members who came to the debate hoping for a wee break from Brexit, but it is important to touch briefly on the potential impact that leaving the European Union may have on this area of policy, which we must bear in mind when it comes to people’s safety. In a recent survey, 97% of businesses asked by EEF said that they wanted no immediate change to regulations as and when the UK leaves the EU. We must not sacrifice red tape, because it provides a safety net.
The UK Government introduced the Health and Safety (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which are designed to ensure that all EU-derived protections are fully incorporated into UK law. The message from the APPG is clear: Ministers must ensure that no individual who works at height is any less safe after Brexit. I hope the Minister will make a commitment on that.
Before I conclude my remarks, I thank David Hanson, who is an excellent member of the APPG and is very committed to the issue. I am glad to see him here. I am sure that if it were not for today’s local elections, the debate would have a much wider attendance.
Although I acknowledge that the UK has some of the lowest workplace fatality and serious injury rates of any country in the European Union, the latest data— published last year by the Health and Safety Executive—shows that, averaged over the past five years, 26% of deaths at work happen as a result of a fall from height, which is by far the leading cause. In 2017-18, 8% of workplace injuries were the result of a fall from height—those injuries can be very serious. Many of those deaths and injuries are preventable, and that is a tragedy. We in this place must therefore do everything in our power to minimise risk and protect individuals as much as possible. One fatality at work is one too many.
I support Alison Thewliss in commending the APPG report to the Minister and to the House as a whole. I have played a small part in the group, but was able to attend a number of sessions and helped to sign off the report’s recommendations. I have done so because it is self-evident and important that we must try to reduce still further the number of deaths and injuries caused by falls from height.
My first memory of my dad was visiting him in hospital after he had suffered an industrial injury and was off work for six months. It is important to remember that it is not just the individual who is affected by an injury at work, but their family, as the hon. Lady said. Although my dad was not injured by a fall from height, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which were both passed by a Labour Government, are critical pieces of legislation. They ensure that those who work at height, either for big businesses or when self-employed, come home safe, contribute at work safely and are free from injury or—in some cases, sadly—death, as a result of their efforts at work.
We have a responsibility not only through business, central Government regulation and legislation passed by this House, but through the exploitation and promotion of good practice, to ensure that we do all we can to make that happen. The report shows that in the last year for which we have figures, 18% of people who died at work died as the result of a fall from height, so inroads the Government make in tackling that challenge will help to reduce the overall number of deaths at work. Our figures are very good compared with other European countries, partly because of the legislation passed to date, but as the hon. Lady said, the report mentions some important ways we can not only build on the regulations that place duties on employers, self-employed people and any individuals who contract people to work at height, including building owners, facility managers and householders, but rise to the challenges set out in the report. I look forward to hearing what the Minister thinks the challenges will be.
The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of reporting. There is now a reporting mechanism, but the APPG’s report asks for enhanced reporting to examine still further, and at a minimum, the scale of the fall, the methods used and the circumstances—to get as much information as possible about the fall, so that we can learn and help to prevent future injuries. Is the Minister happy with the current level of reporting and with the demands put on it? Is there scope to improve reporting, as the hon. Lady and the report have requested? If so, as Minister, he has a duty to improve reporting and prevent future injuries and deaths.
The hon. Lady mentioned that our report asks for an independent body to ensure that we allow confidential, enhanced digital reporting of near misses. Reporting a number of near misses that could have resulted in death or serious injury is crucial to oblige good practice and to ensure that we reduce the potential danger and the threat of poor behaviour. What is the Minister’s view on an independent body? Does he think it worthwhile or would it be an additional burden on business? I do not think it would be, but I would like some clarity on that, because it is important that we have that level of support.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Working Well Together campaign and the Working Well at Height safety campaign for industries outside the construction sector. Many businesses regard that as a critical part of their work for training, assessments and so on. For some businesses, however, working at height might be occasional and not central to their daily work. What is the Minister’s view on the Working Well Together Campaign? Can it be improved? He has the ability to make changes if his good team of officials assess them and support him in doing so.
The hon. Lady mentioned Scotland’s fatal accident inquiry process, and I think that there is merit in that. If I get nothing else from the Minister today, I would welcome confirmation of whether he has even looked at Scotland’s fatal accident inquiry process. If he has, what is his assessment of it? I am not asking him today to expand it; I am just asking whether he has looked at it. Have his officials looked at it? Will he be reviewing it? Will he bring to the table an assessment of whether lessons from Scotland could improve safety at work?
I want to help the right hon. Gentleman. Perfectly legitimately, he is making, as did Alison Thewliss, a number of particular points. It may also help colleagues who have yet to speak if I make this brief point in an intervention. Clearly, this matter requires the Health and Safety Executive to report back to the Government on it. The Government would rightly be criticised if they were too definitive without first receiving a specific response from the HSE. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will attempt, within the bounds of what I am able to say, to answer the points raised by the hon. Lady and by him, but obviously we are subject to the formal response by the HSE.
I am grateful to the Minister for putting that on the record. He knows that I acknowledge that relationship, but the key point is that, as the Minister, he can commission work, ask for reviews and, if he has not already, ask the Health and Safety Executive to look at the Scotland fatal accident inquiry process to assess whether any improvements have been made.
Finally, the report also suggests a review of working-at-height culture. Potentially, with the great modern technology we have, that includes mechanisms that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned, such as drones and other activities. We do not wish to put people out of work, but the threats and dangers of certain aspects of work can be minimised by advancing technology. Again, the Minister has the overview to work with the Health and Safety Executive, that great Labour Government invention, to reduce the number of deaths and injuries at work.
I support what the hon. Lady said, and I want to put on record my support from the Labour Back Benches for the recommendations. I hope that our discussions over 18 months to two years will result in some changes that prevent injury and loss of life, and give some people the opportunity to go back to work the following day, contributing to our economy without threat to their life or their family’s future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. When I saw your good self and the Minister sat there, I thought that I was in a Select Committee. I was ready to ask him impertinent questions—
I will perhaps have to quote the Minister’s comment back at him during a future inquiry.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss, on all her work on working at height, which is particularly prevalent in sectors such as construction. I come from a trade union background and was a Unison activist in Glasgow, and we were very aware of such issues, in particular those around whether workers should get additional payments for the context in which they work—at height, for example—and so on. We should remember that in some sectors of the economy, blacklisting by employers was prevalent, often of individuals who expressed the health and safety concerns of workers. That is a real problem and it is still happening. Blacklisting is illegal, but some evidence presented to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs last year suggested that the practice continues. I refer Members to the early-day motion in my name that calls for a public inquiry into blacklisting.
Every fall from height can have life-altering consequences for workers and their families. The working-at-height culture needs to improve, as the APPG report demonstrates clearly, but sadly the issue does not yet appear to be at the top of decision-making agendas. Lack of data prevents us from understanding the causes of falls from height, which is compounded by a cultural obstacle to supporting people to report unsafe practices.
This excellent report looks at the issues that David Hanson talked about, in particular the four primary recommendations: the enhanced reporting system; the appointment of an independent body to allow confidential, enhanced and digital reporting of all near-misses, to be shared with Government and industry to inform health and safety policy; the extension of the Working Well Together programme; and the extension of the Scotland fatal accident inquiry process to other parts of the United Kingdom.
Another concern to share is that, under the coalition Government, the HSE suffered cuts and job losses. Many of us from a trade union background and those Members in Parliament at the time had real concerns about the deregulation of health and safety and the reporting of it. I hope that the Minister will tell us what the existing staffing levels are at the HSE, because I would be concerned had the numbers reduced over the past 10 years. Clearly, we should not be cutting jobs at the Health and Safety Executive.
In Scotland, under section 29 of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016, Ministers are required to report on fatalities. Fatal accident inquiries are the legal mechanism through which deaths in the workplace are investigated. Inquiries are mandatory for deaths occurring in the workplace, as well as in custody, or when the circumstances are deemed to be in the public interest, and they are usually held in the sheriff courts. The outcomes of all fatal accident inquiries since 1999 are publicly available and can be accessed online via the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. The all-party group calls for an equivalent system to be introduced in the rest of the UK, to ensure that employers are held to account for fatal injuries occurring as a result of workers falling from height, and that incidents are reported with sufficient information.
The Scottish Government are looking at the law on culpable homicide and considering proposals made by Members of the Scottish Parliament. For example, Claire Baker MSP launched a consultation, which ran from
Companies can be prosecuted under the UK Government’s Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. We support the Act, but have concerns about the lack of prosecutions under it. Will the Minister talk a bit about that when he responds to the debate? Individual directors can also be charged with the common law offence of culpable homicide or with offences under health and safety legislation, but the SNP position is that if existing legislation can be improved by devolved legislation, we will consider what further steps should be taken.
In the 2018-19 programme for government, the Scottish Government committed to establish in spring this year a new support service—developed and delivered with Victim Support Scotland—to give families bereaved by murder and culpable homicide dedicated and continuous support. That is an important part of the Government’s programme. Wider work to look at the law of homicide is also under way. The Scottish Government asked the Scottish Law Commission to consider that law, and examination commenced in February 2018. Our view is that every fatality at a place of employment in Scotland should be investigated, and that the nature of the deaths requires a detailed and often lengthy investigation involving complex, technical and medical issues and expert opinion. The law already allows individual directors to be charged, which of course is necessary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central. Clearly, Scottish National party Members are leading the way in this Parliament in promoting the rights of workers. My hon. Friend David Linden is campaigning against discrimination against young people in the living wage; my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald, is producing legislation on unpaid work trials; and I am promoting—this debate is another opportunity to do so—the Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill, which touches on issues such as a worker’s status. People in industries such as construction believe that they are workers or employees, but later find out that they are somehow self-employed. We need to get on top of the issue of precarious work.
Thank you, Mr McCabe, for chairing this debate. I commend to the House the report of the all-party parliamentary group on working at height.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr McCabe.
I congratulate Alison Thewliss on securing this important debate, and on her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on working at height, which produced a thought-provoking report in February. I thank her for her comprehensive and effective speech.
From conservation work on Big Ben to pruning trees and cleaning windows, it is estimated that each year, more than 1 million British businesses and 10 million workers carry out tasks that involve some sort of working at height. Action to protect the health and safety of workers has been a central issue for the labour movement throughout its history. Lord Shaftesbury, a Conservative politician, also campaigned for factory reform in the 19th century. However, some Conservatives see health and safety as part of some kind of “nanny state”, implying that there is no need for health and safety regulation, and that providing safety in the workplace is in some way damaging to the economy. The last leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister said, in January 2012:
“One of the coalition’s new year resolutions is this: kill off the health and safety culture for good.”
That is truly shocking, and shows a real disregard for the health and well-being of millions of working people throughout the country.
Strong health and safety legislation is as important today as it has always been. The latest figures for injuries and fatalities at work show that there is still a real need for robust health and safety regulations, especially for working at height. In 2017-18 there were 555,000—over half a million—non-fatal injuries at work, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, which has been responsible for safety in the workplace since 1974.
I congratulate David Hanson on drawing attention to the Labour party’s strong track record and pivotal role in health and safety legislation. In 2017-18, 8% of all non-fatal workplace injuries were due to a fall from height, and of the 144 workers killed at work, 35 were due to a fall from height. Deaths due to a fall from height represent a high proportion of the total, that being the largest reason for a death at work. The figures for 2017-18 are broadly in line with the average of 37 a year since 2013-14. Twenty of those 35 deaths occurred in the construction industry, although falls from height also occur in other parts of the economy, such as agriculture and the service industries.
The last Labour Government introduced the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which are widely considered to have led to a significant improvement in safety at work. The number of deaths resulting from falls from height at work in 2017-18 was 27% lower than in 2005-06. Nevertheless, we need to do more. I want to talk about three areas—reporting, enforcement and the future uncertainty we face as we leave the European Union.
On reporting, the HSE has estimated that only around half of non-fatal injuries are reported, and that the self-employed, who make up 37% of jobs in construction, report an even smaller proportion. In her report for the last Labour Government into the underlying causes of fatal accidents in the construction industry, Baroness Donaghy commented:
“It is a disgrace that we have such a low level of reporting of serious accidents, let alone near-misses”.
Yet in 2013, the HSE amended the regulation on the reporting of injuries at work to reduce the reporting burden on industry, so detailed data on falls is no longer collected. What consideration have the Government given to requiring reporting of the circumstances of a fall, such as how it happened, the distance, and the experience and training that the person had received on working at height? Regulation and reporting are vital, as is enforcement.
On enforcement, according to Government figures, the Treasury’s funding for the HSE is set to be over £100 million less this year than in 2009-10, which is a cut of 45%—almost half—over 10 years. That is shocking. How do the Government seriously expect the HSE to continue to carry out its statutory duties, as well as take on new ones post Brexit, with cuts of that scale to its funding? The number of enforcement notices issued by the HSE fell in 2016-17 and 2017-18. What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of the impact of funding cuts on the number of inspections that HSE undertakes? The Government have so far failed to respond to the tailored review of the HSE, which was published in November last year. When do they intend to do so?
Chris Stephens mentioned Brexit; if future funding is one key uncertainty for health and safety regulation, Brexit is another. After the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, European directives on health and safety mirrored much of what was in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. However, in certain respects European legislation went further, and working at height was one area where UK regulation followed a European directive.
Mr Rees-Mogg said during the referendum campaign that the UK could slash safety standards after Brexit. That is a truly shocking proposal and shows disregard for the well-being of working people. Will the Minister give us a guarantee that existing health and safety legislation will not be watered down after we leave the EU, and that as the EU seeks to extend health and safety legislation, the protection that UK workers enjoy will keep pace?
The tragedy is that falls from height can very often be preventable, through proper enforcement of existing legislation and increased awareness of good practice. The 2005 regulations state that work at height should be avoided altogether wherever practical. As has been mentioned, new technology makes that possible in certain circumstances, such as the use of drones to inspect bridges or buildings. New technology also provides real opportunities for companies and organisations to provide vital health and safety training to help protect people in the workplace.
Rita Donaghy’s 2009 report into fatal accidents in construction was titled “One Death is too Many”. I am sure that is a sentiment that we can all agree on. Those who criticise health and safety regulations as an example of a nanny state might reflect on the impact that deaths and injuries at work have on bereaved families or victims whose lives are shattered as a result.
Thank you for being in the chair in today’s debate, Mr McCabe. Chris Stephens is right that it feels a little like a reunion of the Work and Pensions Committee, but it is certainly a privilege to respond on behalf of the Government to a worthy and important report, and I will attempt to address as many of the points as I can.
I should explain from the outset that I am not the specific Minister with departmental responsibility for this matter. I convey the apologies of the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson, who will ultimately respond to the report on behalf of the Government. Departmental officials have briefed me on the report to allow me to respond to many points, which I will do to the best of my abilities. I reiterate the point that I made to David Hanson—that the HSE needs to feed the Government its views on the report as a whole and on the specific recommendations.
It is right and proper to thank all colleagues for attending; the hon. Member for Glasgow South West made the fair point that today, many constituents will enjoy the pleasure of their Member’s company at the local elections and the like. Otherwise, I am certain more would have been here. I put on the record the Government’s acceptance and acknowledgment of the cross-party working that went into the production of the report. That is to the credit of all colleagues who have worked together. I also thank the Access Industry Forum and all the witnesses. Sadly, we will have to discuss Brexit briefly in a moment, but it is often said that this Parliament is solely focused on thing, unaware that there are many other things that Members are doing. The issue we are talking about is of great worth and merit and is part of an ongoing process.
I will push back slightly on the right hon. Member for Delyn, who seemed to suggest that it was solely the Labour Government who were interested in these matters on an ongoing basis. He will be aware of the Factories Act 1961 and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Successive Governments, of whatever shape or form, have attempted to address health and safety at work in a multitude of ways, to try to reduce the number of accidents and increase the degree of ongoing safety.
I spent 15 years representing claimants who had suffered similar injuries to those described by Alison Thewliss in her opening speech. I worked on approximately 200 or 300 personal injury cases concerning falls from height, sometimes union-backed. I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow South West that there have been many examples where unions have been very supportive of members and have ensured that they got the best possible representation and compensation. I was lucky enough to represent many unions on an ongoing basis in cases in the past.
This issue affects a whole host of different industries. It is easy to say that it affects only scaffolders and roofers, but it can also affect farmers and, self-evidently, people who work in the oil and gas industry. Bluntly, it also affects the mum or dad who chooses to fix their own windows or roof, or to mess with their television aerial. There are many examples of individuals working from height without necessarily understanding the consequences of what they are getting involved with.
I welcome the debate. Let me say, for the avoidance of doubt, that this is an extremely important issue. I shall make a few preliminary points. First, the Health and Safety Executive has informed the Government that it will respond formally to the APPG’s report in due course. I have pressed for a specific timetable. I do not want to inscribe this in stone, but I am told that a response will be made within 60 working days at the very latest, and cover all the points raised in the report and any other issues raised in this debate that are outstanding. I assure the House that the HSE’s response will be deposited in the Library.
It is right to note—I do so not to make a party political point, but because we cannot discuss health and safety at work without putting this on the record—that Great Britain has lower levels of accidents and injuries at work than most nations. The report states fairly at page 6 that, since the introduction of the 2005 regulations,
“the UK has consistently had some of the lowest workplace fatality and serious injury rates in the European Union.”
The report cites the 2014 statistics for the UK and similar countries: the UK had 0.55 fatalities per 100,000 employees, compared with 3.14 in France and 0.81 in Germany. We all agree that one fatality is too many, but that should not detract from the fact that successive Governments have done good work in this field. I also recognise, if it needs to be recognised, that falls from height are a major cause of serious and fatal injuries. The right hon. Member for Delyn fairly made the point, with the poignant tale of his father, that this issue affects each and every person in our communities.
As a practising barrister, I was involved in cases concerning scaffolders and the like both before and after the Work at Height Regulations 2005 were introduced. The report rightly makes it clear that it is agreed that the regulations are fit for purpose and fundamentally appropriate. The HSE has indicated that it welcomes the report and the desire for action. A key strand of the “Helping Great Britain Work Well” strategy for health and safety is acting together, and it is pleasing to see the work at height industry coming together in this way. The HSE undertakes to continue working with stakeholders to promote better working practices in the industry to try to protect workers in the workplace.
The report recommends that the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—RIDDOR, as we all know them—should include enhanced reporting, so that additional intelligence is available. When those regulations were amended in 2013, the key change for work at height was the removal of the high fall—2 metres and above—and low fall categories. However, the free text box on the current reporting form where the reporter includes information about the incident remains the same, and can still be used to record additional information about any work at height incident. That text box can be used to record information about the height of a fall.
The report suggests that enhanced reporting would help to identify the causes of falls from height. It is not for me to come to that conclusion at this stage, but we will listen to the HSE before the relevant Minister comes to a view on that issue. The HSE and industry have already undertaken plenty of excellent work in investigating work at height accidents, and they have established the main reasons behind such falls. Much good guidance is already available from the HSE and industry that addresses this important topic. The Government feel that it is fundamentally more important to place emphasis on the need to follow existing guidance and good practice to prevent falls wherever practicable, or to mitigate their effects should a fall occur.
Another recommendation in the report is that an independent body should be appointed to allow confidential reporting, and that that reporting should include near misses and other non-RIDDOR accidents. The HSE is fundamentally supportive of efforts in this area, but wishes to respond in more detail. However, it is right to put it on the record—this addresses points that several Members made—that the HSE operates a complaints advisory team, to which employees and the public may report concerns about work at height and dangerous practices in the workplace. Crucially, people may make such reports anonymously, and that can lead to the HSE inspecting areas of concern. The Government believe it is important that near misses are reported first and foremost to the employer as soon as possible. It is the employer who needs to investigate and introduce controls.
The report further suggests extending Working Well Together beyond the construction sector. The Access Industry Forum already helpfully provides financial and resource support to Working Well Together, so its groups around Great Britain can run “Working Well at Height” safety and health awareness days. The HSE already works with the Access Industry Forum and Working Well Together. It will continue to promote them and will explore whether there is an appetite for extending the campaign outside the construction sector. The agriculture sector is well known for similar incidents, so the HSE will discuss with the Access Industry Forum how it might also support that sector. As a representative of a very strong farming community, I will be looking to the National Farmers Union in my area to see how it wishes to address this point locally.
A couple of colleagues mentioned Brexit. I wish to make it very clear that we agree with the statement on page 10 of the report that the Government must ensure that no change is made as a result of Brexit that makes individuals who work at height less safe. On that point, the Prime Minister has committed to protecting workers’ rights as the UK leaves the European Union. That includes specific health and safety protections. The Prime Minister has said that there will be no lowering of standards after Brexit.
Hon. Members mentioned the approach in Scotland, where fatal accident inquiries are reported on and then entered on a publicly accessible database. I accept that the report recommends that a similar process should be introduced for England and Wales. I do not want to give a politician’s answer, but I will do so, to a degree. This is an issue for the Ministry of Justice. To be fair to the Ministry of Justice, it is aware of the issue and is looking to respond as part of the HSE response and the Government’s response.
The Ministry of Justice will certainly come back to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central and the APPG on this matter, but I have been asked to make a couple of points in the interim. In England and Wales, the coroners’ courts make findings and reach conclusions. Although those are not routinely made available, they are read out in public at the hearing, and there is a system where the coroner will write to ask relevant bodies and organisations to take action if they believe there is a continued risk to life. Those reports and responses are published in “prevention of future deaths” reports by the Chief Coroner and are publicly available. On that particular issue, the Government at present have no plans to change the proven process, but we will wait to see what the HSE says.
Several colleagues spoke about the causes of falls. I think it is fair to say that there is a fundamental view that the causes of falls are already well known from the many HSE and industry investigations. It is questionable whether gathering additional information would reveal new causes, given the extensive work over decades to identify what causes falls. I endorse entirely the benefits of enhanced data and of drones providing better preliminary assessments of the proposed height at which one would be working. There is absolutely an ongoing desire to ensure that there are fewer injuries in the long term.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central for her efforts, both in terms of the report and in bringing this important matter before the House. I hope Members are assured that there is a plan to take this matter forward. The Government will continue to support the work of the HSE and industry in reducing the number of serious injuries and fatalities, and we will provide a response shortly. The Minister with responsibility for this area looks forward to meeting the APPG and having an opportunity to set out the Government’s position following the HSE’s response.
I thank everyone for coming and contributing to the debate. I appreciate what the Minister said about not perhaps being the correct Minister to cover this debate, but I appreciate the way in which he responded and the expertise he brought to the debate, which is important. I am glad that the HSE will provide a comprehensive response to the report, and that that will be made available in the Commons Library for others to see. That is useful.
I also look forward to receiving the reports on how fatal accident inquiries might be widened or used. I appreciate that that is a Ministry of Justice issue, but the implications of such inquiries, where we have seen them in Scotland, have been quite useful in their process and in making public recommendations. There is currently a much delayed and much publicised one going on about the Clutha helicopter crash in Glasgow. That has involved a huge evidence-gathering process. People will be able to go and watch, and in time the findings will come out. It is a good process for finding out where something has gone wrong and putting it right for the future.
The Minister is correct about the farming sector. The NFU was a keen contributor to the report. I had a conversation with Jim Shannon—unusually, he is not in his place—who said he was away to fix something on the roof of his farm with a ladder and then he realised, “What am I doing? I am on my own here. Why would I go up on the roof with a ladder? Something could happen.” The House would be much poorer for the loss of him, so I am glad that he saw that. That story shows how easily decisions can be made that cause people to take risks without thinking them through and end up injured or worse. More can be done on educating the public about that.
There is still a need for enhanced reporting, so I urge the Minister to look at that. While there is the free text area within the reporting, it does not go far enough to gather the right information. We therefore do not know whether someone using equipment was trained, had particular qualifications or was part of any organisations that might have given advice. It would be useful to have as much background detail as possible to get to the bottom of what went awry to cause the accident.
I am interrupting the hon. Lady’s final peroration to add two points. First, I accept that that is a live issue; to pretend otherwise as to how we do that would be wrong. She has also reminded me that I failed to respond to a point raised by Chris Stephens about blacklisting, which is a loathsome practice. It is quite right for a Government Minister to make it absolutely clear that we wholeheartedly oppose such a process. Employers have a legal duty to consult employees and their representatives on HSE complaints. Blacklisting is absolutely not acceptable in any way, and full support will be given to those, of whatever shape or form, who bring forward cases of such heinous behaviour.
I thank the Minister for adding that—I was about to come on to blacklisting and the risk that some workers feel on reporting when things are not right. Employees in precarious employment in particular feel that if they become a whistleblower, they could quickly and easily lose their job, with the issue going unresolved for the next worker to come up against as well. I urge him to consider whether the anonymous reporting scheme that he mentioned covers that eventuality. There may be a time lag between someone’s reporting and an investigation; investigating needs to be done more efficiently and quickly, so that there can be a resolution without that worker being put at individual risk of losing their employment.
I was glad to hear what the Minister said about workers’ rights. We will hold the Government to that—he had better believe that we will. Working at height is increasingly complex, because buildings and the employment spectrum are more complex. It is right that the regulations are looked at again to ensure that they are entirely fit for purpose, because things have changed dramatically since they were written and we need to ensure that they are always effective in protecting workers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered preventing serious injury and fatalities while working at height.