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Health And Safety At Work (Amendment)

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 4 February 1975

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4.15 p.m.

I beg to move

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work &c. Act 1974 so as to ensure that no provisions of that Act shall in any way remove, reduce or limit the application of any provisions, in force at the commencement of that Act, imposing absolute liability in respect of health and safety at work.
This is a one-clause Bill which seeks only to clarify and to improve the Health and Safety at Work Act. Health and safety legislation needs to be strictly applied in view of the appalling loss of life and limb which goes on year after year in industry. I know that hon. Members are gravely concerned at this daily level of violence in industry, especially hon. Members in opposition, because every time an hon. Member on this side of the House mentions the Shrewsbury pickets many hon. Members on the Tory benches become purple and speak about violence used in picketing, although no violence was involved in the convictions against the Shrewsbury two.

I am certain, therefore, that the violence in industry which caused 920 death in 1971, 862 in 1972 and 895 in 1973 and which annually results in between 17 million and 20 million days' lost production—far greater than any such loss due to strike action—is a cause for great concern on all sides. Over the years various Acts have been passed by this House in an attempt to require industry to become safer. The Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the Factories Act 1961 are two of the most important. However, the Health and Safety at Work Act gives powers to a Minister to modify and repeal, either in part or in whole, every Act affecting work in industry and mining, from the Explosives Act, 1875 to the Employment Medical Advisory Service Act, 1972.

Part I of the Health and Safety at Work Act empowers the Minister to make regulations and to approve codes of practice progressively to replace virtually the whole of existing legislation. Nobody would object to a tidying-up of the existing laws, but what is greatly feared is that a Minister, acting with the best of intentions, would replace some important section of an Act which imposes an absolute safety obligation, such as Section 14 of the Factories Act, 1961, with a code of practice or a weaker regulation. Such a move would be entirely within Part I of the Health and Safety at Work Act which provides that the regulations and codes of practice will be
"designed to maintain and improve the standards of health safety and welfare …"
Clearly, no Minister would produce codes designed to lower standards, but the substitution of a code of practice, for an absolute obligation might have that effect no matter how virtuous the design.

Consequently, my Bill will clarify this needlessly obscure position. It states:
"Nothing in the principal Act shall permit the Secretary of State to remove or limit the application of the provisions imposing absolute liability contained in any of the relevant statutory provisions or any regulations, orders or other instruments made thereunder."
The Health and Safety at Work Act contains yet more differences. The section setting out the general duties of an employer with regard to safety and health contains the words
"so far as is reasonably practicable"
some 14 times, and it is of some concern that these general duties might be regarded as superseding the absolute provisions of, say, Section 14 of the Factories Act, 1961, under which dangerous machinery has to be guarded. The words "reasonably practicable" have been held to imply a calculation of the cost of protection against the danger to a worker. They place a price on safety and a price on life. Those same words,
"so far as is reasonably practicable"
occurred many times in the Mines and Quarries Bill. Labour Members fought successfully to get them excluded. The same struggle occurred during the Committee stage of what was to become the Factories Act, 1961.

It would be an ironic quirk if the high standards of safety in those two Acts were reduced as a result of some judicial decision arising from the Health and Safety at Work Act which applied the words
"so far as is reasonably practicable"
across the board. Such a decision would also apply to Section 1 of the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969. This prosaic title hides an event that deeply shocked our nation when one horrible morning a tip slid down a hill and buried a school, and the name "Aberfan" became a synonym for tragedy. The Act that was subsequently passed did not say that "Tips shall be made and kept secure so far as is reasonably practicable." It said simply,
"Every tip to which this Part of this Act applies shall be made and kept secure."
It imposed an absolute duty, because the death and tragedy of Aberfan allowed for nothing less.

Death in industry is not so stark and dramatic, but the figures are grim enough. In almost every newspaper, tucked away in a corner, is a report of a trench falling in, some machinery slipping or an explosion. Sometimes there is a huge explosion, as a Flixborough, where we are led to understand a by-pass pipe was connected that was apparently safe "so far as reasonably practicable".

Whenever there is a demand for legislative improvement there are dramatic arguments against it. In the Mines and Quarries Bill it was said that if the words
"so far as is reasonably practicable"
were excluded, the National Coal Board members would have personally to inspect every safety device and would face imprisonment for breach. To date this has not happened. No National Coal Board members have been sent to gaol, at least not for breaches of safety regulations.

The Minister concerned with the Health and Safety at Work Act said that to preserve the absolute provisions of the Mines and Quarries Act and the Factories Act would defeat the whole spirit and purpose of the Act by making it difficult and legally risky to rationalise, up-date and improve on existing legislation. What utter nonsense! The attitude of the Minister, combined with the hitherto inert attitude of the factory inspectorate in prosecuting for breaches, makes it even more important to pass my Bill. The view of those experienced in industrial law differs from that of that Minister.

A solicitor who has been concerned with a large number of asbestosis cases in the North of England and has much practical legal experience has written to me as follows:
"I am a solicitor. I act for trade union members who have accidents at work. May I ask you to consider a point on the Health and Safety at Work Bill? Could the Government make it clear that absolute duties in forthcoming safety regulations will not be ultra vires in the light of the 'reasonably practicable' provisions in Clause 2? Absolute duties do more for safety than qualified duties. They also make it easier to get compensation for the injured.
"I fear that future regulations will be like the recent abrasive wheels regulations, which substitute for the Factories Act, 1961. They replace the absolute duty to guard grindstones (Section 14) by a qualified duty. It is harder now to get compensation for men injured on such wheels. I suspect it is more difficult for factory inspectors to prosecute.
"If future regulations require occupiers to do no more than is reasonably practicable there will be a step backwards for workers in industry.
"I have had some experience of conditions endured by constituents of yours in Keighley who work in the foundries there. In my view they and the Factory Inspectorate need all the help they can get. Their employers should be kept in line by absolute duties not qualified ones."
In my view, it is important to retain at least those sections of our laws imposing absolute duties and to prevent any watering down. I hope that the House will endorse this Bill and so ensure that the trade union movement and the mass of working people, which is growing increasingly aware of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the Health and Safety at Work Act, can see that some action to improve the legislation is being undertaken by this House, hopefully, with the endorsement of the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bob Cryer, Mr. Richard Kelley, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. Peter Snape, Mr. John Golding, Mr. Max Madden, Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick, Mr. Geoff Edge, Mr. Alexander Wilson, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett and Mr. Bryan Davies.

Health And Safety At Work (Amendment)

Mr. Bob Cryer accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work &c. Act 1974 so as to ensure that no provisions of that Act shall in any way remove, reduce or limit the applica- tion of any provisions, in force at the commencement of that Act, imposing absolute liability in respect of health and safety at work: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21st February; and to be printed. [Bill 75.]