Skip to main content

Construction Industry

Volume 205: debated on Friday 6 March 1992

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. David Davis.]

2.39 pm

I wish that I could bring one or two Bills before the House and see them passed in the few minutes it took us to deal with a worthy measure, which has some bearing on the remarks that I wish to make today. The Offshore Safety (Protection Against Victimisation) Bill is designed to limit the amount of victimisation that takes place against safety representatives and workers on offshore oil rigs. There is a need for a similar measure to protect workers on building sites and in the construction industry generally.

At Christmas, the acting head of the Health and Safety Executive for the west midlands stated in a press release dated 11 December:
"Many industrial and construction accidents are being caused by workplace conditions which would have been unacceptable half a century ago".
In the press release, the region's industrialists were challenged to put more effort into managing safety. Last year, in my district of the west midlands, there were 12 fatalities—double the number of the previous 12 months.

Bev McCordall, acting HSE chief, said:
"Inspectors are still investigating accidents in factories and on building sites which they would not have tolerated in the 1930s let alone today when safety awareness should be much more advanced".
As I recall, the last time that the House debated the issue of health and safety on construction sites was almost three years ago in April 1989—little has changed since then. The construction industry still has the highest reported fatal and major injury rates of any of the main sectors of employment. The fatal injury rate is five times that of the average rate in manufacturing industry as a whole, and 10 times that of the service sector.

Today, in one of the last Back-Bench debates of this Parliament—if we assume that the Government intend to call a general election next week—I wish to ensure that health and safety in the building industry becomes an election issue. I want candidates up and down the country to be asked what they would bring before the House in the form of legislation. I shall answer my question at the end of my speech. We want measures to stop the carnage of death and disfigurement on Britain's building sites.

There are about 1·5 million workers in the industry, and during the past 10 years, 1,500 have been killed in accidents. Some 40,000 have died of bronchitis, cancer and other diseases. The number of reportable injuries lasting for more than three days runs into hundreds of thousands. Those are chilling figures in an industry which, perhaps above most, puts profit before public safety.

I do not wish to make a personal accusation against the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, but, as action could be taken to prevent such carnage, the absence of such action must lead anyone to conclude that the Government's attitude towards death and injury in the building industry is largely one of indifference. They have cut the number of inspectors and weakened many of the powers, legal and otherwise, that could have been used.

In addition, during the past couple of years, the problem has been compounded by the recession. A couple of years ago, the Building Employers Confederation calculated that since July 1989, 165,000 jobs in the industry had been lost. In 1990 alone, 4,700 construction firms went bankrupt. There has been a 2 per cent. fall in the overall injury rate due to that. In the past couple of years the recession has turned into the deepest and longest lasting slump for 50 years. Building workers have complained—both to me personally and, more generally, through their organisations, union magazines, health and advice centres and other such organisations—of the pressures now put on workers in the industry to cut corners, finish a job within budget and bring in contracts early, often because of the severe penalty clauses written into them.

Unacceptable and unnecessary risks are being taken in the building industry. Largely, the fault lies with the management. That is not only my view; the then director of the Health and Safety Executive, after analysing 739 deaths between 1981 and 1985, said in June 1988 that management action could have saved seven out of 10 fatalities in that period. So the carnage is preventable in nearly three quarters of all cases of fatality.

The Health and Safety Commission's annual report for 1990–91 listed horrific statistics. On average, a worker is killed in the building industry every three days. On an average day, 59 building workers are reported as injured. The labour force survey, which many regard as offering a more accurate picture of the real number of injuries—not just those reported—suggests that that is only half the actual number. On average, a member of the public is killed by construction activities every month. Search our thesaurus as we may, we can find no other words to bring to bear on this than scandal, horror and carnage.

In the five years to 1990–91, 742 people were killed, 496 of whom were legal building employees and 183—a number that had sharply risen—were self-employed or subbies, who are experiencing more and more problems. Sixty-three were members of the public.

For someone who has worked in the building industry for 20 years, there is a one in 600 risk of dying as a result of an accident at work and a one in two risk of suffering a reportable injury. In other words, for every reported fatal injury, there are 30 major injuries in the industry, many of them potentially fatal.

Half of all injuries to workers in the building industry are caused by falls from a height, as are two fifths of reported major injuries. To anticipate what the Minister may say, I must point out that head injuries have significantly decreased since the regulations were changed in April 1990—a 25 per cent. fall.

What I have not included in this snowstorm of statistics are the figures for those who have died from cancer of the lung or of the stomach, from respiratory diseases and from diseases of the circulatory system—all diseases which kill a far higher percentage of building workers than members of the general public because of the dust, fumes, gases and toxic chemicals with which they are forced to work.

Then there are the biological and physical hazards to contend with: noise, heat, vibration, compressed air and inflammable materials. If those materials do not alone account for the horrific death rates, the stresses of site work, low pay, long hours, poor food and other factors exacerbate the problem. If Ministers think that I am exaggerating, I took that last point from a signed editorial in the September 1990 edition of the British Medical Journal. Many medical practitioners agree with it.

Tragedies in my area are reported in the pages of the local papers. A week before Christmas, my local paper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph, reported a father of four killed when a scaffolding tower on which he was working toppled over and hurled him to the ground. In the same period, Philip Rodgers, aged 29, was killed when the moving arm of a hoist smashed against the rear of the vehicle in which he was operating. In June of last year there was a double tragedy when the husband and brother of a Warwickshire mother of three, Jane Cole, were both killed on building sites—both had worked for the same company. One of the workers was crushed to death by a 4-tonne crane; the second was pinned under a dumper truck.

Because of the make-up of the workers in this industry, a lot of Irish workers are killed. Rather than take up the whole of this debate cataloguing each case, I hope to give the Minister at the end of it, if he can wait for a few seconds, some cuttings from the Irish Post which list 10 or 12 horrific cases of death and serious injury. In the metropolitan areas and especially in London, in the docklands and elsewhere, there was a frenetic building boom, part of the Government's general phoney boom built on cheap credit in the mid and late 1980s. As that building boom went ahead, so did the carnage on the building sites.

Campaigns have been mounted to try to change matters. Unions such as the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and my own union, Manufacturing Science Finance, have tried to organise workers in an attempt to limit death and disfigurement. Campaigns such as those mounted by HAZARDS and the HASAC centres in Birmingham and the Construction Safety Campaign and others have suggested what they see as necessary measures.

In the final third of my speech I shall propose some measures that should be enshrined in legislation. In the dying days of this Parliament we cannot perhaps achieve what was achieved earlier today when a Bill went through in 20 seconds. A priority in the next Parliament should be legislation to reduce the horrific death rate. As I have said before in the House, disasters such as Piper Alpha, King's Cross or Zeebrugge and other dreadful national disasters in which there is a huge loss of life and horrific injuries scar families for life even though they are tragedies of a moment. Hon. Members express regret, and acres of newsprint analyse the causes and suggest how such terrible national disasters can be avoided in future.

Every year in the building industry the same number of deaths and horrific injuries takes place as in any one of those disasters. But they are diffused, not concentrated in a single event, and spread across the country and over a year. Therefore, they do not attract the same media attention as one horrific national tragedy. The Offshore Safety Bill will ensure that by 1994 the Health and Safety Executive will have one offshore safety inspector for every 170 workers on the rigs in the North sea. I welcome that. It is a major step for the protection of workers. If we applied the same ratio to the construction industry, which is more dangerous than the offshore oil industry, there would be not 100 site and safety inspectors, as there are at the moment, but 5,880.

Much attention was paid in the House over the past year to offshore safety following the Cullen report. If workers, and particularly union-organised workers in the construction industry, were able to write and present to the House a report of the depth and scope of the Cullen report, perhaps the House would agree to fund the Health and Safety Executive to enable it to raise the number of inspectors to a far more realistic level. Will it take a Piper Alpha disaster onshore before there are debates, reports and Bills on this matter?

I intend to be in the next Parliament to ensure that legislation is passed. I hope to be able to persuade a Labour Government in that Parliament to pass such legislation, and I hope to be at the parliamentary Labour party meetings to persuade Labour to do that. If that is not possible, I shall present amendments, private Member's Bills or whatever is necessary from the Back Benches.

My final suggestions come from several people who write and campaign on the subject, people such as David Bergman and solicitors such as Louise Christian. Contributions have also been made by UCATT and my own union, MSF, papers such as the Irish Post, centres such as HASAC and HAZARDS and the Construction Safety Campaign. I do not claim that any of those people or organisations necessarily agree with all my ideas, but they all agree with many of them.

The first proposal that the House should consider is that after the death of a worker on a building site, senior company officers should face criminal police investigation. Only if the Crown prosecution service and the police conclude that there is not enough evidence to bring in a charge of manslaughter should the Health and Safety Executive be brought in to prosecute the firm for breaches of health and safety legislation.

We all agree that if anybody is killed or seriously injured on a road by drunken driver, that driver should face a term of imprisonment. I believe that individual directors and managers, as well as companies, should face the prosecution that can lead to terms of imprisonment. If a few employers had been put behind bars for some of those 1,500 deaths in the past 10 years, perhaps managements would view safety in the industry from a different perspective. For that reason, all cases taking place after death and serious injury should be heard in the Crown court. It is ludicrous that magistrates courts should consider these cases.

I know that the Minister will say that, last summer—I think in June—the level of fines was raised from the £2,000 maximum to a £20,000 maximum. However, I am not aware that that has seeped its way through the legal system. The vast majority of fines never even reached the £2,000 level. I remember analysing the average in the mid-1980s and it came out to a fine of about £361 on a firm or employer after a fatality or major injury. When one thinks that that was the average fine for fare-dodging on London Transport, one realises how little it really was. Even if that average climbed to £500 or £600, it would still be only at the same level as that for not paying television licences, and would, therefore, be wholly inadequate.

We need changes in the health and safety law, in coroners' practices and in inquest law so that death by negligence can be brought into play. Bereaved families should have access to all the notes of evidence before the inquest and legal aid should be available for representation at inquests. All these procedures and the others that I would detail if I had time are for after the injury or death by accident.

I began by saying that 70 per cent. of accidents are not, as one Minister said to me in the House three years ago, avoidable, but are preventable by management action. Those two words are different. Why, then does the industry drive workers forward in such a way that these accidents happen and the carnage continues? It is because of the profit motive, which looms even larger in this industry than in industry in general, but it is also because of the weakness of workers' legal rights and organisational strength. Therefore, the other legislative change that needs to be brought about urgently is one that will give workers the legal right to stop an unsafe job without facing the fear of victimisation and blacklisting. If we had had more time, I could have given the House the details of two cases in the past fortnight in London where workers have been sacked after mentioning unsafe work practices to their employers.

The construction industry is not only the most unsafe industry in the country but a prime case for public ownership and accountability. Public ownership of the industry is something that I stood on, along with all other Labour candidates, in the 1983 general election, although it is no longer Labour party policy. The industry should be controlled, and the laws that govern it should be written far more by the workers who have to work within it. Perhaps if that happened the carnage could stop.

In the next four or five weeks, every election candidate should answer the question, "What would you do to stop the horrific death and injury toll in the industry?" The next Government, which I hope will be a Labour Government, should make it a priority in their early months to introduce proposals such as those that I have outlined to lower the accident rate and make the industry a safe one to work in.

2.58 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) on initiating the debate. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done so consistently during his period in the House and for his commitment to the cause of health and safety generally, especially in the construction industry. He should be congratulated and thanked by the many people in the industry for his persistent pursuit of such an important issue.

I join the hon. Gentleman—there is no difference between us—in expressing concern about the numbers of fatalities and injuries that take place in such an important industry. That is common ground in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. However, these matters must be put in context, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not misunderstand me when I do so. He has used emotive words such as "carnage" and "scandal"—he is entitled to use them—but there are international comparisons to be drawn. The United Kingdom industry has a fatal injury rate of under 10 per 100,000 employees. The rate in what was West Germany is broadly the same. The rates in France, Spain and Italy are about two to three times higher. I say that to illustrate that the industry is a notoriously difficult one in whichever country it is operating. None of the countries that is comparable to the United Kingdom—even those in the European Community—has yet found a satisfactory answer to the difficulties that are experienced in the industry.

Figures similar to those that I have quoted apply to serious injury rates. The recent Health and Safety Commission mapping project, which I have quoted from, shows that our serious injury rates, on the best comparable basis that can be achieved, are significantly lower than those in France, especially, and in Spain. These camparisons show that the solution to what is accepted is a serious problem is a difficult one, and so far an elusive one.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the number of inspectors available. He referred to a cut in the number of inspectors that the Health and Safety Executive has for the construction industry. He is not correct. In the 1970s, 86 inspectors were employed by the executive for the construction industry; There are now more than 100. On the basis of historical comparison, the number of inspectors has increased.

I concede immediately that the number of inspectors that is appropriate for the construction industry constitutes an important debate. As time is short, I do not want to be diverted into making comparisons between the offshore oil industry, the subject of Lord Cullen's greatly respected report, and the construction industry on shore. There are many crucial differences. Suffice it to say that to suggest that there should be 5,000 or more inspectors is to be unrealistic to say the least. To go from about 100 now to 5,000 is not, I think a practical proposition. There may well be scope for more inspectors—I think that many would concede that, and the matter is even now being considered by the executive—but we must be practical.

Perhaps I might be allowed to make a tiny party-political point. The hon. Gentleman made one or two slight ones. I am not aware that the Labour party has made a commitment to increase the resources that are made available to the Health and Safety Executive that would allow the measures that the hon. Gentleman wants to be implemented.

There is a problem here. The Government have honoured the Health and Safety Commission's requests for funds over the past few years, and the commission includes representatives of trade unions as well as of employers and others. Therefore, there has been an element of cross-party agreement on this difficult subject for some time. I hope that it will continue, even allowing for this debate.

The hon. Gentleman made some play—I understand why—of what should happen when there is a fatality on a construction site. He suggested that there should be immediate police investigations, and he made comparisons with cases of drunk drivers. I think that there is a real difficulty. In a drunk-driving case, there is relative ease in establishing liability. It will involve someone who after drinking has driven a car and been involved in an accident, as a result of which someone, tragically, has died. That example is not comparable since establishing liability or responsibility on a construction site may be extremely difficult. The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of construction sites is at least as good as mine—it is almost certainly better—and so I put the difficulty to him.

If there is a fatality on a construction site, it can be extremely difficult to establish whether it was the fault of the employee or operator or of the contractor, his immediate foreman or manager, the directors of the company or the company as a whole. The fault could lie with a combination of those persons. To assume that establishing liability or responsibility is as easy as the hon. Gentleman suggested is not, I think, fair or correct.

Two or three weeks ago I spent a day with an inspector on construction sites in London. That was my most recent visit to the sites. I asked the inspector about these matters and he told me that he would be reluctant to be a party to attempts to mount prosecutions of the sort that have been requested by the hon. Gentleman. He told me that he had been engaged in such work for many years and that he felt that it would be extremely difficult to take such a course.

I do not want to rule out the possibility of prosecutions of the sort suggested by the hon. Gentleman. The HSE is committed to mounting prosecutions whenever it thinks it prudent and correct to do so. However, to leave the suggestion in the debate and the impression in the House that that is a relatively easy matter would do the subject less than justice.

I said that it is the HSE's own assessment that 90 per cent. of fatalities in the construction industry are preventable and that 70 per cent. could be prevented by management action. If the laws were in place to allow prosecutions to be tested in the courts, I cannot believe that some employers would not go to prison. I am not suggesting that every case can be proved in a matter of minutes or hours, but some employers should serve prison sentences because of their inaction. I want the law to be changed.

That is a reasonable point. There is a framework directive, which will be progressed later this year, that moves in that direction. There is another directive, which is progressing on a European level—the hon. Gentleman must accept that many laws are now being taken forward on a European Community basis—that attempts to ensure that management exercises its responsibilities more.

We must distinguish between the practical measures that can be taken in relation to the responsibility of management and individuals on the work site, and the question whether an increased number of prosecutions would have the desirable effect that many assume it would. I do not deny that a prosecution should be mounted where someone can be indicted and where even a prison sentence might be appropriate.

We have increased the penalties available to the courts. The Offshore Safety Act—it was given Royal Assent today—provides for further increases in penalties. The facility already exists for magistrates courts to refer such matters to Crown courts for unlimited fines and imprisonment, if they believe that to be appropriate.

One of the frustrations that all Members of Parliament share—and I suspect that it unites the hon. Gentleman and me—is that this House makes penalties available to the judiciary, but the judiciary—for reasons often best known only to itself—does not take advantage of those penalties. Indeed, the average penalty is about £700 or £800, even though a penalty of £2,000 is available. The judiciary does not use the low maxima currently available; we can only hope that it will think again about using the much higher maxima available under the new Act.

It is an important subject that concerns everyone involved with health and safety, whether in the executive, the Commission, the bodies mentioned by the hon. Gentleman or the Government. The need to move forward is urgent, but it must be done carefully and systematically. These are complex matters and the European dimension must be considered.

There are arguments about resources and about the numbers of inspectors. There is rightly a debate about the level of appropriate penalties. However, in the end the main responsibility lies, on a day-to-day basis, with those responsible for managing the sites, both at foreman and manager level, and with the employees themselves. The fact that most of them are now wearing protective headgear is a major step forward.

Those are undramatic but important ways in which the level of safety will be improved and which will meet the hon. Gentleman's objectives. I thank him for bringing this matter before the House today. I hope that I have answered some of his points. As always, if any are outstanding I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Three o'clock.