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Health and Safety Executive

Volume 470: debated on Monday 7 January 2008

6. What recent representations he has received on the staffing levels at the Health and Safety Executive; and if he will make a statement. (175871)

My colleagues and I have received representations from a range of stakeholders. We have asked the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to maintain front-line inspector numbers for the next spending period at the March 2008 level.

In the UK last year, 30 million days were lost owing to work-related ill health and 6 million owing to workplace injury. The HSE has a vital economic and social role in driving down those figures. How confident is the Minister that the agency, which has seen staffing levels go down by 25 per cent. since 2002 and is subject to a continual review of procedures and structures, can effectively and efficiently service more remote and rural areas, especially in terms of inspection, enforcement and, where necessary, prosecution of health and safety breaches?

I think my hon. Friend’s statistics are slightly skew-whiff, if I may put it that way. He has included the 93 railway inspectors who were transferred from the HSE to the railway regulator. He has highlighted an important issue about the number of days lost because of work-related ill health and workplace injury, but I hope he will also accept that in the years from 2000 to 2002, 40 million days were lost in those categories. The figure now sits at 36 million in 2006-07. In 1974, there were 651 fatal injuries to employees. That number was reduced in 2006-07 to 241. We have one of the most sensible and robust health and safety regimes in Europe, partly owing to the efforts of the HSC, the HSE and their colleagues in local authorities. Of course, we should not underestimate the importance of trade unions.

Is the Minister aware that the new provisions of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 will come into effect on 6 April? They will implement the provisions on stray dogs and ensure that local authorities will have to find places for kennels. Is the Minister aware that each private kennel will have to be inspected for health and safety before the new provisions can come into effect? Will she assure me that the staffing cuts in the HSE will not have a negative impact on that process of assessment, bearing in mind the tragic incident before Christmas when a lady dog handler was so brutally attacked by a dangerous dog?

I think that I would prefer to deliver a far more detailed answer to the hon. Lady in writing, if she will forgive me for that. She has raised some specific issues under this heading.

Will my hon. Friend commend the Health and Safety Laboratory, which is part of the HSE, on its increasingly proactive work in preventing the risk of injury and poor health caused by industrial consequences? Will she ensure that nothing is done to jeopardise the effectiveness of that ever more impressive organisation, which is based in my constituency?

I am sure that the laboratory will have cognisance of my hon. Friend’s comments and commitments. I wish to reinforce the fact that health and safety is an important issue for us all. Not only the HSE but employers and employees create safe workplaces. Those of us who are in such situations need to ensure that we each assume responsibility as our own health and safety officer.

Deaths in the construction industry have been running at a comparable level to those suffered by UK armed forces personnel in recent years. Why are front-line construction inspectors being reduced to the March 2008 number that was mentioned by the Minister, and why has there been a 40 per cent. drop in inspections when the death and injury rate is so bad?

As I said in my earlier answer, there has been a steady reduction in the number of deaths over the past 15 years, including in the construction industry, although there are some issues about the current set of statistics and we are looking carefully at them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions held a construction forum to address that rise and to seek a commitment to improvement in those sectors. That work is ongoing with the employers, the trade unions and the HSE. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the health and safety inspectors, working alongside those in the industry, will ensure a safer environment for our construction workers.