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Health and Safety (Construction Industry)

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011

It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. May I express my sincere appreciation for being given time to debate this important subject?

I wish first to express my thanks and appreciation for the helpful information and advice given to me while researching for the debate by a number of organisations—none more so than the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the National House-Building Council, the National Federation of Roofing Contractors and the TUC.

As the construction industry hopefully recovers, the number of fatalities and serious injuries is likely to increase—an increase in fatalities followed previous recoveries in the construction industry. The rise was the result of good practices being lost when companies were forced to lay off staff. Due to inadequate training as the industry recovers, new inexperienced companies and workers will enter the industry, and their lack of safety knowledge will often prove fatal.

The cutting of corners to get one job finished quickly in order to start the next is a major killer. Another is workers working excessive hours. Working long hours leads to tiredness, which leads to mistakes. Indeed, the Prime Minister recently said on television that he does not work long hours, because it leads to bad decisions, so we have at least one supporter.

The most common cause of death is falls. In 2009-10, 25 workers were killed through falls, a 19% increase in deaths over the previous year. The number of people being killed as a result of being hit by a moving vehicle slightly increased in 2009-10.

As part of the comprehensive spending review, the Health and Safety Executive’s budget will be cut by at least 35% by 2015. It is impossible to make such large cuts without affecting front-line services. It has already been announced that the contracts of the 20-plus temporary construction inspectors, whose contracts run out later this year, will not be replaced.

As well as the loss of temporary inspectors, there will be a reduction in the number of front-line inspectors. That is directly contrary to the Donaghy report, which recommended an increase in the number of inspectors. Cuts in the number of inspectors will inevitably lead to a reduction in inspections, enforcement activity, prohibition notices, prosecutions and convictions.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I congratulate him on securing this tremendously important debate and on the research that he has done for it. On the theme of the impact of the cut in the HSE grant, has he heard of the letter that was leaked to the BBC yesterday, which said that the Health and Safety Executive was proposing to reduce unannounced workplace inspections by a third? That would be disastrous if it affected the construction industry, as workers there are six times more likely to lose their lives than those in other industries.

I have not seen the letter, but I have heard of it. My right hon. Friend is correct that it would be disastrous, not only for the HSE but for workers in the construction industry. We should watch this space and see what happens.

Recent research shows that the level of enforcement activity and the number of prosecutions being undertaken by the HSE is at a record low. Due to a lack of resources, the HSE can investigate only one in every 10 accidents. Cuts to the HSE’s budget are likely to increase the under-reporting of accidents under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995, which are otherwise known as RIDDOR.

Research by the university of Liverpool shows that only 32% of injuries involving employees were reported under RIDDOR—for the self-employed, the percentage was only 12%. The proposals under consultation will weaken those regulations, which were originally proposed by the Young review. That will increase under-reporting, and, as a result, poor health and safety practices will not be picked up early, which could result in further fatalities.

There have been several notable deaths recently. The circumstances are indicative of the industry. On Friday 21 January, four construction workers were killed in Great Yarmouth. The men were working on foundations when adjacent steelwork fell on them. It was the worst accident for more than a decade, given how many workers were killed. Despite that, there was little or no mention of the accident in the national papers. In October 2010, immediately following the announcement that the HSE could lose 35% of its budget, seven construction workers were killed. The deaths occurred all around the country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He speaks about the incidence of deaths. Does he not agree that the figures will inevitably increase with the reduction in the Health and Safety Executive budget? The story that is doing the rounds at present—we should be pressing the Minister on this—is that unannounced inspections at construction sites will be scrapped altogether. There were 42 deaths on building sites last year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that figure will inevitably increase?

My hon. Friend is right. It is obvious that the cuts will result in increased fatalities. I am sure that the Minister will respond to this, but it is important to remember that even though we are trying to reduce the deficit—if, indeed, it is reduced—such people will not get their lives back, and they will not get their limbs back. It is important that we try to keep focused on health and safety.

We warmly welcomed the publication in July 2009 of Rita Donaghy’s report on construction fatalities. The then Government commissioned that independent report following strong lobbying by a number of trade unions and other agencies. It was the most significant and far-reaching report into construction safety for well over a decade. The 96-page report was entitled “One Death is too Many: Inquiry into the Underlying Causes of Construction Fatal Accidents”. It made a number of major recommendations, two of which were the extension of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to cover the construction industry, and the introduction of statutory directors’ duties. The extension of the 2004 Act was recommended in recognition of the fact that

“The further down the subcontracting chain one goes the less secure the worker and the less satisfied with the management of health and safety on site. Society should accept that there needs to be a standard below which no construction worker should have to work.”

We have long campaigned for the introduction of statutory directors’ duties. It is virtually impossible to hold individual directors to account if a worker is killed at work. The report states:

“As with most advances in society, e.g. seat belts in cars, drink driving, there comes a time when good practice has to become a legal requirement.”

Rita Donaghy explicitly said:

“I recommend that there should be positive duties on directors to ensure good health and safety management through a framework of planning, delivering, monitoring and reviewing.”

The introduction of directors’ duties would mean that if a worker is killed and it is discovered that a company disregarded health and safety legislation, there is the possibility of an individual director receiving a custodial sentence.

The construction skills certification scheme was set up in 1995 by the construction industry to maintain a record of construction site workers who achieve, or can demonstrate that they have already attained, an agreed level of competence. The CSCS card issued to successful applicants offers a vital means by which cardholders can record and provide proof of their skills and occupational competence. Cardholders are also required to take a health and safety test relevant to their occupation. The aim of the scheme is to help the construction industry reduce accidents and improve competency and safety for individual site workers.

There are currently more than 1.6 million cardholders, and the CSCS works with 10 affiliated organisations to cover more than 350 construction-related occupations. The scheme is now widely used on the majority of construction sites, and all major contractors and homebuilders—

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he not agree that there is a need to enshrine the CSCS in legislation? Such a move would surely have a huge impact on the safety and health of people working in the construction and building industries. If legislation were passed and the scheme were rolled out—it has been rolled out for 1.6 million people at this point in time—throughout the industry, does he not think that that would have a huge impact on health and safety?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I understand it, there will not be any major financial impact if this card is introduced. Perhaps the Minister can give us an insight into his thinking on the CSCS when he makes his reply.

All the major contractors and homebuilders insist on those cards, as the cards demonstrate their commitment to safe and efficient working for construction workers and clients. CSCS cards provide additional security and peace of mind, as a fully carded work force is safer and better trained. Government should lead by example and require the use of CSCS on all public sector sites. Indeed, they already require the use of these cards or their equivalent on public sector sites as set out in the Office of Government Commerce common minimum standards for the procurement of built environments in the public sector.

The CMS recommendations state:

“Clients are to include a contract clause requiring that all members of their supply teams who are workers on or regular visitors to a construction site are registered on the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) or are able to prove competency in some other appropriate way.”

The CSCS welcomed these recommendations, which were accepted by the previous Administration in their response to the report. The CSCS would welcome clarification from the Government on which of the Donaghy recommendations they intend to take forward.

In a parliamentary written answer, published in December 2010, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), said that the Government will

“therefore progress those of the Donaghy recommendations accepted by the previous Administration which we consider are supported by the available evidence.”—[Official Report, 1 December 2010; Vol. 519, c. 867W.]

In his reply, will the Minister commit to raise awareness of the need to specify CSCS in all public sector contracts? Will he say what progress has been made on the review of the OGC common minimum standards and whether the requirement to specify the use of CSCS will be retained and promoted? Which recommendations in the Donaghy report do the Government intend to take forward, and what action do they intend to take to monitor the eligibility of migrant workers to work, and their qualifications and training?

Let me touch now on the issue of blacklisting in the construction industry, which also has a major health and safety perspective. Safety representatives have been targeted by their employers, and many have had to leave the industry as they were unable to find work. Despite being the most dangerous industry in Britain, construction has the lowest number of independent safety representatives, and all the major contractors have been involved in blacklisting.

In recent years, there has been a huge increase in employment agencies and gangmasters operating in the construction industry. That has further casualised and fragmented the construction industry, which has implications for safety in a number of ways. Often there is little effective screening of workers, and inexperienced workers are placed on construction sites without the appropriate training. The workers are highly vulnerable, so they are unlikely to complain about dangerous practices. Agencies are increasingly forcing workers to pay for their own personal protective equipment, which is illegal.

Agencies often flout the working time limit of 48 hours a week. With workers undertaking excessive hours, accidents are more likely to occur.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a huge problem in the construction industry with regard to safety wear? In a meeting last week with the Health and Safety Executive, I heard about the huge problems with fake safety wear—helmets, boots and protective clothing. If that continues, we will see more problems within the industry. Does he agree that the Government should do everything in their power to uncover the source of this crooked gear and get rid of it to ensure that people in the industry are safe?

My hon. Friend is right. If workers are placed in the position in which they have to choose between buying their own safety equipment or feeding their families, one knows which option they will take. The Donaghy report made the clear link between agency labour and construction safety.

Finally, let me touch on the false self-employment that is going on in the construction industry. Well in excess of 50% of the industry are falsely self-employed. The falsely self-employed do not have employment rights, so they can be sacked at a moment’s notice. They are unlikely to raise safety concerns or refuse to undertake tasks that they consider to be dangerous. Sites which use false self-employed labour are unlikely to have independent safety representatives, as no one will be willing to undertake this role in the fear of being targeted, victimised and sacked. Research has found that independent safety representatives can help to reduce accident rates by up to 30%.

In conclusion, I recommend the leaflet that was published by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health. It sets out our concerns, if those cuts were to go ahead. I certainly hope the Minister will read this document, so that we can do what we can to protect those in the workplace. Fundamentally, I believe that when someone leaves for work in the morning, they have the right to return home safe.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate, on all the work that he does as chair of the all party parliamentary group and on the well-informed and measured way in which he has raised these issues. As he rightly said, one death is too many, which is the title of the Donaghy report. There were 42 fatalities in 2009-10 and that is not something to be proud of. I should just say that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who takes the lead on these matters, is on the Front Bench in the Commons responding to the Welfare Reform Bill and so I am standing in for him today. I know that he welcomes the fact that over the past decade there has been a significant improvement in the number of fatalities in the construction sector.

Let me give a feel of the progress that has been made. The reason I mention this is that if we can see that progress has been made over a decade—although that until we get to zero deaths we should not rest, and even then we should not rest—the challenge for us is to see what delivered the progress and whether we can continue doing more of those things or whether fresh duties, fresh structures and fresh obligations are the best way forward. I want, therefore, to give some figures for the record. Ten years ago, in 2000-01, there were 105 fatalities, compared with 42 last year. There are also figures relative to the scale of the industry, which obviously fluctuates. Measured relative to every 1,000 workers, in every year except one of the last 10, the rate of fatalities has fallen. The Health and Safety Executive, the trade unions and the industry deserve some credit for the improvements that have been made.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North quite properly asked, “But what of the future?” He speculated that fatalities would rise. I know that the HSE will be working very hard, in partnership with industry, the trade unions and the Government, to ensure that that does not happen. However, although he rightly says that there have been construction industry inspectors at the HSE on temporary contracts, they were always intended to be on temporary contracts. This Government have not decided to make them temporary. They were always fixed-term appointments that were due to end this summer. Nevertheless, even if we exclude those inspectors, as at January 2011 we have more HSE construction division inspectors in post than ever before.

I just want to give some idea of the sorts of people that I am talking about. Currently, 150 operational inspectors visit sites on a day-to-day basis—up by nearly 25 from three years ago. There are 24 line managers who also conduct inspections. In addition, there are 16 inspectors in construction sector and policy; 20 specialist inspectors who provide expert input on the causes of accidents and advice on technical issues; and 27 visiting officers in the construction sector. As things stand, therefore, there is a very significant commitment by the HSE to the construction sector.

As with all aspects of Government, budget cuts have been required of the HSE, but I stress that the HSE will inevitably continue to concentrate its work on the highest-risk sectors—

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue for a moment. As I was saying, the HSE will continue to concentrate its work on the highest-risk sectors, such as construction.

I also want to respond to the specific point made by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) in his intervention. He suggested that there might be an end to unannounced inspections in the construction sector. I am happy to confirm on the record that there is no intention to stop unannounced inspections in construction and indeed the HSE will be paying greater attention to smaller sites, where we fully recognise that there are still poorer standards. Indeed, it is on those sites that the majority of fatal accidents happen.

If the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North is happy for me to give way, I will give way, but I have only eight minutes left to respond to his speech. I am in his hands. If he is happy for me to give way, I will give way.

I am grateful. I welcome the assurance from the Minister. Can he assure us that there will not be a reduction in the number of unannounced inspections?

Obviously, the HSE will introduce its proposals for responding to the budget changes. Indeed, the Government will announce our health and safety strategy relatively shortly, in response to the Young review and other changes. Details about all those things will be made clear to the House in due course. However, the key thing is that I have no doubt—in preparation for this debate, I have obviously had helpful discussions with the HSE—about the HSE’s commitment to an ongoing and high level of effective intervention in the construction industry.

One feature of the construction industry is that it is clearly different from other industries. At its best, it is capable of great things and great successes, and it has a great deal of expertise in controlling health and safety risks to workers. Of course, even many of those temporary inspectors I mentioned, who soon will not be working for the HSE, will go back into the industry and take their expertise with them.

I said that there were just over 100 fatalities a decade ago. Two decades ago, 154 construction workers were killed. Progress, therefore, has been made—fairly considerable progress over a period of 20 years or more. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned the Donaghy inquiry and the issue of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I know that he has been involved with previous private Member’s legislation on the GLA and I also know that there is a private Member’s Bill on the matter before the House at the moment.

The Minister has just announced figures about fatalities. Do they include people who lost their lives as a result of occupational or industrial disease, such as mesothelioma?

The figures that I gave—for example, the figure of 154 fatalities for two decades ago—were for construction workers who were killed in accidents at work. I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point that issues that emerge during refurbishment work, for example with asbestos, silica and so on, are also very important. Indeed, I will try to reassure him on that particular point, as he raised it. The HSE is undertaking work on refurbishment and even as we speak that work is ongoing. The national refurbishment inspection initiative targets small refurbishment sites where a disproportionate number of serious and fatal accidents occur. The current initiative has been run periodically for several years and it is going on now between 14 February and 11 March. Although full data are not yet available, to date nearly 1,200 sites have been visited, involving more than 1,400 contractors and, alarmingly, breaches of health and safety legislation were found to be so significant that enforcement notices were required at 254 of those 1,200 sites. I join all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate in not being remotely complacent about where we are now on health and safety in construction.

The challenge is to ask what effective regulation would look like. I fully respect the argument that says, “Bring the Gangmasters Licensing Authority supervision into construction”. I can see why that argument is made. My reservation is that the health and safety rights of people in the construction industry are there already. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned bogus self-employment. Whether somebody is self-employed or employed, they have health and safety rights. Regarding some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about those in bogus self-employment, there are obviously issues about tax. However, there is not much evidence—if any—that construction fatalities are higher among those who are notionally classified as self-employed as opposed to those who are employed.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority is clearly a generalist authority that looks at issues such as minimum wage compliance, tax and national insurance, as well as health and safety. The danger is that if we bring construction within the scope of that authority we might get, at one level, duplication and potentially we might get a sort of box-ticking mentality, whereby people think, “We’ve got to satisfy this regulator and that regulator”. There could be regulatory confusion if we have different bodies trying to enforce health and safety.

I also want to give an idea of the scale of what might be required if we bring construction within the scope of the GLA. At the moment, the GLA licenses 1,200 gangmasters. If the licensing scheme was extended to cover the construction industry comprehensively, we could be talking about 200,000 licences. The cost of regulating the 1,200 licences in the sectors covered by the GLA already—agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and associated industries—is just over £4 million a year, of which the taxpayer pays about £3 million. Clearly, there would be economies of scale if the GLA’s licensing scheme was extended to cover the construction industry, but simply pro rata-ing those figures to the full size of the construction industry would mean licensing costs of £600 million.

I will give way shortly. Of that £600 million, the taxpayer would pay £400 million. On a pro rata basis, we would potentially need 8,000 new inspectors. I do not claim to be an authority on the subject, but I find it difficult to imagine that there are 8,000 spare inspectors out there to be had, although people could be trained to become inspectors. In addition, creating this type of parallel regulatory structure alongside the HSE’s work is problematic. If there was £400 million to be spent—or indeed anything like it—channelling it through what is quite an effective existing regulator, enabling it to do more, might be a better idea.

The Minister has referred to £3 million of taxpayers’ money being used to pay the licensing costs of the GLA. However, does he take into account the fact that gangmasters are then registered and legalised, and migrant workers are registered and legalised and they then pay tax and national insurance, which they would not be paying otherwise, so there is a net benefit to the Treasury?

The figures that I am referring to are the gross running costs of the GLA and the revenue from licences. I am not sure about the potential payback of such a scheme in the construction sector. One thing to consider is that we would end up licensing in practice the entire sector—as it were, the good guys and the bad guys—and there would be a lot of dead weight in areas where there already was compliance with tax and national insurance legislation.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the role of the construction skills certificate scheme. That is certainly a well regarded industry-run scheme and a big one, although there are many similar schemes across the industry, as I am sure he knows better than I do. My understanding is that the CSCS or an equivalent is already required under Government contracts, which I very much welcome. However, when it comes to legislating for the CSCS, for example, one issue that arises is whether we should choose that particular scheme or others. On balance, the health and safety at work and construction regulations already require workers to be trained for health and safety.

To conclude, I take the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised very seriously. We want to make more progress on them and further announcements will be made by the Government in due course, but we will continue to take construction industry safety and fatalities seriously, as the hon. Gentleman quite properly says that we should.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).