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Lifting the Lockdown: Workplace Safety

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement on guidelines for workplace safety after the lifting of lockdown.

We have made it clear that there are five tests that the Government will need to be satisfied of before we will consider it safe to adjust the current measures. As hon. Members will be aware, the Government are in the process of consulting with businesses, business representative organisations and trade unions on the issue of safer working in a covid-19 context. We want workers in our country to feel confident that they are returning to a safe workplace, so we are working with Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive and 525 stakeholders in total in detail, the vast majority of which are represented across all parts of the United Kingdom. That includes nine unions and over 400 businesses.

We are grateful for all the feedback and the constructive way in which it has been provided. Our guidelines will be published in due course.

Last Sunday, the Government sent trade unions and businesses seven consultation documents outlining proposals for a return to workplaces. We all share a common objective of a safe return to work at the appropriate time that protects public health. However, when the Government’s plans fall short, it is our duty to say so. Trade unions were given just 12 hours to respond. The documents were not shared with the Opposition and the proposals themselves are wholly inadequate.

No worker should have their life or the lives of their loved ones risked simply by going to work. This is a legal right, which held true before this crisis and, crucially, must not be cast aside now. The documents present measures to maintain safe workplaces, such as hand washing and social distancing, as being at the discretion of employers, when in fact they are requirements of the law. The Government must make this clear and inform workers and businesses of their respective rights and duties. I share the surprise of trade unions that the documents provide no recommendations on personal protective equipment, without which it is impossible to make judgments on safe working practices.

Critically, the proposals exclude workers. A safe return to work is a significant challenge that can be met only if Government and business work with staff. My ask of the Minister is that the Government now bring forward guidelines requiring specific covid-19 risk assessments for most businesses, and that assessments are made public and registered with the Health and Safety Executive. Given the lack of capacity for inspections, these assessments must be agreed with staff. In workplaces with trade unions, this can be done by health and safety reps. In those without them, the Government should enable trade unions to assist workforces in their sectors to elect or appoint a rep to be consulted and involved in the settling, implementation and enforcement of assessments.

Finally, workers need to have confidence and trust that the Government have got their back, so will the Minister confirm that employees will not be prejudiced in any way for drawing attention to safety failings in the workplace? This time, we are truly all in this together. I trust that my comments are received in the constructive spirit in which they are offered.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which we began our relationship as our opposite numbers in a call we had last week. We have plenty of opportunity to work together to ensure the confidence that employers, employees and customers need as we begin to open up the economy. The guidelines that he was talking about are an early draft. There will continue to be plenty of opportunity for him to feed in, as there has been for those 400 businesses and nine trade unions, because this is not a finished process. We need to get into the technical detail to ensure that everybody has confidence.

In the same way that employees need that confidence, they should be able to discuss with their employers the steps they might take to make their workplaces safer, especially when we start to lift restrictions. Where workers still feel unsafe, they can contact the Health and Safety Executive or their local authority. Where employers are identified, action can be taken to ensure compliance with the relevant public health legislation and guidance.

I know that my hon. Friend’s Department is undertaking a review of corporate governance and audit. Does he agree that, now more than ever, it is vital that the review puts the safety and financial security of employees at the heart of all businesses’ obligations to their stakeholders?

I am grateful for that question. As my right hon. Friend knows, we have had three independent reviews of various aspects of audit by John Kingman, the Competition and Markets Authority and Sir Donald Brydon. We are committed to acting on their recommendations, including by legislating to create a tougher, stronger regulator, as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are working on that and will publish our proposals in due course.

While the social and economic impact of this crisis cannot be overestimated, it is vital that all workplaces are reopened only when it is safe to do so. After all, they will only work if they have the confidence of workers. On 25 March, the Scottish Government and the STUC issued a joint statement making clear their shared fair work expectations. That naturally followed the Scottish Government’s fair work approach, which has been developed in partnership with the unions over years. They are now looking forward to putting that into law, once Holyrood has the power to do so. Reports that the TUC cannot support the draft UK policies are therefore of great concern. In a spirit of collegiality, what consideration has the Minister given to following the Scottish Government’s approach of ensuring that the guidance is consistent with fair work, including that workplace rules be developed for specific environments, and not only by employers but by trade unions as well?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I agree with him that our message and our processes need to be as consistent as possible, not least for people across the UK, but also for the companies operating in each nation of the UK. That is why colleagues from my Department have regular conversations with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Parliament. We must continue to work to get into the detail to give employees that confidence. We will continue to work through that with businesses, unions and others who are feeding in day to day, so that we can provide a consistent, robust line and give confidence, with examples of best practice from businesses that have remained open and from which we can learn.

Enabling people to go back to work safely is key to getting through this crisis. Safe working will inevitably be different for different businesses in different settings. Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that Government guidance focuses on general principles of social distancing and hygiene, and avoids being overly prescriptive, so that as many businesses as possible can reopen safely?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right, and that is why we have consulted as widely as possible. We will continue to do so, because we need to ensure that all these guidelines give confidence to people in every type of workplace, in every part of the UK. It is also important to reiterate that many companies are still operating. We need to ensure that our economy stays open and working, so that we can bounce back as quickly possible, and those companies are already offering best practice for that.

I have been speaking to lots of businesses over the past few days and they are all obviously very keen to get back to work as soon as possible, but their big concern is not only the safety of their staff but what liability the business would have to bear if one of those members of staff got sick despite their best efforts to ensure their safety. I would really like to hear what the Minister has to say to give businesses reassurance on that point.

In the first instance, what I would say to the hon. Lady is that as well as employers working on that guidance and ensuring that they are offering a safe place, employees and workers need to know that they have the right and the opportunity to approach the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities to make sure that existing legislation and guidance are being followed.

If we want businesses to come back, they need to survive. Small businesses that pay themselves through dividends are not pariahs; they operate entirely legally. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Treasury to make sure that these businesses survive, and can we look again at the dividend issue, because many small businesses will not survive to allow their workers to come back next week if we do not?

I am grateful for that comment. Clearly, the Government’s first priority in all of this is saving lives, but livelihoods and making sure that businesses and jobs are retained and that we can bounce back is very important. I will certainly take that away. I know that the Treasury has always been keen to look at each step of the situation to ensure that we can come up with economic support as well as the health support that we have been discussing in this urgent question.

Welcome to North Antrim, Mr Speaker. Can the Minister tell us what guidelines he and the Government will put in place to assist necessary workers and passengers travelling on airlines from Northern Ireland to London? What assistance will he put in place for air operators that are taking and making necessary flights to ensure that there are the necessary guidelines and protections in place for those workers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Part of giving people the confidence to return to work is giving them the confidence to be able to travel to and from various parts of the UK to work, which is why this process will also look at transport, at opening schools and at those kind of things when the health guidance is appropriate.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the people who have been working throughout the pandemic to allow us to stay at home. Many people in Wolverhampton are now nervous of returning to the workplace, especially those who share their home with a medically vulnerable person. Will special advice be given to employers on extra measures to be put in place so that these people can be confident that they continue to protect and shield vulnerable people?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of those people who are most vulnerable in this situation. The guidance already sets out the steps that individuals living with shielded and vulnerable people should take to keep them safe. Where the Health and Safety Executive identifies employers who are not taking appropriate action to ensure that workers in the shielded category can follow the NHS advice to self-isolate for the period specified, it will consider taking a range of actions to improve the control of risks in the workplace.

Does the Minister agree that to prevent a second wave of covid-19, employees will have to be as safe as possible when they return to the workplace, that employers have a statutory obligation to achieve this and that they owe their employees a duty of care? How can asking employers merely to consider non-binding guidance possibly help them to achieve these legal obligations? Is he really saying that workplaces should continue to operate where safe working practices cannot be achieved? That is what his guidance seems to be saying.

By consulting as many businesses, unions and representative organisations as we can, we have been able to work through the guidelines in our own times. Whereas at the beginning we were having to react to the closure of the economy, this timeline is for us so that we can be well prepared and give as few surprises to businesses as possible so they can plan. That is why we want to have a flexible situation so that they can prepare and operate a safe environment for their employees, but, as I mentioned before, employees can approach the Health and Safety Executive or their local authorities if they feel that they are not operating in a safe workplace.

Does the Minister agree that a public information campaign is required before and during the easing of lockdown, to inform employees and employers of their respective rights and duties, and to give the public confidence in returning to work?

Communication is so important in this. We have seen how effective the message about staying home and saving lives has been so far. What we must now do is work with businesses to ensure that they have fully communicated the message on safe guidelines for their workplaces. Similarly, we need to make it clear to employees, as we are now doing, that those who cannot work from home, unless they are in a business that has specifically been asked to close, can travel to work, but they need to be considerate about that and ensure that they work within the social distancing rules. Yes, communication is everything, and I think we all have a responsibility to get those messages across.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that people are protected when they return to work? As we now move to this second phase, will the Government commit to providing clear and concise guidance to employers on how they can best protect their staff?

The Government remain committed to supporting business during this unprecedented change. We are preparing for the next phase of tackling covid-19 in the ways I have outlined, and how we can lift the social distancing measures in a phased way, at the right time and guided by the science. We are involving Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that we have the latest guidance on which to base our planning.

During the first two weeks of lockdown, I was contacted by many constituents who were fearful of speaking out against irresponsible employers in case doing so would get them the sack. Does the Minister understand why Frances O’Grady of the TUC has raised concerns that unless the Government shift their position and put this into law, bad bosses will continue to expose their workers to infection without fear of consequences? Will he work with the TUC to put these concerns into law so that workers have their rights respected and their safety assured?

I work with and speak to the trade unions on a regular basis—indeed, I will be speaking to TUC representatives later this afternoon—which is why we wanted to keep them involved in forming the guidelines, to represent their employees, because by working together we will give employees that confidence and get the message across to employers that social distancing within the workplace, where possible, is absolutely crucial if we are to open up the economy and return to whatever the new normal is.

The vast majority of businesses in my constituency and across the country want to do the right thing, and the right thing is to get back to business. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should encourage a return to work, of course safely? Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our country, and they deserve even more support now.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stand up for small businesses. This is why we have said that unless businesses are among those that were required to close, they can continue to operate so that they are in the best place to survive, bounce back and contribute to the UK’s recovery from this situation. We need to ensure that we do that safely and that employers are acting responsibly, and that will be dealt with by involving as many people as we can in getting specific guidelines for each different workplace in each part of the UK and getting those messages across.

Supplies of PPE are still extremely tightly constrained. What are the Government doing to ensure that when employers start to buy face masks and other equipment to keep their employees safe, the price and supply of PPE will not be extremely distorted?

We are working with supply chains in the UK and across the world to ensure that, with the huge demand for PPE in a number of different countries that are all suffering and working through the same situation together, we can be at the forefront of this. With the work being done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, along with Lord Deighton, we will be able to ensure that the supply chains remain readily available, and in that way we can also work on fair pricing.

As my hon. Friend works with the Prime Minister on the comprehensive plan for the next phase of the response to coronavirus, can he assure me that we will continue to work with both Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that workplaces are safe, with a particular focus on complex workplaces such as construction sites? Our incredibly hard-working construction workers are having to go into work, and I want to ensure that they are safe on site.

My hon. Friend is right to take the specific example of construction sites. Clearly, there are different types of site. Battersea power station, which I visited just before the restrictions were introduced, is a 40-acre site, so social distancing is easier there than on a far smaller, constrained site. That is why we are bringing together industry expertise, union expertise and business representatives to ensure we have guidance that fits as many different workplaces as possible, backed up by Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive.

Analysis from the TUC shows that workplace inspections have fallen by 70% and prosecutions by 82% over the past 10 years. We all want to get Britain back to work, so what guarantees can the Minister give that local government and the Health and Safety Executive will have the resources they need to ensure safe working practices?

We will continue to talk to the Health and Safety Executive about the resources it needs. Local authorities have been working incredibly hard on local health issues and, in my experience—I have spoken to many of them—on providing financial support. That is why the Chancellor has been giving financial support, with a second round of £1.6 billion to support their functions. We will continue to review any support that we need to give.

Does my hon. Friend agree that holiday parks, campsites and self-catering holiday accommodation are well suited to adhering to workplace safety arrangements and should be considered for phased and gradual reopening, to boost coastal and rural economies and provide people with the opportunity of a holiday in the UK?

I am glad that my hon. Friend is standing up for coastal areas, which have been particularly badly affected. I get a lot of feedback from an economic point of view from the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors. We work closely with them and will continue to do so. I will ensure that we pay due attention to that advice, so that all coastal areas are as well looked after as possible.

We know that it is vital to get the economy moving again, but this will be possible only when people have the confidence to return to work in the knowledge that their workplace is safe. Why did the Government propose non-binding guidance with zero enforcement mechanism? Does the Minister think that is sufficient to make people feel safe and confident enough to return to work?

We are working on the guidance with a number of business representative organisations and with the trade unions, and when we complete that work, we will publish it at the appropriate moment. The Health and Safety Executive will be right at the core of that work, in checking and in enforcing, and, as I have said, workers will be able to approach both the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities if they do not feel that the organisation within which they are working is adhering to that guidance.

Many of our essential workers are, of course, already in the workplace, for which we are hugely grateful. The Minister confirmed that we will learn from them, but can he also assure the House that we will manage any disruption to them as a result of other sectors going back to work, for instance in PPE and transport requirements?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will indeed look at all of this in the round to ensure that we can work out the different scenarios as people return to work. What we have at the moment is a very different situation from what we will have when restrictions start to be lifted, and that will be a very different situation from what it might be when the economy is fully open. We must understand that, and we will work with the people who are already working and with the business representative organisations that I mentioned earlier.

Second time lucky, Mr Speaker, although some would prefer me on mute, I am sure.

As the Minister will know, many of our workers have been working throughout this outbreak. As well as thanking them for all their efforts, will the Minister assure us that the Government are making sure that employers are aware of their responsibilities and are keeping their workers safe?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for giving me the opportunity to thank those people who have kept our economy going through this difficult time. We rightly say a massive thank you to our key workers—our emergency workers, and especially those in the NHS, but we must also thank those who have been feeding the country and supplying the shops, the delivery drivers, the construction workers, the warehouse operatives and the retailers who have been out there doing that crucial work. We must make sure, as I said earlier, that we can give employees coming back to the workplace the confidence that they are working in a safe environment. We will certainly be able to do that if we can continue to work with as many businesses, unions and organisations as possible. We need to get this right and get our message right that the economy can be opened and that we can get back to work.