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Health and Safety Executive

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will introduce a review of the standards set by the Health and Safety Executive in view of its assessment of the risks posed by trees on National Trust land.

My Lords, the Health and Safety Executive has not produced any standards for managing the risks of trees falling on people. When called on to investigate, it judges what measures are reasonably practical on a case-by-case basis, taking account of guidance produced by bodies in the relevant sectors.

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that Answer, I should say that the National Trust had no part in asking me to pose this Question, although the tragic incident of an oak tree falling on and killing an eight year-old boy on New Year’s Day two years ago has not yet been resolved. But surely the point now is that the mention of involvement by health and safety is seen much more as a threat than as a promise. Whether it is children on Father Christmas’s knee or no ladders to mend churches, people simply do not know where they stand. That makes life very difficult in many cases. Specifically on the question of the countryside, surely someone who is not on the public path but is exercising his right to roam must be doing so at his own risk, otherwise the burden on landowners and farmers is intolerable. On that basis, I suggest that there should be a review of the standards set by what is now a 30 year-old Act.

My Lords, I cannot comment on the case that the noble Lord mentioned, but I can tell him that the Health and Safety Executive is in the midst of developing guidance for inspectors, which will be subject to consultation in due course. It recognises that it is not possible to eliminate risk altogether. Sometimes healthy trees fall over by accident. However, the Health and Safety Executive expects action when trees in frequently visited public areas are unstable because they are obviously damaged, dead or sick.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that good health and safety comes from having a culture and attitude of mind towards health and safety, rather than from a series of prescriptive regulations? Does he recognise that there is a feeling in the country that the blizzard of rules and regulations is now creating a situation where people cannot see the wood for the trees?

My Lords, I agree that an overprescriptive approach to health and safety is wrong, but I would defend the action of the Health and Safety Executive over the past 32 years of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. As a result of the HSE’s actions, the number of fatal injuries at work has reduced by 70 per cent. Its policy is to be proportionate, to encourage people to do the right thing, but to take action against those who wilfully disobey the law. It has gone through a rigorous process of reducing regulation. It is often blamed by other public authorities for decisions that are taken often for financial reasons and not for health and safety reasons.

My Lords, as someone whose daughter died in a country with no such organisation and where due process was not followed by public authorities, I think that the importance of the Health and Safety Executive should not be diminished by cheap and inaccurate articles such as that by Simon Jenkins. What will the Minister do to make sure that the press reports the executive’s role accurately?

My Lords, if I knew the answer to that, I would be in a very different position. The noble Baroness is quite right: many of the stories in the media about “health and safety gone mad” turn out to be inaccurate. As I said, decisions often have had nothing whatever to do with the Health and Safety Executive. I pay tribute to Bill Callaghan, chair of the Health and Safety Commission. He has done a brilliant job. He started a “sensible risk” debate about a year ago to bring these matters to the attention of the public. I thought that he responded very well to the Simon Jenkins article. He was very articulate this morning on the “Today” programme in putting the balanced approach of the HSC across.

My Lords, perhaps I may add, as I shared the “Today” programme with Mr Callaghan, that I entirely share the Minister’s respect for him. Is there now any point in having a separate Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive? Would it not be much more sensible if the two were merged? Is not the present structure archaic and would it not please many in the health and safety world if it were resolved?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord as well for his contribution this morning. The governance of the Health and Safety Executive and Health and Safety Commission has been the subject of a review by the commission. It concluded that it would be better if the executive and the commission were brought together under one governing body. I hope that there will be consultation shortly with the public and stakeholders. We will come to a decision in the light of that consultation.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s last reply, which was very helpful, can he tell the House how long that process will take? I revert to my noble friend’s Question, in which he asks for,

“a review of the standards set”.

With the greater opening of access to the countryside through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which we passed back in 2000, and now the likelihood of the opening up of coastal areas, there is an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. For example, on coastal access, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution raised with me the whole question of who covers what as regards safety in future.

My Lords, I would expect the consultation to be for the normal three months. Then the commission will have to consider the results and make recommendations to Ministers, but I hope that the process can be brought to a speedy conclusion. On the more general issue, I am always happy to consider whether more advice should be given. A number of best practice documents are issued by various organisations, such as the Forestry Commission and the Arboricultural Association. They tend to represent best practice, not the minimum standard required by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. That is why the Health and Safety Executive is now developing guidance for its inspectors, which will be subject to consultation. That will be in the public domain and, I hope, will be very helpful to landowners and others who want clarification, including the general public.