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Workers’ Memorial Day

Volume 736: debated on Monday 23 April 2012


Asked By

My Lords, the Government extend their sympathy to all those for whom Workers’ Memorial Day is especially poignant. It is right to commemorate those killed, injured or made ill through work. The day also highlights the importance of good health and safety in the workplace. The Government continue to recognise Workers’ Memorial Day and consider that families and friends of those affected, and organisations representing workers, are best placed to decide how the day should be commemorated.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which I take to be personally sympathetic to Workers’ Memorial Day—which, as he said, is about remembering those who have been damaged by health and safety failures, and renewing the case for good health and safety provision. The Minister will have been availed of the report of Professor Löfstedt, which the Government commissioned. It states that,

“the vast majority of employers and employer organisations acknowledged the importance of health and safety regulation in their responses to the call for evidence and felt that, in general, the regulations were broadly fit for purpose. During the course of my review, I have neither seen nor heard any evidence to suggest that there is a case for radically altering or stripping back current health and safety regulation”.

Does the Minister agree with that? If he does, will he encourage the Prime Minister to refrain from such unhelpful utterances as “killing off the monster of health and safety”, and to act responsibly in these matters?

My Lords, we are very supportive of the report by Professor Löfstedt. He made the point in the report that legislation,

“can contribute to the confusion, through its overall structure, a lack of clarity, or apparent duplication in some areas”.

That is why we are driving through reforms designed to make the system easy to understand, easy to administer and easy to enforce.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the cruellest industrial diseases is the asbestos-related lung cancer mesothelioma, which can strike up to 40 years after exposure and has thus far claimed the lives of 30,000 workers? Is not one of the best things that the Government can do to support such workers is to respond positively to the all-party calls made in both Houses for mesothelioma victims not to have to face surrendering up to 25 per cent of their much-needed compensation to pay legal costs—compensation which they need in facing the last nine months to one year of their lives?

I am spending considerable time on mesothelioma currently and I hope to sort out the real problem, which is the large number of people suffering from the illness who are getting no compensation at all because they cannot trace who was insuring them. I hope to see some real progress in this area—looking at the whole area of mesothelioma, both those who have been traced and those who are untraced—and to report back on that in the not too distant future, certainly before the summer.

My Lords, when I was responsible for health and safety as a Minister I asked to see all the regulations applying to small businesses. There was a three-month delay, and when I asked why, I was told that the Health and Safety Executive would have to hire a pantechnicon to send them round. Is the Prime Minister not absolutely right to emphasise the importance of the culture of health and safety in the workplace, rather than masses of regulations that people cannot possibly be expected to absorb and comprehend?

Yes, my Lords, the Prime Minister is right: legislation must be comprehensible to people if it is to be useful. That process is currently under way, and we aim to reduce the legislation by up to half by 2014. We are confident that that can be done in a way that actually enhances the effectiveness of our health and safety regime.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his sympathetic response. However, is he not aware that there is one organisation which represents organised employees in this country that has a system of training and of safety representatives that is well worth considering? I am, of course, talking about the TUC. Does he not think it a good idea to have some consultation with the TUC on these matters?

My Lords, I am pleased to say that alongside my colleague Chris Grayling I wrote to the general-secretary of the TUC on the matter of Workers’ Memorial Day. We are in regular contact with him on a large number of matters, and this is one of them.

My Lords, on the question of mesothelioma, to which the Minister referred a moment ago, can he indicate whether the ideas which he will be working on over the coming period will require legislation? If so, why are the Government not taking advantage of the legislation that is currently going through this House?

My Lords, it is possible, depending on the outcome, that we will need primary legislation on mesothelioma. However these things take time and we will have to structure any solution in consultation with the various stakeholders in order to get there. There is not time at the moment to attach any relevant legislation quite as rapidly as the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, Professor Löftstedt said in his report that there needs to be general community support as regards an understanding of risk. I therefore welcome the Government’s establishment of the independent challenge committee which allows the public to make a challenge when they see a risk that they believe is not appropriate. Can the Minister tell us how that body will be independent given that its chair is also the chair of the HSE, and whether it will not require a wider reporting mechanism than that currently envisaged?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right in the sense that it is often not so much what the regulation says as the way in which it is applied and used, and often those who are most shocked by how the regulations are applied are those in the HSE. This is a really valuable element of our society which has led to our having the lowest level of fatalities from workplace accidents in Europe. It is important that we concentrate this effort on where it really does save people’s lives. I think that the HSE does have an interest in making sure that that happens.