Jeff Rooker – 1974 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Jeff Rooker, the then Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, in the House of Commons on 13 March 1974.

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) will forgive me if I do not refer to his speech. I propose to follow the custom of new Members by referring to my constituency. I represent Perry Barr, which ​ is in Birmingham. It is the northern wedge of Birmingham, and it is the place where I was born and raised and went to school. I am doubly proud to have been elected to serve the electors of that constituency.

There is very little industry in the constituency, and that is strange for such a large industrial city. Basically, it consists of housing, schools and a few shops. Except for half a dozen, most of the houses are post-1930. I suppose for some hon. Members that would be considered modern, notwithstanding that 50 per cent. of council houses still have outside sanitation—a state of affairs to be deplored in the age of Centre Point. I have promised my electors—and I intend to keep the promise, come what may—that I will not support public spending on grandiose schemes whilst outside sanitation exists.

Also in the constituency—and this may surprise hon. Members—there is the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, which is 400 years old. They do invaluable social work amongst the underprivileged families in the area.

There is also—not on the same site, I should add—a seminary for training Roman Catholic priests which is about 500 years old. These are located within the area of the Perry Barr constituency.

Most of my constituents work in the thousand-and-one trades for which Birmingham is noted, but the majority are probably involved in the motor industry. I shall return to this matter later in the remarks I wish to make concerning the Gracious Speech.

The Member I have replaced, Mr. Kinsey, worked hard on behalf of his constituents in Perry Barr and helped them to solve the problems that they encountered in the area. The fact that as a Member of this House he consistently voted against their best interests does not detract from the good work he did within the local community.

Hon. Members may remember that just prior to the General Election Mr. Kinsey achieved some notice, along with the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), concerning his remarks about the two-in-a-bath saga.

Today we might refer to that as “unisex streaking”. I wondered at that time whether I. as a candidate of two and a half years’ standing, should comment on that matter. However, I decided that ​ what happens between a husband and wife in their own home ought not to be commented upon by any official or public person. Frankly, I thought it to be impertinent, and I hope that I will not fall into the trap into which the former Member for Perry Barr fell at that time.
Labour candidates fought the election largely on the issues of rising prices and the level of inflation. It is remarkable that on the official notice of poll Mr. Kinsey described himself as a retail trader. I should have thought that he would run for cover from that title, but I nevertheless wish him well in returning to his former occupation of selling flowers to the electors and residents of a Birmingham suburb.

The Gracious Speech refers to proposals on health and safety at work. The Leader of the Opposition said yesterday that many of the Government’s proposals had already been before the House and were included in the Queen’s Speech last November. I hope that is not so, because I do not believe we should support what the Conservative Government had in mind. The Conservative legislation was based almost completely on the report of the Robens Committee, published in July 1972. The main conclusion of that committee was that most industrial accidents at work are caused by the apathy of the workers. That is something else to blame on them. The accidents are their fault.

It was also said that the prime responsibility for doing something about the problem lay with those who created the risks and worked with them. Yet we lived until 28th February in an employer-dominated society in which those who worked with the risks did not have the capacity to do anything about them. The committee said that there was also too much law on industrial safety at work and that it needed reducing. That of course is at variance with the theme of the legislation on industrial relations and wage restraint introduced by the Conservatives. Nevertheless, I admit that the Labour Government do not have clean hands over wage restraint legislation.

The most frightening remark of that committee, which was taken to heart by the previous Government, was that it did not look upon the factory inspectorate ​ as a law enforcement agency. At the time I considered that to be a treasonable remark. I hope that my remarks will be seen to have an element of constructive criticism or comment in them about what I want our Bill to contain.

We want action to ensure that there will not be 500 deaths a year from accidents in industry. Ten people will be killed this week at work, yet, according to the Robens Report, their deaths must be attributed to the apathy of the workers. We want action to reduce the 30 million to 40 million working days lost every year through accidents. I spent 15 years in industry as a time-serving toolmaker’s apprentice and I also served time on the other side of industry, some of it as a safety officer. I know from experience that attempts are made to circumvent the regulations and not to report accidents which take place.

The only way to achieve progress in this respect is for those who work with the risks to have the statutory right to decide whether they will continue to work with them, and that means the safety officer should not be paid by the management but should be a worker who has the statutory right to investigate dangerous processes. When the question of compensation arises it means that we have failed because the accident will have happened and a man may have lost a life or part of a limb. Nevertheless, compensation is important. Our Bill must change the practice whereby serious breaches of the Factories Acts merely end up in a magistrates’ court with a £50 fine even when someone loses a hand or a foot. That sort of thing happens throughout industry, and it certainly happens in Perry Bar even though the constituency has little industry there. Such cases may be followed by about four or five years’ delay before compensation is paid through the courts when the plaintiff sues for negligence. The compensation is paid long after the time when it was badly needed.

The Bill must ensure that the problems that people from my constituency came across, one of whom died as a result of an accident, are dealt with. There was a struggle for years to establish that there had been an accident even though it was not recorded. The affair was covered up at the time, but an industrial accident ​ happened. I want the Bill to solve problems, such as the one involving Mr. Arthur Faulks, who now has only one lung because of the repeated occasions he was told to work in conditions where asbestos dust was prevalent.

I am opposed to the present rules governing industrial safety and welfare. New legislation is required, and I hope that we shall be able to give those who do the work the power over the process. Legislation planned by the previous Government did not provide for that, but I am hopeful that legislation proposed by the present Government will. If it does not, I shall not remain silent, neither will other hon. Members on the Government benches.

I thank the House for the time it has given to me and for the silence with which it has listened to me. I realise that I may not have made a conventional maiden speech. I did not attempt to do so, for there is an element of controversy in most matters and I did not wish to waste the opportunity to address the House on matters of vital importance to the area I represent.