John Prescott might have trouble remembering who he is, but safety minister Lord Hunt is determined that the construction industry’s big hitters will take on board what he has to say.

Lord Hunt
Lord Hunt

Meeting safety minister Lord Hunt in his airy Whitehall office, it is difficult to imagine him anywhere near a construction site. This refined, amiable peer confesses he would rather settle down with a glass of House of Lords claret than take his chances at the local pub. His apparent aloofness from the everyday also extends to a deep mistrust of popular music: “All I hear are these noises,” he shudders. “It’s absolutely ghastly.”

Given this, it comes as something of a surprise when his Lordship launches into a tirade about his time as a site labourer. Employed on a site in Oxford for nine months after graduating from Leeds University, Hunt was almost a victim of the industry’s kamikaze safety practices. “I was hauling cement up to a platform and there was no guardrail,” he says. “There was one particular occasion when I nearly fell.” It may be 30 years since this incident, but the vehemence of his speech reveals Hunt’s desire to protect site workers. And, he insists, his involvement now will be almost as direct as it was then.

Hunt is under no illusions as to the extent of the reform needed in an industry that recorded 70 deaths last year and nine in the past month alone. “Health and safety is one of the most important areas for construction today,” he says. “Although the industry has made improvements, you can’t be complacent when there are still so many fatalities each year. There is an awful lot more to do.”

The first targets in Hunt’s mission are the industry’s largest firms. “One of my key roles will be to work with the leadership of the industry. If the companies at the top show that health and safety is important, it will have a knock-on effect.”

Two months into his job, Hunt has already set this process in motion by arranging a series of meetings with the big trade associations and companies. Part of the reason for this is to get himself up to speed on existing initiatives – for example, he admits that he is not yet familiar with the CSCS scheme. That done, he wants to stamp his mark on the reform agenda: he has a particular enthusiasm for “integrated systems” that improve the flow of information through the supply chain and distribute the responsibility for safety more equally.

But despite a wealth of experience developing such initiatives in the health sector – Hunt was a junior minister in the Department of Health between 1999 and 2003, and has just ended a spell as chairman of government body the National Patient Safety Agency – he is not interested in simply dictating his ideas to the construction sector. “The best initiatives are often industry-led,” he says. “I’m particularly impressed by the code of practice launched at the safety summit in February. That the industry owns the code is very important for commitment.”

Another respect in which Hunt feels the industry should take greater ownership for safety is through the introduction of corporate manslaughter legislation. “Badly run companies deserve everything that is coming to them.” However, he stresses he is not looking to target companies unfairly. “I’m not interested in scapegoating, and I don’t see that as what corporate manslaughter means. The government will listen carefully to the concerns of the industry on the topic.”

Working with Tony Blair will not be a problem for me. I now support the broad thrust of government policy

Hunt’s insistence on industry leadership will not lessen pressure on the government to push health and safety reform. If it refuses to help, says Hunt, it will be shooting itself in the foot. “The construction industry’s performance is crucial to the prosperity of the UK. All areas of government have an interest in a good relationship with the industry, especially if they want to get long-term value from the buildings they procure.”

Hunt believes that health and safety, both in design and on site, is “core” to this long-term value. “When I was involved with the health service we commissioned a huge number of construction projects, and I saw how good quality design, paying attention to safety, could reduce the whole-life cost of hospitals and other buildings. The experience convinced me it is worth paying extra money up front.”

This is a message Hunt wants to impress on to his colleagues. “I’m a strong believer in working across government,” he says, a view that will come as a boost to those who have called for a more unified approach to public sector procurement.

Such close collaboration could be accompanied by a little political tension. In 2003, Hunt followed Robin Cook and John Denham to become the third minister in a week to resign over Iraq. At that time, Hunt said it would be “hypocritical” of him to serve in the government. So with British troops still in the country, what has changed? “There have been very strong views about Iraq, and I took the action I did for the view I held,” Hunt says with a cautious smile. “But we are now two years on, and I was asked to come back. I am happy to do so.”

Apparently he has no hard feelings for the prime minister, either. “Working with Tony Blair will not be a problem for me. I now support the broad thrust of government policy,” he says.

It is to be hoped that the government pays more attention to Hunt on safety than it did when he resigned. Then, John Prescott said: “We have heard from Lord Hunt, who apparently rang the Today programme up to tell them he is going to resign. I don’t know who Lord Hunt is.”

If Hunt maintains his commitment to close partnership with ministerial colleagues and industry, Prescott may find it worth making his acquaintance.

Curriculum vitae

Born Philip Hunt, 1949
Educated Leeds University
1972 Joined Oxford Regional Hospital Board as works study officer
1973-79 Member of Oxford council
1984-90 Director of the the National Association of Health Authorities
July 1997 Appointed working peer by Labour government
1997-98 Joint chair, all-party Primary Care and Public Health Group
1997-98 Vice-chair, all-party group on AIDS
1998 Government whip and House of Lords spokesperson on education, employment and health
July 1999-2003 Parliamentary undersecretary of state for health
January 2004-May 2005 Chair, National Patient Safety Agency
May 2005 Minister for health and safety in the Department for Work and Pensions