Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time. This is a small, but important, Bill. Some 25 years ago, I worked for the Workers Educational Association, when one aspect of my job was to teach health and safety courses for the Trades Union Congress. I stressed then what I believe is still true today—that health and safety is in everyone’s interest. It is obviously in the interest of the workers, but it is also of interest to the employers. Good health and safety practices are in the interest of the profitability of firms and the safety of the people employed.
That was back in 1974, but when I began to take an interest once again in health and safety, I was surprised by the fact that we have not seen any recent changes in the level of fines for health and safety offences. The most recent fines were introduced in 1991 and 1992 and since then there has been no change. That is why I agreed to put forward this small but important Bill.
The Bill does three things to modify the framework of the maximum penalty set out in section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. First, it proposes to raise the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences. At the moment, fines for some offences have a maximum of only £5,000. Secondly, it makes imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences in both the lower and higher courts. Thirdly, it is designed to make certain offences that are currently triable only in the lower courts triable in either the lower or the higher courts.
Let me say at the outset that I support the Bill. If the Bill is successful in its present form, will the maximum fine increase annually with the rate of inflation, or will we have to go through this exercise again at some point in the future?
There is nothing in the Bill to allow increases to rise according to the rate of inflation. In all fairness, what we need to do is keep the issue under constant review, which has happened in the past, but it has been some time, as I said, since we have had an opportunity to propose changes to the legislation along the lines that I have outlined.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on introducing this measure. I think that I can support it as a good measure. The hon. Gentleman’s reasoning for it is sound, as was his reasoning in response to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I am concerned about one matter. By increasing the fines from about £5,000 to £20,000 for a range of offences, may we be losing the discrimination in some way between very serious offences that cause harm to individuals and others that do not, which in my view makes them less serious? Contravening requirements in ports, in relation to public inquiries or special investigations, for example, is a much lower level of seriousness than offences under section 33(1)(a), which are very serious indeed. Is it right to remove that discrimination or does the hon. Gentleman believe that, at some stage, the more serious offences should merit a fine even higher than £20,000?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very constructive and sensible intervention. There are a range of penalties available, including imprisonment in certain cases, which I shall come on to in a few moments. However, the important point about health and safety legislation in this country is not necessarily just that people who transgress the law will be fined a certain amount of money. More important, I would argue, is the principle of proportionality, so that we impose proportionate fines in accordance with particular offences. They must vary and be kept under constant review.
Another important principle, however, is that of deterrence. Nobody wants to go through the process of increasing the number of health and safety trials. As things stand, we are talking about a relatively small number of cases being brought a year. In 2004-05, for example, there were 712 cases and a 95 per cent. prosecution of cases leading to convictions. Only a small number of cases are brought forward and I do not envisage an increase. The important thing, however, is to focus people’s minds on the issue of health and safety—and on the element of deterrence, which is part of it. Focusing minds is entirely positive.
To reinforce that line of argument, I would like to cite two important reviews of recent years. First, there was the Hampton review, “Reducing administrative burdens: effective inspection and enforcement”. That review was extremely forceful in the arguments that it advanced, not just on the issue of fines, but on the matter of reducing administrative burdens, as its title implies. There was also the Macrory report entitled “Regulating Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”. Those two reports strongly supported the line of argument set out today and embodied in the Bill. I would also stress the fact that the Bill is the result of joint consideration by the Health and Safety Executive, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office. I believe that there is a consensus in favour of the changes that I am outlining today.
Some of the most powerful arguments in favour of the Bill were put forward by judges when they made certain remarks in the process of sentencing—and I would like to quote some examples of that. For example, in 1995, a prosecution arose from the deaths of two students by carbon monoxide poisoning in the rented accommodation that they shared. The landlord was charged under section 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and regulation 4(3) of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1984.
After the jury returned guilty verdicts on each count, the judge asked the prosecution counsel if the matter had been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of more serious charges, namely manslaughter. Counsel explained that the police had investigated and passed the papers to the CPS, which had decided not to press charges for manslaughter. The Health and Safety Executive had held the prosecution back until that had been decided.
The judge fined the defendant on each count, and ordered him to pay prosecution costs. The defendant was given 12 months to pay with a warning that he faced two years’ imprisonment if he failed to do so. The judge opened his sentencing remarks by saying, significantly:
“These offences do not carry imprisonment. If they did I wouldn’t want you, nor the public, to be under any delusions that I would sentence you to prison and I would send you to prison for a substantial period of time.”
A year later, in 1996, there was a prosecution following a methane gas explosion underground at a coal mine. Two workmen were badly burnt. The mine manager was found guilty on five counts concerning management of the mine, ventilation and explosives use. The judge, in concluding, said that he was surprised, considering the seriousness of the offences, that fines were the only available penalty. The judge sought advice on the matter from the Health and Safety Executive through counsel before passing sentence.
If I may, I will quote one further example in support of this aspect of the Bill. In 1996, again, the defendants—a company, one of its directors and a manager—were prosecuted for illegally employing young children to pack food products in a factory. All pleaded guilty. The company was convicted of seven charges of illegal child employment and fined. The director and manager were also fined and made to pay costs. The judge said in his concluding remarks:
“These matters are so serious that I should consider imprisonment. But Parliament has given no such power to the courts to pass such a sentence.”
He also said:
“Such abuse of young children is wholly unacceptable.”
Those are some examples of where imprisonment was, in the considered view of judges, something that should have been on the statute book.
Another change that I propose to section 33 of the 1974 Act is a change in the level of fines available. In support of my proposals, I want to quote excerpts from the Hampton review report that explain the case clearly. The report stated:
“In 2003-04, the Health and Safety Executive prosecuted 1,756 cases, with an average fine on conviction of £4,036 in magistrates’ courts, and £33,036 in Crown Courts. The deterrent effect of such fines is likely to be low. For any company other than the smallest, a £5,000 fine is likely to be an insignificant sum.”
It went on to say:
“Fines set at such low levels are no deterrent—indeed, a rational company in any of the cases highlighted”—
a number of examples were quoted in the report—
“would have been acting to its economic advantage by breaking the law. The elimination of gain from law-breaking is essential if businesses are to be allowed to operate on a level playing-field, but neither regulators nor businesses believe that appropriate fines will result from most prosecutions.”
That is an important and objective statement. The report went on to say:
“The penalty regime should aim to have an effective deterrent effect on those contemplating illegal activity.”
Are not the majority of businesses in this country small businesses? It would not surprise me if there was widespread ignorance of the levels of fines. If the fines were doubled, quadrupled or multiplied by 10 it would not have any impact on those companies that are not aware of the fines that they face if they breach the regulations.
It is important to put the issue of fines in a broader context. I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest that health and safety legislation is based solely on deterrents and threats. It is important to recognise that health and safety legislation in this country has put the emphasis on prevention and on putting measures in force to raise awareness of procedures and so on. It is important to see my proposals in that broader context. What is being suggested is not a fundamental change in the way in which we approach health and safety matters, but simply a change to one element of the health and safety regime to ensure maximum compliance and maximum awareness.
I would suggest, too, that most employers in this country—including small employers—are responsible, reasonable, fair-minded, health-and-safety-conscious individuals. All the evidence suggests that. Nevertheless, unfortunately, a small minority, when looking at their competitiveness and weighing up the pros and cons of investment, take into account the result of not complying with heath and safety legislation, and cut corners to increase profitability when making their plans for the future. The Hampton report focused its remarks on an attempt to tackle that, and that is one of the arguments behind my proposals today.
I want to quote from another report, which I mentioned in my opening remarks: the Macrory review report. It stated that
“lack of an effective deterrent compromises the effectiveness of the regulatory relationship.”
The word “relationship” is important. It went on:
“Without credible and meaningful sanctions, regulators are forced to pursue a more burdensome and bureaucratic enforcement policy.”
It also stated:
“When prosecutions do take place, it is reasonable to assume that they are for the most serious offences and offenders. Sentencing should also reflect this level of seriousness”—
that goes back to a point that was made earlier—
“and be a strong deterrent signal for others in the regulated community.”
The report went on to state:
“Effective sanctioning is an important signal in achieving deterrence. If criminal prosecutions sent out a strong signal of deterrence, then regulators would be able to impose less onerous burdens on legitimate business by conducting fewer inspections.”
That, too, is important. The number of inspectors and the number of inspections that take place are an obvious consideration, and it is a powerful argument that the costs to the Health and Safety Executive and the administrative burden on employers would be reduced by this new regime.
However, the report went on to state that
“currently legitimate businesses see their unscrupulous competitors cut corners, and gain competitive advantage, without facing serious financial or other consequences.”
That point, too, was made earlier. Not only do we need this change to prevent such unscrupulous behaviour, but we need to recognise that the situation is unfair to the vast majority of reasonable and fair employers. They abide by the rules, they ensure that things are done properly; why should a small minority, for competitive advantage, unscrupulously get away with it?
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on the Bill. Is that not just the point? The Bill would place no additional requirements on good businesses. All that it would do is ensure that the small number of bad businesses were punished and deter others from following their example.
That is a good way to put it. The 1974 Act is an extremely powerful and effective piece of legislation, but it might need to be fine-tuned and updated from time to time, so that we have the appropriate fines in place to ensure the deterrent element. No extra costs, burdens or responsibilities whatsoever will be placed on employers.
I hope that the House will agree to approach the Bill in a consensual manner, and that all parties will agree that the proposal is reasonable. It builds on the fine principles of the 1974 Act, reflects the good consensus on both sides of industry and would result in health and safety being taken more seriously and made still more effective.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) for introducing the Bill. I would guess that he is pleasantly surprised that we have had the opportunity to debate it this morning, and I suspect that the fact that there was widespread speculation about what we might have been doing today had we not been discussing the Bill has meant that people who have a real interest in the subject are not here. It is a great shame that we have not had the opportunity to debate the issue in Government time, as it would then have received the attention that it deserves.
I am sure that everyone in the workplace—the management, the workers and the customers—are interested in maintaining the highest standards of health and safety. My family’s involvement in my industry, agriculture, goes back three generations, and agriculture does not have a good health and safety record. Construction, too, is a dangerous industry. Unfortunately, many small businesses that do their best to maintain the highest levels of health and safety occasionally have accidents, but it is not because they do not show the necessary duty of care, but because that is the nature of the industry, and that is my concern. Towards the north of my constituency, there is a potash mine, probably the biggest mine in the United Kingdom, which employs 1,000 people. Sadly, there have been accidents there in recent months, but that is not because the employers are negligent; they do everything that they can to make sure that the mine is as safe as it can be, but sadly the nature of some industries means that accidents take place.
Recently, I was discussing how I could improve health and safety on my farm. I note that the requirement placed on employers is to do all that is reasonably practicable. Our biggest concern on my farm is that there is no mobile phone signal, so if my tractor driver had an accident in a far-flung field, he could not summon help. We identified that as the health and safety issue that most concerned us. Unfortunately, that is out of our hands. I suppose that if we were to do everything that could be reasonably expected of us, we could buy some sort of short-range radio system to put in the tractors, but sadly, one has to decide to stop somewhere.
I am a landlord, and the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned the cases that occasionally hit the headlines of people being poisoned by carbon monoxide in holiday homes or on domestic premises. As a landlord with three small properties on Teesside, that is something that I worry about, because the properties have gas central heating. Although we do everything that is required of us—we have annual CORGI inspections and issue the certificates to the tenant—how do I know that the tenant will not put something over the flue of the boiler? How often should I check? Perhaps it would be reasonable to do so every week. What happens if he takes the battery out of his carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen and puts it in the remote control for the television? How many people have been killed because they have taken the battery out of a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide detector, just so they can change the channels without getting out of their chair? We read about such cases in the paper.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Bill, if enacted, would put no additional obligations on landlords, employers or business?
Yes, I accept that good employers and landlords already comply with the legislation. My concern is that, by and large, the level of the fines is not widely known. We all know that if we get caught speeding, we will get three points and a £60 fine, and we all know that if we get caught drink-driving, we will lose our licence for a year. Everyone is aware of those fines. The point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Caerphilly during his excellent opening speech was that there is no widespread knowledge of the level of the fines, so increasing the fines is unlikely to have much effect. Putting more effort into inspections might be the way to target bad employers and landlords.
Would the Bill reduce serious infringements? I suspect not. What we need are deterrents, which include a good inspection regime and good trade unions in the workplace that are not frightened to draw problems to employers’ attention. I am also concerned about how courts will interpret the reversal of the burden of proof. It is always said that we are innocent until proven guilty, but in cases in which we employers have to prove that we are doing everything that is reasonably practicable, the burden of proof is reversed. As I said in relation to the inspection of smoke detectors, how far should one go? What is reasonably practicable? That is a point on which the courts would have to rule, and not something that could be put in this reforming Bill. When I looked at the Bill, I was amazed at how wide the net can be cast. I was very surprised to read that the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot during an anti-terrorist operation, has been brought under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. That legislation not only applies to the workplace, but covers the issue of showing a duty of care.
It is the big cases that hit the headlines that bring home to people how important it is to maintain high levels of health and safety. There have been big pay-outs in recent years. The engineering firm Balfour Beatty and Network Rail were fined £13.5 million for breaches of health and safety at Hatfield, where four people were killed in 2000. Many people in Scotland remember the Larkhall gas blast in 1999, in which a family of four died when a leaking pipe exploded, destroying their house in Larkhall, south Lanarkshire, a few days before Christmas. The blast was so powerful that their fridge was projected on to the roof of a neighbour’s home, and the scene was likened to a war zone. After a 27-week trial, utility firm Transco was found guilty under health and safety legislation of failing to maintain the corroded and leaking gas main that ran through the family’s garden. It was fined £15 million in August 2005, which at the time set a UK record for health and safety prosecutions. It is that type of case that brings home to people how important it is to comply with health and safety legislation, not the fact that someone was fined £4,000 instead of £2,000, or the fact that somebody’s penalties were increased marginally.
The Ladbroke Grove train crash on 5 October 1999, in which 31 people were killed when a Thames Trains commuter service smashed into a First Great Western train after going through a red light at Ladbroke Grove in west London, resulted in a £2 million fine for Thames Trains for two breaches of health and safety regulations. Six people died and seven were seriously injured when a steel pin holding together a passenger walkway came loose as hundreds of people were boarding the Prins Filip ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend. That resulted in a £1.7 million fine for two Swedish firms that admitted errors. The Port of Ramsgate, which managed the port, was fined £200,000, and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, which certified the walkway, was fined £500,000. That brings home to companies how important it is to comply with the legislation.
I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate the Bill, but I think that this is the right place, but not the right time, to make such changes. I wonder why a private Member’s Bill has had to be used to bring forward measures that should be in Government legislation. The measures need proper scrutiny in Government time. I hope that the Government will reflect on that, and will allow the measures the more intense scrutiny and the full procedures that accompany proper Government legislation, so that the measures can have a much better passage through the House.
It is a privilege to speak in favour of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). I do not know how he managed to swing it so that his Bill received a Second Reading on the day before workers memorial day; he must have influence in some very high places. Today, I am speaking from my experiences as a trade unionist and as a solicitor who has acted for the victims of injury in the workplace and for their bereaved families. In fact, some of the cases to which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) referred were cases in which the firm that I co-founded acted on behalf of the bereaved families, or of those who had been injured.
When one speaks to victims of incidents at work or their family members, one finds that what they are really after is not compensation, but justice. They want to ensure that no death or personal injury takes place again, and that we are not put in a situation in which we can say, “Oh my God, not again.” That is the motivation for using the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and looking to the Health and Safety Executive to bring a prosecution.
It is worth considering the micro impact—that on the individual—and the macro impact. The cost of work-related accidents and ill health to society has been estimated at between £11 billion and £18 billion—the equivalent of 2 to 3 per cent. of the UK’s gross domestic product. Those vast costs crudely suggest the waste of productivity and the scale of human suffering that stems from health and safety offences.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked why the Bill had to come from a Back Bencher. I remind him that we recently commemorated a measure that a Back Bencher introduced 200 years ago—it began the outlawing of slavery. I therefore have no problems with a Back Bencher promoting the Bill and I fully support my hon. Friend’s measure.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the even more recent case of the most used criminal law in the land? It is the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, which began as a private Member’s Bill.
The hon. Gentleman, who is the king of interventions, made a good intervention, as usual. I suspect that he did that because he promoted the Act to which he referred. I will not hold that against him. It is an example of why we should not criticise the Government for not thinking of the idea first.
The Bill does not criticise the Health and Safety Executive or local authorities, which do all they can to bring successful health and safety prosecutions. The Bill is not about changing the requirements on business. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby made several good points that are worth a response. He asked about the burdens on landlords, employers and businesses. The Bill would not add further burdens. He spoke of his concern about the reverse burden of proof, but the measure complies with article 6 of the European convention on human rights. If he believes that more money should be spent on having more HSE inspectors and on advertising and making people aware of sentences for breaches of health and safety, he can table an amendment to the Finance Bill next week to increase expenditure so that more money can be spent on those matters.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the long sentences that courts pass. It is worth bearing in mind that none of the sentences in the measure is mandatory. They simply give the judges further tools if they believe that a higher penalty should be imposed on somebody who breaks the law.
The Bill has three clauses and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly on making it so short. I am especially pleased with two aspects of it. First, it provides that magistrates courts and Crown courts can imprison people when appropriate for health and safety offences. Secondly, it provides that some cases that were previously triable only in the magistrates court can be sent to the Crown court. That means that a magistrate could send a case to the Crown court.
I do not foresee loads of extra people going to prison. I expect the Bill to be used as a more effective deterrent, especially to directors and managers, whose influence on securing good health and safety practice is critical. Let us be clear: most health and safety breaches are not the fault of an individual director, but due to systemic failures. The idea that the Bill will mean directors queuing up to go to prison is not borne out by the facts.
As I said, I welcome the excellent measure and I congratulate my hon. Friend again on promoting it. I believe that it will lead to a change in the behaviour of those few employers, landlords and businesses who have been guilty of flagrant disregard of health and safety legislation, leading our judges to demonstrate frustration in some cases. It will give judges the right tools to punish adequately the guilty landlord, employer and business. I commend it to the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on promoting the Bill and the excellent case that he made for it. I also congratulate all those involved in drafting the measure because it appears to be a good Bill.
Canvey Island is in my constituency and I therefore have knowledge of control of major accident hazard—COMAH—industrial sites. My constituents have to live with the danger that the site represents. They want to know that I am in this place ensuring that they have the maximum protection and that the law enables judges to make proper decisions and thus deter people from taking safety short cuts on industrial sites. Indeed, my constituents are deeply concerned about industrial hazards, given the incidents at Flixborough and Buncefield, as well as accidents in the USA and Canada on sites similar to the one that is proposed for Canvey Island and the one that already operates there.
My constituents want us to realise the vision of my right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party of being a caring party that does not simply have the knee-jerk reaction of protecting the interests of big business but takes account of the interests of the community and business employees. I am sure that Conservative Front Benchers want to do that.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) made an excellent speech. I agree with him that we do not anticipate many more people being sent to prison. We want to give judges the ability, which they do not currently have but say that they want and need to use prison as an ultimate deterrent so that people do not take short cuts but take a little more care to prevent the accidents that cause so much human suffering and loss, as well as loss of productivity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made an excellent point when he said that prevention is much better than dealing with such matters in the courts after the event. Perhaps the opportunities for prevention would be better if the number of health and safety professionals had not fallen in the past three years by approximately 25 per cent. I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 1320 on Health and Safety Executive job cuts, which points out the lack of resources being made available for maintaining health and safety for UK workers, and the fact that staff numbers have fallen from 4,282 in April 2004 to 3,225 in March 2007.
I am fascinated by those figures and by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to his compassionate leader. He clearly expects cross-party consensus on the Bill and would be shocked if the Bill were pressed to a vote.
No, I would not be shocked, because a further good point was made by my colleagues on the Conservative Benches about the need for further scrutiny to ensure that this excellent Bill, or a Bill similar to it, achieves everything that it should achieve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby on making that excellent point about prevention. As he said, this is the sort of Bill that could benefit from proper scrutiny in the House in Government time. I wait to hear the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), from the Front-Bench, before deciding how I will vote on the Bill.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on bringing the Bill before us. There cannot be a Member in the entire House who does not acknowledge the importance of the subject. Although it is probably impossible for us to make life entirely accident-free and safe for everybody under every circumstance, we should do everything we can through the legislative process to move towards that goal.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) congratulated the hon. Member for Caerphilly on making the Bill brief—it contains only three clauses—but it could have extensive consequences. I echo the comments of several of my colleagues that the subject is so weighty that the Bill deserves Government time and proper scrutiny, so it should proceed through Parliament like any normal Bill, to ensure that every aspect of it is taken into consideration and it does not have unintended consequences.
I have no doubt that the Bill is full of good intentions, which we would all echo. Its main purpose is to increase fines for health and safety offences, and to increase the potential for custodial sentences in certain circumstances and the options for trial in lower or higher courts. We would all support that, but we need to consider every possible circumstance before we can be sure that it is the right thing to do.
My first thought was about the financial effects of the Bill. The explanatory notes point out that it would lead only to a minimal increase in the prison population. That is a topical concern because of the crisis in prison capacity. A range of offences which most of us would consider to be deserving of custodial sentences are being excluded because of the lack of prison capacity, rather than the gravity of the offence. The notes also claim that the Bill might lead to a few additional cases being heard in the higher courts. It would have little financial effect on the public purse, but it would have a serious financial effect on offenders. That is its main purpose.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly spoke of proportionality—that is, relating the gravity of the offence to the level of the fine. That is an extremely important consideration because the level of offences encompassed by the Bill varies widely.
The hon. Lady expressed some support for the broad thrust of the Bill, but argued that more time needs to be spent examining it in Committee. Can she explain to the House how examination in Committee would add to the Bill, bearing in mind that the issue has been discussed for a number of years already?
I imagine that one of the hon. Gentleman’s intentions is to bring the level of fines up to date. The range of circumstances in which offences under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 can be committed is very wide. I have been jotting down a selection, which I am sure is only a small selection of the potential list that could be covered. We need more in-depth scrutiny to examine all the potential circumstances, and the way in which the new level of fines and the opportunity for custodial sentencing could affect employers, Government Departments and the range of bodies which would be subject to the Bill.
I agree that there should be extra scrutiny, which will come in Committee if the Bill is given its Second Reading. Do the official Opposition want that scrutiny to take place in Committee?
I would like scrutiny in Committee in Government time, which would allow the Bill to be scrutinised by a larger number of hon. Members. As is sadly the case with private Members’ Bills on Fridays, the audience is rather sparse. The subject will interest many colleagues on both sides of the House, who will want to be involved in scrutinising the legislation, which is why I feel that the Bill deserves Government time.
The explanatory notes refer to the European convention on human rights and include the intriguing phrase:
“‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, often referred to as ‘SFAIRP’”.
That is a new one on me, although perhaps it is common knowledge among hon. Members who spend more time than me reading Bills. I wonder what a judge would make of it. I know that we have gone a long way since the days when a judge would ask, “And who are the Beatles?”, but it would not surprise me if a judge were to ask what SFAIRP means. Our scrutiny should consider the wide range of circumstances, and the position on whether people have taken every reasonable step to make sure that health and safety requirements have been complied with.
The Bill is compatible with article 6 of the ECHR in that it strikes a fair balance between the fundamental rights of the individual and the general interests of the community. On human rights issues, the clash is always between the human rights of an individual and the human rights of the wider community. In particular, case law in that area has established that before any question of whether the reverse burden of proof applies, the defendant must be proved to have owed a duty, which is a relevant point, and it has be established that the matters that need to be proved in order to establish a defence are matters within the defendant’s personal knowledge.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the Hampton review, because when we consider not only this Bill, but any legislation, we must ensure that we are not introducing excessive regulation on business and organisations that are already overburdened. In our efforts to make sure that every aspect is covered, we must ensure that the legislation is not excessive or unnecessary, and that it does not duplicate existing legislation.
I am particularly interested to know the hon. Gentleman’s view on intrinsically dangerous occupations, such as the police, the armed forces, sport and certain areas in health, and whether what is reasonable and health and safety regulations can sit comfortably together. We need to scrutinise such matters more closely.
Health and safety is a minefield for a large range of public buildings. The House of Commons is an obvious example, because all the time it is full of people, such as people who are employed here, and the general public who are visiting. I am not sure which category hon. Members fall into; we probably have a foot in both camps. The opportunities for transgressing health and safety regulations are wide with regard to Departments, and in particular to local government. Our town halls experience a very heavy footfall of members of the public, and local government must be mindful of health and safety regulations.
With the greatest respect, the hon. Lady has fundamentally misunderstood the Bill. The Bill does not widen the scope of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974; it simply increases the tools at the disposal of the judge vis-à-vis sentences. Why does she believe that the Public Bill Committee procedure cannot scrutinise a three-clause Bill in the normal way?
It is the very increase in the level of fines and the potential for custodial sentencing that will mean all those organisations having to be more aware of the dangers of not dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of health and safety regulations.
The point is that the landlords, employers and businesses would still be guilty of the same offence as they would now, except that the tools at the disposal of the judge would be wider, so he or she could impose a heavier sentence. He or she could also decide not to impose a heavier sentence, because of the ignorance of the employer, landlord or business. The sentences are not mandatory; they are optional.
One of the things that we could be considering is how to ensure that everybody who is subject to the legislation is aware of the offences that they might be committing. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) touched on that subject. A lot of employers and organisers of sports events, for example, might not be absolutely aware of the detail of their liabilities, or the levels of fines.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way, but all the points that she is making would extend the Bill considerably. We are all in favour of more publicity and awareness, but those matters can be considered in other ways. Her comments are not really focused on the proposed legislation before us.
The legislation would increase the level of fines, which is hugely important to anybody who might be liable to them. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the effect of the higher fines is fair, reasonable and right. The great test of any law is whether it is reasonable.
One of my daughters is an environmental health officer. Indeed, if I had known that the Bill was coming up so soon in the programme this morning, I would have done well to have an in-depth conversation with her. One of her powers is to close down restaurants. Restaurants are a minefield for health and safety, not only for the staff, because of the potential for burns and cuts and so on, but for the customers, because of potential problems with hygiene. That is an example of where it is important to ensure the spread of information, not only about the levels of fines and what might happen to organisers or employers, but about the effect on the people who are subject to them.
Reference has already been made to the construction industry, in which cranes, machinery and scaffolding are involved. A lot of smaller building firms and contractors might not know exactly where they are liable. The spread of information about the danger of increased fines and the potential for custodial sentences, which could put a small building firm out of business, would not only increase attention to the detail of the legislation, but increase health and safety standards, by highlighting the penalties of not adhering to them.
There are so many industries in which health and safety must be extremely difficult to comply with—transport and the fishing industry, for example. There are obviously extensive and detailed health and safety requirements for owners of trawlers, but I imagine that it must be extremely difficult to comply with them out at sea in a storm.
The hon. Lady seems to be coming close to saying that it is all right for employers to disregard health and safety legislation if the fine is low. Is she aware that tomorrow is workers memorial day? I shall be unveiling a plaque to two people who were killed in a crane accident in Battersea last September. She mentioned cranes, and a crane contractor is an example of the kind of employer who would be affected by the legislation. In view of the fact that two people died in that accident and another has died in a crane accident since then, perhaps it is time there were higher fines in health and safety legislation.
The hon. Gentleman has entirely misunderstood the point that I was making. If the information is distributed to all those contractors in the construction industry and any other organisation or industry where there is potential for accident—we are talking about an obvious example—there will be greater knowledge of the detailed requirements of health and safety regulations that apply to each company or sphere of the construction industry, so there will be greater understanding. That is how health and safety standards for employers, employees, members of the public and anyone present in those circumstances are pushed up, and that is obviously the purpose of the Bill and of previous Bills on the subject.
Once again, with the greatest respect, may I suggest that the hon. Lady may be confusing liability and publicity? Nobody who is not liable before the Bill is enacted will be liable after is enacted. The core of the past 15 minutes of her contribution has been about the lack of publicity. However, she believes that more employers, landlords and businesses must be aware of the penalties, and that is a different point. The Bill’s three clauses are not in breach of the publicity point that she is making.
The point that I am making concerns the need for greater understanding by everyone who might commit an offence under health and safety legislation as a result of ignorance or lack of attention to the detail of the regulations in their particular sphere. That is how accidents happen, and that is why employees’ health and safety is worse than it should be. The level of awareness created by increased publicity and information will improve safety standards for employees by making them aware of the fact that fines, or the opportunities for custodial sentences, have increased. We all hope that that will make all those employers look in much greater detail at their responsibilities, and scrutinise them to make sure that they are put in place.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) mentioned the proportionality of fines and the severity of offences. Has he considered proportionality as it relates to the size of the organisation? In other words, how do multinationals and large companies deal with health and safety regulations, and how do small employers employing two or three people tackle vexatious complaints made under health and safety provisions? A genuine accident occurs if someone trips or falls in an office, shop or small organisation. If the employer is found guilty and given a heavy fine, it could cause the organisation to close, so proportionality needs to be taken into account to prove intention.
The hon. Lady put that question to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), but may I be so bold as to answer it? Yes, the Health and Safety Executive found that more than 6,000 businesses merited enforcement action, but it thought it worth while to prosecute only 1,000, because it took into account things such as the size of the business and whether it would close down as a result. The sentences passed by judges on the businesses that were prosecuted took into account the size of the business, profitability, the number of employees, whether they had contravened the regulations before, and whether they were aware of the risk. Again, with the greatest respect, I think that the points that the hon. Lady is making are flawed.
We all want to protect very small businesses from the effects of excessive regulation and legislation. It is essential that we are fair; time and again the “reasonable” test is applied in court hearings. The court considers what is reasonable and practicable, and whether businesses have made every possible effort to comply with restrictions and provide protection for their employees. There is, however, such a thing as a genuine accident. It is not the case that everything that happens in life is someone’s fault. The more legislation there is, especially measures offering the potential for compensation, the more we encourage some people to make vexatious claims against employers. We must make sure that legislation is watertight; there is a difference between a vexatious claim by someone who has stubbed their toe and a claim by someone who has suffered serious injury as a result of a lack of compliance with health and safety regulations, which will affect their future employability as well as their health for the rest of their life.
The hon. Lady is straying into areas that are not related at all to the legislation under consideration. Does she accept that all the evidence—two reports have been cited—indicates that a very small minority of unscrupulous employers are aware of the legislation, but have calculated that, given the fine that they are likely to receive for breaching it, it is to their long-term competitive advantage to ignore and flout the legislation?
Yes, I do accept that, and we need to distinguish between those people and the well-intentioned employers who have made what they thought was every effort to comply with the legislation or relevant regulations, but have found that they have transgressed in some small way and laid themselves open to large fines.
The Conservative party has committed itself, as have all Members, to the highest possible standards of health and safety—[Interruption.] Let me explain the Conservative party’s position to the Minister, as he seems to be expressing some doubts about it. The Conservative party believes that a healthy and safe work force is a productive one, good for business and good for the economy. We want health and safety enforced in an efficient and effective manner, which burdens business no more than is necessary. We have recently secured a debate in the Commons on health and safety regulations in the construction and design industries—a debate that would not have taken place had we not called for it—to question Ministers on the best way of implementing such regulations.
We are concerned, however, that the effects of the Bill could be more extensive than intended, or, as often happens with new legislation, that there could be unintended practical or financial consequences. The level of fines and the custodial sentences proposed could have a serious impact in certain circumstances where negligence may not have been deliberate, or employers may have misunderstood or not kept up to date with regulations. There is a difference between wilful negligence—knowingly exposing employees to danger—and not having kept up to date and been aware of the latest instructions and regulations. The flow of information is therefore important, so that employees are aware of their rights and personal responsibilities to take proper precautions in their job or career, and employers ensure that the circumstances in which employees carry out their tasks are as safe as possible, in accordance with the regulations.
Is that not why the Health and Safety Executive has its powers? Most breaches are dealt with by inspectors serving enforcement notices and giving information and advice, so that already happens. I say again that the Bill does not affect liability.
The hon. Gentleman says that the process already happens. If it was already happening, and everything was working perfectly, the hon. Member for Caerphilly would not have found it necessary to bring in the Bill to increase the penalties with the level of fines and threat of custodial sentence proposed. We would like every employee to be able to go to work every day knowing that their best interests were being cared for. We all know, however, that there are circumstances in which that is not the case.
Does the hon. Lady accept that without any wilful negligence on the part of a company, it may nevertheless factor the level of fines into the level of maintenance that it carries out by doing a cost-benefit analysis? If the cost of neglect is not so great, the company will not pay so much attention to it. One clearly cannot pre-empt the decision of the Health and Safety Commission on the accident that I referred to, but the fact is that the small contractor whose crane was involved in a double fatality in September was also involved in a fatality in Liverpool in November. It is important for such companies to know that the level of fines is such that it will not pay them to neglect the maintenance of their cranes in any circumstances.
There is no doubt that there are serious circumstances, such as those described by the hon. Gentleman, when a higher fine is deserved. It is important that employers know about an increased level of fines and the threat of a custodial sentence, so that there is an incentive to ensure that every possible regulation has been covered to protect crane users, or anyone else using heavy plant and machinery, in the construction industry and elsewhere. Their jobs should be made as safe as is humanly possible.
I shall take the Bill to a Division. It should have further scrutiny in Government time, because the measures are too important to put through in a private Member’s Bill, and I want them to be scrutinised properly by the House. The implications of higher fines and custodial sentences are serious.
So much for caring conservatism. The test was set by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who mysteriously had to make a screeching U-turn at the end of his speech and find a procedural reason why he objected to the Bill, which was not evident when he began.
The interesting thing about the debate is not so much the case made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), which was wide of the Bill, but why she objects to it. She speaks from the Conservative Front Bench and has obviously received orders from the Conservative leader to object to it. We have the privilege of having the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in the House—at one point, I thought that the hon. Lady was filibustering his Bill. I believe that he is the shadow spokesman for trade and industry. During the course of my speech, it is possible for him to make a phone call to his leader to discover whether the ridiculous position taken by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman can be overturned so that finally, after four attempts, we can get this moderate but important increase in fines, which has been asked of us by judges, on the statute book, rather than having the procedural objection that she is hiding behind. I encourage him to make that call.
I reassure the Minister that I have not spoken to the leader of my party this morning.
More and more mysterious! We now have freelancing from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman against the wishes of her leader. The phone call is becoming ever more important. We need to know, before the end of the debate, whether there has been a total collapse of collective responsibility. I do not know whether the hon. Lady is a member of the Cornerstone group or the No Turning Back group—or perhaps both—but the right wing of the Conservative party is showing that the professions of caring conservatism from the party’s leadership are totally hollow.
While the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton considers whether to make the phone call, I shall take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who, I have no doubt, will make it clear that his vote will be in favour of the Bill.
The Minister would not wish to be disingenuous, so I shall allow him to correct the record on my activities in the debate. He will recall that at the start I intervened on the hon. Member for Caerphilly and explained why I had doubts about the Bill as drafted, although I support the intention to protect workers and provide greater deterrents. The reasons for my doubts included the provision of the same level of sanction for very serious offences as for much less serious offences, and I gave a couple of examples to support my view. I am sure the Minister will accept that explanation.
I would accept it if the hon. Gentleman were keen for the Bill to proceed to a Committee stage. All those matters could be debated in Committee. I rather suspect, given what he said about his constituency, that he knows his constituents are worried about the Bill, and that his Front Bench has put him in the rather awkward position of having to object to it.
It is clear that an order has come down from the Conservative party leadership, for we know that the Front Bench would not be operating in such a way without such an order. An order to object to the Bill has come down for some mysterious reason. That reason must, in fact, be that the professions of caring conservatism that we hear are not genuine. It must be that when the Conservatives see the words “health and safety”, they think “regulation” and “burden on business”. They do not think about the people who have been affected by these issues, and they are not committed to health and safety in the way in which the hon. Member for Upminster claimed that they were.
The Minister ought to know that the reason for my stance is that we care so much about the Bill that we do not consider it sufficient for it be passed as a private Member’s Bill. We believe that it should be dealt with in Government time, and given proper scrutiny by the whole House.
That is a ridiculous argument. Does it mean that the Conservatives, including the hon. Lady, will not be tabling any private Members’ Bills during the remainder of the Session? Of course not. There is a reason why the Conservatives are objecting to this specific Bill. They are disingenuously hiding behind a procedural reason for doing so, but the real reason is that while they like to talk about caring conservatism, when put to the test they do not believe in it, and default to the right.
I am in some difficulty here. Perhaps the Minister can help me. Can he explain the rather incoherent argument that to secure greater scrutiny it is necessary to block a Bill’s progression to its Committee stage?
That is a rather well-made point. The only explanation that I can find is that the Conservatives oppose the Bill but do not have the courage to say so. That goes to the heart of the contradiction in the modern Conservative party—
—which I hope the hon. Member for Upminster will continue to elucidate.
My I ask whether the Minister has discussed the Bill with his opposite number?
I am not the health and safety Minister. The health and safety Minister is my colleague Lord Hunt, who, I am sure, consults the Opposition on a regular basis. But if we are to judge the Opposition on the basis of the stance that they have taken today, they are clearly not committed to the Bill’s objectives, so I wonder whether any such discussion would have been worth while.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady has read what some judges have said about the current legislation. Let me begin with the case of Paul Regan, a cowboy gas fitter who put customers at risk from deadly carbon monoxide fumes. The judge said
“The family were put at risk of death by poisoning or explosion”,
and declared that he would not allow the man within 150 miles of his house. He also said that the man
“should go to prison for 18 months”,
but that as things were he could only fine him. Does the hon. Lady think that that is justified, and does she feel proud of the action she is taking by not allowing the judge to have the greater power for which he has specifically asked us?
We are not trying to prevent the judge from having that power—[Interruption.] No, we are not. It is right that that option should be open to him. However, the Bill should be dealt with in Government time. It is an important Bill, and the whole House should be able to be involved in it.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the abolition of slavery began with a private Member’s Bill. We have race and gender equality in this country, and that too was initiated through private Members’ Bills. If the hon. Lady thinks that race and gender equality is less important than this she can say so, but the fact remains that it came about as a result of private Members’ Bills. It is perfectly appropriate for this matter to be dealt with by means of a private Member’s Bill, and the hon. Lady knows that full well.
The Minister has been very generous in giving way. Indeed, I wondered whether he was filibustering on the Bill himself. However, he is not addressing himself to the Bill but playing political games. Does he not accept that while we all agree that judges should have powers to imprison people in certain circumstances in which currently they have no such powers, that is not the only thing that the Bill would allow? It would allow many other things to be done, and they require proper scrutiny. For instance, it gives the same level of sentencing powers, including imprisoning people, for minor, less serious offences that do not cause harm to any individual. I am talking, for example, about offences under section 33(1)(d) of the current Act. That provision deals simply with contravening a requirement imposed in relation to a public inquiry. That matter can be dealt with without sending someone to prison or giving them a £20,000 fine. Will the Minister address the specific technical issues in the Bill, so that we can do the job that we are supposed to be doing this afternoon?
I would be happy to do that in Committee, but the hon. Gentleman is about to object to that. I would accept his professions of good faith if he were to vote with us, but I suspect that he will not do so. He knows full well that a judge would have discretion about whether to use imprisonment or whether to impose a fine of less than £20,000. The problem is that a fine of up to £5,000 only may be given now.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to talk to the parents of the children who were illegally employed by a company in whose case the judge said:
“These matters are so serious that a court should consider imprisonment. But Parliament”
—that is the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench team—
“has given no such power to the courts to pass such a sentence.”
We have the opportunity to do so in the next few minutes.
If the hon. Gentleman is serious about his professions, he will vote for us, as I hope he will. I also hope that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is starting to think about whether he should make that phone call to his leader, because otherwise we shall pursue the Opposition with this issue. It is yet another illustration of the hollowness of their claim to have changed the Conservative party—this shows that it has not changed.
I shall give the hon. Member for Upminster one final example. The case involves a gas safety installation where people’s lives were put at risk. Guilty verdicts were returned, and the judge opened his sentencing remarks by saying:
“These offences do not carry imprisonment, if they did I wouldn’t want you, nor the public, to be under any delusions that I would sentence you to prison and I would send you to prison for a substantial period of time”.
By voting against this Bill, the Conservatives are preventing judges from having that option, and are making it more likely that these things will happen again. It is clear that the Government welcome the Bill, which has been promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly. There have been plenty of opportunities to discuss this. A Bill was introduced in 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2004, and on each occasion it fell on Second Reading. We could debate the matter fully were we allowed to take the Bill into Committee: if the Leader of the Conservative party had an 11th-hour change of heart. It appears that we will not have that opportunity.
The proposals are entirely consistent with the Hampton and McCrory reports. We are satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities are doing all that they can to bring about the right level of prosecutions and to have the light touch for which the hon. Member for Upminster was asking. However, it is clear that in certain extreme and serious cases where people’s lives have been put at risk—I have made it clear that we are talking about child working, asbestos being badly removed and gas fitting that puts people’s lives at risk—the fine available should be greater than £5,000.
The majority of the hon. Lady’s case rested on roving rather widely across health and safety legislation. She started to make hypothetical comments about what might happen were health and safety legislation liability extended. I can reassure her that the Bill does not do that; it makes no difference to the liability, changing only the level of the fine and imprisonment. Either she has concerns about the existing legislation, in which case she should object to it, or she is happy with it, in which case she should have confined her argument only to the issue of the fine. If she agrees with the current health and safety legislation and if she agrees that proper fines should be available, she should vote for the Bill, rather than object to it.
The hon. Lady started talking, at one random point, about whether people in this House might fall over. I can give her the reassurance, should she want it, that the Government have Crown immunity, thus I believe that it applies to this House.
I notice that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has not left the Chamber. He may be using telepathic communication, or trying to communicate with the Leader of the Opposition by secretly texting him. I hope that he has not done so because that would be against the rules. We know that the Leader of the Opposition does text; perhaps he has.
We are about to find out whether the Conservative party will pass the test set by one of their own, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and whether it is genuinely a caring party.
Does the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) wish to reply to the debate?
Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you have prompted me, I would, rather unexpectedly, like to make a few remarks. I was genuinely hoping that there would be cross-party consensus—
Including all parties. I am genuinely disappointed because, as the Minister mentioned, the debate in its latter stages focused on issues that are not in the Bill. It proposes a modest change to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. That legislation has been widely accepted as a huge step forward and a path-breaking measure not just in this country but in many others. This Bill suggests a modest and limited modification to that Act in terms of fines and the potential for custodial sentences. Unfortunately, the debate in its latter stages has tended to go well beyond that, which is extremely unfortunate. I again urge hon. Members seriously to consider whether they want to be depicted outside—
I again urge Conservative Members seriously to consider whether they want to be depicted outside the Chamber as being against fair health and safety standards and against reasonable fines being introduced. Inevitably, that will mean a reduction in health and safety standards.
It is not for me to say to Conservative Members how they should be projected outside the Chamber, but in all common sense and reasonableness I urge them to support the Bill.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.