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Health And Safety (Offences) Bill

Volume 471: debated on Friday 1 February 2008

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before I describe the contents of this short Bill, I wish to thank various individuals and organisations who have helped me in reaching this point of its Second Reading. Above all, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who kindly agreed to introduce the Bill on 5 December on my behalf as I was abroad. He, together with my researcher, Joe Moll, whom I also thank for his hard work, deftly chose today’s slot for the Bill’s Second Reading. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), for her support and her officials at the Department for their help in the preparation of the Bill and the explanatory notes. In particular, I thank Phil White, himself a former health and safety inspector.

I am grateful for the help and advice that I have received from Giles Denham and his colleagues at the Health and Safety Executive. I am also grateful to Jim Kennedy of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, whose headquarters is in the Clapham part of my constituency, and to Richard Woodward of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. Both those organisations are supporting the Bill.

I should also like to pay tribute to my several precursors with this Bill, the most recent of whom is my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). I tread in their footsteps. Let us hope that this time there is a better result. Finally, in that precise connection, I should like to thank the Opposition’s Work and Pensions Front-Bench team for its sympathetic response to the Bill so far. I trust that I am not tempting fate excessively in making that observation—I detect the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in his place, so we shall know very shortly.

The Bill’s purpose is set out in its long title:

“To revise the mode of trial and maximum penalties applicable to certain offences relating to health and safety.”

The Bill is in three clauses and three schedules, the most important of which is schedule 1, which will become new schedule 3A to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. I shall describe the contents of the schedule in greater detail shortly. Clause 1 brings in schedule 1, which replaces the penalty provisions of subsections (1A) to (4) of section 33 of the 1974 Act. It also sets out the mode of trial and maximum penalties for the health and safety offences listed in subsection (1)(a) to (o) of section 33 of the 1974 Act and for offences under the existing statutory provisions where no other penalty is specified.

Clause 2 brings in schedules 2 and 3, which deal with “Consequential amendments” and “Repeals” respectively. Clause 2(2) confers power on the Secretary of State to make amendments to existing regulations as a consequence of the changes introduced by the Bill. It will enable the Secretary of State to introduce the necessary changes to regulations. Those will be made by statutory instrument subject to the negative resolution procedure.

Clause 3 sets out the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill. The commencement date will be three months after Royal Assent. As health and safety legislation is a reserved matter, the Bill will apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales. As the explanatory and other notes indicate, the Bill has no significant implications for public expenditure or public sector manpower, it creates no new regulatory requirements, and no new compliance costs arise for those obeying the law. However, the Bill does engage with the European convention on human rights, and I shall say as brief a word as possible about that in due course.

As I promised, I shall now describe the changes set out in schedule 1, which deals with the mode of trial and maximum penalties under the 1974 Act. The schedule is in tabular form and lists the new proposed penalties at each level of court hearing: the proposed penalties on summary conviction, that is to say after a hearing in the magistrates court; and the proposed penalties on indictment, that is to say after a conviction in the Crown court. Schedule 1 sets out three changes to the present arrangements. First, it raises the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences. The higher court fine remains unlimited.

At present, following the Offshore Safety Act 1992, the lower courts are able to fine up to a maximum of £20,000 for breaches of general duties to safeguard people’s health and safety under sections 2 to 6 of the Act. However, the current maximum penalty for specific breaches of health and safety regulations is a £5,000 fine, but such breaches may be just as serious as breaches of general duties. Specific breaches include, for example, breaches of fundamental requirements to do a risk assessment; the breach of asbestos regulations; and the breach of industry-specific requirements, such as construction, design and management regulations. It is for that reason that the Bill would extend the £20,000 lower court maximum to offences that, typically, have created risk directly or indirectly, or actual injury, damage to health or death. It is also why the £20,000 maximum is extended to offences that undermine the ability of enforcers to regulate health and safety, to prevent harm or to investigate what may be serious health and safety offences.

Let me emphasise that there is a proportionality in the approach to new penalties set out here, in that the £20,000 maximum is not sought for all offences. Specifically, it is not sought for offences by individuals where the maximum of level 5 on the standard scale would usually be quite enough for lower court cases.

The second change to present arrangements set out in schedule 1 would be to make imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences in both the lower and the higher courts. At present, imprisonment is an option only in certain cases. In the lower courts, it is an option only for failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice, or with a court remedy order, and for offshore offences. In the higher courts, it is an option only for failure to comply with licensing requirements or explosives provisions, or disclosures in breach of the Act. Those are all serious offences. However, the Bill will extend the option of a custodial sentence to a greater range of offences, and that responds in part to the fact that judges have remarked in several cases over the years on the lack of imprisonment as an option, and said that they would have jailed the offender had they been able to do so. It is my expectation that imprisonment will continue to occur only in the most serious of cases and that there will be only a minimal increase in the number of offenders going to prison under this new legislation.

The third change to present arrangements that would be introduced by schedule 1 would make two offences triable only in the lower courts either-way offences, like most health and safety offences, so that they would be triable in either the lower or the higher courts. Those offences are, first, under section 20 of the Act, contravening any requirement imposed by an inspector—for example, to give information for an investigation or to leave premises undisturbed after an incident—and secondly, preventing another person from appearing before an inspector or from answering his or her questions. Under the Bill, those offences could in future attract the tougher penalties available in the higher courts.

It is evident that the Bill deals only with the issues of the penalties for health and safety offences and where they may be tried, but it is important to recognise that the courts and their sanctions constitute only one small part of the full spectrum of health and safety activity in this country. That we need health and safety legislation in place is beyond question. Last year, employees in Britain suffered nearly 250 work-related deaths, nearly 30,000 major injuries and well over 100,000 lesser injuries that kept them off work. Of course, it is not only employees whom the legislation seeks to protect, but members of the public who suffer death or injury at workplaces. In 2006-07, more than 120 members of the general public were killed and nearly 17,500 reported injuries in workplaces.

Most health and safety activity, however—like the law itself—is preventive in nature. Most health and safety provision is carried out by businesses in compliance with the law because they believe it is the right thing to do. By far the greater part of the work of health and safety agencies, the HSE itself and local environmental health officers is preventive in nature. The point is illustrated by Professor Macrory in his report “Regulatory Justice” when he gives the HSE statistics for 2004-05: 59,865 inspections carried out, 8,445 statutory notices issued but only 712 prosecutions initiated. Those figures are par for the course, although the figure for prosecutions in that example may have been somewhat lower than the annual average. In other words, prosecution—the subject of the Bill—is reserved for only the most serious offences, where criminal proceedings are most clearly in the public interest.

Why do we need the increased penalties set out in the Bill? There are three main reasons: tougher, more commensurate punishment, more effective deterrence, and greater efficiency in the dispensation of justice. On tougher punishment, there is a well-established view that the fines under health and safety legislation are too low. That is certainly the view of the HSE and the Government. As long ago as 1998, the Court of Appeal judged that the health and safety fines being imposed were too low. In the consultation leading up to the Government’s publication of the strategy statement “Revitalising health and safety” in June 2005, the overwhelming view of consultees was that the general level of penalties imposed by the courts was inadequate; only 7 per cent. considered that the then, and still existing, framework for penalties was satisfactory.

In 2005, Philip Hampton, in his report on regulation and enforcement for the Treasury, noted that the existing maximum fine of £5,000 was “an insignificant sum” for most businesses. The point was reiterated in 2006 by Professor Macrory in his report, “Regulatory Justice” subtitled “Making Sanctions Effective”.

On the option of imprisonment, there is a history going back to the mid-1990s of judges expressing discontent at being unable to impose jail sentences for health and safety offences. Indeed, on 8 January my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) cited just such a case in his Adjournment debate on carbon monoxide detectors. He noted that in 2006 a judge in the Nottingham Crown court complained of being able only to fine a man whose negligent work on a gas boiler had led to two deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In practice, of course, because health and safety failures typically result from a chain of decisions rather than from one person’s action, it is likely to remain the case that the prosecution of individuals for health and safety offences will be infrequent. Nevertheless, I believe the courts are right to call for the availability of the penalty of imprisonment for the worst offences. In passing, I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is not my intention that the new powers of imprisonment—if we obtain them—should become grounds for resisting the case for mandatory safety duties on directors. That case, which as my hon. Friend knows is promoted by UCATT, is an entirely separate argument.

The second reason for higher penalties is more effective deterrence: but to deter irresponsible behaviour and encourage compliance with the law, penalties need to be high enough to eliminate the gain from breaking the law. In his report, Philip Hampton puts the general principle:

“Illegal operators have incentives to undercut honest businesses, partly because penalties are low absolutely, but more worryingly because penalties imposed often do not reflect the commercial advantage a business has gained from non-compliance.”

Hampton had no doubt about the inadequacy of the penalties under the 1974 Act:

“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.”

That is why recommendation 6 of the Hampton review was that maximum fines in the magistrates courts should be increased and recommendation 7 was that fine levels should take account of the economic benefit gained. The Bill will implement those recommendations.

The third reason for the higher penalties in the Bill is the need for greater efficiency in the court system. There seems to be no doubt that at present the lower courts will often refer more serious cases, which they are otherwise quite competent to hear and judge, to the higher courts because they feel that they do not have adequate sentencing powers. Consequently, cases are delayed, court time is wasted and the more valuable time of the higher courts is used up unnecessarily. By extending the £20,000 maximum fine to the lower courts and making imprisonment an option, the effect of the Bill will be that more cases will be resolved in the lower courts. Justice will be faster, less costly and more efficient.

I now turn—somewhat reluctantly, as a non-lawyer—to the Bill’s engagement with the European convention on human rights. The convention point at issue is article 6, paragraph 2, which concerns the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, and its relationship with section 40 of the 1974 Act, which has the effect of reversing the burden of proof on to the defendant when the offence is subject to the statutory qualification “so far as is reasonably practicable”.

The question is whether the Bill increases the likelihood of a successful ECHR challenge by introducing the option of imprisonment for an offence to which the reverse burden of proof applies. The answer is twofold. First, it appears that such a provision can be compatible with article 6, paragraph 2 if it is justified on the basis that it is reasonable and proportionate and does no more than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the aims of the statute. Secondly, it appears that the Court of Appeal has recently concluded, on the basis of several compelling factors, that so far as “reasonable practicability” offences are concerned, section 40 of the 1974 Act represents a fair balance between the rights of the individual to a fair trial and the protection of life and limb from dangerous work practices. For those reasons, I am assured that the Bill’s provisions are not incompatible with the convention. The argument is set out at greater length in the explanatory notes, and I hope that this explanation will be to the satisfaction of the House.

Let me draw my speech to a close. The 1974 Act is a remarkably durable and successful piece of legislation. In its 33 years, it has experienced minor amendment from time to time—this Bill is one such amendment. The Act has been added to by hundreds of regulations, but its substance—the structures, duties and offences and the approach to safety in the workplace that it established—has remained intact and has stood the test of time. The standards of culture that it enshrines have been sustained by the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, two bodies of high national and international repute, and by the highly respected role played by environmental health officers at a local level.

The 1974 Act’s record speaks for itself. Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent. The number of reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent. If we look behind changing employment patterns during that period, we see the same picture. Between 1974 and 2007, the rate of fatal injuries per 100,000 employees fell by a huge 76 per cent. Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. The EU average was 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers; the figure in the UK was 1.1.

However, that still equates to about 250 workplace deaths a year and many more injuries. There can be no complacency; hence the need for the Bill. It will allow us to punish the criminally negligent who put life and limb in danger, deter those who attempt to cut costs by breaking health and safety law, and render justice faster and more efficient—and it will do so without introducing any new regulatory requirements or new compliance costs in any sector. I commend the Bill to the House.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), particularly on the clarity of his explanation. He may have appreciated the fact that I was listening attentively, as I am not exactly an expert in the field; I was here for the previous debate.

The right hon. Gentleman made two important points. First, we are often concerned about over-regulation, but when we look at what can happen in the workplace when insufficient attention is given to safety, we realise how important it is to employers, employees and their families. The impact of a big incident can spread throughout a community.

Secondly, on deterrence, I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill covers the issue that I am about to raise, but I shall do so briefly, as he might be able to consider it. I have been asking questions recently about how many incidents have taken place involving children under 16. The number has doubled over the past few years. One could say that it is not a large number, but the fact that children are involved gives it some significance. In one well-documented accident, a young man lost his hand in a mincing machine in a butcher’s shop. I have met him, and I must say that Sam has made a remarkable recovery from that terrible occurrence.

We are not debating child employment legislation today, but an awareness of child employment legislation—for example, the fact that work permits are needed—should be brought to light. We know that children are working without work permits or risk assessments because of out-of-date regulations. From the survey work that I have done with several local authorities, I have found that some issue very few work permits. I am deeply concerned that there is a lack of awareness about children in employment. I feel that proportionate measures, fines and publicity where appropriate would raise awareness of the issue generally as well as in relation to children, and of the need to understand what the law is.

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his clear and logical introduction of the Bill. He set out the reasons why he thinks it necessary; I agree with them, and I have a couple of other reasons why I think that it is appropriate and should be put on the statute book. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her comments. She mentioned in particular the issue of child injuries at work. I agree that we need to consider it carefully, and I shall make a few comments on it in the course of my remarks.

As we are holding a Second Reading debate on a health and safety matter, I will, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, go a little wider than the Bill, because we do not often have opportunities to debate health and safety in the House. That is a pity because they are extremely important.

The health and safety profession currently has a severe problem. Doubtless many people who are watching the debate are concerned that we are looking to put a Bill on the statute book that would increase health and safety offences, because health and safety has had a bad press in recent years. Let me read two letters to a national newspaper in October last year. The first states:

“Sir—If we are to believe the Health and Safety Executive, we live in the most dangerous environment in the world. Hanging flower baskets are a danger, Santa Claus in his sleigh collecting money for charity is another risky venture to be avoided, and a children’s swing that has given more than 100 years of pleasure with not one child injured must be removed.

Whether we like it or not, living does involve existing with a certain amount of danger. To try to create an environment where there is no risk of an accident is virtually impossible.

If the Health and Safety Executive continues on its present path, what sort of a society will be around in 50 years’ time?”

Another letter from the same day states:

“I sympathise with”

the lady

“whose local jumble sale has been discontinued for health and safety reasons.

This year, the annual panto by an amateur dramatic society at a church hall in Welling, Kent, marking the beginning of Christmas for many, has been cancelled because of health and safety issues. The cost of meeting the health and safety requirements far exceeded the expected income and so the panto, already in rehearsal, has been cancelled.

There will be no contribution to church funds and the future of an excellent amateur society is, after more than 30 years, in doubt.

This is only the latest in a long and tragic list of interferences to all our lives by the insidious evil that cloaks itself in ‘health and safety’. I have begun to understand how it must have felt to live in a communist state.”

Even Tom Mullarkey, the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said on 12 November:

“We do not believe in extremist health and safety ideas which would keep children wrapped in cotton wool.

Our argument is that a skinned knee or a twisted ankle in a challenging and exciting play environment is not just acceptable, it is a positive necessity.”

The Institution for Occupational Safety and Health, an excellent organisation and the professional standards body for health and safety professionals in public and private practice, spoke of its concern for the public

“whose understanding of the real importance of health and safety is constantly tainted by negative media stories about crazy decisions made in the name of health and safety.”

I mention those concerns because, as the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the reality of serious injuries and death in the workplace is very different. In 2006-07, the provisional figure that I had was 241 staff killed in work-related accidents. The right hon. Gentleman cited 250, so perhaps it has increased. That is an 11 per cent. increase on the previous year. The figure that especially shocked me from our debate in Westminster Hall on the construction industry was that in the six years to 31 March 2004 there were 504 deaths from construction accidents—only 18 fewer than the number of regular service personnel killed through accidental or violent causes. Who would have thought that being a builder was nearly as dangerous as being a soldier?

In 2006-07, there were 28,267 work-related major injuries. Those figures are unacceptably high and some individual incidents are frankly scandalous. Seventeen-year-old Daniel Dennis was killed by falling through a skylight. He had been given no training, he had no harness and the skylight around which he was working was not even fenced off. It is really important that the Health and Safety Executive should counter the many false allegations laid at the door of health and safety; it does not always do so. In a national newspaper last year, an ex-service parade at Droitwich was reported to have been cancelled for health and safety reasons. I rang the Health and Safety Executive to find out whether that was the case. It was not, but I did not see any media rebuttal. Tom Mullarkey said that he came across—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have allowed him a little latitude, but I sense that he is bursting the bounds of the long title of the Bill. As he knows, the Bill is about the mode of trial and maximum penalties applicable to certain offences. He can argue about what should be in the Bill and how it might be extended, but we cannot have a too general debate about health and safety.

I accept your guidance absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was coming to the end of that section of my speech; I assure you that the rest of my remarks will relate directly to the Bill. However, it is important to set the context within which we are having this debate; the matters that I have mentioned touch on the substance of the Bill as well.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which the Bill would amend, was brought in by the Conservative party. The fines that the Bill would amend were set in 1991 and 1992, so on grounds of inflation alone there would be a good case for amending them. As the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the Bill would also allow imprisonment in certain cases—that, of course, would give a permissive, not a prescriptive, power—and allow cases to be heard in the lower or higher courts in certain circumstances.

Everything in the Bill was first called for in 1999. Why has such a Bill not been introduced in Government time since then? I am aware that much important legislation has got on to the statute book through the private Member’s Bill route, but given the importance of the matters that we are debating, I would be interested to know the Minister’s answer to my question. There are concerns about front-line construction inspectors in particular. In a letter that the Minister wrote to me after the Westminster Hall debate last year, she pointed out that there had been a decline in full-time-equivalent construction inspectors from 133 to 125 since the previous year.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, judges are calling for tougher penalties. Paul Regan, a cowboy gas fitter, 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 own house. He also said that the man

“should go to prison for 18 months”.

Another case involved two students who were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. When the landlord was sentenced, the judge said:

“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.”

In another case, two workmen were badly burned by an underground methane gas explosion; the judge said that given how serious the matter was, he was surprised that fines were the only penalty available to him. In yet another case, the directors of a firm were convicted of seven charges of illegal child employment, and the judge said:

“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.”

Frankly, I do not think that our constituents would want us to deny powers that judges are calling for in our courts, on this or any other matter.

As the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the Bill would place no additional requirements on employers or businesses, but should have a strong deterrent effect. He is right to say that there is a moral obligation on all of us to take all reasonable steps to ensure that workplace accidents and fatalities are reduced to as few as possible. I would also argue, however, that the Bill would go some way towards reducing some of the burdensome enforcement policy that employers sometimes complain about.

The right hon. Gentleman quoted from the Macrory report. Its full title is “Regulatory Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”, and it was published in November 2006. In it, Professor Macrory said:

“Without credible and meaningful sanctions, regulators are forced to pursue a more burdensome and bureaucratic enforcement policy.”

He 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.”

So there is even an argument that the Bill is pro- business efficiency.

Another argument, which I do not remember the right hon. Gentleman using, is that there should be a level playing field for all business. The Macrory report says that

“currently legitimate businesses see their unscrupulous competitors cut corners, and gain competitive advantage, without facing serious financial or other consequences.”

Sadly, a small minority of rogue employers are coming to the conclusion that it is cheaper to pay the fines than to keep their staff safe, as the vast majority of businesses do. Could the Minister clarify what provision there will be for the regular uprating of the fines that would be adjusted by the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill? That is a reasonable question, given that those figures have not been changed since 1991 and 1992. The Bill does not make it clear whether it would be by annual regulation-making power or any other means.

The official Opposition support the Bill, which is a necessary and important measure in ensuring that all our fellow citizens have the best possible chance of getting up in the morning, going to work and coming back without in any way being injured or even, God forbid, suffering a fatality.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). I am pleased that he has decided to introduce and take forward the measures in this Bill. I am delighted that he recognised the efforts of some of his predecessors, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), who was the most recent Member to try to deal with these issues. I also thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about the support that he has received from the Department for Work and Pensions and health and safety officials. I congratulate him on his comprehensive and detailed exposition of the terms and implications of his Bill, which was exemplary—although I would not have expected anything less from him. I am glad that his talents and skills, which were well recognised in his previous role, have now been exposed to us all in his new, or resumed, role as a Back Bencher.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for the Bill. Most of what he said was valuable. However, it was a pity that he tried to drag across the old myth about health and safety, sometimes expressed in the newspapers, that things are always the fault of the Health and Safety Executive. He almost perpetuated some of the myths that he identified in the letters to which he referred. I want to make it clear that the HSE is not against children getting skint knees—that might be a Scottish expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it means grazed. We are not against poppies having pins in them either. Last October and November, it was suggested that one of the big charities had changed the style of its poppies because health and safety people said that it could not put pins in the back of them. That was palpably untrue. The charity did not identify that problem and the HSE knew nothing about the story.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Remembrance day parades. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission wrote to all chief executives of local authorities about the need for a sensible approach to health and safety. He was not imposing new burdens or saying that the authorities had to do things a certain way. For many years, the HSC and HSE have said that there needs to be a sensible and measured approach to health and safety. They know full well that we cannot remove every risk from everyday life. We can, however, be sensitive to the fact that by taking some action, we can reduce the risks to the general public.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the HSE was not more robust in dealing with media stories. I am sure he knows, as a politician of some skill, that it is not always possible to get the rebuttal in because it spoils the story.

Of course I accept what the Minister says about rebuttals not always being printed. However, the HSE has an important role in countering false allegations and misplaced stories in the media. Whether we like it or not, such stories are printed in newspapers and our constituents pick them up and read them. The rebuttal role is important. I urge her to ensure that the HSE takes that role seriously.

I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the HSE takes that role seriously, but unfortunately it has no control over what is printed in the media, what editorial judgment is exercised by those who print the stories in deciding what is a good story and whether a rebuttal from the HSE would undermine the “fun” of criticising it. In some respects, it has become a bit of a national pastime to ridicule the HSE, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham identified, the work done over many years has made Britain’s industrial and general activities safer than they are in many other countries. However, I appreciate that I may be tempting fate a little, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by going on too long about that aspect of the debate.

The Bill’s proposals are consistent with the Government’s health and safety strategy and the wider considerations of regulatory sanctions in the Hampton and Macrory reports. We are satisfied that the HSE and local authorities are doing all that they can to bring successful health and safety prosecutions. Indeed, in 2006-07, the success rate for prosecutions was 74.3 per cent., reflecting the effectiveness of the HSE’s investigation and decision-making process.

I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to the debate, but it is not for me to comment on the issues that she raised. However, I will ensure that they are drawn to the attention of those who can respond on the problem of children working in dangerous conditions—a matter that is covered by the HSE—without suitable permits.

The HSE prosecutes when it is proportionate to do so, when failures to comply with the law are serious and when serious risks are not prevented. That is in line with Health and Safety Commission policy and the enforcement principle supported by the Government. The proportionate approach is evident in the fact that all HSE activities, including inspection and investigation, in 2006-07 resulted in the executive issuing 8,071 enforcement notices and prosecuting 1,141 offences. The response to most breaches is advice and information, given in the spirit of working with companies, individuals and organisations.

Cases that are brought to court represent the most serious breaches of health and safety legislation, in which people are unacceptably exposed to the risk of serious harm. Although the prosecution success rates are high, the lower courts, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham highlighted, are prevented in serious health and safety cases from imposing adequate, realistic penalties. Consequently, as he said, cases are delayed and court time is wasted, as the lower courts refer to the higher courts cases that they are otherwise competent to hear but for which they believe they lack adequate sentencing powers. That is the crux of the problem tackled by the Bill.

In addition, there are serious breaches for which it is not possible to impose a custodial sentence, even in the higher courts, except in limited circumstances. My right hon. Friend generously raised the work of our hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on the issue of carbon monoxide poisoning, and mentioned his Adjournment debate. I was privileged to reply to that debate and, both as a constituency MP and on a personal level, I have experience of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and the work of unregistered gas installers, which can eventually lead to illness or death. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire also raised the matter. He mentioned the Paul Regan case, which encapsulates the need for my right hon. Friend’s important Bill. The judge in that case said that he would not allow Mr. Regan within 150 miles of his house and that although he should go to prison, the rogue gas fitter could be fined.

The Bill will make imprisonment an option for the judiciary and the courts for a wider range of serious breaches of health and safety legislation. It will also help to address the mounting concern at the anti-deterrent effect of what many people regard as derisory penalties handed down by the courts—another point made both by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham and by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. As long ago as 1998, the Court of Appeal found that the general level of fines in health and safety cases was too low, and gave examples of aggravating and mitigating factors that might be relevant when a court decided on a sentence.

Let me explain why the Bill has been introduced on five occasions—on one occasion in a slightly different form—and why the Government did not appear to find time for it. As I hope Members recognise, there are different ways in which legislation can be processed. I do not think we should underestimate the importance of the private Member’s opportunity. I can tell the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that we have been trying to get the Bill through the House on Fridays since 2000. I am surprised that Back Benchers with experience of some of these matters should complain that we have not attempted to give the Bill priority when we have tried to get it through on five occasions during five parliamentary Sessions. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the Bill, but I do not think the complaint about the Government stands up to scrutiny. We have supported my right hon. Friend and those who have presented the Bill previously, and have said in the House more than once that we want to get it on to the statute book. For a number of reasons, some of which are a mystery to me, that has not happened so far. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that today is the day on which we are all on the road to Damascus, and I congratulate him on allowing that to happen. I venture to suggest that when we debated the subject in Westminster Hall he was somewhat embarrassed about the fact that the Bill had not been passed for various reasons, although not through any fault of Her Majesty’s Government, or, indeed, the Back Benchers who had promoted it.

The Health and Safety Executive has always been clear about the need to improve the levels of fines. There is a disparity between fines imposed for other regulatory breaches and those imposed for health and safety offences. In 2007, British Airways was fined £121.5 million for illegally fixing fuel charges on passengers. The postal regulator fined Royal Mail nearly £12 million for service standard failures, and in 2005 the Financial Services Authority fined Shell £17 million for serious misconduct amounting to market abuse. The biggest ever United Kingdom fine for a health and safety offence was the £15 million that Transco was fined following the Larkhall explosion which killed a family of four in 1999.

I agree with my right hon. Friend and others that for social and economic reasons it is important for breaches of financial and competition regulations to be punished heavily, but it is also right for corporate health and safety crimes to attract more serious sanctions such as increased fines and, in the most serious cases, imprisonment. It is vital for the House to send a message to those who seek to flout the health and safety regulations and put at risk the safety of employees and other individuals through either their desire for profit or their incompetence.

I asked the Minister a question that I do not think she has answered yet. How are we to amend the fines? Must we wait nine years for another private Member’s Bill, can we do it annually or will it be done by regulation?

Obviously this is a matter for primary legislation, but future increases will be considered in the context of general issues relating to fines for criminal offences. As far as I am aware, there is an ongoing review of those issues.

I again thank my right hon. Friend. I hope and suspect that the Bill on this occasion is going to get the fair wind that it deserved in 2000, and 2001 and on all the other dates. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

With the leave of the House, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her generous remarks and support. I am grateful, too, to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her support. She raised a specific question about the relationship between child employment and the risk of injury. The provisions of the Bill bear on that. Indeed in one well-known judgment the judge complained about the lack of imprisonment as an option in a dreadful case involving the employment of children found to be exposed to asbestos.

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), especially in the light of the history rehearsed by my hon. Friend the Minister. He spoke powerfully and graphically about the continuing high level of death and injury in the workplace, and of the continuing need for health and safety legislation. It was not a point that I dwelt on, but the hon. Gentleman was right to link deterrence and regulation. The Hampton thesis is that effective deterrence makes for lighter inspection and enforcement. Indeed, his report is entitled “Reducing administrative burdens.”

Without further ado, I look forward to further exchanges in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Public Bill Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order).