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Column 621a person who runs an activity centre deliberately runs it in a dangerous way. I would, however, be hard pressed to find a motive for that; it is extremely unlikely. The real problem is recklessness. Organisations may cut corners, believing that in so doing, they are not taking a serious risk.
Another problem is plain ignorance. When the Bill was in Committee, we were entertained by a long account of how the hon. Member for Newcastle-under- Lyme (Mrs. Golding) got into difficulties in a boat. The incident was described entertainingly, but there was a serious undertone. It is easy to take part in an activity with which one is not familiar and suddenly get into extreme difficulties. The problem stems from ignorance. If the instructors at a centre are not skilled, they may take their charges into areas of great risk simply because they do not realise what is going on. Trained people will not make that mistake. They know precisely what is at stake and they know how to handle it. Even if, under the Bill, regulations were introduced to provide for every potential problem, untrained staff might not know how to apply them properly. They might not even know that the regulations existed. Qualifications and training are important to uphold the regulations.
I accept that what I have described is a fringe problem. I accept that even today, without the Bill, in the vast majority of activity centres, staff are properly qualified. I am also aware of how strict activity centres have become in the past two years in ensuring that staff are properly qualified. We are, however, dealing with the fringe; so often, that is what legislation is about. It is important for qualifications and training to be stressed in the Bill. Qualifications and training are in the interests of all. It is very much in the interests of the owners and operators to be able to show that there is full protection and that their centres have staff who are fully qualified. It is important that everyone can be reassured of that. Qualifications and training are also important for teachers, parents and local authorities. They are all involved and they need to have confidence and faith in the centres that they use and especially in the personnel and their qualifications.
After the Lyme bay tragedy, at the inquest and the subsequent trial, considerable reference was made to the fact that
"the staff involved were wholly unqualified."
In a nutshell, that underlines the importance of having proper training and qualification standards.
According to the Select Committee on Education:
"Some doubts have been expressed as to how far the Act"-- the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974--
"extends to the competence of staff in relation to the safety of centres' clients."
The Act may well be deficient in ensuring that qualifications reach the highest standards.
The Select Committee, in referring to staff competence, said: "ACAC witnesses defined competence as including qualifications, experience and training. We expect that the criteria which are eventually set either in regulations, or by the licensing authority, will take account of all these attributes, rather than relying solely on technical qualifications."
Column 622The Select Committee widened the scope of training and stressed its importance. It also said that the licensing authority should give support to the providers of outdoor education in terms of qualification standards.
The Select Committee report put great stress on the importance of national vocational qualifications and on ensuring that they were available in all the necessary areas and activities. The Committee believed that NVQs played an important part in ensuring that standards were maintained.
The Select Committee especially stressed summer centres--part-time centres- -because it was felt that they were less likely to have high standards for staff. The Committee said:
"In assessing the competence of staff, the licensing authority should pay particular attention to centres where the seasonal pattern of employment is more likely to involve staff of a lower calibre than larger, full-time centres."
I draw attention to two important factors which strengthen my argument. My local authority, Bromley, which was keen that the Bill should be enacted, drew it to my attention and increased my interest in it. In a summary that the authority has sent me, it stresses: "Parents have the right to expect that when children go to centres they will be taught by qualified staff".
The adventure and activity centres themselves have shown how significant the Bill is and how much importance they attach to it. It is noticeable that in all their circulars to schools, they put great stress on the qualifications and standards of instruction required for their staff. I have a circular from Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays which lists the activities, sites and minimum instructor qualifications on their various adventure holidays. It goes into great detail. That stems partly from the criticisms after the Lyme bay tragedy and partly from the focusing of attention on qualifications. It is also a reaction to some of the previous malpractice.
Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays is honest in admitting that it previously had problems, although it has none now. I do not suggest that the company now employs anyone other than the highest-qualified staff. However, the company says that some years ago, it employed a chief instructor who was with it for some time--
Mr. Merchant: The letter was sent to me by a teacher. It is a circular letter which Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays sent to group leaders and teachers in many schools. It is clearly a circular letter. I would rather not tell the House the teacher's name, not because there is anything confidential about the letter, but simply because when I was given this material, I did not ask the teacher's specific permission to quote from it. I feel that I should not reveal the teacher's name.
Mr. Jamieson: Has the hon. Gentleman had any direct communication with Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays? If so, which member of that organisation has he had direct contact with? Is any member of that organisation mentioned on any of the correspondence? I do not want the hon. Gentleman to give away who the
Column 623teacher was. Can he, however, name the person from Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays who has written the letter?
Mr. Merchant: Yes, with pleasure. The name at the bottom of the letter is Chris Reynard and there is a signature. I am taking the letter at face value and I have every reason to believe that it is accurate. If the hon. Gentleman has any difficulties with the letter, I would obviously be delighted to hear them. It seems to be a perfectly valid letter on letterhead. In any event, the reference to the instructor is merely illustrative of a practice that has been known to have occurred at other centres and one of the purposes of the Bill is to prevent any such lax standards.
The letter, which I was going to quote, claims that a previous chief instructor provided forged instructor certificates and was later found to be fraudulently qualifying staff. So long as such activity is found to be necessary or is carried out, there is a problem from which those involved in activities--children, teachers and schools--must be protected. If there is a clear and proper requirement for minimum qualifications, if those qualifications are known to be above board and if they are the result of a recognised scheme with proper validation, all concerned--operators, clients, schools and children--would be fully protected.
As I said, such protection is at the core of the Bill and that is why I stress it in the amendment. I hope that either my amendment will be accepted or that the promoter of the Bill the hon. Member for Devonport and my hon. Friend the Minister will give an assurance that the whole question of qualifications will be properly and thoroughly dealt with and included as an essential part of the working mechanisms of the regulations which will stem from the Bill.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham raises an absolutely key element which should be covered by the Bill and he is quite right to stress the importance and the central role that can and must be played by qualifications of staff. I need not repeat--indeed, I do not want to repeat--the many examples that have been given of the problems relating to inadequate qualifications and the like. There can be no difference between myself and my hon. Friend on that matter.
I point out to my hon. Friend, however, that clause 1(4)(b) says that regulations may make provisions to
"any requirements relating to safety (whether applying to facilities for adventure activities or to other facilities) which must be satisfied by an applicant for a licence".
That phrase "any requirements relating to safety" is very broad. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) will no doubt confirm that a deliberately broad statement of the requirements relating to safety is envisaged to address the problems of safety in activity centres. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Bill as drafted would enable us to cover whatever matters may arise relating to safety. So the power, as it were, is already in the Bill. Our next consideration is whether qualifications should in some way be singled out as being of exclusive or even primary importance. That need not and--probably--should not be the case, because under the phrase "requirements relating to safety" there will inevitably be a wide range of requirements, all of which are interlocking and important. I would include in a list, which is not
Column 624intended to be comprehensive but to give my hon. Friend a flavour of what I mean, training, competence, experience and management systems in addition to qualifications. If my hon. Friend thinks for a moment, he will realise that time and again we have heard examples of how a significant failure in any of those areas may lead to a shortfall in the delivery of effective safety measures.
Qualifications alone are not sufficient. They are necessary, but not sufficient. People may be qualified, yet their qualifications may be rather ancient, outdated and not strictly relevant. With the best will in the world, it is very difficult to identify simply through qualifications all necessary measures. Training is very closely related to qualifications, self-evidently, but may be required in addition to qualifications, competence is certainly relevant, experience, especially, is always relevant and the effectiveness of management systems and procedures--a factor which is often neglected--which have to be in place to supplement the straightforward qualifications that staff may have is vital. Again and again we have heard examples of how the failure of management systems or procedures have--probably--been the key element in giving rise to the sort of tragedies of which we are all too well aware.
Clause 1(4)(b) already contains ample provision to cover my hon. Friend's requirements and I hope that he will accept my contention that to single out qualifications may, in some senses, be almost counter-productive because it would imply somehow that the mere possession of qualifications by staff would be sufficient and that we could forget all other elements. Having given my hon. Friend assurances of what we shall have in mind as we enter the consultation process and shape up to making the regulations-- qualifications are central, but the other factors are, too--I hope that he will be sufficiently satisfied and will not feel the need to press his amendment.
Mr. Jamieson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) for tabling amendments Nos. 7 and 8 and for making his points. I know that he has great concern for his constituents and that he has contact with his local education authority. He, like so many of us here, is also concerned as a parent. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a parent because I came across his two children recently in the Strangers' Cafeteria. Unfortunately, when they espied me, thinking I was an old socialist, they scurried under the table for cover. [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, hear."] But once they were told that I was new Labour, they came out with smiles on their small countenances, they felt assured and they cooed. So, I know that the hon. Gentleman is very sympathetic to the Bill. Indeed, his carefully crafted amendments on report and in Committee have been extremely well received.
I remember the hon. Gentleman making a powerful and welcome speech on Second Reading. I noticed that at the beginning of his speech he said that he was
"instinctively reticent about supporting extra regulation."--[ Official Report , 27 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 630.]
I am sad to inform him that I am equally reticent about accepting his amendment. He can tell from my tone that, just as in Committee, he is heading for disappointment if he thinks that he has won us over on this matter.
As the Minister rightly pointed out, clause 1(4)(b) and, possibly, clause 1(4)(a) cover training and qualifications, about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. In clause
Column 6251(4)(a), it is conceivable that a centre would be signing up for a licence to a code of practice. That code of practice would contain, if it were worthy, details relating to qualifications required by staff. As the Minister says, the qualifications in themselves are not a guarantee that children will be safe. A far more important issue is the management and culture of safety within the centre.
The Lyme bay tragedy occurred in relation to the St. Alban's centre, which had instructors who were qualified in canoeing. Sadly, they were not involved in that activity on that day, but were round the corner dinghy sailing. That was a management problem, not a problem of not having the staff to undertake the task. The amendment would be tautologous as the matters are already covered in the Bill. 11.30 am
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Beckenham used in support of his arguments information from Devon and Dorset Holidays. The hon. Member for Beckenham clearly did not hear the Radio 4 programme, "Face the Facts", about three weeks ago. I can happily provide him with a tape of that programme so that he can listen to it. I raised the subject on Second Reading. Mr. Chris Reynard was interviewed by the BBC in relation to the claims that he made in his brochure about his centre, particularly about the staff qualifications and the endorsements that he said he had received from various organisations. He states in his brochure that his was "voted the best centre". When asked by the BBC who had voted, the man lapsed into a period of Trappist silence and could not or would not answer the question. When pressed by the interviewer several times, Mr. Reynard was silent--he could not give the names of those who had voted his the best centre in Britain.
Mr. Reynard covers his literature with endorsements that he says that he has received from various organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. He quotes as supporting him people like Alan Cottle, the outdoor education adviser for Surrey. I believe that Mr. Dane Oliver is also quoted as supporting him. I believe that all those people have written sharp and pointed letters to Mr. Reynard saying that in no way were they supporting his organisation, particularly the poor, ill-thought- out scheme for giving people qualifications. That scheme was not recognised by anybody.
On the same programme, when Mr. Reynard was asked about who recognised the qualifications that he had given out, he again fell into silence. The broadcast is most interesting and anybody interested in any part of outdoor activities should listen to the tape. I strongly commend it as it is revealing. It illustrates why we need the Bill. There are people like Chris Reynard around, albeit in the minority. People exist who are prepared to use bogus safety claims and comments from other people out of context and without their permission to try to sell their product on the market. We need the Bill to provide protection from those people.
I ask the House to reject the amendment as the issue is adequately covered in the Bill.
Column 626concerned in a personal way, as well as being concerned for my constituents and their children. I want to ensure that anything in which my children participate, now or later in life, should be properly controlled and supervised.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I support his Bill. My reference on Second Reading to my natural instinct against regulation can be seen as a compliment to him and his Bill in that I nevertheless find it attractive and support it. I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman that, while it is true that my children hid under the table when they saw him because they thought he was an old-style socialist, they came out not because I told them that he was new Labour, but because I told them that he was the Bill's promoter. They were delighted to hear that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring at length to Devon and Dorset Holidays and Mr. Chris Reynard. He is obviously better informed than I am on that subject. I initially thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to say that the letter that I had received was not genuine and there was some forgery involved, in which case I intended to say that I had quoted from it in good faith, the teachers had given it to me in good faith, and we all believed that it was an accurate letter. I now realise that the hon. Gentleman is saying that there are even more problems attached to that organisation. Perhaps the qualifying remark that I made at the beginning of the quotation--that the holiday centre was now operating to the highest standards--was inaccurate. Obviously, it is not operating to such standards and the problems are worse than I suggested. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that clear and I fully share his concern.
I am reassured by what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Minister said about qualifications. I have achieved my objective by drawing attention to that subject and receiving the reassurances that I sought. I fully accept the comments of both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that the qualifications themselves are not sufficient. I was not intending to suggest that they were, but was simply trying to stress one aspect. I accept, and always have done, that qualifications are merely a starting point--there must be good practice, good management and continued experience. I would not want to be party to anything that appeared to suggest that only qualifications were important.
I have succeeded in my main objective of drawing attention to the importance of qualifications and given the House the opportunity to discuss that subject. I have put the matter on record, which is important for the implementation of the legislation and the drawing up of regulations. I am satisfied that my main purpose has been achieved. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Column 627Clause 2
It may seem churlish at this advanced stage to start tabling new amendments, but the fact that the Bill is widely welcomed--I very much congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on his initiative--does not mean that it should not be properly and thoroughly scrutinised. We have already had an interesting debate on the armed forces, which threw up a number of new ideas that need to be advanced.
I should declare an interest. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), I am the father of young children. They are currently much too young to participate in activities likely to be covered by the Bill, although the climbing frame at the back of our house fills me with dread every time I see it used. Only this morning, I handed over £1.50 to my eldest daughter's school as she has just won a certificate for swimming 25 m-- [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, hear."] The process is beginning. I spoke earlier about the formative experience that I had on the Brecon Beacons during an exercise known as arduous training--arduous it certainly was. We all have our own memories and experiences of such activities.
Amendment No. 9 deals with penalties. It aims to give the hon. Member for Devonport the opportunity to disclose the precise rationale behind his thinking on penalties as it appears in the Bill. In the light of the appalling tragedy at Lyme bay and the other distressing occurrences that we have heard about today, there will inevitably be a temptation to say that the penalties should be as high as possible and that no penalty can he high enough.
It is important to remember that the penalties proposed in the Bill have no direct relationship with penalties awarded in courts in circumstances such as the Lyme bay disaster, where gross negligence and manslaughter were involved. Such cases, and the terrible incident raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) involving Hayley Hadfield, are dealt with under the existing legal system.
The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 also has a bearing on the Bill. Although there is a strong temptation to whack on heavy penalties, we are considering a regime that presupposes no loss of life or personal injury but relates solely to failure to comply with regulations.
Mr. Waterson: Has my hon. Friend reflected on the prospects of double jeopardy? In a tragedy such as Lyme bay, it is feasible that a person could be pursued under the regulations and be convicted of manslaughter, yet also face claims for civil damages. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill's provisions should bear some relationship to the likely penalty under a criminal action?
Amendment No. 9 relates to anything for which a licence is required being otherwise than in accordance with that licence. The penalties envisaged by the Bill are a prison sentence of up to two years, an unquantified fine
Column 628or both. It makes no reference to the defence that an operator had taken all reasonable steps to comply with the conditions of a licence.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and my hon. Friend the Minister said that detailed implementation would be best left to the framing of the legislation. The existence of such a defence would be an important safeguard against the effect of the regulations being unduly harsh. It is perfectly conceivable--notwithstanding the remarks of the hon. Member for Devonport about rogue operators, who undoubtedly exist- -that an owner or operator could be inadvertently let down by a member of his or her staff acting deliberately or incompetently, despite the owner or operator having made every effort to comply with the licence. I should welcome clarification of how my hon. Friend the Minister sees the legislation working in those circumstances. It seems that the Bill does not allow for mitigating circumstances and that the offence will be absolute. I doubt whether that was the promoter's intention, and I should welcome his thoughts.
Amendment No. 9 proposes a maximum prison sentence of one year instead of two years. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury suggested a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. The promoter said that my hon. Friend would have made a good hanging judge in days gone by and that 10 years was excessive. I share that view. We are dealing with a breach of regulations, not with an offence that might be indictable under criminal law. Does the hon. Member for Devonport feel that a maximum prison sentence of one year would be an insufficient deterrent against non-compliance? One finds in any walk of life a minority of rogue operators who attempt to breach regulations and to run cowboy enterprises, but the majority of activity centre operators are responsible and conscientious people. The prospect of a prison sentence of almost any duration would be a sufficient deterrent to encourage such people to comply with regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) may recall that the managing director of Active Learning and Leisure--the company involved in the Lyme bay tragedy--was convicted of manslaughter and given a three-year custodial sentence. Four young people lost their lives in that accident. In the light of that sentence, we must consider the penalties envisaged by the Bill for a technical breach of regulations. In relative terms, a maximum sentence of two years for a breach alone may seem a little harsh.
Mr. Nigel Evans: On Second Reading, it was said that 300 activity centres--about 10 per cent. of the total--may try to flout regulations even though ways of satisfying them are evident. In those circumstances, and given the risk of injury or death for young people, should not it be left to the courts to decide a maximum sentence of up to two years? Should not a judge decide the appropriate sentence?
Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. The question is whether a rogue operator would be deterred by a one-year sentence as much as by a two-year sentence. The individual concerned in the Lyme bay disaster, having been convicted of gross negligence and
Column 629manslaughter, was sent down for three years. That has a bearing on the relative weight that we should give to a technical breach of regulations.
Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) and I have known each other a number of years, but I do not agree with the purpose of his amendment. I hope that I may persuade him to reconsider.
The Bill's promoter rightly emphasised the fact that it has support in all parts of the House, and we should make it clear that we mean business. In the context of sentences, it is for Parliament to fix maximums within which the courts can operate. It is not for us to speculate on appropriate sentences in particular cases. It is our duty to set a maximum and for the courts to set a tariff. The Court of Appeal often issues guidelines on the tariff for certain types of offence.
Mr. Kilfoyle: Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with the hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) that a new view should be taken of deterrence and that halving a potential sentence acts as a more effective deterrent? Would the hon. Gentleman propagate that view with the Home Secretary?
Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman tempts me down another route; if I were to follow it, I am sure that the Chair would have something to say to me. Perhaps I can go this far: there is a more general problem with our criminal justice system. I refer to the system of tariffs. If, as they are, the penalties at the top of the range are limited, that fact tends to exert downward pressure on tariffs for other crimes such as burglary, and then on down to offences of the sort that we are considering today. As long as a life sentence can mean an average 12 years in prison, and as long as we do not have the death penalty at the top of the range, I can foresee problems with sentences for some of the more questionable types of
manslaughter--they will tend to come low down the scale. I secured an Adjournment debate on that very subject a while ago. A constituent of mine was attacked without provocation and died as a result. His attacker got away with a very light prison sentence for manslaughter.
Presumably for this, as for other offences, a sort of tariff system will emerge, with the imprimatur of the Court of Appeal, to guide the courts on sentencing policy within the range between one year and two years, depending on the circumstances. We should also remember that the amendment relates only to offences taken on indictment. Under the framework of this Bill, I would expect the vast majority of cases to come before magistrates, where they can be dealt with
summarily--presumably by a fine, which would be the end of the matter.
We should also bear it in mind that we are talking about what could be a wide range of offences. We are discussing a regulatory offence, but that can range from a trivial infringement of the regulations, warranting a modest fine in a magistrates court, right the way through to enormous breaches of the regulations that might result in death or serious injury. We must therefore allow the courts a wide range of penalties.
Column 630In the case of a gross breach or flouting of the regulations, the offence would almost certainly be taken on indictment, so the full rigour of a two-year sentence should be available. In the ordinary way the court will have to consider not only the circumstances of offences but the track record--possibly the criminal record--under these or other regulations of the accused.
Let us consider the example of a person with a long history of running an activity centre badly, recklessly, negligently or sloppily. If he is brought up for an infringement that did not in itself cause serious injury or death but which was one of a series of offences against the same regulations, that is another good reason for keeping a more serious penalty.
There should be a wide range of penalties, from fines to imprisonment. I can see the problem of what lawyers call double jeopardy--in the case of the Lyme bay disaster, triple jeopardy. It was clear that there was a lack of knowledge of local weather conditions, the equipment was wrong, there was inadequate liaison with the coastguard service and the rescue operation was mounted late and was based on information much of which proved to be inaccurate. Almost everything that could go wrong in that tragic incident went wrong. Rightly, the manager of the St. Albans activity centre and the managing director of Active Learning and Leisure were charged with manslaughter. In December 1994 the latter was convicted of manslaughter through gross negligence and given a custodial sentence of three years.
What followed represented an interesting legal development. The company was found guilty of corporate manslaughter and fined £60,000. The charges against the manager of the centre were, I believe, dismissed. It is important to remember that the company was the first in English legal history to be convicted of homicide; and, according to the Library briefing, its managing director was the first director to be given an immediate custodial sentence for a manslaughter conviction arising from the operation of a business. When I was a student--and, indeed, until the issue arose in cases such as the Marchioness--it was always assumed that a company could never commit manslaughter because, unlike a person, it was not capable of the mens rea--the intent--necessary to commit that sort of offence.
There are three possible results of a tragic incident such as this one. First, there is a claim for civil damages. In this case, I am not aware of whether the families concerned have entered claims against the individuals or company involved. Secondly, there is the prospect of a criminal action for manslaughter being brought against those who are to blame--persons or corporate persons. Thirdly, the regulations we are discussing in this debate may come into play. I strongly believe that we should leave it to the courts to express the community's outrage--or in lesser cases, its concern--at certain incidents. The courts should be able to deal not just with cases involving a death but with cases of serious injury or of children being placed in danger, even though they may mercifully have escaped injury or death. There are also other remedies; the courts should take account of what else is happening at the same time. They cannot deal with the regulations in a vacuum if a criminal action for manslaughter is also being brought. Ultimately, however, it is for the courts to take into
Column 631account all the factors that I have mentioned, which also explain why I cannot support my hon. Friend's amendment.
Mr. Matthew Banks: I listened carefully to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). I managed to follow most of them, but like many of my hon. Friends I am not a lawyer. Much of the time I consider that an advantage; but I think that I speak for most people when I say that, in the context of regulations involving children, we need the toughest deterrents to turn people away from courses of action likely to put young people in danger. That is why I cannot agree with the amendment, or with the arguments in its favour advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth). I agree with him on most occasions, but not this time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne mentioned that this company was the first to be found guilty of corporate
manslaughter--that is significant. Had the right legislation not been put in place some years ago, that important step forward would not have been possible.
Mr. Banks: It is a question of balance. In this instance I think that the hon. Member for Devonport has got it about right. Progress has been made, and it should not be tampered with by the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East referred to an individual being sentenced to three years for manslaughter. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that the courts must be the arbiters of these matters. They must decide on the merits of the case. If such a case comes to court, the jury will no doubt decide whether a company or individuals are guilty of the offence. The judge will have a number of options at his disposal. The amendment is unnecessary and two years is about right. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) went slightly over the top in suggesting a penalty of 10 years. As I have said, I think that two years is about right. Those outside this place would not expect us to reduce the penalty from two years to one year.
The amendment reminds me of the debates that took place on bail bandits. The House will be pleased to know that I shall not be going down that avenue this afternoon. All too often some of my hon. Friends sought to tinker too much with a measure that was making excellent progress. We do not want the amendment before us to be agreed to. We want to be able to make progress. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that two years represents the right balance.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) has had a bit of a battering from my hon. Friends: next, we shall be hearing from Opposition Members about a Tory split on penalties.
Column 632Clause 2(3)(a) provides that regulations under subsection (1) "may provide defences to be available in proceedings for an offence".
The provision was inserted in Committee for exactly the reasons that have been advanced. I hope that that covers the point. We are back in familiar territory. It is right for the House to seek to determine the appropriate penalty for a particular offence. As our expert colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), has said--he was muttering about sending me a bill, and I hope that on this occasion he might waive his fee for the advice that he has made available to the House--we are dealing with terms-not-exceeding provisions to give the courts discretion. It is a well- known phenomenon that the term set out in the proposed legislation will be seen by the courts as a guideline. Sentences will tend to be set in response to the level at which the guideline is set. Some of us may regret that penalties all too rarely meet the maximum--I for one would like to see the maximum penalty exercised more often by the courts--but signs are given to the courts that reflect the penalties that we believe should be imposed.
In setting penalties levels, I suspect that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) decided to pitch them at about the same levels as are set for other health and safety offences. To take a more prosaic governmental view, we think it important that there should be consistency in setting penalties for broadly similar offences. It is important that the Bill is broadly consistent with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.
All in all, we have penalties that are much related to those that are provided for in the 1974 Act. When set against the offences with which the Bill seeks to deal, they are about right. It is my instinct to leave the wording, the levels and the penalties much as they are, and certainly not to reduce them. As some of my colleagues wanted dramatically to increase the penalties when they were considered in Committee, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) thinks that they are a little excessive, I suspect that probably they are about right. I hope that on reflection my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Jamieson: One of the curious consequences of the Bill is the number of alliances that it has created across the Chamber and the number of differences that it has highlighted. I was far too cautious, of course, to mention a split in the Tory ranks; the Minister has kindly highlighted it for me. I heard the scurry as journalists left the Gallery to change their headlines for tomorrow. It may be that this moment will be looked upon in future as the turning point for the Government. It may be seen as the critical moment--the split too far that caused the Government's demise.
The hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) seeks to reduce the penalty from two years to one year. There was an interesting debate on the matter in Committee, the report of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman read carefully before tabling his amendment. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)--I call him the hanging judge--wanted the penalty to be
Column 633increased to 10 years, which I found rather excessive. Such a penalty is comparable to that which faces someone who has caused the death of another person.
When I hear that some hon. Members think that the penalty should be increased and then hear that others think that it should be reduced, I suspect that two years is about right. It is worth reflecting on the sort of offence that would attract a sentence of two years' imprisonment. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, bringing his expert legal knowledge to the Chamber, it would be for the courts to decide the length of the sentence. The offence would be, as is set out in clause 2(1)(b)(i),
"to make a statement to the licensing authority . . . knowing it to be false"
and in (ii), to
"recklessly . . . make a statement to the licensing authority . . . which is false in a material particular."
If a centre, in the process of being licensed, recklessly made statements that it knew to be false, I would say that such conduct should attract a sentence of possibly up to two years, depending on the severity of the offence. There are some who might think that such an offence should attract an even more severe sentence. My original view was that such conduct should attract a slightly longer prison sentence. We are seeking to deal with someone who undertakes recklessly to try to mislead the licensing authority about matters that relate directly to children's safety.
In Committee, however, we meshed more closely the Bill with the 1974 Act. That was an important function of consideration in Committee and it now represents the strength of the Bill. The Bill is now aligned with other legislation on health and safety. As the Minister has said, the 1974 Act makes provisions in similar circumstances for a two-year sentence. I justify the provision on those grounds although my natural instinct is for more severe punishment for someone who tries to mislead the licensing authority.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth: It is a wonderful thing to unite the House but I did not intend to unite it so solidly against me. I tabled a probing amendment, and the issues raised by it have been well and truly probed extremely thoroughly. I am unrepentant for moving it. It is important to consider whether the proposed penalties are appropriate. We have had the opportunity to do so, and I thank the hon. Member for Devonport and my hon. Friend the Minister for their responses. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.