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1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) on securing this debate. He has always been a good soldier in the cause of workplace safety. I pay tribute to him not only for securing this debate, but for the many occasions throughout his political life, even before he was elected to the House, on which he has raised issues of workers

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health and safety. I have listened with interest to the points that he made and assure him that--as he is fully aware--I and many of my colleagues in Government share many of his concerns.

I want first to respond to my hon. Friend's understandable concerns about the recent tragic death of Simon Jones. Nothing that I or any of my parliamentary colleagues say could make up for the loss to his family and friends, who have suffered deeply because of his death. As we are all aware, deaths at work cause immense distress. Anyone who has--as I have--witnessed someone being killed in the workplace will live with that memory for the remainder of his life. The loss of a young life such as Simon's is an appalling waste. My sympathies, and those of the Government, go out to his family.

On the day of the accident, health and safety inspectors visited the site to begin an investigation, and have since made several more visits to gather evidence about possible breaches of health and safety law by various parties. The company involved, EUROMIN, is a small one, importing aggregates and building materials. As my hon. Friend said, it is a wholly owned subsidiary of a large Dutch company. Worryingly--as he also said--apparently the only person with any authority in the United Kingdom is its general manager, Mr. Martell. As one would expect, the Health and Safety Executive has worked closely with Sussex police, who have investigated possible manslaughter charges against the company and, of course, its general manager, Mr. Martell.

A report has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, for it to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution for manslaughter. Contrary to what has been said, the CPS decision is still awaited by my Department. My understanding is that a decision has not yet been taken. If the CPS decides that the evidence would not support a prosecution for manslaughter, the Health and Safety Executive could--indeed, would--consider taking legal action under health and safety legislation.

I also advise my hon. Friend, and other hon. Members interested in the matter, that health and safety investigators have issued enforcement notices. Inspectors issued two prohibition notices preventing use of the excavator involved in the accident. For the benefit of hon. Members who may read the debate in Hansard, I should say that prohibition notices may be issued on the spot by inspectors if they believe that a work activity or a process poses a serious risk to workers. Failure to comply with a prohibition notice is a breach of the law.

In this case, health and safety inspectors also issued an improvement notice on provision of information, instructions, training and, of course, supervision. The issuing of improvement notices means that the inspectors require employers or other duty holders to take action to improve health and safety standards within a specified time scale. Compliance with those notices is regularly checked by HSE inspectors.

The Department of Trade and Industry has looked into the conduct of the employment agency involved. The employment agency standards inspectorate can take action under the legislation governing the conduct of employment agencies. The inspectorate gave serious consideration to the case, but unfortunately it concluded that there was no realistic possibility that a charge of

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breaches of the relevant regulations could be sustained. The DTI will shortly issue a consultative document on revised regulations governing the conduct of employment agencies. Any lessons learned from the Simon Jones case will be taken into account in the review.

My hon. Friend mentioned penalties. My colleagues and I are working hard to ensure that those guilty of breaking health and safety law are appropriately punished. The Law Commission has recommended replacing the existing law of involuntary manslaughter in England and Wales with new offences by individuals of reckless killing and killing by gross carelessness, as well as an offence of corporate manslaughter.

The Government are considering how best to take forward the Law Commission's recommendations. I would support the introduction of such offences. The Crown Prosecution Service recently charged Great Western Trains with seven offences of manslaughter through gross negligence, following the Southall rail crash. The case is scheduled at Ealing magistrates court on 25 March. The magistrates are expected to refer the case to a higher court.

I assure my hon. Friend that, when appropriate, the HSE will not hesitate to prosecute those who break the law. The number of prosecutions by the HSE has risen in recent years, from 1,500 in 1996-97 to 1,700 in 1997-98 and an estimated 1,900 this year. The HSE does not set targets for its enforcement activity, but it forecasts that the current level of prosecutions will be at least maintained. In recent years it has secured a success rate of 75 to 80 per cent. for the cases that it has taken action on under health and safety law.

The recent Howe judgment in the Court of Appeal said that fines for health and safety offences were too low and emphasised the seriousness with which breaches of the law should be considered. The judgment said that fines must be large enough to bring home to management and shareholders that they must provide a safe environment for all their workers.

There are already encouraging signs that the judgment has had an effect in recent health and safety cases. An NHS trust was recently fined four times the average amount following a death on its property. In passing sentence, the judge said that the Howe judgment was helpful in determining the fine. More recently, significant fines were awarded in the Heathrow airport tunnel case. The firm involved was fined a record sum in excess of £2 million.

The Government strongly support the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. We are determined to give health and safety a higher profile than it had under the previous Administration. We are determined to raise the level of safety awareness and to drive up standards in every workplace.

Employees and the public rightly expect high standards of health and safety protection. Accidents at work and occupational ill health are neither inevitable nor acceptable. A healthy and well-protected work force is not only right, it is good for business and good for society. I want and expect industry to regard decent health and safety standards as the gateway to their prosperity.

We have a solid foundation from which to progress. The commission, the executive and the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 have delivered significant improvements in standards of health and safety at work

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over the past 25 years. Our rate of workplace fatal injury is now lower than in all other European Union member states. Our unique tripartite approach to health and safety is widely acknowledged at home and on the international stage. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. Workers continue to suffer serious injury and ill health--and death, in the case of Simon Jones. There is still much to be done and we shall do more.

The Government are showing their strong practical commitment to the commission and executive by increasing their resources. We have already provided an extra £4.5 million to support their running costs in 1998-99. The budget will increase by £13 million in 1999-2000 and by a further £23 million and £27 million in the following two years. That extra funding will allow for an increase in HSE staff over the next three years of between 300 and 400 over provisionally planned levels. It will also enable the HSE to increase the resources devoted to front-line inspection work by about 30 per cent. next year compared with this.

As a result, the HSE will be able to make many more regulatory contacts, significantly enhancing its efforts to prevent accidents. It will be able to carry out more accident and incident investigations, for which my hon. Friend called. Accident investigations and enforcement work are relatively time-consuming activities for inspectors. The HSE receives up to 170,000 referrals in a year.

The extra resources will mean that next year the HSE can investigate over 10 per cent. more incidents compared with the current year. That is in addition to the continuing work being carried out on railway and nuclear safety. The enforcement of the new directive on the control of major accident hazards--COMAH--which covers the petro- chemical industry will demand greater HSE involvement. Last Monday, I spoke at a conference to launch the new COMAH regulations, which I signed this week.

The new resources for the HSC and HSE will enable them to take forward new initiatives to improve health and safety standards. Only last week, Ministers met the chairman and members of the commission to discuss its strategic plan for the next three years. We fully agree with that strategy. The plan will represent a real return on the new investment that we are making in health and safety.

Over the next three years, efforts will be focused on several key issues, including improving performance in important risk areas. Over the years, there has been a steady improvement in health and safety, but there are still problem areas and certain industries need further action. The Government are fully behind the commission's efforts to reduce accidents in construction and agriculture, not least because the construction industry's safety record is the second worst of any industry. That must be improved. We are also determined to restrict the use of asbestos.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin for the sterling work that he does on health and safety. I promise to write to him at the earliest opportunity about the issues that he has raised in this important debate.

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