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Health and Safety Offences

36. Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): What plans the Lord Chancellor has to issue guidelines to judges on sentencing for health and safety offences. [101254]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Maximum and, in rare cases, minimum sentences are determined by Parliament. Within those limits there is no role for Parliament or for my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor to issue sentencing guidelines. Judges and magistrates determine the appropriate sentence in individual cases, taking account of guidance from the higher courts. The criminal division of the Court of Appeal gives guidelines on key issues. It has recently given guidance on sentencing in health and safety matters in the case of R. v. Howe and Son.

Mr. Cohen: Will my hon. Friend communicate my congratulations to the Lord Chancellor on his 1 December speech to the Trades Union Congress on breaches of health and safety law? He said that judges should be reminded of their sentencing power and that the Government planned to introduce legislation to extend the maximum sentence and to allow for imprisonment for health and safety offences. Will my hon. Friend keep getting over the message that judges should come down hard on those who breach health and safety laws, risking injury and, indeed, people's lives?

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will certainly communicate his congratulations to my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. He is perfectly right: the Court of Appeal in the case of R. v. Howe and recently in the case of R. v. Rollco Screw and Rivet Co. Ltd. emphasised that the earlier fines were too low and that a fine should be sufficient to bring home to the management and the shareholders of a company that a breach of health and safety regulations that puts employees in danger is a serious matter. My noble and learned Friend put that most strongly in the speech to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): In his earlier answer, in which he suggested

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that the courts might be at liberty to pursue those who put up funds in defamation cases, was the Minister seeking to issue a Lord Chancellor's guideline, or was he resting his point of view on the law?

Madam Speaker: Order. That supplementary question is quite out of order. We have one minute left and I call Mrs. Jacqui Lait.

Leisure Facility Licences

37. Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): If she will issue guidance to magistrates on taking into account evidence of smuggled tobacco and alcohol in the premises concerned when considering applications for the renewal of public house, club and restaurant licences. [101255]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The Government do not issue guidance on the way in which judicial discretion should be exercised. Magistrates consider all the evidence that is presented at a renewal hearing. Any evidence of the presence of smuggled tobacco and alcohol on premises would clearly be relevant in reaching a decision, but that is obviously a matter for magistrates.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but is she aware that there is increasing evidence that landlords, whether willingly or unwillingly, are finding that smuggled tobacco and alcohol are sold on their premises? There appears to be increasing evidence that licensing magistrates are not taking that into account. Does she not think that that is a matter of concern, given that the Government's policy is to crack down on smuggling and bootlegging, not to deal with the basic problem by reducing the tax?

Jane Kennedy: If what the hon. Lady says is true, it would be a matter of concern, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently announced measures that should help to detect smuggled alcohol and tobacco. They include use of a national network of X-ray scans to help to detect bulk shipments of smuggled tobacco; compulsory marking of United Kingdom duty-paid cigarettes and tobacco; and new offences and penalties for people who are caught smuggling, handling or selling untaxed tobacco.


The President of the Council was asked--

Food Safety

48. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If she will make a statement on the work of the ministerial group on food safety. [101267]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The ministerial group has completed its programme of work overseeing the setting up of the Food Standards Agency.

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The group has, therefore, been wound up, although the Government continue to maintain a close interest in all food safety issues.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the President of the Council for that reply. As, most unusually, I shall have to be absent from business questions on Thursday, may I take the opportunity to wish her a merry Christmas and a happy new year?

To return as speedily as possible to normal service, does the ministerial group on food safety intend urgently to examine the safety, or otherwise, of imported French turkeys, especially in the light of media reports that their poultry feed may contain human and animal sewage, or do Ministers intend simply to imitate the potentially poisonous birds in question?

Mrs. Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes and return them. Business questions will definitely not be the same without him, but I am sure that normal service will be resumed in the new year.

With regard to the issue of the safety, or otherwise, of imported French turkeys, as I have said, the committee has been wound up, but the hon. Gentleman will know that, in effect, a shadow Food Standards Agency is in existence with officials from the relevant ministries. I will draw his observations to the attention of that group, but he will appreciate that it is not a matter for me any more.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider the absurdity of the situation that, 20 years ago, this country did away with country of origin marking, which many of us felt was essential, and is now required to label only for British goods? I and many consumers would warmly welcome not only safety measures, but country of origin marking for all imported goods into the UK. If we have to face the spurious argument that safety is involved, is it not time that what was literally sauce for the goose is sauce for that particular gander?

Mrs. Beckett: Oh dear! I feel a range of horrible jokes coming on in the run-up to the Christmas season.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She will know that, in general, the Government are sympathetic to clear and informative labelling. She will also know that that has been a matter of some controversy throughout the European Union, but I understand that, for a variety of reasons, including the events to which we have referred, those matters are being examined.

Millennium Compliance

49. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): If she will make a statement on the preparedness of the national infrastructure to deal with the millennium date change. [101268]

53. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): If she will make a statement on the ability of the national infrastructure to cope with the millennium date change. [101272]

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The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Independent assessments show that all the key sectors and processes of the national infrastructure, such as utilities, emergency services, cash and food supply have achieved blue status, showing that there is no identified risk of material disruption over the date change period as a result of the bug. That is very good news, although I stress that there is no room for complacency.

All providers of essential services should continue to check and recheck their business critical systems and ensure that they have well-tested business continuity plans in place to deal with any unexpected problems that might arise.

Mr. Borrow: During the summer, I visited my local water treatment works to be briefed on the progress being made towards dealing with the millennium bug, and I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's answer that 100 per cent. blue cover will be reached by the end of the year. Can she assure me that any constituents of mine whose systems for electricity, gas, telephone or water fail can be certain that that will have had nothing to do with the millennium bug?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful to him for making that distinction. As I am sure he will know, there are a variety of relatively small-scale service failures on any ordinary day. For example, 40,000 people on average are without power on any particular day. I know from my experience and from the reports of other hon. Members that there are occasions when cash machines, for instance, are not replete with money. We cannot undertake that such everyday problems will not be replicated over the new year, but my hon. Friend is right to draw a distinction between ordinary failures and the effect of the millennium bug.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. I am pleased that the UK infrastructure is now fully millennium compliant, and especially glad that the national grid will not fail during my new year celebrations in Southampton. However, does she anticipate any problems arising as a result of the knock-on effects in this country of the possible failure of systems or services in other countries?

Mrs. Beckett: Certainly, everything has been done to encourage all of those organisations and services that depend on international links in their supply chain to assess those links and pursue them to their origin. That process has also been subject to independent assessment. However, my hon. Friend is entirely right that we cannot be as confident of the scale and nature of preparations elsewhere as we can of those in this country. That is why we have encouraged people to make contingency plans, to follow them through and to have them independently assessed also.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Can the President of the Council confirm that Parliament is to keep its telephone and computer systems on over the millennium? Is it not regrettable that that decision was not made until this month, even though it was asked for in February? Is that really the example that we should be giving to industry?

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Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to those other hon. Members who serve with him on the Information Committee, as I know that they have taken a great interest in the matter. It has been a difficult decision for the House authorities to have to make, as it of course has staffing implications and the authorities are, as all good employers should be, mindful of employees' wish to be with their families at this time of celebration. I had not recalled that the question was raised so long ago, but I am sure that the House will be pleased with the decision that has been made. As I said, I am grateful for the advice of the Committee.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Given the impossibility of checking the compliance of all computer systems without live tests, will the President of the Council say what measures have been taken to put emergency services on standby and back-up over the holiday, in the event that the confidence that she has expressed is not justified? On a slightly different topic, what assurances can she give the House that the Financial Services Authority's indications that several major institutions may yet face closure have now been rescinded, or is there still a possibility that there will not be enough cash to go around?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman raises several matters. On the first, I can tell him that one element of the assessment process that we have insisted on across the national infrastructure is that proper contingency planning be prepared against the event of other failures. The requirement is that back-up be provided where possible, and that people identify ways of working around difficulties elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the FSA and about some of the companies on which the authority has reported. He also asked about cash. The FSA has confirmed that it does not now anticipate that failures such as the hon. Gentleman described will be more common in its sector than in any other, and has reported that its sector is blue. The financial sector looked into the provision of cash very early on, and that matter has been blue for a considerable time.

50. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What assessment she has made of the United Kingdom's public information programme on the millennium bug. [101269]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): Regular research is undertaken of people's perception of the millennium bug and the Government's information programme. The research has been conducted monthly since January 1999. The main findings, which are in the Library, show that overall public concern about the effects of the bug remains low, while awareness of the term "millennium bug" is high, at over 90 per cent. The Government and Action 2000 can claim some credit for this low level of concern, because our public information programme has been well received and has been able to counter some alarmist reports.

Mrs. Ellman: How does my hon. Friend see the public information campaign progressing between now and the millennium period? How does what has been done in this country compare with what has happened elsewhere--for example, in the United States?

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Mr. Tipping: There will be further newspaper articles to counter any alarmist reports. The Government, as always, will conduct a vigorous rebuttal campaign, and the matter is constantly under review.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will a series of helpline numbers be published so that people know about them during the millennium period when many ordinary services will be closed? How will those numbers be publicised? Will all Members of Parliament be informed of them? Is the hon. Gentleman entirely satisfied that all contingency planning is adequate?

Mr. Tipping: My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has written to all Members of Parliament today, giving them information about how they, in particular, can receive information over the millennium period from 31 December to 5 January. Action 2000 will continue to operate its helpline over the period. As the hon. Gentleman knows, every household in the country has received the booklet, "What you should know about the millennium bug". A range of information numbers are contained in it. Contingency planning and millennium operating regimes have been looked at carefully and consistently. We are not complacent, but we are quietly confident.

Sir Patrick Cormack: But will the numbers be published in the national press and other national media?

Mr. Tipping: The numbers are published in the booklet, and this week regional newspapers are running a series of features and advertisements; local numbers will be published in those.

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