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7 Jan 2003 : Column 41—continued

Mr. Speaker: I have learned that we take one day at a time in this House.

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Health and Safety at Work (Amendment)

4.38 pm

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I beg to move,

As a trainee civil engineer more than 30 years ago, I quickly recognised the importance of health and safety at work, especially the contribution of the 1974 Act. The workplace in which I was employed before I entered Parliament in May 1997 was indeed very dangerous, combining, as it did, work in the construction and transport industries. That unlikely combination magnified the risks that I and my fellow workers faced in our environment. Any study of health and safety statistics will show that the combination of construction and transport work can be lethal. Without a doubt, that experience cultivated my personal and political interest in matters of safety in the workplace.

Sadly, in the 19 years that I worked before I entered this House, I encountered far too many accidents on site. On several occasions, I also encountered the tragedy of fatalities.

Subsequently, I had to attend funerals and present evidence to inquiries. I also met the families and friends of the deceased, long after the death in the workplace had occurred, and there were questions that simply could not be answered—questions that always started with the short word Xwhy". Therefore, the House will recognise why I—along with, I hope, everyone in the Chamber—am passionate about safety in the workplace. The reasons are self-evident.

I believe that the 1974 legislation has served not only working people but the wider community with great success. Over the past three decades, Parliament has sat back and let the Act do its proper job, but it needs to re-engage on this important subject by revisiting the legislation and revitalising a workhorse that has served the nation and working people well for 30 years. So, through the first ten-minute Bill of the new year, I hope to ask Parliament in 2003 to help to celebrate the Act's great achievements by bringing key sections up to date to reflect the realities of today's workplaces and by strengthening the penalties for those persons who are responsible for taking unnecessary risks with safety on sites and throughout the workplaces of this nation.

My Bill would remove the cap on fines for breaches of health and safety laws, which is set at #20,000, for a range of so-called less serious offences. In my view, each offence is serious. The Bill would extend the possibility of making prison the punishment for all breaches of health and safety law, whereas currently only breaches of a few sections of the Act are punishable by imprisonment. It would also significantly increase the fine for not having employer liability insurance, as required by the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969.

What would the Bill do to improve health and safety? I believe that these measures, which were first identified in the consultation on the revitalising health and safety strategy, launched in June 2000 by my right hon. Friend

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the Deputy Prime Minister and the Health and Safety Commission, would take the debate forward and enable Parliament to consider it.

Without doubt, the reason for proposing the changes is a prevailing concern that is shared by the TUC, the nation's insurance industry and many Members of the House—that such health and safety offences are treated less seriously than they ought to be by employers, the courts and, ultimately, the wider public, which means that there is an incentive to ignore the law. That law is not strong enough, and we must ensure that we do not simply allow a plateau to develop due to the success achieved in improving health and safety throughout British workplaces over three decades levelling off.

Indeed, statistics for 2000–01 pulled together by the Health and Safety Executive show that more than 28,000 major injuries occurred in workplaces around our nation, as did some 300 fatalities. The House should be very concerned about those statistics and I hope that this ten-minute Bill will lead to action against the terrible scandal that faces our nation.

In particular, the measures on imprisonment that I propose would bring health and safety in line with more modern legislation such as that on the environment and food safety. For example, the 1974 Act was introduced well before the development of current thinking on corporate accountability and was based on the supposition, which was correct way back in the 1970s, that employers would improve health and safety standards because of the new law. Such a message from Parliament would spur employers on to taking real measures to achieve a safer working environment for our people.

Why do I focus especially on the need to improve the situation as regards employers' liability insurance? It is because, like many Members, I am being presented with an increasing body of evidence, which has been rehearsed many times in the House during the past year, that recent rises in employers' liability insurance have persuaded some small firms that they would be far better off not taking out insurance at all.

In my constituency work, I have been concerned to find that small companies were refused insurance cover or that they faced demands for excessive increased premiums from their insurance brokers despite excellent safety records over several decades of profitable trading. If such high-quality companies were even tempted to break the law in the fashion that I described, the effect

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on employees would be catastrophic because if there was a serious accident the company would have no insurance cover to pay compensation. If the damages were large, the victim could be left with nothing.

Bills for damages of millions of pounds would have an impact on the wider community and the public interest. Parliament cannot sit back and wait for such accidents to happen.

I firmly believe that Parliament wants to ensure that good employers are supported and helped and that they are not undermined. The so-called cowboy employer mentality should belong in the last century—if not in the one before that. It is extremely important that bad employers are deterred from such practices and encouraged to take proper measures in their workplaces.

From my own workplace experiences, I know that, if the conditions were right, most employers would adopt good health and safety practices and their firms would become better. They would become more profitable and would make a better contribution to the prosperity of our nation. However, unless we have a legal framework that supports and encourages good behaviour, and punishes bad behaviour, Parliament will be neglecting its obvious responsibilities.

Many Members have done much to contribute to the health and safety at work agenda. I single out my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) for their work in the all-party occupational safety and health group, but many Members also recognise the importance of that agenda.

I hope that the House will allow me to take my Bill forward as it will make an important contribution to improving the framework for safety at work.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lawrie Quinn, Mr. Tony Lloyd, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. Richard Allan, Mr. Bob Laxton, Ian Stewart, Mr. Malcolm Savidge and Rob Marris.

Health and Safety at Work (Amendment)

Lawrie Quinn accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to provide for increased penalties for offences under that Act and under the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 31 January, and to be printed [Bill 37].

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7 Jan 2003 : Column 45

Local Government Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.49 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Local government performs a vital function in the life of our country. Local authorities between them account for about 25 per cent. of all public expenditure in England and Wales. Local authorities deliver a wide range of services that are vital to the well-being of local communities and individuals and are uniquely well placed to reflect and represent the concerns and aspirations of the people living and working in their areas.

Just over a year ago, in our White Paper, XStrong Local Leadership; Quality Public Services", we set out our ambitious agenda for the future of local government. Two key themes lie at the heart of that agenda. The first is the need to devolve power and responsibility to local authorities. The second is the importance of driving up standards of delivery in every local authority area. The two are inextricably linked.

The last decades of the 20th century were, sadly, characterised by excessive centralisation. Local authority powers were progressively curtailed and eroded while central Government sought to exercise ever-greater supervision and direction over the minutiae of local government activity. The Conservatives now seek to present themselves as being in favour of devolution, at least in respect of local authorities. It is always good to see sinners who have recognised the need to repent, but there are many people in local government with long memories who find the current posture of the official Opposition difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with their entirely different behaviour when they were in power. It will take more than a few airy speeches to wash away the long record of heavy-handed centralisation and contempt for local democracy that marked the Conservative years in government.

This Government want to see local authorities succeed. We want to help councillors and council officers to deliver the strong local leadership that people expect from their council, and the quality services that everyone has the right to expect. Our White Paper set out a range of measures to help to achieve those goals, including a new performance management framework, on which the Audit Commission delivered its first comprehensive performance assessments just before Christmas, and a range of deregulatory measures designed to give local authorities more freedom to succeed and more incentives to drive up service standards. The Bill is one further important step along that road. It gives effect to all the commitments requiring legislation set out in the 2001 White Paper, and introduces measures to remove unnecessary and

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outdated bureaucracy and red tape, and to help those working at local level to respond to changing needs and demands.

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