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31 Jan 2003 : Column 1153—continued

12.33 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) made some important points about health and safety. It is clearly a matter of concern to employers and parliamentarians that proper safeguards are in place to ensure the health and safety of employees.

One of the issues that employers have raised with me in the past 18 months has been the level and volume of health and safety regulations, and there is some concern about their complexity. The Bill would increase the penalties incurred by an employer who breached the regulations. In preparing for the Bill, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby consulted the construction industry and the Chemical Industries Association—complex and dangerous industries unless the correct safety procedures are in place. I know how important health and safety is to members of my family who are involved in the construction industry, and how important it is to the way in which sites are run and projects managed and the safeguards that they put in place.

Mr. Bercow: I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we should legislate not in anger but on the evidence.

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Can he tell us something about the increasing incidence of offences that formed the evidential base on which the review of the current penalty maximums was conducted by the Home Office, the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Health and Safety Executive between February and September 1999?

Mr. Hoban: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, but I suspect that he may have an opportunity to elaborate on that evidence himself later on, for the benefit of the House. That evidential base was indeed an omission from the speech of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. He simply said that the Bill was a good thing rather than explaining it fully. Given the way in which the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) was killed off earlier, he had plenty of time to give a full explanation.

Mr. Bercow: I have the highest regard for the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, and I respect his intentions in promoting the Bill, but my concern is not that he did not want to develop the evidential premise for the provisions but that one or two of his colleagues, for their own reasons, were not keen that he should do so.

Mr. Hoban: Perhaps the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby can tackle that valuable point when he winds up.

Mr. Forth: Perhaps my hon. Friend would say a few words about whether he shares my disappointment that the promoter of the Bill did not provide more evidence of international comparisons, in which I have always thought that we have an exemplary health and safety record. Surely we should have international, as well as domestic, sector-by-sector evidence.

Mr. Hoban: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. British industry is indeed perceived as having a good health and safety record. Is it fair to increase the penalties here, when our businesses are competing internationally? My understanding is that, in order to change the penalties, it is necessary to amend the European Communities Act 1972, which perhaps makes it all the more important to understand the international comparisons behind the Bill.

Mr. Leigh: It is unfortunate that the promoter was clearly told to sit down. This was his big day, and he could at least have been allowed to develop his case. I am confused about why these changes are being made by way of a private Member's Bill. After all, the Government amend fines all the time, often as an adjunct to a Government Bill. What does my hon. Friend think is the provenance of this Bill? Is it a Government handout? Surely the point of a private Member's Bill is to progress some great private issue of interest to the promoter.

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. On the cover of the Bill, we are told that the explanatory notes were provided by the Department for Work and Pensions, so perhaps, to use an unparliamentary expression, it is indeed a handout.

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The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby perhaps gave the game away towards the end of his speech when he referred to the review that the Deputy Prime Minister initiated in the early years of the last Parliament, which produced the recommendations that the Bill puts into effect.

I wonder where the Government's priorities on legislation lie. I would have thought that the Deputy Prime Minister, a man of some weight and stature in the Labour party—both metaphorically and literally—would have been able to find time in the Government's legislative programme, which certainly was rather light in content last year, to introduce a Bill such as this. Indeed, the provisions could have been introduced by way of statutory instrument. The hon. Gentleman might explain why that was not so, but he is clearly not interested in responding.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) has a great personal interest in the railways and a distinguished history of speaking on behalf of the industry before he entered the House. Is not it disappointing, therefore, that the Government have given him this thin little Bill rather than allowing him to take up one of his interests, such as the railways?

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I have heard the hon. Gentleman wax lyrical on many subjects. I have heard him speaking in European Standing Committee A on the fishing industry. His interests in the railway industry are well known. Indeed, he cited it as a source of inspiration for the Bill. How significant that inspiration is compared with that which he found in the Department for Work and Pensions, I do not know. Perhaps he could clarify that.

Lawrie Quinn: In 19 years of working in the railway industry I was responsible for jobs that, sadly, resulted in six fatalities. I mean it most sincerely when I say that I promise everyone in the House that if they had to attend the funerals and become involved in the inquiries and the human pain and suffering as a result of an accident at work, they, like me, would be passionate about safety. It is for those private reasons, and owing to issues in the fishing industry and others that I cited, especially the construction industry, that I have promoted this Bill. I cited the industries that are getting it right, but through the Bill I am trying to encourage those that are not committed to health and safety in the way that I believe I am.

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. From personal experience, he has demonstrated why the Bill is important and so dear to him. All those who as employers had responsibility for their staff will share the concern that he has shown by promoting the Bill.

I was referring to the hon. Gentleman consulting employers in sectors of industry where employees are at great risk. I know from talking to employers in my constituency that there are problems not just in manufacturing but in construction and distribution. A number of employers in white-collar businesses have

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complained about the level of health and safety regulation and the need to introduce it in accountancy firms, for example. The issue of risk assessment and the level of regulation required are of deep concern to them. My concern—perhaps we can explore this in Committee—is about the higher penalties applying to businesses in which risk is limited but which, through some slip in understanding the complexities of health and safety regulations, inadvertently breach the rules.

Lawrie Quinn indicated dissent.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Perhaps he would like to explain.

Lawrie Quinn: I believe that a good employer has nothing to fear from health and safety legislation. It is those who do not adhere to such provision—the so-called cowboys—whom I am trying to encourage to change through my Bill. It is extremely important to recognise that good employers have nothing to fear from the Bill. They will find that it is good for their staff, good for their business and, in the long run, good for the development of their company.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but one that slightly misses the mark. The problem for many employers is that the rules are so complex and the changes to them so frequent that any breaches that they inadvertently commit are due to that complexity, not to whether they are good or bad employers. It is important that the House understands that and takes note of it, because if employers breach regulations by mistake they will be subject to a regime that is much tougher than it was before, and there is a risk that they will be unfairly penalised for mistakes that were not their fault.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) has, rightly, emphasised that it is the cowboys who are his target, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) agrees that that fact does not obviate the need for a proper debate about the nature and extent of the condign punishment that offenders should suffer. Given that the prison population—a matter to which I animadverted earlier—is projected to rise from approximately 72,000 now to between 99,000 and 109,000 by 2009, do we not need to know what the likely impact of this well-intentioned Bill would be on prison overcrowding?

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