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31 Jan 2003 : Column 1164—continued

Mr. Bercow: I do not want to be unduly troublesome or question my hon. Friend's motives. We all understand the danger of vexatious claims, against which the House should guard. However, will my hon. Friend take great care not to give the unworthy and untrue impression that Conservative Members tolerate wrongdoing? We recognise that, even if something happened a long time ago, it should be investigated. I refer my hon. Friend to the statute of limitations, which typically covers a period of not five but six years.

Mr. Hoban: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is right to provide protection in law and to ensure that any wrongdoing can be rectified and that those responsible can be punished.

I used the example of someone who had been dismissed from a company using the Bill to make a vexatious claim. One could present the contrary view. Unscrupulous employers, to which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby referred, might apply pressure to employees. They could say, "We do not want you to raise this matter with the HSE." Free from the contract of employment, the former employees could use the measure to right the wrongs that they believed were committed at a time when they did not feel able to bring the matter to the HSE's attention.

As in all cases of extending a period for making a claim or reporting an offence, the provision is a double-edged sword. It should be explored in detail in Committee because we must ascertain the size of the potential backlog. We need to understand how the Health and Safety Executive would consider such claims. What standard of evidence would it require from the person who brings the allegation to it before initiating an investigation into an offence that may have taken place four or five years ago? It would be worth seeking advice from employers and the Health and Safety Executive on the level of burden that might be inflicted by the Bill's provisions.

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The five-year limit is within the limit set out in the statute of limitations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said. The Committee should question whether five years is too short and six years is more appropriate, but that is a debate for another day.

Mr. Nicholas Brown: Serve on the Committee.

Mr. Hoban: I am sure that there is gainful employment to be found for many colleagues in considering this important Bill.

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hoban: I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, but I hope that he is not exhausting his contribution to the debate by intervening so much.

Mr. Bercow: I am alarmed by my hon. Friend's evident lack of confidence in me. I assure him that my fund is very far from being inexhaustible, but it has not yet been exhausted. To put it another way, there is still lead in the pencil.

In addition to guarding against vexation, hon. Members on both sides of the House should be suspicious of arbitrariness. Has my hon. Friend reflected on the arbitrariness of the contents of clause 4, which says:

Why two months? Why not one month, three months or four months? That is peculiar.

Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend demonstrates yet again that his contributions to such debates are inexhaustible. [Interruption.] The Minister encourages my hon. Friend to participate in the Standing Committee debates, and I am sure that he is contemplating that prospect as we speak.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I am sure that the parliamentary draftsmen recruited by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby will have a good justification for choosing two months. [Interruption.] There seems to be an element of horse-trading between right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House on the period set out in clause 4. I do not think that that is a matter for Second Reading. It is perhaps better suited to a debate in Committee.

Subsection (5) extends the Bill's provisions to Scotland and subsection (4) extends them to England and Wales. What about employees in Northern Ireland? Can the Bill be amended to extend that cover to fellow members of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland? There is no reason why they should be denied the opportunity to benefit from the same protection that the Bill affords to people in Scotland, England or Wales.

I hope that I have not trespassed too much on the good will of the House by speaking for nearly an hour on my first outing at the Dispatch Box, and apologise if I have done so. The Bill is important. Many people will follow its progress closely if it proceeds to Committee. It is an important Bill for employers and employees, and it addresses some important issues. However, I wonder whether it is appropriate for this Bill to be introduced in

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this state, and at a time when the Government and the Office of Fair Trading are looking at the availability of employers liability insurance in detail.

1.25 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I share the slightly sad and frustrated approach to this legislation. This is clearly an enormously important subject to companies and to the work force, but, although I share many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) in his introductory remarks, the Bill is unsatisfactory for two reasons. The first is that a perfectly good and interesting Bill was bulldozed out of the way to make way for it. Secondly, as it stands it is neither one thing nor the other. It is too ambitious and far-reaching for a private Member's Bill, but it does not have the rounded sophistication of a full Government Bill.

I am mystified as to why the Government have not introduced their own health and safety legislation, as I believe they undertook to do. For that reason, and although Conservative Members are talking at some length about the Bill, I hope that they will allow it to go to Committee, so that we can tease out the Government's intentions a little more. For example, I should be very happy to work with the Minister and Government Back Benchers to produce a clause on corporate killing. The Government have a clear manifesto commitment that they have yet to honour in that regard, and perhaps this is an opportunity to debate that properly.

There are three elements to the Bill. The first I agree with, and it would be very useful: simply to increase the fines imposed by magistrates courts. They are far too low—ridiculously and insultingly low—and very out of date, and if the Bill were limited simply to dealing with existing offences and increasing fines appropriately, it would be a very useful addition to existing legislation, and I would fully support it. The second element is extending the scope of imprisonment. That raises big issues of legal principle and implementation with which there are serious problems. The third element, which deals with employers' liability, is irrelevant and fundamentally misses the point of why we have a problem with employers' liability.

A useful starting point is the earlier intervention of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). He asked whether the problem with health and safety is really one of penalties, and the answer is no. Figures produced by the Health and Safety Executive itself suggest that only one in 10 of serious injuries are ever investigated, and that only one in 10 of those are ever brought to the courts. So we are dealing with the tiny fraction of very serious injuries at work that reach the judicial process, and focusing on the penalties for those misses the essential point: how do we strengthen the health and safety framework—one hopes in a non-bureaucratic way—to ensure proper prevention and investigation, and effective prosecution? Those are the links in the chain that we are not addressing.

I shall deal with the three elements of the Bill in turn. As I have pointed out, an increase in magistrates courts' fines would be appropriate and I would support it, but what the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby did not mention is that when health and safety failures reach

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Crown courts, there are unlimited fines. So the question arises of whether it might be better to increase the scope for taking cases to Crown courts, rather than escalating fines in magistrates courts. We should consider jurisdiction as well as the level of fines.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is being as constructive today as he always is, but does he not agree that, if we were to follow the route that he suggests, it would be necessary to consider the regulatory impact assessment? What would be the public expenditure implications of pursuing the route of the Crown court, rather than that of the magistrates court?

Dr. Cable: The entire Bill gives rise to the question of the regulatory impact assessment, and there are major regulatory implications and costs for business. It is not so much a public expenditure issue, but I agree that there are regulatory implications that clearly need to be properly evaluated and considered.

I mentioned Crown courts in relation to the fines issue. Alternatively, an individual could pursue their claim with a civil claim. We need to consider both routes. However, I hope that the proposal in the Bill to increase the fines in magistrates courts survives in some form, as it is a worthwhile initiative.

On imprisonment, I start from the same position as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. Health and safety is not dealt with in the same way as, for example, consumer protection or environmental offences, where it is much easier to obtain a prison sentence. A few years ago, the case of the Scottish butchers who produced beef in unhygienic conditions that was heavily contaminated with salmonella resulted in a prison sentence. It would be extremely difficult to get a prison sentence for health and safety breaches, even in extremely serious cases. It may be possible in principle, but only in cases where a company has actually breached an order rather than merely committed an offence. That needs to be tackled, but it should be done in the context of the extremely difficult issue of corporate killing, about which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby is extremely knowledgeable due to his experience in the railway industry.

I do not know why the Government have not pursued that important issue, as they promised to do, although there are obvious difficulties. How does one obtain the right standard of proof? How does one identify the responsible individual in an organisation? Is it the personnel director, the supervisor or the chairman of the board? None the less, it is unsatisfactory that we are not dealing with those problems as part of the reform of health and safety legislation.

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