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31 Jan 2003 : Column 1174—continued

Mr. Hoban: Let me take my hon. Friend back to a point that our hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) took from the explanatory notes about the fines that businesses might face if they do not have employers' liability insurance. Does he agree with my interpretation of paragraph 12, which is that the current maximum fine of £2,500 per day is to be replaced by a maximum fine of £20,000? Under the current regime, if a firm were found to have traded without insurance for 10 days, it would be fined £25,000, but under the regime proposed in the Bill, such a firm would be fined only £20,000. Does that not seem rather perverse?

Mr. Bellingham: It does seem perverse, and it is something that I picked up on. Perhaps the Bill's promoter would like to comment.

Lawrie Quinn: I am sure that the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) realises that the provision is simply a toolbox that is available for judges to use.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point.

Mr. Hoban: I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend again, but the explanatory notes state clearly that the current maximum fine of £2,500 for each day prosecuted is being replaced with a maximum fine of £20,000. Therefore, we are dealing not with a toolbox but with a change in the legislation that reduces the number of tools available to the judge in such cases.

Mr. Bellingham: Indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for picking up that point. The measure is

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perverse because, on the one hand, it will create a much tougher and more onerous regime that includes the possibility of imprisonment, and on the other hand, whereas it is currently possible in some of the more extreme cases to mete out a tougher fine, the Bill raises the possibility of the court only being able to mete out a less tough fine. That strikes me as perverse.

Mr. Bercow: The purpose of these exchanges is to clarify and not to obfuscate. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be genuinely helpful if the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) could clarify that point? From my point of view, the fog has intensified, and the reference to the toolbox has served not to illuminate, but to obscure.

Mr. Bellingham: I do not doubt that the toolbox of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby is full of kit, and when Opposition Members have finished speaking perhaps he could wrap up some of these points and put that toolbox to good use.

I return to the crisis that we are facing as regards small firms and insurance premiums. I mentioned a steel fabrication business in the Deputy Prime Minister's constituency, which has been forced to make five people redundant. As we speak, it may well be looking at the possibility of ceasing to trade, because its combined public liability and employers liability insurance bill has increased from £3,600 to £28,000. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will visit that firm and explain to those who work there why this crisis has taken place, because every organisation that I have spoken to is very concerned about the problems faced by the small firms sector—especially the heavier, more specialist end of the construction sector.

I quoted remarks that the Minister with responsibility for small business, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), made on 5 December, when he said that the Government were concerned about the matter and would take action. He said that the Treasury had put in place a report; the Department for Work and Pensions was conducting an inquiry; the Office of Fair Trading was looking at the matter; and an independent report was being prepared. Let me remind the Minister for Work that there is a crisis right now. Members of the Federation of Small Businesses have told me in no uncertain terms that they do not want reports in the spring or early summer; they want action now, because many of those firms will not last until the spring or early summer. Is there any possibility of those reports being consolidated? I do not understand why we need four. The Minister is known for his strong leadership and the way in which he gripped, for example, the foot and mouth crisis. Perhaps he could grip this crisis too, consolidate those four reports and, in a matter of weeks rather than months, come up with a definitive statement on what is needed.

I mentioned that the Bill was ill-timed and premature, because those four reports are in the preparation pool. We want the Bill to pass into Committee, but it is premature for the Government to come forward with what is basically a Government Bill with the help of a Back-Bench Member, at a time of huge uncertainty and when there is the prospect of the reports being published in the near future.

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I also said that the Bill was draconian. Raising the fine to such a level does not make sense; nor does creating the option of prison for health and safety offences in the lower and higher courts. When prisons are full to bursting point, do we really need to imprison small business men and women—company directors—who have committed offences of this nature? I would question that. We may well want to fine them. We might want to strike them off and prevent them from being company directors again. There may be other measures that would deter such offences. However, prison is needed to harbour dangerous criminals and to act as a deterrent to prevent very serious crime.

Mr. Bercow: I strongly agree with the point that my hon. Friend is making. Does he accept not only that it would be inappropriate to impose custodial sentences, but that such a provision would exacerbate the phenomenon of prison overcrowding, the effect of which is to undermine rehabilitation programmes in prison for persistent offenders? The Government are supposed to be committed to such programmes, but the Bill's casual drafting imperils that important objective.

Mr. Bellingham: I agree that it is casual drafting and it sparks off an anti-business streak, which I find very distasteful. We all know that the overwhelming majority of small business men and women work incredibly hard in difficult conditions. They employ a large number of people, perhaps 35 per cent. of the entire work force. As a result of the Bill, the prospect of prison would hang over a percentage—albeit a very small percentage—of those who commit offences. Employers who follow worst practice or have been personally responsible for serious injuries and accidents occurring certainly need help, but they also need to be prevented from going back into business. Ironically, the Bill would mean that they could go to prison for six weeks, come out and carry on exactly as before. There is no provision in the Bill for having them struck off so that they cannot become company directors again, and can be prevented from owning a business.

The Minister is on record as saying in a debate only two or three months ago, when we discussed corporate manslaughter, that there is a huge amount of uncertainty in respect of the Government's attitude to corporate manslaughter and we need clarification. It cannot be right to introduce a Bill that imprisons business men at a time when the Government are conducting another review. When I intervened on the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who has now left the Chamber, probably to have a bowl of soup before returning to his constituency, I asked him about the HSE report on the Potters Bar rail crash. Although an interim report has been produced, we are still awaiting the final report on that crash, which took place in May 2002. Constituents of mine who were injured on that train are extremely concerned about the time that report is taking.

Another reason why it is premature to introduce this Bill now is that the Government are looking at all aspects of corporate manslaughter. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that if he has time to reply to the debate.

I have troubled the House for half an hour and I know that others are waiting to speak, so I shall conclude my speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for

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Scarborough and Whitby on the work and effort that he has put into the Bill. He has obviously made a great effort to talk to many different business organisations. Not all of them are completely on side or in favour of what he is trying to do; they are concerned, for various reasons, including the overwhelming reason, which is that small and medium enterprises face a crisis as a result of insurance premium hikes. Until that crisis can be resolved, or examined by the Government in a systematic and comprehensive way, it would be premature to move any Bill quickly into law. I hope the Minister will comment on that. I wish the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby well and hope that the Bill goes into Committee, there is proper debate on it and that the good parts of it become law.

2.8 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chiselhurst): One cannot but feel a lot of sympathy for the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn). I have no doubt that the history is fairly clear. Here was an innocent little Government handout Bill designed to tidy, as the Government saw it, a small part of the health and safety world. They found a ready, willing and dedicated—

Ian Stewart (Eccles): And able.

Mr. Forth: Indeed, and an able person in the shape of the promoter. When he saw the running order for today, I am sure that he felt rather confident that this measure would slip quietly through the House with barely a ripple, as is often the hope on the Labour Benches.

Our sympathy for the hon. Gentleman stems from the fact that he has run into one of these occasions when, happily, a Friday springs surprises. Parliamentary Fridays are a delight to us dedicated fans and anoraks, as almost anything can happen, and today almost anything has. Indeed, almost anything may still happen—I would not be at all surprised. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) put his finger on it. We all witnessed a quite disgraceful little episode. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby was seeking to explain in a full, calm, dedicated and passionate way what the Bill meant to him and his constituents, but he was bullied by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who was selfishly looking at his rather pathetic little Bill further down the Order Paper and seeking to truncate the hon. Gentleman's speech persuading the House about the Bill. Even before the debate started and we got into our stride, we were denied a full explanation of the Bill's contents by its promoter because of the behaviour of the hon. Member for Hendon, whose Bill does not have a hope in hell.

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