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31 Jan 2003 : Column 1177—continued

Mr. Hoban: May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Bill's sponsors, who include, ironically, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)?

Mr. Forth: The ironies abound. I have not seen too many of the Bill's other sponsors today. I shall not name names—that would be invidious, even for me—but the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby must feel a little lonely as he casts his eye over the acres of green leather, looking in vain for the Bill's sponsors. We can assume that there is not much enthusiasm for the Bill

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among Government Members, who are not greatly evident by their physical presence and do not appear to be prepared to give the hon. Gentleman any support. We have not heard a word from any of them, and very few are seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am setting the scene, as it is important that we understand the context in which Bills are introduced in the House before we start to analyse them. I hope to dig into the depths of the Bill, but time is short and I do not want to deny my hon. Friends the opportunity to speak, although there is a risk of that.

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend chided Government Members for their failure of collegiality and their failure to support the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn). Does he not think it lamentable and evidence of a lack of esprit de corps that the hon. Gentleman is not supported even by his boss, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander)? The hon. Gentleman labours for his boss, but his boss stabs him in the back—what a way to behave!

Mr. Forth: I could easily be diverted into making comments about the lack of collegiality among Government Members, but I will not, as I shall do so next Tuesday in the debate on reform of the House of Lords. However, I will not be distracted, even by my hon. Friend, from talking about the Bill.

We missed some nuggets from the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby—I bet that they were in his toolbox—including an analysis of why the Bill would be beneficial. He expressed his hopes, desires and aspirations, and tugged at our heart strings when he talked about his constituents and experience—all good stuff—but what we really wanted was analysis and an international comparison of health and safety in Britain and other countries.

In the dim and distant past, I had some responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive, as I had the honour of serving in the old Department of Employment between 1990 and 1992. I was proud to make excellent speeches—they were excellent because my civil servants wrote them—praising this country's health and safety record. We therefore have to be careful about saying that because our record is deplorable and disgraceful we have got to tighten the screw, increase fines and perhaps impose more imprisonment. Internationally, a case has not been made for that. There has not been any attempt, either, to address sectoral issues—as we know, the health and safety record varies enormously from one sector to another. If the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby had been allowed a bit more time by his hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, who is not even in the Chamber now, he would have been able to develop those arguments. But lacking, as we do, all these arguments, we have to look at the Bill a bit more objectively and conduct our own analysis of it.

For example, the simple raising of fines is assumed to be some sort of beneficial mechanism, and is assumed to have a deterrent effect. I am not sure that the case is self-evident. We have to consider who pays the fines. If we look at the hierarchical structure in the construction industry, for example, and in many others as well, we see that the people who deliver health and safety in a

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meaningful sense are relatively low in the hierarchy, if I am allowed to speak in such incorrect terms these days—people who do real jobs on the construction site and have a real involvement in health and safety. However, it is almost certainly someone else who will end up paying the fines. There is the danger of a disconnect between those who will suffer the penalty—the increased penalty, if the Bill goes through—and those who have the real responsibility for delivering health and safety.

Mr. George Osborne: There is a question about the effectiveness of fines. A National Audit Office study—I see the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee sitting next to my right hon. Friend—found that 40 per cent. of fines levied by courts are never collected, so it is legitimate to question whether fines are an effective mechanism in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is an extremely relevant point. There is a glib assumption that if we increase the rate of fines, people will have their minds concentrated, they will do what we want them to do, and that will be the end of the matter.

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. Leigh rose—

Mr. Forth: Before I give way to my hon. Friends—my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) in particular may have something to add—I should finish the point.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby made a passing reference to conviction rates in his abbreviated opening speech, which his hon. Friend the Member for Hendon did not allow him to complete. That was an important point, but it was not developed. Related to the question of whether fines are ever collected, there is the prior matter of whether convictions are obtained for the offences outlined at some length in the Bill. If convictions are not obtained and fines are not collected, I fail to see how a case can be made for the provisions in the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: What my right hon. Friend says about conviction is of the essence, but, notwithstanding the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), is it not possible—indeed, likely—that the promoter has taken account of the possible ineffectiveness of the fines regime by providing the backstop power of imprisonment? If my right hon. Friend is prepared to concede that that backstop power is available, is it not incumbent on the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby to assure us that there is honesty in sentencing, and that imprisonment would apply without causing the overcrowding that I and others fear?

Mr. Forth: I was about to come to that. By my count, there are 13 additional imprisonable offences outlined in the Bill. That is a considerable broadening of the number of possibilities for imprisonment, yet the explanatory notes—always a rich seam of information

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on such Bills—imply the contrary in paragraph 17. I suspect that the promoter will want to deny authorship once he hears what I have to say.

The Minister boasted that his Department had written the explanatory notes. That is an oddity, for a start. Here we are on a Friday, allegedly discussing private Members' Bills—in this case a Bill sponsored by private Members, most of whom are not present—yet the explanatory notes are written by the Department. That gives us a clue as to what is really going on.

In the inadequate explanatory notes that the promoter did not write, we read—this follows directly from the point just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham:

How does the Department know that? That is the first question that we have to ask. Imprisonment is a matter for the courts. How can even a Minister, who obviously drafted the notes on a rather bad day, know what the effect is likely to be? Furthermore, if it is so minimal, why are we bothering with it? We are caught in a paradox. It is one thing to argue that the provision will be phenomenonally successful and that lots of people will be banged up for health and safety offences, but we are being told that hardly anybody will be imprisoned. That hardly makes it sound as though the measure will be effective.

Mr. Leigh: I must put the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) into context. It is true that only about half the fines are paid, but that will not be the problem in this case—these are business men and they will pay their fines. Although very few would go to prison, the threat would still be in place. I return to the point that I made in an earlier intervention: the provision will place undue burdens on business, which is continually told by numerous consultants that it must do this or that. That often affects small businesses in particular. These are new regulatory burdens that would add to the burden on business.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend has got ahead of me slightly. In a moment, I shall deal with paragraph 19 of the explanatory notes, which touches on the very matter to which he refers.

However, I have not yet finished with paragraph 17. We are aware of the paradox about whether more people will go to prison and of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has made more than once regarding the possible effect on prisons, but, intriguingly, the paragraph goes on to state:

That tells us that the courts, which are already under enormous pressure, will be under more pressure as a result of the Bill.

Assuming that we believe what is set out in the explanatory notes to be true, we can begin to see the cumulative effects of what might happen. The courts will be doing more work, more people will be going to prison

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and more fines will be imposed, although they probably will not be collected. Yet the whole emphasis of the notes is to say, "Don't worry folks; not much will really happen." Until the Minister gets to his feet or seeks to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will be in a complete fog about what is in his mind and his intentions, although they are not really his intentions, because this is not really his Bill. In fact, therefore, he will have to guess what was in the promoter's mind in drafting the Bill.

On paragraph 18—

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