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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): As long ago as February, Conservative Members warned the Government that in the event of serious resistance in Afghanistan, 16 Air Assault Brigade would not have the equipment, the firepower or, above all, the manpower that it required to do the job. Recognising that, 3 Commando Brigade planned to take two complete commandos out with it this autumn; yet it deployed with half the infantry that it had planned. Why is that?

Des Browne: The nature of the force that we deployed was based on military advice given to Ministers not only by chiefs, but by military experts who went on to the ground and examined the situation. The configuration and nature of the force were based on the best military advice. The difference is that an entirely appropriate decision was taken at the point of deployment. That decision had consequences, but it may be—time will tell—that it will be to the long-term benefit of the deployment and the objectives of the operation. As everyone tells me constantly, these are the sorts of things that happen when one deploys forces into theatre. Circumstances change, and the very fact of deployment into theatre generates change itself.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): How can we win the hearts and minds of the people in Helmand when the majority believe that we are there to get rid of their main source of income? With Karzai increasingly appointing warlords, ex-Taliban leaders, criminals and drug dealers as police chiefs and provincial governors, is not the likelihood that oppression by these provincial governors and police chiefs will greatly increase the danger to our soldiers? Should we not rethink the mission to consolidate the real progress made elsewhere in Afghanistan, because escalation could result in a situation that develops into NATO’s Vietnam?

Des Browne: I do not know who my hon. Friend has been talking to, but NATO and others in Afghanistan carry out regular tests of public opinion. If he wants to know the current situation, between 67 and 70 per cent. of people in Helmand province not only want the UK forces to be there, they want more of them; they want more security. They say that they want the soldiers there, doing the job that they are doing.

My hon. Friend should be careful in what he says in this House, particularly if it is not properly informed. The description he has given of the governance of Helmand is far from the truth. Governor Engineer Mohammad Daud is a very brave, committed and non-corrupt individual, which is why we want to support him so much. He is a force for good in Helmand province. To suggest publicly here that that man is corrupt will feed straight back into his community and will put not only his life at risk, but the lives of those who support him.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): With regard to the tragic loss of 12 service personnel aboard a Nimrod from RAF Kinloss, may I commend the MOD, the Secretary of State and his colleagues for the initial return of the bodies to their home base? However, it
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has been brought to my attention that the release of the bodies to the families has been delayed. Will he expedite that situation?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the steps that were taken, but they were entirely appropriate steps to support the families in their tragic circumstances. They were comparatively easy decisions to make. I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. He will forgive me if I do not want to discuss the potential reasons why there may have been delays, as that may be distressing for people and inappropriate. However, I will look into it and will be in touch.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who is no longer in her place, asked the Secretary of State whether the bonus payment would apply to the Royal Navy. He did not answer. Will it apply?

Des Browne: Yes.

Mr. Tobas Ellwood (Bournemouth, East): On a recent visit to Lashkar Gah, it was clear that the troops were calling for more firepower, more mobility and more armour. They want more helicopters, in addition to the 12 that are there. They also would like to a Warrior battalion sent out. How many helicopters are there now, how many will be there in future and when will we see a Warrior battalion sent into theatre?

Des Browne: There are eight attack helicopters, as I have already told the House. There are eight Chinook support helicopters, an increase of two since my July statement. There are four Lynx utility helicopters, light armour, light guns, logistics support forces and five Hercules transport aircraft. That comprehensive answer goes beyond what the hon. Gentleman asked. The configuration of forces and the nature of the support they get is the result of a process, whereby requests are made through the appropriate chain of command to Ministers, who respond. That is exactly what happened in July. The difference then, however, was that when the request came up the chain of command to chiefs of staff and Ministers, it was pushed back down and the question was asked whether there were enough or more were needed. In fact, the request was reviewed and requests for additional support came up at that stage because of the questions that were asked. It is not for me to take those sort of decisions from the Dispatch Box. I spoke to General Richards and he did not ask me for any additional forces support in the form of helicopters or whatever. If such a request is made, I will treat it in exactly the same way as I have treated all requests from either theatre that I have received so far.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I appreciate that these are important matters, but we must now move on to other business.

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Orders of the Day

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

[Relevant documents: First Joint Report of the Home Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees, Session 2005—06, on the Draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill, HC 540, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6755; twenty-seventh Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2005—06, Legislative Scrutiny: Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, HC 1625.]

Order for Second Reading read.

5.5 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government are committed to a properly balanced criminal justice system—a criminal justice system that protects the public inside and outside the home and in the workplace.

In opening the debate, may I first pay tribute to Maurice de Rohan, who died late last week? Maurice de Rohan lost his daughter, Alison, and son-in-law, Francis, in the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster, which claimed the lives of 187 people. He brought together people affected by a series of tragedies in the late 1980s, out of which sprang the charity Disaster Action, which has provided an important advocacy and advisory service, giving voice to the survivors and the bereaved of major disasters and contributed significantly to the debate on corporate manslaughter. Maurice remained chairman of Disaster Action until October 2005 and was a trustee until his death. It is fitting that we mark his passing on this occasion.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I would like to associate everyone with those remarks. One important fact about Maurice de Rohan that is worth recording is that despite his personal tragedy, he maintained his own sense of humanity in every action that he took. It is wholly fit and proper for us to take note of my right hon. Friend’s tribute today.

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He spoke for many in the House who knew Maurice de Rohan.

It is as a result of the efforts of Disaster Action and, indeed, of others such as the trade union movement that have campaigned hard for reform that we are debating the Bill today. I pay tribute to all their efforts, including those with whom we are in substantial as well as entire agreement, and those with whom we have longstanding differences. The commonality of effort and objective here is far greater than any of the differences that separate us.

Each year, more than 200 workers and many more members of the public are killed as a result of work-related incidents. Some are extremely serious incidents, in respect of which the companies involved have been strongly criticised.

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Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Is the Home Secretary aware that in Saltwell park in my constituency there is a memorial to those who have died in the course of their employment? At this year’s remembrance service, I was proud to be able to announce that the Government would be introducing this measure, so I congratulate the Home Secretary on speaking to the Bill this afternoon. However, he will also be aware of some concerns about weaknesses in the Bill as drafted—not least in the definition of senior managers and in respect of the range of available penalties. Will he assure the House that such matters will be thoroughly scrutinised in Committee and that any weaknesses will be corrected to firm up the Bill and make it even better than it is now?

John Reid: I can assure my hon. Friend that I am aware that, irrespective of our agreement on general objectives, some outstanding disagreements remain. I hope that we can remedy one or two of those today through my speech and we will no doubt debate and, if possible, agree others in the course of proceedings on the Bill. In either case, I assure him that we will be open to working with him and others to give the Bill the greatest scrutiny possible. I would have preferred to introduce the Bill earlier because of its importance to many people, not least many of my colleagues in the trade union movement. Whatever our differences and despite the delay, I hope that there is a welcome for the Bill after eight or nine years. I am delighted to put it before the House.

There have been terrible examples in which the loss of life was extensive, and the companies involved have been strongly criticised. In the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, Lord Justice Sheen found that from

Right hon. and hon. Members will be fully aware of the consequences of that terrible disaster. Last year, Mr. Justice Mackay described the circumstances of the Hatfield crash in 2000 as

that he had ever seen.

Despite such examples, the law as it stands in relation to corporate liability makes prosecutions in such cases extremely difficult. A prosecution for corporate manslaughter can proceed only if gross negligence can be proved against individual senior managers. That means that the courts must judge corporate negligence on a narrow and sometimes artificial basis. The result is that only a handful of corporate manslaughter prosecutions have ever been brought successfully. Furthermore, all have been against small companies, rather than large organisations such as those involved in the tragedies that I mentioned.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Several of the families who believe that criminal prosecutions should have been brought in the cases of their loved ones who have been killed in incidents in workplaces are in the Public Gallery today—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It is not normal practice to refer to people outside the Chamber when addressing the House.

Ms Clark: I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply wished to ask whether my right hon. Friend and his colleagues would be willing to meet families who have real experience of how the current system is failing.

John Reid: As my hon. Friend points out, a great range of people have an interest in the objective that we share today. Some of them come from the trade union movement, but the concern of many has been provoked by personal bereavement and grief. I hope that the Bill’s introduction will give them some consolation, small though it may be. We will try to address the points raised and to meet some of those who have a direct interest in the issue. If I cannot personally do so, I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), will. In fact, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the persistence with which he has pursued this issue. He was centrally involved in the discussions in Warwick on this issue and he has met many people to hear their stories. I am sure that he will be the first to make himself available to meet anyone who wishes to meet me if, in the short term, I cannot do so. I hope that that will apply to anyone who wishes to raise matters with us.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Home Secretary knows that many colleagues have waited a long time for such a measure. I was one of those who represented the Marchioness relatives and survivors. Many urban Members have represented the relatives of those who worked in the construction industry and lost their lives. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the penalties for which the Bill provides, especially for the large corporations, will be sufficient to ensure that the change of law is understood and that the practice of our big companies changes as a result of the Bill’s enactment?

John Reid: The extent of the fines should have some effect. The fines provision is for unlimited fines, which is appropriate. One of the big changes is that people will be able to see that not only the gross negligence, beyond reasonable doubt, of one or more persons, but the systemic failings or gross negligence in a company, beyond those at the top, can be taken into account when making a judgment. I hope that a combination of that expansion of scope and the unlimited nature of the fines will provoke better conduct and better concern on everyone’s part.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Now is perhaps an opportunity to raise an issue that I had intended to mention later. How does the Home Secretary envisage providing guidelines to differentiate the levels of fines that are currently imposed under sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and the fines that will be imposed for corporate manslaughter, given that both are unlimited in the Crown court and that all the most serious cases end up there?

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John Reid: Basically, as we are considering a corporate offence, imprisonment will not be an option because individuals will not answer on behalf of any company or corporate organisation except in a legal capacity. Fines will be unlimited and one would expect substantial fines for the sort of offence that we are considering. Of course, high fines have already been imposed in serious cases. For example, in the Balfour Beatty case, the fine was more than £7 million. Railtrack was fined £3.5 million in the Hatfield case. I believe that Transco was fined approximately £15 million for health and safety breaches. When we can bring such cases under existing law, that shows the seriousness with which the courts take them. However, the unlimited nature of the fines and their ability to be imposed without the need to prove individual liability, but taking into account systemic failures in the company or corporate organisation as a whole, is a sufficient combination to act as a deterrent to anyone who would conduct themselves in a fashion that would put people at risk.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Will the Home Secretary give way?

John Reid: If I may make a little progress, I promise to give way to the hon. Lady later.

Companies and other organisations must be held properly to account for gross corporate negligence that has led to loss of life. It is not enough for those failings to be punished under health and safety law. That is, to some extent, a response to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). We want to give victims and their families the justice of seeing an organisation properly held to account for corporate manslaughter, and not only individual responsibility. We want organisations, corporations and incorporated institutions to be held to account for actions that have led to deaths, sometimes on a massive scale.

I do not think that I can do better than to quote the mother of a young person killed at work. In evidence to the Home Affairs and Work and Pensions Committees, she said:

I believe that that encapsulates the feelings that many in this House have expressed.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab) rose—

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con) rose—

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab) rose—

John Reid: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

Lorely Burt: On punishment and fines, will the Home Secretary explain why directors can be disqualified for gross breach of duty in respect of shareholders’ investments, but not in respect of human lives?

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