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As regards gross failure, the new offence is not about replacing health and safety laws or turning every work-related death into a corporate manslaughter prosecution. The offence will be reserved for the worst cases of corporate management failures. Failings will need to be gross: in other words, fall far below the acceptable standards. That is the test for manslaughter
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in other walks of life and it is right that it should be the test for corporate manslaughter.

In deciding a case—in judging gross failure—the jury will have to look at how far the organisation is in breach of its health and safety duties. That grounds the new offence firmly in the clearly established framework for managing health and safety with which employers are already familiar. So no one can say that there is a complete blank sheet and that people have to start learning practices and procedures, and the organisation of their corporate responsibility in a completely new fashion.

Nor is the Bill about increasing the regulatory burden on business. It will be well known by now—after nine years of this Government—that our economic strength is underpinned by the valuable contribution made to our society by employers and industry. They have the right to operate unburdened by unnecessary red tape. But employers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their employees. That is part of the balance of social justice, along with a dynamic economy, that has always been a mark of the Government. The safety of employees is supplemented by what organisations owe to their customers and others affected by their activities. The offence of corporate manslaughter will hold accountable those organisations that show a clear disregard for the health and safety of any of those.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): In passing, I declare an interest as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union whose constituency receives money from the trade union solicitors Thompsons.

In terms of what the Bill is trying to do, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that prevention is better than cure, although sometimes we have to go down the cure route, as we are. I put it to him that if he were a member of a senior management team of an organisation employing people, he would be a little more careful in making sure that there was not a systemic breach of health and safety requirements if he himself were at risk of a custodial sentence. He would take more care and prevention would be better. I urge him to look again at that as a deterrent effect—as a preventive measure.

John Reid: May I respond fraternally to my hon. Friend and fellow member of the Transport and General Workers Union by saying that I have already pointed out that an individual director or manager who can be proven to be guilty of gross negligence can, at the moment, be prosecuted for gross negligence and manslaughter in that way? So at the moment, there is nothing to prohibit that, and nor does anything in the Bill prohibit it; it can still be achieved. The Bill supplements that by stating that, even where that individual cannot be shown himself to have acted with gross negligence, nevertheless, if he and others in the senior management have acted in such a way that a systemic failure across the organisation has resulted in death and destruction on a significant scale, they ought, in addition to the individual responsibility, to be open to the corporation’s being fined or faced with a remedial order. Of course, it is “corporate”
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manslaughter, so individuals are not held responsible; rather, the incorporated institution itself is.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: I give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. Stopping slightly short of the point advanced by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), it nevertheless occurs to me that, in cases where senior managers responsible—at least in part—for such systemic failure are directors of the company, no provision appears to be made in the Bill for their disqualification from continuing as company directors. If I am correct in that surmise, is the Home Secretary working on the assumption that, in the most extreme cases, corporate embarrassment will probably suffice to remove such individuals from their posts? If not, upon what basis is he working?

John Reid: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, and I am obviously not getting the point through. It is already the case that directors can be disqualified if they are convicted of an offence related to the management of the company, and that includes health and safety offences. It is already the case that a director can face other penalties, as an individual. What the Bill does is to make the corporation liable to penalties, which is why the term “corporate” manslaughter is used. It supplements the existing law, which allows cases to be brought against, and penalties imposed on, directors as individuals.

On directors’ duties, which is a different issue, we are not further extending our consideration of those duties—quite apart from the fact that that is the territory of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, rather than mine—because the matter has already been taken up. The Health and Safety Commission has considered this very issue and it has asked the Health and Safety Executive to produce new guidance precisely on directors’ responsibilities. The HSC will return to this issue in the light of developments on corporate manslaughter, of the report from Professor Macrory—the Macrory penalties review—and of the introduction of statutory directors’ duties under the Companies Bill. In short, directors are already liable to punishment and disqualification in the way that was asked for earlier, and directors’ duties are already being examined elsewhere, separately from this Bill; there may be developments in that regard. In addition, we are introducing the offence of corporate manslaughter, so that the institution of which the person concerned is a director can also be held responsible.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: If I may, I shall make a little progress and then come back to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), who tried to intervene some time ago.

In turning to the application of the law and the question of who can commit the new offence, I want to
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deal with two issues: the restriction of the offence to organisations, not individuals; and how the offence applies to some public bodies. I think that I said enough on the question of individuals when answering the last question, but the Bill’s innovative aspect lies in its attempt to ensure corporate accountability. Often, responsibility is not capable of being laid at the door of one person, but lies with the corporate body overall, which is why we have introduced this Bill. Evidence given by the HSC to the scrutiny Committees identified that many incidents arose from systemic failures, rather than from the culpability of the actions of one individual. The new offence reflects that reality. It is a reality that all working people know in practice: very often, such situations do not just come down to one culpable director, but there are systemic failures that run through a corporation and that are not remedied, despite the fact that the corporation at all levels is constantly told about them by the worker, and that results in damage or death to people who work for that corporation—or, indeed, to its consumers.

This framework would not be improved by introducing secondary liability. If individuals have acted recklessly or grossly negligently or in a way that contravenes health and safety law, they will be guilty of a criminal offence under existing laws. That is the current position. The new offence is intended to sit beside those offences and provide a more effective means of attributing manslaughter to companies and corporate organisations. It is not a part of that aim for the offence to be a vehicle for extending or redefining when individuals are guilty of offences.

Jim Sheridan: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and at this stage it might be appropriate to remind ourselves that without a Labour Government, the Bill, warts and all, would never have seen the light of day.

Most of these fatalities and injuries take place in the construction industry. My right hon. Friend will be aware that many migrant workers are now employed in that industry, and many of them cannot read or understand English, thereby putting their own lives and those of others in danger. Is there any provision in the Bill that will force employers to train and educate their employees to read and understand English, and in particular health and safety law?

John Reid: I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend. In the midst of the questions that are being asked, it is heartening to realise that there is a widespread recognition that, whatever our qualifications and reservations, people feel that the Bill is long overdue. I am also delighted that those comments were made because I know that my hon. Friend was involved in the Bill on gangmasters and has long been a supporter of taking action in this area.

My hon. Friend raised an extremely important point about migrant workers and those who do not have access to the English language and to certain documents. We are working on that; we are trying to ensure that we provide sufficient advice on matters such as those that my hon. Friend raised, in order to bring them to the attention of those who do not read
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and write English in the way that some of us do—although, for all I know, they might speak English as well as some of us do. However, we are looking into that.

On Crown immunity, the new offence will apply to Government Departments and other Crown bodies. For the first time, those bodies will be liable to prosecution for a criminal offence. It removes the anomaly created by Crown immunity and means that the public sector and the private sector will have the same liability under the new offence. That is a historic step.

There is no good reason why Government Departments should be in a different position from their private sector counterparts for their responsibilities as employers or for securing the safety of their premises. These responsibilities are covered comprehensively by the offence for all employers. But there are exemptions, because there are differences between the Crown and other public authorities on the one side and the private sector on the other, and they are differences that demand recognition.

Public bodies already operate within a strong framework of standards and accountability. Ministers are responsible to the electorate via Parliament, and fatalities can lead to public inquiries and other independent investigations. Public bodies are subject to specific obligations such as the Human Rights Act 1998, and their actions are open to challenge through specific mechanisms, including judicial review. Although this Bill provides a step towards equalising the approach in the public and private sectors, there are nevertheless differences between them because there is already a series of scrutiny mechanisms that apply to the public sector.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): The Home Secretary has made a number of references to the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. I remember that tragedy well, because I was sailing on cross-channel ferries at the time, and representing merchant navy officers in a union. But is it not the fact that, for all the gross incompetence and gross negligence that took place before and during that incident—the systemic disease of sloppiness that the judge talked about—if this Bill had been enacted by then, although the company corporate would have had a very high fine, the result would have been that the acquisition of the company by P&O might have happened faster and the changeover would have taken place, but the senior directors and responsible managers would have walked away scot-free?

John Reid: I do not think that that would happen under this proposed legislation. That is why it is an improvement. However, it is true that the number of cases that have previously been brought under corporate manslaughter in the absence of this proposed legislation is very small indeed; there have been about seven since 1992, and all of the companies involved have been very small. So to that extent I very much take on board the point that my hon. Friend makes.

I must now give way to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and then I shall attempt to make some progress.

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Mr. Grieve: I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. Can I raise a point about public authorities? The Home Secretary makes a perfectly valid point in saying that there might be particular problems with public authorities in the exercise of some of their functions, but people will find the following situation rather strange in respect of individuals within an organisation: for instance, a hospital doctor might be prosecuted for manslaughter and it emerges in the course of the case that there were systemic failures in his training, and, as I understand it, the health trust responsible for that would escape prosecution under these provisions. I hope that we can look at that area again. Similarly, a police authority or force could escape prosecution for failings of their officers leading to the death of an individual. It seems to me that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if we are holding individuals to account in such circumstances, it is very strange if we do not provide a mechanism within corporate manslaughter legislation that also allows the authorities to be held to account.

John Reid: I am not able to give legal advice to the hon. Gentleman off the top of my head, but I shall risk advising him that I think that he is probably wrong in respect of the health trust, but not on the police. However, I will write to him if my current advice is wrong. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) shouts from a sedentary position that that was spoken like a true lawyer.

While it is true that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, it is by definition also true that a goose is different from a gander, and in this case public bodies and Government Departments are different from private organisations. Private organisations have different responsibilities, but they are not subject to the strong mechanisms for accountability and scrutiny to which public bodies are already accountable. All deaths in custody are subject in public bodies to an independent investigation. The prisons and police and others have separate ombudsmen, who report publicly, and very often to Parliament. There is an Independent Police Complaints Commission, for example. All deaths in custody are also subject to coroners’ inquest in public, with a jury. Individual criminal proceedings and disciplinary processes are available in appropriate cases, and that is only in respect of the police and the criminal justice system, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Therefore there are a huge number of mechanisms that already scrutinise public bodies and Government Departments, but that do not do so in the case of private organisations. That is recognised in the Bill by not applying exactly the same rules and regulations to public and private sectors.

I maintain however that the removal of Crown immunity is an historic, unprecedented step. The hon. Gentleman might point out that in his view it does not go entirely far enough, but it is a step that we have been waiting not only decades, but in many cases centuries, to achieve, and I would not want anyone to diminish the importance of the fact that we have removed that immunity.

I now wish to make a little progress.

John Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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John Reid: I have been very generous to Members, and I think that if I were to start on a second round of giving way, we would still be stuck here by the time the vote is cast. I think that I have now pointed out the differences.

We have continually considered carefully exactly how the exemptions in the Bill should be framed. We will want to make several refinements to the Bill in Committee, although I do not claim that they will be extensive. I will write to Opposition spokesmen and their colleagues to keep them informed of the refinements as soon as I can.

The Bill is limited, yet important. I do not claim that it will do everything that everyone wants—that is why I say that it is limited—but I do claim that it is important in several significant ways. I believe that it will meet a specific failing in our criminal law. It will enshrine in law a more effective offence of corporate manslaughter that will properly target corporate failures and, for the first time, it will remove Crown immunity. In short, the Bill will make justice possible for those who are killed at work owing to gross corporate negligence. It can never remedy those losses or compensate for the bereavement that individuals and families have suffered, but I hope that it will go some way towards meeting their claim that justice ought to be extended right across the spectrum when it is demanded as a result of corporate culpability. I thus commend the Bill to the House.

6.1 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): May I first declare a personal interest, over and above being a member of the Bar? Health and safety at work has been my specialist field of practice for some years, and as it remains the only area in which I really practise at the Bar, the Bill has a direct professional relevance to me.

I have no doubt at all that the Government’s intentions are commendable. From my experience of practising in the field, and especially of prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, which I did quite a lot before entering the House in the 1990s, I have no doubt about the gravity of several of the offences with which I dealt, and the poor reflection that those cases revealed of, especially, the operation of public companies and corporations and others. I am also aware of the anguish caused by death in any setting, and certainly by the unnecessary deaths caused by industrial accidents or by the activities of someone carrying out an undertaking. I echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about those who have campaigned to determine whether improvements to the law could be made.

I am also of the view that there is scope for change and improvement. As the Bill goes through Parliament, Conservative Members will certainly do what we can to co-operate with the Government to determine the aspects on which improvements can be made. I shall touch on one or two of those as I proceed with my remarks, and I look forward to considering the Bill in Committee, because we have the capacity to produce something of value.

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