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Tony Lloyd: I listened with care to the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him, too, to reflect. Although I understand the concept of getting rid of a test that has proved burdensome and has therefore prevented prosecutions, when it is clear that there actually is a controlling mind, which behaved inappropriately or, in some cases, outrageously, it does not seem inappropriate to maintain on the statute book the
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present manslaughter test that would allow prosecution of an individual as well as a corporation.

People will have to come to their own subjective view on the big questions about the point of the legislation. In the end, if the question is not really whether lawyers can define in court the right and proper way to judge a case before the judicial process, but something rather different—whether the legislation can help us to change the health and safety culture—we have to examine how the law can best help us to change the minds of employers or managers who are sometimes reckless, but sometimes simply indifferent.

To go back to the Herald of Free Enterprise case, it is almost inconceivable that we could go as far as saying that any of the senior people in P&O deliberately set out to kill passengers on the ferry. That would be a charge too much, even for me, as someone who has the lowest possible view of P&O management at the time—those sloppy managers who were unfit to manage a large company. However, in that context, was the law that applied to P&O at the time, which included the concept of potential corporate manslaughter—even though it was not possible to prosecute in that case—so clearly defined in the minds of management that they could take risks under that law that they would not take under the law that we propose to introduce? It would be incredible if there was such a fine degree of decision making among managers about the level of risk they were prepared to take in a given situation.

The problem with P&O was that the company was reckless not by deliberate action, but because health and safety did not figure strongly enough in its culture at the time. The company took no real action to drive through a health and safety regime.

I hope that the Government will continue to consider the need to make sure that those who should drive the health and safety case through companies have a specific responsibility. In the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise, that was not the captain, the chief officer or the bosun, but the most senior P&O managers who failed to make the safety case throughout their whole corporate structure and thus allowed such lax standards that 187 people died.

If we are to change that culture and to stop not only those who are deliberately indifferent, but—much more commonly—those who are simply casual in their view of their employees and the general public, there must be direct responsibility for health and safety. There must be named directors for health and safety—as there are for financial duties—whose role and responsibility is to drive through regulations about acceptable standards throughout the organisation. The health and safety directors would thus have an adequate defence if things went wrong, because they could show that there was due diligence in the company and a proper attempt to provide a healthy and safe working environment. If that was not so, the health and safety directors should end up in prison—as they should have done in the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

I strongly support the Bill, although I hope that we can improve it. I hope that we can go beyond its provisions and make the safety case that will drive through proper, safe working environments, not simply for those in the workplace but for those who use our
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places of work—ferries, trains and so on. We must make sure that in the future there will not be another Herald of Free Enterprise, and I shall not have to pay tribute to people whose humanity transcends personal tragedy because we shall have stopped the personal tragedies.

7.56 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I start by agreeing with a sentiment that has been expressed by Members on both sides of the House during the debate: a great many bereaved families across the country have waited a long time for this gap in the law to be plugged. To that degree, I congratulate the Government on making an effort to do just that. I fear, however, that this Bill is not the legislation for which all those families have been waiting.

I want to deal with two problems, both of which other Members have touched on already. The first problem, which the Government have correctly identified, is with the original common-law offence of gross negligence manslaughter—the difficulty of identifying the directing mind. That is the right problem to focus on, but I fear that we have only a partial solution, because the Government have introduced a piece of legislation that deals with it only inasmuch as it narrows down the offence.

The Bill refers to senior managers and the need to identify negligence as being perpetrated by them as a group. I accept that that is better than trying to find an individual manager, but it is still not quite good enough. It will not avoid entirely the difficulty posed to the Crown Prosecution Service and juries by the original common-law offence—trying to find out who in particular was responsible. An element of that concept must be retained, because to determine that the people responsible were senior rather than junior managers, a degree of detective work is required by the CPS and a degree of judgment by the jury. That problem has not yet been resolved.

The more substantive problem, on which I want to focus specifically, is Crown immunity. Like other Members, I applaud the removal of Crown immunity in principle, but I suspect that through the lengthy, detailed and wide-ranging exemptions under clauses 4 to 8, that good move has been substantially undermined. The exemptions are far too wide.

The Government have set out to do something worth while and noble—to deliver a level playing field between public and private enterprises. Unfortunately, that is not what the Bill delivers. The excessive width of the exemptions is wrong for two reasons. They are needlessly and damagingly wide. I say damagingly, because the impression may be left in the mind of the public that the Government are trying to protect themselves from the things on which they are most vulnerable—the cases that are most likely to come to court under the Bill. It would be most unfortunate if that were the perception given by the Government, although I do not think for a moment that is their intention. However, unless that part of the Bill is amended, there is a distinct danger that that impression will be given.

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We do not want it to appear that the Government are including in the exemptions all the cases that have appeared in the headlines in recent months and years and all the cases in which the public might think that the Government were most vulnerable to a prosecution in the public sector for corporate manslaughter. In respect of this Bill, the maxim remains true that hard cases make bad law—and that includes cases that are hard for the Government, just as it includes cases that are hard for everyone else.

I shall explain why such exemptions are needless. There seems to be insufficient trust in two important bodies in the criminal justice system. One is the CPS, on which we rely to choose which cases should be prosecuted and which should not, and the second, which is more important in many ways, consists of juries. We can rely, and we have relied, on juries to make a distinction between cases that genuinely involve corporate manslaughter on the basis of gross negligence and those that do not.

At this point I, too, should declare an interest: as a barrister, I have had quite a bit to do with juries in my time, and my judgment is that, generally speaking, juries exercise common sense and good judgment, and can tell the difference between what is gross negligence manslaughter and what is not. However, the Government have not given juries the opportunity to do so in relation to a vast swathe of public sector activity, and we should give them that opportunity.

The Government fear that the result will be convictions for gross negligence manslaughter in cases where, for example, the police are involved in a counter-terrorist activity, the emergency services are involved in a rescue or the armed forces are operating in a military situation. I do not believe that juries, properly directed by the judge, will reach those conclusions. So I think that we ought to trust juries, because that will enable us, as a legislature, to present the public at large, who, as other hon. Members have observed, have waited a very long time, with legislation that is fair and equitable across the board, and does not make exceptions where they should not be made.

Of course I accept that exceptions should be made in some cases—military operations in the theatre of conflict are a perfectly good example—but the exemptions in the Bill are too wide. The military exemptions do not just cover operations in the theatre of conflict. They could be interpreted to cover even basic training. That is too wide, and there is no reason why the Government should be concerned about narrowing those exemptions. I firmly believe, based on my experience, that juries are unlikely to reach the wrong conclusions in such cases.

I should like the Bill to be improved. I believe that its principles, aims and objectives are worth while, but it is not the Bill that it should be. It is not the Bill for which thousands of families across the country have waited so long, and it is not the Bill that they deserve, because it appears not to level the playing field between the public and private sectors, although it could do so far more effectively. It is crucial to ensure that the Government—the state—legislates for everyone, not just for everyone else. That is why the Bill needs to be improved. I hope that during its passage through the House it will be improved, and that we will produce the legislation for which we have all been waiting for a very long time.

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8.3 pm

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): I am very pleased to speak in this debate because health and safety at work is a matter in which I have a personal interest and a union concern, as a lifelong member of the Transport and General Workers Union. I believe the proposals before us represent a significant step forward. The Government propose to prosecute companies whose gross negligence leads to the death of employees or members of the public. If a company is found guilty of corporate manslaughter, the penalty will be an unlimited fine and a possible remedial order to address the cause of the fatality. Those provisions will cover most public sector and voluntary organisations. That is an extremely important change, but I hope that the Government will be persuaded to be bolder still and incorporate in the Bill measures regarding directors’ duties and custodial sentences for those found guilty of corporate manslaughter.

I will admit that, as a newly elected MP, when the then Home Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—announced at a Labour party conference that in October 1997 Labour would introduce corporate manslaughter legislation, I was expecting the conventional nine-month gestation period before the delivery of the commitment, not the nine years that have come to pass.

Like many colleagues here, over the past nine years, I have regularly raised the matter in the House and written to Ministers, calling for the inclusion of corporate manslaughter in the next Queen’s Speech, and the next Queen’s Speech, and so on. So, today, I should like to place on record my appreciation for the work done by two ex-Members who are no longer full-time politicians, the first of whom is Ross Cranston, who introduced the Company Directors (Health and Safety) Bill in 2003, and the second is Lawrie Quinn, who introduced the Health and Safety at Work (Offences) Bill. Both men championed this cause with passion, skill and persistence.

We all accept that the key focus of policy regarding health and safety at work must be on the prevention of accidents and fatalities at work. The development of trade union health and safety representatives, working co-operatively and constructively with management, has a significant role to play in the workplace. Labour has long argued that being green is good for business—I note that the Conservatives have now joined us on that. We also say that good safety is good for business because it is an investment in a company’s most important resource—its work force. I look forward to support for that from Conservative Members today.

Some of the key figures show the extent of the problem that we face. In 2005, 212 workers were killed in work-related accidents. As data from the Health and Safety Executive reveal, the deterrents in place under existing health and safety legislation are, in my view, woefully inadequate. For example, in 2003-04, the average fine for a company where health and safety offences resulted in a death was just over £43,000. The average fine for health and safety breaches by individual managers and directors was just about £3,300 for each offence. It cannot be argued with any credibility that the current rules act as a deterrent.

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I am sure that many Members have been supplied with tragic examples of death at work. One such example brought to my attention was that of a 15-year-old boy who died after being caught in a crushing machine, while working at a waste-recycling site in 2001. In the court case that followed, it was revealed that the crushing machine had been left ticking over while a blockage was removed, when it should have been switched off. Furthermore, the protective guards that should have prevented workers from climbing on to the machinery had been removed. The company was fined £32,000 for breaching health and safety law. The boy lost his life. No directing mind and no company director was convicted of manslaughter.

I understand that, according to the HSE, 70 per cent. of workplace fatalities are the result of management failures. It should be noted that only seven small companies have been prosecuted under the current legislation. It is unacceptable that we have seen 11 major national disasters from the King’s Cross fire to the Potters Bar rail crash, resulting in about 671 deaths, and not one prosecution with a custodial sentence for corporate manslaughter under the current legislation. That is why we need effective corporate manslaughter legislation and why we welcome and must improve the Bill. I believe therefore that, when accidents happen, workers and indeed the public at large have a legitimate expectation that the company, in corporate terms, will be brought to account and that the consequences will be serious, not minor or trivial.

In 2001, the former head of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones, said, when commenting on proposals put forward by the Health and Safety Commission as a draft code of practice, that he welcomed the elevation of this subject to the same level of consciousness in the boardroom as sales and finance. I hope that the Minister hears my point that Labour’s legislation must ensure the same level of consciousness and, most important, the same level of responsibility.

No individuals in a company are more important to ensuring safety in the workplace than directors. They decide the level of investment and priority given to health and safety. They decide whether their company is subject to proper health and safety audits and they encourage recognition of unsafe practices and their remedies. Other areas of legislation recognise the need to impose a custodial sentence, so this Bill must be seen to be closing an anomalous loophole or, more appropriately, putting a wrong right. I will return to that point later.

I and my union, the TGWU, supported the Health and Safety (Directors’ Duties) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) that sadly fell foul of the parliamentary timetable in 2005. The Bill sought to introduce positive health and safety obligations on directors. I believe a corporate manslaughter Bill will be fully effective only if there is also a specific duty on directors.

I know that there are concerns about the definition of senior management in the Bill, a point that some of my colleagues have raised today. The definition raises some important questions. Will it include regional or sectoral managers if they do not play a significant role in the company? In large companies, will it be less likely that an individual manager will be deemed to play a
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significant role? Who is responsible when a large company subcontracts its work? All these matters need to be satisfactorily resolved.

The other issue that I would like to address is that of penalties for flouting the proposed new law. I have considerable sympathy for those who argue that if directors can be given a custodial sentence for fraud or for breaking environmental or food safety laws, that should be an option for the punishment of corporate manslaughter. How can it be right that an identified director can receive a custodial sentence for fraud or the breach of environmental or food laws but, should the Bill become an Act of Parliament, no one is to be punished by custodial sentence when corporate manslaughter is proven and a human being has lost their life?

I ask the Secretary of State to consider reviewing the liabilities test in the Bill. The weakness of this test has been part of the problem in getting convictions under the current law and it needs strengthening. Will he also look at the Canadian system of corporate probation and consider tabling amendments to include such provisions at a later stage in the Bill? I note that Families Against Corporate Killers, which has sent a briefing to all Members of Parliament, is calling for a voice in sentencing for the families of those involved in work-related deaths that is equal to the voice of families of other manslaughter or murder victims. That proposal merits serious consideration.

If anyone is in any doubt that the Bill is needed as a priority, I ask them to look at the TUC research published last month that shows that nearly 4,500 young people are seriously injured or killed at work, which is 20 per cent. more than five years ago. One person under 25 dies every month in a workplace accident. We have a duty to offer the best protection to all workers but, for those who have a full working life ahead of them, our responsibilities are critical.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I see that my hon. Friend is reaching the end of his contribution and I do not disagree with anything that he has said. I fully support the concept of corporate probation, but the issue is not only about the punishment of those who are responsible for something that has gone wrong. Accidents and incidents happen, so does he agree that every bit as important is the idea of changing the culture, the procedures and organisational activity that take place within the workplace?

Ian Stewart: I agree wholeheartedly. The key is in the quote from Sir Digby Jones. The issue is about raising the consciousness of the directing minds of the company so that it equates and is equal to their concern to exercise their duties properly and responsibly under fraud and other legislation for which they can be given a custodial sentence if they fail to exercise their duties.

It has been interesting to see the reasoned approach of those on the official Opposition Front Bench. That amounts to an understanding that this measure is not about the nanny state and needless red tape. Health and safety at work is, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said,

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This Bill is welcome; in fact, it is very welcome. It has been a long time in the oven but I do not believe that it is fully formed or ready for the table yet. I hope that the Government will correct the directors’ duties omission and resolve the other concerns that I have highlighted so that we have a Bill on Third Reading that gives every possible protection to the working people of this country. With the commonality of effort described by the Secretary of State earlier in the debate, I am sure that we can do that.

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