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10 Oct 2006 : Column 258
9.24 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Like many other hon. Members, I support the Bill. It goes a long way towards tackling the many anomalies that have occurred over the years. However, the Committee that considers it will have a difficult job.

Unlike many hon. Members who have spoken, I do not have a legal background. However, I have a partly trade union background. I cannot claim, like the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), to have been born a trade union member, but I was a member of the Fire Brigades Union for many years, and I am proud to have been a member.

In that regard, I want to stress that one difficulty in the Bill has to do with Crown immunity. There is a difficult line to be drawn. I am sure that everyone in the House is proud of our firefighters and emergency services, but if we are not careful the people involved will think twice before they respond to an incident, such as rescuing someone from the ice, for example. They might not be worried about their own safety so much as about the safety of the officers who follow, because they might be held responsible in a court case if something goes wrong.

That is one example of how Crown immunity could cause a real problem, but the House will recall the explosion at the Buncefield facility in my constituency on 11 December last year. The HSE had inspected the depot two weeks before the explosion took place. I accept the many stories that we have heard today about how bad employers and companies did not do the work recommended after health and safety inspections, with the result that accidents happened and lives were lost, yet that is not true of Buncefield. I shall not pre-empt Lord Newton’s inquiry, but the evidence is that the HSE inspection found everything at the depot to be safe. Even so, two weeks later, every safety device there failed.

I am not a lawyer and have no legal background, but I am pretty sure that the Bill means that the HSE would be exempt from prosecution if it were found to be negligent. This afternoon, I asked the House of Commons Library to confirm that. It is a brilliant organisation, and it very quickly produced a document for me.

In its first paragraph, the document from the Library states that schedule 1 of the Bill would mean that the HSE would be liable to prosecution, but the next paragraph makes it clear that a judge would determine whether it owed a duty of care. This House should make such decisions: as we have heard already today, it is very dangerous to leave them to judges.

I welcome the Bill very much, on behalf of all workers and members of the public. However, the Minister and other hon. Members face a very difficult job in taking it through the House. The exemptions for Crown immunity go too far, especially as they apply to the Ministry of Defence—another subject about which I have a little knowledge, although I do not have time to go into detail now. On the other hand, we must be careful not to damage the ability of firefighters and the members of the other emergency services to do their jobs in the way that makes us all so proud.

I wish the Minister and the Committee luck. I look forward to seeing the Bill come back to the House.

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9.28 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): In the few minutes available to me, I want to concentrate on just two issues—the need to act to reduce the number of fatalities at work, and the question of directors’ duties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) said that 212 people had died in workplace accidents in 2005-06. He also highlighted why we need to set out directors’ duties, but the number of fatalities seems to have reached a plateau over the past few years, even though the health and safety code was revised in 2000. I welcome this Bill, as it will help to create a health and safety culture that will allow progress to be made.

Of the total of 212 accidents in 2005-06, 92 occurred in just two industries—construction, and agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Moreover, 54 per cent. of the total number of fatalities were caused by only three types of accident. The first type involves moving vehicles or moving objects, especially on construction sites; the second is people falling from heights and the third is falling objects. Those fatalities could be prevented. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive says that 70 per cent. of such accidents are preventable, so the important thing is to take action to prevent them.

The Bill will stimulate a change in culture. The measure needs strengthening. Being able to identify directors will give us the opportunity to move the safety culture forward, because the board of directors—the boardroom—decides on the allocation of resources for health and safety. That is why it is important that we can identify directors. It would not mean that we were taking revenge on companies—the point I took up with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne).

We need to stimulate a safety culture that results in a change that reduces accidents. The legislation is important in that respect. We need to be able to identify the director because that would ensure that resources are put into dealing with health and safety. We would be able to create a different culture and move the plateau for injuries and fatalities in industry, which we have been unable to do since 2000.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that he was looking at the issue of directors. I urge him to ensure that there are powers to identify directors. That would strengthen the Bill; it would change the health and safety culture and move us forward.

9.32 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is with great pleasure that I welcome the Bill as the fulfilment of a manifesto pledge and an indication that the Government intend further to extend the protection of its citizens and the recognition of human rights. The Bill is broadly supported—although with some caveats—by the trade union movement. I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union and refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

I shall not repeat the wide-ranging comments made by earlier speakers. I agree entirely with their emphasis
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that we should do everything possible to avoid the ghastly tragedies of the past. This is our opportunity to do so.

I want to focus narrowly on how the Bill will affect members of our armed forces. I am chair of the all-party army deaths group, which focuses on peacetime non-combat deaths. It also helps to support the Deepcut and Beyond families group in drawing attention to their needs and campaigning for truth, justice and change.

I pay tribute to the Government for avoiding the easy option of allowing Crown immunity to remain and for ensuring that the protection of the legislation will be available to members of the armed forces and individuals who suffer through unlawful actions. The Bill provides further recognition that human rights do not stop at the factory gate, the entrance to the barracks or the gangway of the naval vessel.

The Bill would benefit from clarification and strengthening in several respects. First, the law should be fair to those who may be charged with offences under its provisions, but it must also be robust, to enable enforcement agencies to hold to account those responsible for the offences.

Secondly, with special regard to the armed forces, we must ensure that the curtain of military silence and cap-badge loyalty that falls over fatal incidents cannot be a barrier to effective investigation. We need to ensure that the soldier who speaks out is protected. The whistleblower plays a vital role in the prevention of all corporate crime.

Thirdly, we need to recognise the right of victims and to give bereaved families a clearer role in the process. Victims have a right to expect justice. We should be looking for ways in which their involvement and participation in the investigation and prosecution may be enhanced. The involvement of bereaved families would serve the interests of justice and assist the effective prosecution of offenders.

I have set out my hopes for the Bill, but I have concerns, which have been expressed by other hon. Members, about the possible exemptions created for activities that are not a “relevant duty of care”. As a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I note the concern expressed in the joint report on the draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill that preparation for combat operations might encompass routine training. I note especially that, in response to recommendation 37, the Government said that they would provide further clarification. In fact, the Bill extends the exemptions to include training of a hazardous nature.

All hon. Members recognise that the military are in a unique situation. Of course, combat must not be included in the Bill’s parameters, but other areas should be included. I should like the Minister to clarify exactly how the Bill will help members of the armed forces to find redress if they are asked to carry out tasks that are unnecessarily hazardous and have no reasonable military purpose, yet are stated by the military command to be in preparation for an operation.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of research by Dr. Alan Porter into exertional heat illness. For the record, the reference is Porter AMW,
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“Collapse from Exertional Heat Illness: implications and subsequent decisions”. He has spent 15 years researching that illness, yet soldiers still die from it and he cannot find any example of where the activities involved have been of any use whatever in any campaign. That is exactly the sort of issue that needs to be addressed.

If the Government insist on including acts of preparation as an exemption under the law, can they define how far back in time or the line of causation that preparation can stretch? In May 2003, a soldier who was previously stationed at Catterick barracks died while loading tanks bound for transport by sea to Iraq. Would such activities be considered part of combat operations? Will people in garages on military bases be included in the legislation?

There has been some discussion about whether the Bill should apply overseas. Will it extend to military barracks overseas? Again, there have been such deaths overseas: 20-year-old Private David Shipley died in Germany in 2002, as a result of drowning in a pool that should have been emptied. The English coroner remarked that the account of Army witnesses bore all the hallmarks of a concocted story. The jury’s verdict was one of unlawful killing.

I could give many more examples of unfortunate deaths that have involved coroners’ inquests and where serious doubts have been expressed about what happened. Coroners and the Health and Safety Executive have found—for example, in the case of Corporal Jason Pears—that there was a corporate responsibility behind such deaths, yet no one has been prosecuted. We cannot continue to allow that to happen. The Bill gives us the opportunity to address the concerns of Army families throughout the country, where there is a clear indication of corporate responsibility in such deaths, and I look forward to the successful passage of this legislation.

9.39 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) was the 20th contributor to the debate, and the House can congratulate itself on that. We started late, for perfectly understandable reasons, but I will be the 21st and the Minister will be the 22nd contributor. The debate has been good-tempered and well informed, and the House should also congratulate itself on that. I hope that I do not take us off that line as I sum up on behalf of the official Opposition.

As everyone has said, this Bill is hugely well intentioned. There cannot be anyone in the House who wants to see people being killed at work, and there cannot be anyone who runs a company, undertaking or public service who goes into work saying that he or she looks forward to increasing the number of avoidable fatalities at work. We come at this issue by agreeing that 212 deaths—or whatever the figure may be—are too many and that it is worth attempting to do what we can to reduce the number.

The Bill has been questioned or welcomed in a guarded fashion by Members on both sides. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) succinctly pointed out, it will have to stand comparison with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974
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despite the concerns about individual prosecutions and the fact mentioned by Members on both sides that the average penalty has been small in relation to the hideous consequences of an accident or gross negligence that causes death.

I fear that the Bill may not do what we want it to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, this is a complex area of law and the fact that it is complex means that things may need to be improved over time, or that there are issues that the Select Committees dealing with the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office or the Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), might wish to consider once the Bill becomes law.

Whichever side of the House we sit, and whatever our professional or other background, there is a consensus that we need somehow or other to engender a culture in the workplace so that managers and employees feel safe and can go to work knowing that if something goes wrong, a system is in place that will provide justice for their families.

I appreciate the perfectly natural and human desire that we all share. Several hon. Members have mentioned constituency cases. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) mentioned the Larkhall gas disaster, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) referred to Piper Alpha, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere mentioned the Potters Bar railway crash in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Hendon referred to the King’s Cross disaster, which affected him as a practising solicitor. Members have been able to draw on their personal or constituency experiences to the benefit of the debate, and they have reflected the public’s need to see somebody held responsible for terrible accidents.

Some of those accidents have led to the deaths of perhaps one or two people, and some, like the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge, which was mentioned by one of the Labour Members with shipping or maritime experience— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) is not in his place at the moment. In the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, as in King’s Cross and some of the other railway disasters, huge numbers of people lost their lives. So, what do we do about that? What do we do that is sensible and practical?

Of course, every fatality is a terrible thing for the family involved. For example, most people who have had a loved one killed in a car accident, as a result of careless driving or of someone at the wheel being well over the limit, want something to mark the appalling tragedy that has hit their family. Often, the victims’ families leave court feeling that they have not had their genuine concerns assuaged. Parliament must do what is right, of course, but it must also limit itself to doing what is possible. We must not over-promise and we must not increase expectations to a level at which they cannot be met, and thus decrease public confidence in the justice system or the law-making system as a whole.

As people have discussed the Bill, concerns have been expressed about the meaning of “senior manager” and about the decision by the Government to give the judge the power to decide whether the relevant duty of care exists in a particular case. Concerns have been
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expressed about the way in which Crown immunity should touch on the armed forces and the emergency services. There have been some interesting discussions about the way in which the penalties and the remedies that the Bill provides should operate. There is room, certainly under the clause 10 remedies, for some quite imaginative thinking. There was concern, for example, that company directors could not be disqualified under the Bill. Well, who knows? Perhaps a thoughtful Minister at the Home Office might come up with a draft set of guidelines that would, for example, lead to amendments to the Bill that would allow for one of the remedies to be that a particular individual should no longer be allowed to serve as a company director, either for ever or for some period of time. The Committee ought to focus its mind on that sort of thing. I am sure that the Government, with all the assistance that they have at their disposal, will be willing to consider that.

I dare say that the Home Secretary, in his opening remarks, did not display his usual mastery of his brief. He may have been distracted by what was going on in the other place, where I fear the Government suffered a serious defeat on the proposal to abolish the prisons inspectorate. However, he was able to take on board the fact that there is an area of concern about the liability of unincorporated bodies. We may well see more of that in Committee.

I have only a very little time left to sum up, which I do not mind at all because that has made it possible for 20 speakers to get in ahead of me. I am pleased to say that during the debate broad themes have emerged. First, there is the need for the Bill to work. Secondly, there is the need for the Bill to have UK applicability. That point has been made by Scottish Members, as well as English Members. There is also a need to make sure that the remedies and the penalties fit the crime. Above all, we want to ensure that when the Bill comes into law, as it no doubt will, it does so in a fashion that does not allow anybody to say that it was but a gesture Bill that was not designed to improve, or to change the culture of, safety in the workplace, and that the only important bit about it was its name.

The words “corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide” ring loudly across this Chamber, but we need to be sure that the Bill’s title is not the best part of it. It is the guts of it—the body—that is so important, and this Parliament, including the Standing Committee, need to concentrate very carefully on the detail of these proposals. A Bill that sounds good but does no good is no Bill at all.

9.50 pm

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