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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, †Mr. Roger Gale
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Grieve, Mr. Dominic (Beaconsfield) (Con)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
McKechin, Ann (Glasgow, North) (Lab)
Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Emily Commander, Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 24 October 2006


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Clause 1

The offence
10.30 am
Amendments made: No. 3, in page 1, line 14, at end insert—
‘( ) An organisation is guilty of an offence under this section only if the way in which its activities are managed or organised by its senior management is a substantial element in the breach referred to in subsection (1).’.
No. 4, in page 1, leave out line 16.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
The Chairman: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. An hon. Gentleman is indicating that he would like to take off his jacket. As far as I am concerned, once permission has been given it is in order to remove jackets while I am in the Chair. I cannot speak for Mr. Benton, but I am sure that he will be equally careful of the comfort of members of the Committee.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD):I beg to move amendment No. 99, in page 1, line 20, leave out ‘far’.
Good morning, Mr. Gale. It is nice to start with a simple probing amendment. We want to probe the Government on two issues relating to the test whether or not an offence has been created. The amendment would make the test not so harsh and the offence less hard to prove. Given that the offence is very serious, the Minister might rightly say that the test whether it had been committed needs to be hard. However, can he elaborate on his thinking a little? Some correspondence has suggested that the test will be difficult for the prosecution to meet. Given that the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that, when corporations commit a serious offence that leads to the death of an individual or individuals, they can be held to account, the harder that we make that test, the more difficult it will be to prove.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I understand that we are discussing a probing amendment, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that, when we consider other aspects of the criminal law, particularly driving offences, it is well established that the driver should fall far below the required standard for a charge of dangerous driving, and simply below the required standard for a charge of careless driving? The test is therefore not unknown to the criminal law and it seems to work reasonably well.
Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He anticipates something that I was about to say, partly in defence of the Minister. It is important that we tease out the Government’s thinking on the provision, given that it will be one of the key tests that are considered by juries when the offence is being prosecuted. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the test is certainly well known in relation to driving offences, but therein lies the second point that I wanted to explore with the Minister.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) might be an expert in such matters and may wish to intervene again, but I understand that a driving offence comes under the umbrella of civil law, whereas we are discussing the creation of a criminal offence. When the Law Society and the Association of Principal Fire Officers discussed the point with the Joint Committee, they expressed the view that another approach was possible—that, rather than use the test of falling far below the required standard, which could seem unclear in some minds, it would be better to use the Adomako test, which defines a gross breach as something so grossly negligent as to be criminal. Both the Law Society and the Association of Principal Fire Officers thought that that might be a better way in which to deal with matters. However, most people who spoke to the Select Committee said, like the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, that the tests under the driving offences legislation are probably better understood. That said, I thought that it was right to start a mini-debate so that the Minister can be clear that we are getting the provisions right on a crucial point.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): First, I apologise for the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is not here. He is travelling back from Northern Ireland and hopes to rejoin the Committee around 12 o’clock or thereafter—it depends on how his flight goes. I welcome this opportunity to speak from the Opposition Front Bench as guest spokesman, and I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) seeks to address in his amendment the ease with which it will be possible to prosecute an offence under the Bill. Therein lies one of the big questions: are we aiming at a small number of significant cases, or are we seeking a wider application for the Bill? My understanding is that by deleting “far”—which the hon. Gentleman conceded would be a small but far-reaching and significant amendment—one would have to prove merely that someone was negligent, rather than that he was grossly negligent. If our aim is to limit the Bill’s scope to a small number of serious cases, that distinction between negligence and gross negligence is fundamental.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the House of Lords case of Adomako, relating to the law of involuntary manslaughter—almost gross negligence manslaughter. The test was whether, in having regard to the risk of death involved, the conduct of the defendant was so bad in all the circumstances to amount in the jury’s judgment to a criminal act or omission. That approach was referred to during the Select Committee discussions. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth about a test of falling far below a given standard. Although it could be said that those are two different approaches, a significant difference from what might be considered an appropriate standard still has to be shown.
The amendment would undermine the fundamental distinction between someone being negligent or grossly negligent. I fear that if we took that approach—I understand that it is a probing amendment to tease out from the Minister the thinking on how the provision was arrived at—we could end up with confusion between manslaughter, whether the Adomako test or some other test denoting gross negligence were used, and corporate manslaughter or corporate homicide, which would use a much easier test. If we are using the concepts of manslaughter or corporate homicide, there needs to be some symmetry between the two approaches—in other words, there has to have been some act that is so outwith the normal standards that we seek to punish it as manslaughter.
A different approach could be taken. We will come to amendments tabled by Conservative members of the Committee to probe whether it would be more elegant and straightforward in securing convictions and attaining certainty to take the same approach as is taken in health and safety legislation. We will discuss that when we debate those amendments. Nevertheless, it is helpful for us to articulate our approach now.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s motives for tabling the amendment, but in the context of limiting the scope of the legislation to a small number of serious cases and of providing symmetry between corporate manslaughter and manslaughter that would apply to an individual, I am not inclined to support the amendment, because it would confuse the two sides of the issue. I understand why he tabled it and the need to get clarity about the Government’s thought processes.
Jeremy Wright: The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton will already have gathered from my intervention that I am not wildly in favour of his amendment. Another reason that I am not in favour of it relates to the broader exemptions for various public bodies, the police service and the armed forces. I—and many of my hon. Friends, I suspect—will be arguing that those exemptions are drawn too widely and that it should be possible, given the safeguards within the Bill, to remove or to reduce some of them.
My fear about the amendment is that it would undermine that argument. It will be part of my case—and that of others, I am sure—that we can be confident that if the jury were given the obligation to find that the gross breach was something falling far below what would be expected of the organisation in question, it would reach that finding only in a limited number of very serious cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) says. That is the type of safeguard on which we would rely in order to say that the other exemptions can be drawn more narrowly. For that reason also, I would not support this amendment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Good morning, Mr. Gale. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton for the spirit in which, through his amendment, he has tested the Government’s thinking. I also welcome the hon. Member for Hornchurch on his guest appearance on the Front Bench. I am sure there will be many more such appearances in future.
We have had a useful discussion. We want a workable test, not one that is impossible to meet. However, for an organisation to be convicted of the new offence the relevant management failure must have been gross. That is defined in terms of conduct
“that falls far below what can reasonably be expected of the organisation in the circumstances.”
That means that companies will not be guilty of the offence on the basis of minor breaches of health and safety legislation, or when genuine efforts have been made but the appropriate standard not quite met. They will be guilty of the offence only when the conduct falls far below reasonable standards.
The new offence is aimed at the worst cases of corporate mismanagement. The threshold of “gross breach” is the one that currently applies in the law of manslaughter, as has been said by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. We think that that remains the appropriate threshold for an offence of such seriousness. If the amendment were to be accepted, the threshold for the new offence would be the same as that for negligence or for health and safety breaches. That would not reflect the gravity of conduct that must attach to an offence as serious as manslaughter.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): As I understand it, if the Bill were passed in the state in which it was originally drafted, we would expect about 10 to 15 prosecutions per year. If the amendment were made, how many prosecutions would the Minister expect—what would the increase be?
Mr. Sutcliffe: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact figures—we can send those to him—but he is essentially correct: if the amendment were passed, that is what would happen. It would affect the severity of the test for gross breach that we are trying to apply.
The second question is: what is the organisation’s conduct being measured against? The requirement is that the conduct fell below what could be reasonably be expected of the organisation. That links the offence to objective standards, such as those set by safety regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive or the Food Standards Agency. It is reinforced through clause 9 of the Bill, which sets out factors for the jury to consider when assessing an organisation’s conduct. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was right to raise the case of Adomako, which reinforces our view on the test for gross breach, which is interpreted as conduct falling far below a required standard.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment. We understand the nature of what was behind it and, as the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth said, we will debate and further test our respective views on the other issues.
10.45 am
The Chairman: Order. For the benefit of less experienced members, I remind the Committee that when the Chairman calls the mover of the motion to wind up the debate, no further substantive speeches may be made, though of course it is always possible to seek to make an intervention.
Mr. Davey: I am glad that my probing amendment has been received in the spirit in which it was proposed. The debate has been useful in giving the Minister a chance to put the Government’s thinking on record. He was not particularly clear about why the Government have chosen the test set out in the Bill rather than the Adomako test, but I shall not press that matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 5, in page 1, line 21, at end insert—
‘( ) “senior management”, in relation to an organisation, means the persons who play significant roles in—
(i) the making of decisions about how the whole or a substantial part of its activities are to be managed or organised, or
(ii) the actual managing or organising of the whole or a substantial part of those activities.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 2, line 4, after ‘to’, insert ‘(a)’.
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