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5 pm

Mr. Denham: Of course. My hon. Friend has spent a great deal of time talking to a wide range of interests about the Bill, and I know he has a deep personal interest in it. That is why I am confident that, as the Bill proceeds, if there should be any doubt about the ability to disqualify directors—the issue that I raised this afternoon—he will want to ensure that it is explicit by the time the Bill completes its passage through Parliament.

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Mr. Davey: When we debated the matter in Committee, I learned a great deal about the relevant laws, particularly from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who served as free counsel to the Committee. There was, I am delighted to say, no remuneration from members of the Committee. It became clear to me that there is a gap in the law, and amendments Nos. 7 and 8 tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), which we supported, would fill the gap by creating an offence of secondary liability to the offence of corporate manslaughter. I do not support the hon. Gentleman’s new clauses, which I think go too far, but I support amendments Nos. 7 and 8. Let me explain.

As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made clear, particularly in response to my interventions, there are at present two offences of individual liability. There is the offence of individual gross negligence for manslaughter, although that is rarely prosecuted, and there are prosecutions of a secondary party to a health and safety at work offence. Those, as I pointed out to the hon. Gentleman, are equally rare in their prosecution. The figures that I saw in the House of Commons Library brief suggested that there have been only eight prosecutions in 20 years. Whether those offences correspond exactly to the categories to which the hon. Gentleman was referring, I do not know.

Mr. Grieve: May I take the hon. Gentleman back? He says he supports amendments Nos. 7 and 8, but all they appear to do is to leave open the possibility that an individual can be convicted. They do not deal with what will happen to the individual on conviction. Am I to take it that the hon. Gentleman thinks those should be imprisonable offences, which is what new clause 1 and the other new clauses are about? I saw those as linked as a package.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman will know that under the procedures of this House they are not linked as a package; that is why I signed up only to amendments Nos. 7 and 8. We do not seek to make such offences imprisonable—that is a separate debate. However, there should be a separate offence of this nature because of the difficulty of prosecuting individual gross negligence manslaughter and the rarity in previous years—although perhaps the guidance would change that—of prosecuting a secondary party as a health and safety at work offence. That is why amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are necessary.

A director who is guilty of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the commission of an offence of corporate manslaughter should be prosecuted for that.

Mr. Hogg: I put it to the hon. Gentleman that we would generally find that directors were guilty of acts of omission rather than commission. I doubt whether amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are apt, at least in general, to include acts of omission.

Mr. Davey: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. There is a gap because, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, acts of omission should be caught under the 1974 Act. However, there is something between the offence of individual gross negligence
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manslaughter, which will remain and can be acted on, and an offence under the 1974 Act. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for strengthening my argument.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield also made my case when he talked about an aggravated offence under the 1974 Act. There is a gap whereby directors who have behaved very badly and should be brought to book are escaping because the threshold is too high or the prosecution of the offence is not serious enough to satisfy the understandable desire for justice on the part of relatives, victims and the general public at large.

Mr. Grieve: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with care, and I understand where he is coming from. The fact remains, however, that the Bill deals with corporate manslaughter attracting a sentence of imprisonment. Is he saying that he wants a fining regime against directors who may be linked to such corporate manslaughter if they are in some way culpable? If so, I remind him that that provision already exists in the 1974 Act. The sentencing guidelines under section 37 for cases where death has been involved could go some way towards meeting his objectives without ending up with the rather strange hybrid suggested in amendments Nos. 7 and 8, to which he has signed up without working through the logical consequence of imprisoning directors, which does not commend itself to him.

Mr. Davey: Under the Bill, the offence of corporate manslaughter is punishable by an unlimited fine. It does not sanction an imprisonable offence, as the hon. Gentleman wrongly infers. His argument today and in Committee that this is complex, difficult and illogical holds no water. As the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) recommended, in a case where a corporation is being prosecuted under the new legislation, it would make great sense to be able to prosecute individual directors at the same time if they are guilty of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring, which is a proactive involvement, not an act of omission.

Mr. Grieve: Someone who aids, abets, counsels or procures a manslaughter has committed manslaughter, which is an imprisonable offence. The hon. Gentleman is diminishing the gravity of that by saying that it could be visited with a fine. If that was a fine on directors or officers of a company for failures that may have contributed to a death, it would be much better to do it under the 1974 Act.

Mr. Davey: I strongly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Let us remember what has brought us to the point that we have reached. Individuals have not been prosecuted because it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to show that an individual is individually responsible. That is why a provision for a secondary nature, which is not being allowed in clause 17, would help greatly. Although I appreciate that the learned hon. Member for Beaconsfield was a great legal adviser to the Committee, we have received legal advice from many other learned people, who take issue with his view. They include not only the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) but members of the Joint Committee, which examined the matter in detail, and some of their legal advisers. It is a fine point
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and reasonable people can disagree about it. However, as someone speaking from the common person’s perspective who is not a legal expert, I believe that there is a gap in the law and that the amendments would fill it.

Mr. Sutcliffe: We are reverting to a point that we debated at length in Committee. I was grateful for the legal advice then and I am grateful for it now. We are discussing a key point, which the hon. Gentleman is genuinely pursuing, but I believe that his proposal would lower the threshold. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is right to say that, under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, somebody could be prosecuted for gross negligence but that under the proposal for a fine, the threshold would be diminished.

Mr. Davey: To some extent, the Minister is right. I want the threshold to be lower than that required for individual gross negligence manslaughter because I want a gap between that offence and being a secondary party to an offence under the 1974 Act. The Minister needs to reconsider the gap or support amendments Nos. 7 and 8 when he replies to the debate.

Ian Stewart: I support new clauses 6 and 7 but I do not support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) or the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

The issue can be approached from several perspectives. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has given us the benefit of his learned, professional approach in Committee and in the House. However, I approach the matter as a practitioner. My background in the trade union movement of representing workers who suffered health and safety accidents at work—some families’ loved ones lost their lives in such accidents—means that my approach is much more practical. However, I accept that both approaches should be designed to ensure that such accidents do not happen in the first place.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield and I have a difference, which will determine whether the Bill is a significant or a very significant step forward. The hon. Gentleman has questioned whether the measure achieves anything and I take a different view. I believe that, with the new provisions, it represents a significant step forward and I hope that some more developments will occur, if the Minister has the will, but it is not yet a very significant step forward.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend refers to issues that I hope we shall discuss later, including corporate probation and remedial or rehabilitation orders. I am happy to assure him that we are considering those matters, even if we do not reach the relevant amendments in the debate.

Ian Stewart: There may be a telepathic link between the Minister and me because he answers my questions before I even ask them. Let me make the point anyway.

We have all acknowledged that the issues are complex. To be frank, Opposition Members have taken different approaches, as the contributions of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and some Conservative Back Benchers highlighted in Committee. However, if we are to consider new clauses
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6 and 7 in as straightforward a way as possible, the first thing that we must ask is why there is a Bill in the first place. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield highlighted why we needed the Bill, by saying that there was very little chance of a successful conviction in previous court cases, even under the existing legislation. Therefore, it was necessary to establish the concept of corporate manslaughter. My belief is that the Bill will establish such a concept in law, which is to be welcomed. The second aspect of the debate is whether the duties and penalties will be appropriate once that concept is established in law. I and others have argued that the Bill does not go as far as is necessary.

5.15 pm

I understand the Minister’s restrictions, and we have pressed him on just those issues, to which he tried to allude earlier, in a pre-emptive strike. We have sought the implementation of the concept of corporate probation. We hope that we have sufficiently impressed upon his mind, in Committee and since then, the need for such a provision, and we hope to hear about that today. We wish to see the development of what we originally called remedial orders, whereby we could beef up the court’s ability to remedy the circumstances. We wanted to implement what the Conservatives would refer to as naming and shaming—that is, to identify and record where a guilty verdict has been given, in order to ensure that shareholders, the public and other relevant bodies understand that such a verdict has been given against a company.

Mr. Sutcliffe: On that point, I want to ensure that my hon. Friend knows that I am actively considering the opportunities for filing the fact that a company has been found guilty at Companies House, and also for including that in the reports and accounts. Naming and shaming is a major step forward.

Ian Stewart: I am glad that the Minister agrees with me. However, I would counsel him to let me finish, or he might not get the whole story and might therefore give a partial answer, and I want to hear the full answer.

The difference between the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and me is about whether there should be a named director if we move to the implementation of the concept of corporate manslaughter. I and others have argued in Committee and elsewhere that if it is appropriate under other legislation for, say, a director of finance who commits a wilful act of fraud to find him or herself sent to prison by a court, why would it not be relevant where the concept of corporate manslaughter had been enshrined in legislation to do the same where a manager, director or other significant person in a company had wilfully taken decisions on behalf of the company which created circumstances under which an avoidable death occurred?

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Much has been made of the advice that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has given. It has been suggested that if directors are held responsible for fatalities of people in a company, there would be a dearth of people volunteering to become such
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directors. Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of director responsibilities, will he clarify whether there has been any evidence anywhere, either in Committee or anywhere else, that that would happen to a finance director?

Ian Stewart: I am not aware of such evidence—though others may be—and that is the thrust of my argument in relation to the comparative responsibilities and appropriate penalties in different pieces of legislation. Actually, I have yet to agree with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield on any of his points. I understand—and have sympathy with—the background information that he has presented at every stage, but it would be wrong to accept that, because we agree on the nature of the issue, that means that we agree on the remedy. As in other legislation, some person must be identified as the responsible director or significant person on behalf of the company.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s comments on his proposed offence in new clause 6. Can he conceive, however, of circumstances in which a senior manager of an organisation, as defined in new clause 6(1), could commit the sort of wilful, gross breach of duty described and not be guilty of gross negligence manslaughter under existing law?

Ian Stewart: When we move to the conclusion of the Bill and it becomes, I hope, an Act of Parliament, we move to a different place in which two different offences exist. I would certainly not argue that we should get rid of the individual offence of gross negligence manslaughter; it must stay. If the Bill progresses, however, we will have an Act that identifies a corporate responsibility. In the past, collectively, we have argued about a corporate responsibility without there being anyone responsible on behalf of the corporation.

Mr. Grieve rose—

Ian Stewart: If the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is going to seek to minimise the problem and, through sophistry, give the impression that there are no bad directors or significant people in companies who wilfully create a circumstance in which people are killed, he and I will disagree again.

Mr. Grieve: I am a little disappointed, having spent time with the hon. Gentleman in Committee, that he should think that I would commit such sophistry. I hope that I have made clear my view that some directors richly merit being prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter personally or being disqualified from office under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. I was going to make a suggestion to him, which might also be of interest to the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman wants a responsible individual within the corporation to be identified. He might wish to consider the issue of procedure, as it is not clear to me whether a conviction for corporate manslaughter immediately fixes a company with convictions under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act, and there is a strong argument that it should do so. If it does so, one can have a prosecution for corporate manslaughter,
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alternative charges under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act and the culpable director present in the dock on a section 37 prosecution, all rolled into one. That might go some way to answering his concern.

Ian Stewart: I believe that the hon. Gentleman is now trying to mirror the Minister’s approach and take the words out of our mouths. He knows full well that if we are not successful—I hope that we are—and the Minister, for his own reasons, cannot move to directors’ duties and penalties in this Bill, we have proposed changes to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. In Committee, we discussed consensus over that direction.

We intend to push these concepts to the boundaries, and to push the Minister as far as we can to do the best that is possible in the Bill. If the Minister wishes us not to pursue the directors’ duties and the spectrum of penalties that we would like to see, I hope he will give us some reassurance that he will support us in trying to open a door—whether it be the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act or any other relevant legislation—to allow us to achieve what we seek to achieve.

Mr. Dismore: Is not one of the problems with the approach advocated by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) the fact that section 37 of the Act makes no provision for a custodial sentence? Perhaps it would be better to amend it to provide for such a sentence.

Ian Stewart: Far be it from me, as a humble trade unionist, to come between two learned gentlemen in this place, but my position—and that of those who support the new clauses and amendment that I tabled along with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) and others—has been clearly understood and consistent since Second Reading and our detailed discussions in Committee. We believe that the issue of duties and penalties has not been dealt with adequately in the Bill.

We welcome what the Minister has already said, but we wish to hear more about the other issues that I have raised. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what we want to hear.

Tony Lloyd: The Chairman is probably quite used to being challenged over how amendments are selected, but I want to record my congratulations on how these new clauses and amendments were selected. There are technical arguments to be had over whether they conform with the Bill’s long title, but I am delighted that it was decided that they do, because I believe it is in the interests of parliamentary democracy and of the public for us to debate one of the most fundamental principles involved in the concept of corporate manslaughter and its operation.

Mention has been made of a number of the major tragedies of the 1980s. One of the most formative of those disasters for me was the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, partly because, as an Opposition Front Bencher, I had some responsibility for merchant shipping at the time. It was an outrage that that vessel was allowed to sink.

Most of us here have probably been on ferries. Perhaps we have taken our children on holiday on
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them, and, as we know, the excitement of young kids going off on the ferry is part of the holiday package. For a ferry to go down in that way, with such an enormous loss of life, was not simply a casual mistake; it struck at the very heart of the question whether—not just in the context of merchant shipping, but in our industries and services generally—we operate a health and safety regime that guarantees that health and safety is at the centre of all that we do.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) said, the Bill’s main objective is not to bring people before the courts and ensure that more directors go to prison, although I would not be unhappy if individuals were brought before the courts. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) made a similar point when he said that imposing a regime of financial prudence on directors does not necessarily mean that we want financial directors to appear in court.

What we are saying, in the context of company fines and especially—in the case of those of us with a background in the subject—in the context of health and safety, is that we want to create a culture in Britain and British companies in which health and safety is automatic and central to all that is done by every member of an organisation, including directors.

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