Previous Section Index Home Page

11.31 am

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time. This is a small, but important, Bill. Some 25 years ago, I worked for the Workers Educational Association, when one aspect of my job was to teach health and safety courses for the Trades Union Congress. I stressed then what I believe is still true today—that health and safety is in everyone’s interest. It is obviously in the interest of the workers, but it is also of interest to the employers. Good health and safety practices are in the interest of the profitability of firms and the safety of the people employed.

That was back in 1974, but when I began to take an interest once again in health and safety, I was surprised by the fact that we have not seen any recent changes in the level of fines for health and safety offences. The most recent fines were introduced in 1991 and 1992 and since then there has been no change. That is why I agreed to put forward this small but important Bill.

The Bill does three things to modify the framework of the maximum penalty set out in section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. First, it proposes to raise the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences. At the moment, fines for some offences have a maximum of only £5,000. Secondly, it makes imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences in both the lower and higher courts. Thirdly, it is designed to make certain offences that are currently triable only in the lower courts triable in either the lower or the higher courts.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Let me say at the outset that I support the Bill. If the Bill is successful in its present form, will the maximum fine increase annually with the rate of inflation, or will we have to go through this exercise again at some point in the future?

Mr. David: There is nothing in the Bill to allow increases to rise according to the rate of inflation. In all fairness, what we need to do is keep the issue under constant review, which has happened in the past, but it has been some time, as I said, since we have had an opportunity to propose changes to the legislation along the lines that I have outlined.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on introducing this measure. I think that I can support it as a good measure. The hon. Gentleman’s reasoning for it is sound, as was his reasoning in response to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I am concerned about one matter. By increasing the fines from about £5,000 to £20,000 for a range of offences, may we be losing the discrimination in some way between very serious offences that cause harm to individuals and others that do not, which in my view makes them less serious? Contravening requirements in ports, in relation to public inquiries or special investigations, for example, is a much lower level of seriousness than offences under section 33(1)(a), which are very serious
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1176
indeed. Is it right to remove that discrimination or does the hon. Gentleman believe that, at some stage, the more serious offences should merit a fine even higher than £20,000?

Mr. David: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very constructive and sensible intervention. There are a range of penalties available, including imprisonment in certain cases, which I shall come on to in a few moments. However, the important point about health and safety legislation in this country is not necessarily just that people who transgress the law will be fined a certain amount of money. More important, I would argue, is the principle of proportionality, so that we impose proportionate fines in accordance with particular offences. They must vary and be kept under constant review.

Another important principle, however, is that of deterrence. Nobody wants to go through the process of increasing the number of health and safety trials. As things stand, we are talking about a relatively small number of cases being brought a year. In 2004-05, for example, there were 712 cases and a 95 per cent. prosecution of cases leading to convictions. Only a small number of cases are brought forward and I do not envisage an increase. The important thing, however, is to focus people’s minds on the issue of health and safety—and on the element of deterrence, which is part of it. Focusing minds is entirely positive.

To reinforce that line of argument, I would like to cite two important reviews of recent years. First, there was the Hampton review, “Reducing administrative burdens: effective inspection and enforcement”. That review was extremely forceful in the arguments that it advanced, not just on the issue of fines, but on the matter of reducing administrative burdens, as its title implies. There was also the Macrory report entitled “Regulating Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”. Those two reports strongly supported the line of argument set out today and embodied in the Bill. I would also stress the fact that the Bill is the result of joint consideration by the Health and Safety Executive, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office. I believe that there is a consensus in favour of the changes that I am outlining today.

Some of the most powerful arguments in favour of the Bill were put forward by judges when they made certain remarks in the process of sentencing—and I would like to quote some examples of that. For example, in 1995, a prosecution arose from the deaths of two students by carbon monoxide poisoning in the rented accommodation that they shared. The landlord was charged under section 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and regulation 4(3) of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1984.

After the jury returned guilty verdicts on each count, the judge asked the prosecution counsel if the matter had been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of more serious charges, namely manslaughter. Counsel explained that the police had investigated and passed the papers to the CPS, which had decided not to press charges for manslaughter. The Health and Safety Executive had held the prosecution back until that had been decided.

The judge fined the defendant on each count, and ordered him to pay prosecution costs. The defendant
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1177
was given 12 months to pay with a warning that he faced two years’ imprisonment if he failed to do so. The judge opened his sentencing remarks by saying, significantly:

A year later, in 1996, there was a prosecution following a methane gas explosion underground at a coal mine. Two workmen were badly burnt. The mine manager was found guilty on five counts concerning management of the mine, ventilation and explosives use. The judge, in concluding, said that he was surprised, considering the seriousness of the offences, that fines were the only available penalty. The judge sought advice on the matter from the Health and Safety Executive through counsel before passing sentence.

If I may, I will quote one further example in support of this aspect of the Bill. In 1996, again, the defendants—a company, one of its directors and a manager—were prosecuted for illegally employing young children to pack food products in a factory. All pleaded guilty. The company was convicted of seven charges of illegal child employment and fined. The director and manager were also fined and made to pay costs. The judge said in his concluding remarks:

He also said:

Those are some examples of where imprisonment was, in the considered view of judges, something that should have been on the statute book.

Another change that I propose to section 33 of the 1974 Act is a change in the level of fines available. In support of my proposals, I want to quote excerpts from the Hampton review report that explain the case clearly. The report stated:

It went on to say:

a number of examples were quoted in the report—

That is an important and objective statement. The report went on to say:

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Are not the majority of businesses in this country small businesses? It would not surprise me if there was widespread ignorance of the levels of fines. If the fines were doubled, quadrupled or multiplied by 10
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1178
it would not have any impact on those companies that are not aware of the fines that they face if they breach the regulations.

Mr. David: It is important to put the issue of fines in a broader context. I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest that health and safety legislation is based solely on deterrents and threats. It is important to recognise that health and safety legislation in this country has put the emphasis on prevention and on putting measures in force to raise awareness of procedures and so on. It is important to see my proposals in that broader context. What is being suggested is not a fundamental change in the way in which we approach health and safety matters, but simply a change to one element of the health and safety regime to ensure maximum compliance and maximum awareness.

I would suggest, too, that most employers in this country—including small employers—are responsible, reasonable, fair-minded, health-and-safety-conscious individuals. All the evidence suggests that. Nevertheless, unfortunately, a small minority, when looking at their competitiveness and weighing up the pros and cons of investment, take into account the result of not complying with heath and safety legislation, and cut corners to increase profitability when making their plans for the future. The Hampton report focused its remarks on an attempt to tackle that, and that is one of the arguments behind my proposals today.

I want to quote from another report, which I mentioned in my opening remarks: the Macrory review report. It stated that

The word “relationship” is important. It went on:

It also stated:

that goes back to a point that was made earlier—

The report went on to state:

That, too, is important. The number of inspectors and the number of inspections that take place are an obvious consideration, and it is a powerful argument that the costs to the Health and Safety Executive and the administrative burden on employers would be reduced by this new regime.

However, the report went on to state that

That point, too, was made earlier. Not only do we need this change to prevent such unscrupulous behaviour, but we need to recognise that the situation is unfair to
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1179
the vast majority of reasonable and fair employers. They abide by the rules, they ensure that things are done properly; why should a small minority, for competitive advantage, unscrupulously get away with it?

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on the Bill. Is that not just the point? The Bill would place no additional requirements on good businesses. All that it would do is ensure that the small number of bad businesses were punished and deter others from following their example.

Mr. David: That is a good way to put it. The 1974 Act is an extremely powerful and effective piece of legislation, but it might need to be fine-tuned and updated from time to time, so that we have the appropriate fines in place to ensure the deterrent element. No extra costs, burdens or responsibilities whatsoever will be placed on employers.

I hope that the House will agree to approach the Bill in a consensual manner, and that all parties will agree that the proposal is reasonable. It builds on the fine principles of the 1974 Act, reflects the good consensus on both sides of industry and would result in health and safety being taken more seriously and made still more effective.

11.49 am

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): First, I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) for introducing the Bill. I would guess that he is pleasantly surprised that we have had the opportunity to debate it this morning, and I suspect that the fact that there was widespread speculation about what we might have been doing today had we not been discussing the Bill has meant that people who have a real interest in the subject are not here. It is a great shame that we have not had the opportunity to debate the issue in Government time, as it would then have received the attention that it deserves.

I am sure that everyone in the workplace—the management, the workers and the customers—are interested in maintaining the highest standards of health and safety. My family’s involvement in my industry, agriculture, goes back three generations, and agriculture does not have a good health and safety record. Construction, too, is a dangerous industry. Unfortunately, many small businesses that do their best to maintain the highest levels of health and safety occasionally have accidents, but it is not because they do not show the necessary duty of care, but because that is the nature of the industry, and that is my concern. Towards the north of my constituency, there is a potash mine, probably the biggest mine in the United Kingdom, which employs 1,000 people. Sadly, there have been accidents there in recent months, but that is not because the employers are negligent; they do everything that they can to make sure that the mine is as safe as it can be, but sadly the nature of some industries means that accidents take place.

Recently, I was discussing how I could improve health and safety on my farm. I note that the requirement placed on employers is to do all that is reasonably practicable. Our biggest concern on my
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1180
farm is that there is no mobile phone signal, so if my tractor driver had an accident in a far-flung field, he could not summon help. We identified that as the health and safety issue that most concerned us. Unfortunately, that is out of our hands. I suppose that if we were to do everything that could be reasonably expected of us, we could buy some sort of short-range radio system to put in the tractors, but sadly, one has to decide to stop somewhere.

I am a landlord, and the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned the cases that occasionally hit the headlines of people being poisoned by carbon monoxide in holiday homes or on domestic premises. As a landlord with three small properties on Teesside, that is something that I worry about, because the properties have gas central heating. Although we do everything that is required of us—we have annual CORGI inspections and issue the certificates to the tenant—how do I know that the tenant will not put something over the flue of the boiler? How often should I check? Perhaps it would be reasonable to do so every week. What happens if he takes the battery out of his carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen and puts it in the remote control for the television? How many people have been killed because they have taken the battery out of a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide detector, just so they can change the channels without getting out of their chair? We read about such cases in the paper.

Mr. Khan: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Bill, if enacted, would put no additional obligations on landlords, employers or business?

Mr. Goodwill: Yes, I accept that good employers and landlords already comply with the legislation. My concern is that, by and large, the level of the fines is not widely known. We all know that if we get caught speeding, we will get three points and a £60 fine, and we all know that if we get caught drink-driving, we will lose our licence for a year. Everyone is aware of those fines. The point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Caerphilly during his excellent opening speech was that there is no widespread knowledge of the level of the fines, so increasing the fines is unlikely to have much effect. Putting more effort into inspections might be the way to target bad employers and landlords.

Next Section Index Home Page