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Would the Bill reduce serious infringements? I suspect not. What we need are deterrents, which include a good inspection regime and good trade unions in the workplace that are not frightened to draw problems to employers’ attention. I am also concerned about how courts will interpret the reversal of the burden of proof. It is always said that we are innocent until proven guilty, but in cases in which we employers have to prove that we are doing everything that is reasonably practicable, the burden of proof is reversed. As I said in relation to the inspection of smoke detectors, how far should one go? What is reasonably practicable? That is a point on which the courts would have to rule, and not something that could be put in this reforming Bill. When I looked at the Bill, I was amazed at how wide the net can be cast. I was very surprised to read that the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot during an anti-terrorist operation, has been brought under the Health and
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Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. That legislation not only applies to the workplace, but covers the issue of showing a duty of care.

It is the big cases that hit the headlines that bring home to people how important it is to maintain high levels of health and safety. There have been big pay-outs in recent years. The engineering firm Balfour Beatty and Network Rail were fined £13.5 million for breaches of health and safety at Hatfield, where four people were killed in 2000. Many people in Scotland remember the Larkhall gas blast in 1999, in which a family of four died when a leaking pipe exploded, destroying their house in Larkhall, south Lanarkshire, a few days before Christmas. The blast was so powerful that their fridge was projected on to the roof of a neighbour’s home, and the scene was likened to a war zone. After a 27-week trial, utility firm Transco was found guilty under health and safety legislation of failing to maintain the corroded and leaking gas main that ran through the family’s garden. It was fined £15 million in August 2005, which at the time set a UK record for health and safety prosecutions. It is that type of case that brings home to people how important it is to comply with health and safety legislation, not the fact that someone was fined £4,000 instead of £2,000, or the fact that somebody’s penalties were increased marginally.

The Ladbroke Grove train crash on 5 October 1999, in which 31 people were killed when a Thames Trains commuter service smashed into a First Great Western train after going through a red light at Ladbroke Grove in west London, resulted in a £2 million fine for Thames Trains for two breaches of health and safety regulations. Six people died and seven were seriously injured when a steel pin holding together a passenger walkway came loose as hundreds of people were boarding the Prins Filip ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend. That resulted in a £1.7 million fine for two Swedish firms that admitted errors. The Port of Ramsgate, which managed the port, was fined £200,000, and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, which certified the walkway, was fined £500,000. That brings home to companies how important it is to comply with the legislation.

I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate the Bill, but I think that this is the right place, but not the right time, to make such changes. I wonder why a private Member’s Bill has had to be used to bring forward measures that should be in Government legislation. The measures need proper scrutiny in Government time. I hope that the Government will reflect on that, and will allow the measures the more intense scrutiny and the full procedures that accompany proper Government legislation, so that the measures can have a much better passage through the House.

11.58 am

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): It is a privilege to speak in favour of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). I do not know how he managed to swing it so that his Bill received a Second Reading on the day before workers memorial day; he must have influence in some very high places. Today, I am speaking from my experiences as a trade unionist and as a solicitor who has acted for
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the victims of injury in the workplace and for their bereaved families. In fact, some of the cases to which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) referred were cases in which the firm that I co-founded acted on behalf of the bereaved families, or of those who had been injured.

When one speaks to victims of incidents at work or their family members, one finds that what they are really after is not compensation, but justice. They want to ensure that no death or personal injury takes place again, and that we are not put in a situation in which we can say, “Oh my God, not again.” That is the motivation for using the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and looking to the Health and Safety Executive to bring a prosecution.

It is worth considering the micro impact—that on the individual—and the macro impact. The cost of work-related accidents and ill health to society has been estimated at between £11 billion and £18 billion—the equivalent of 2 to 3 per cent. of the UK’s gross domestic product. Those vast costs crudely suggest the waste of productivity and the scale of human suffering that stems from health and safety offences.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked why the Bill had to come from a Back Bencher. I remind him that we recently commemorated a measure that a Back Bencher introduced 200 years ago—it began the outlawing of slavery. I therefore have no problems with a Back Bencher promoting the Bill and I fully support my hon. Friend’s measure.

Bob Spink: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the even more recent case of the most used criminal law in the land? It is the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, which began as a private Member’s Bill.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman, who is the king of interventions, made a good intervention, as usual. I suspect that he did that because he promoted the Act to which he referred. I will not hold that against him. It is an example of why we should not criticise the Government for not thinking of the idea first.

The Bill does not criticise the Health and Safety Executive or local authorities, which do all they can to bring successful health and safety prosecutions. The Bill is not about changing the requirements on business. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby made several good points that are worth a response. He asked about the burdens on landlords, employers and businesses. The Bill would not add further burdens. He spoke of his concern about the reverse burden of proof, but the measure complies with article 6 of the European convention on human rights. If he believes that more money should be spent on having more HSE inspectors and on advertising and making people aware of sentences for breaches of health and safety, he can table an amendment to the Finance Bill next week to increase expenditure so that more money can be spent on those matters.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the long sentences that courts pass. It is worth bearing in mind that none of the sentences in the measure is mandatory.
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They simply give the judges further tools if they believe that a higher penalty should be imposed on somebody who breaks the law.

The Bill has three clauses and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly on making it so short. I am especially pleased with two aspects of it. First, it provides that magistrates courts and Crown courts can imprison people when appropriate for health and safety offences. Secondly, it provides that some cases that were previously triable only in the magistrates court can be sent to the Crown court. That means that a magistrate could send a case to the Crown court.

I do not foresee loads of extra people going to prison. I expect the Bill to be used as a more effective deterrent, especially to directors and managers, whose influence on securing good health and safety practice is critical. Let us be clear: most health and safety breaches are not the fault of an individual director, but due to systemic failures. The idea that the Bill will mean directors queuing up to go to prison is not borne out by the facts.

As I said, I welcome the excellent measure and I congratulate my hon. Friend again on promoting it. I believe that it will lead to a change in the behaviour of those few employers, landlords and businesses who have been guilty of flagrant disregard of health and safety legislation, leading our judges to demonstrate frustration in some cases. It will give judges the right tools to punish adequately the guilty landlord, employer and business. I commend it to the House.

12.4 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on promoting the Bill and the excellent case that he made for it. I also congratulate all those involved in drafting the measure because it appears to be a good Bill.

Canvey Island is in my constituency and I therefore have knowledge of control of major accident hazard—COMAH—industrial sites. My constituents have to live with the danger that the site represents. They want to know that I am in this place ensuring that they have the maximum protection and that the law enables judges to make proper decisions and thus deter people from taking safety short cuts on industrial sites. Indeed, my constituents are deeply concerned about industrial hazards, given the incidents at Flixborough and Buncefield, as well as accidents in the USA and Canada on sites similar to the one that is proposed for Canvey Island and the one that already operates there.

My constituents want us to realise the vision of my right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party of being a caring party that does not simply have the knee-jerk reaction of protecting the interests of big business but takes account of the interests of the community and business employees. I am sure that Conservative Front Benchers want to do that.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) made an excellent speech. I agree with him that we do not anticipate many more people being sent to prison. We want to give judges the ability, which they do not currently have but say that they want and need to use
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prison as an ultimate deterrent so that people do not take short cuts but take a little more care to prevent the accidents that cause so much human suffering and loss, as well as loss of productivity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made an excellent point when he said that prevention is much better than dealing with such matters in the courts after the event. Perhaps the opportunities for prevention would be better if the number of health and safety professionals had not fallen in the past three years by approximately 25 per cent. I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 1320 on Health and Safety Executive job cuts, which points out the lack of resources being made available for maintaining health and safety for UK workers, and the fact that staff numbers have fallen from 4,282 in April 2004 to 3,225 in March 2007.

Mr. Khan: I am fascinated by those figures and by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to his compassionate leader. He clearly expects cross-party consensus on the Bill and would be shocked if the Bill were pressed to a vote.

Bob Spink: No, I would not be shocked, because a further good point was made by my colleagues on the Conservative Benches about the need for further scrutiny to ensure that this excellent Bill, or a Bill similar to it, achieves everything that it should achieve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby on making that excellent point about prevention. As he said, this is the sort of Bill that could benefit from proper scrutiny in the House in Government time. I wait to hear the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), from the Front-Bench, before deciding how I will vote on the Bill.

12.10 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on bringing the Bill before us. There cannot be a Member in the entire House who does not acknowledge the importance of the subject. Although it is probably impossible for us to make life entirely accident-free and safe for everybody under every circumstance, we should do everything we can through the legislative process to move towards that goal.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) congratulated the hon. Member for Caerphilly on making the Bill brief—it contains only three clauses—but it could have extensive consequences. I echo the comments of several of my colleagues that the subject is so weighty that the Bill deserves Government time and proper scrutiny, so it should proceed through Parliament like any normal Bill, to ensure that every aspect of it is taken into consideration and it does not have unintended consequences.

I have no doubt that the Bill is full of good intentions, which we would all echo. Its main purpose is to increase fines for health and safety offences, and to increase the potential for custodial sentences in certain circumstances and the options for trial in lower or higher courts. We would all support that, but we need to consider every possible circumstance before we can be sure that it is the right thing to do.

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My first thought was about the financial effects of the Bill. The explanatory notes point out that it would lead only to a minimal increase in the prison population. That is a topical concern because of the crisis in prison capacity. A range of offences which most of us would consider to be deserving of custodial sentences are being excluded because of the lack of prison capacity, rather than the gravity of the offence. The notes also claim that the Bill might lead to a few additional cases being heard in the higher courts. It would have little financial effect on the public purse, but it would have a serious financial effect on offenders. That is its main purpose.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly spoke of proportionality—that is, relating the gravity of the offence to the level of the fine. That is an extremely important consideration because the level of offences encompassed by the Bill varies widely.

Mr. David: The hon. Lady expressed some support for the broad thrust of the Bill, but argued that more time needs to be spent examining it in Committee. Can she explain to the House how examination in Committee would add to the Bill, bearing in mind that the issue has been discussed for a number of years already?

Angela Watkinson: I imagine that one of the hon. Gentleman’s intentions is to bring the level of fines up to date. The range of circumstances in which offences under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 can be committed is very wide. I have been jotting down a selection, which I am sure is only a small selection of the potential list that could be covered. We need more in-depth scrutiny to examine all the potential circumstances, and the way in which the new level of fines and the opportunity for custodial sentencing could affect employers, Government Departments and the range of bodies which would be subject to the Bill.

Norman Baker: I agree that there should be extra scrutiny, which will come in Committee if the Bill is given its Second Reading. Do the official Opposition want that scrutiny to take place in Committee?

Angela Watkinson: I would like scrutiny in Committee in Government time, which would allow the Bill to be scrutinised by a larger number of hon. Members. As is sadly the case with private Members’ Bills on Fridays, the audience is rather sparse. The subject will interest many colleagues on both sides of the House, who will want to be involved in scrutinising the legislation, which is why I feel that the Bill deserves Government time.

The explanatory notes refer to the European convention on human rights and include the intriguing phrase:

That is a new one on me, although perhaps it is common knowledge among hon. Members who spend more time than me reading Bills. I wonder what a judge would make of it. I know that we have gone a long way since the days when a judge would ask, “And who are the Beatles?”, but it would not surprise me if a judge were to ask what SFAIRP means. Our scrutiny should
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consider the wide range of circumstances, and the position on whether people have taken every reasonable step to make sure that health and safety requirements have been complied with.

The Bill is compatible with article 6 of the ECHR in that it strikes a fair balance between the fundamental rights of the individual and the general interests of the community. On human rights issues, the clash is always between the human rights of an individual and the human rights of the wider community. In particular, case law in that area has established that before any question of whether the reverse burden of proof applies, the defendant must be proved to have owed a duty, which is a relevant point, and it has be established that the matters that need to be proved in order to establish a defence are matters within the defendant’s personal knowledge.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the Hampton review, because when we consider not only this Bill, but any legislation, we must ensure that we are not introducing excessive regulation on business and organisations that are already overburdened. In our efforts to make sure that every aspect is covered, we must ensure that the legislation is not excessive or unnecessary, and that it does not duplicate existing legislation.

I am particularly interested to know the hon. Gentleman’s view on intrinsically dangerous occupations, such as the police, the armed forces, sport and certain areas in health, and whether what is reasonable and health and safety regulations can sit comfortably together. We need to scrutinise such matters more closely.

Health and safety is a minefield for a large range of public buildings. The House of Commons is an obvious example, because all the time it is full of people, such as people who are employed here, and the general public who are visiting. I am not sure which category hon. Members fall into; we probably have a foot in both camps. The opportunities for transgressing health and safety regulations are wide with regard to Departments, and in particular to local government. Our town halls experience a very heavy footfall of members of the public, and local government must be mindful of health and safety regulations.

Mr. Khan: With the greatest respect, the hon. Lady has fundamentally misunderstood the Bill. The Bill does not widen the scope of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974; it simply increases the tools at the disposal of the judge vis- -vis sentences. Why does she believe that the Public Bill Committee procedure cannot scrutinise a three-clause Bill in the normal way?

Angela Watkinson: It is the very increase in the level of fines and the potential for custodial sentencing that will mean all those organisations having to be more aware of the dangers of not dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of health and safety regulations.

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