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It falls to this House to consider the Bill again, as it was not settled by the other place earlier this week. That is a matter of regret. I have arrived at a late stage in its consideration, and I should like to begin by thanking my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for all the work that he did on it. I hope that this will be the last time that we need to debate it in this House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Maria Eagle: I will, although I have barely begun my remarks.

Mr. Grieve: I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in her new role. She said that she was troubled that the Bill had not been settled on the previous occasion. So are we, because we understood that an agreement had been reached that would enable it to go through the other place, swiftly come back here, and then move on to the statute book with everybody rejoicing. We now discover that the agreement that appeared to have been arrived at does not in fact exist. That will be the subject of this debate. I hope that when the Minister addresses the House she will explain why the suggestion that there should be acceptance of the inclusion of deaths in custody, and that there should be a long lead-in date, has been abandoned.

Maria Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words of welcome. I am sorry to be a disappointment to him the first time that we meet across the Dispatch Box, but there we are. I will do my best in future to be as un-disappointing as I possibly can—commensurate, of course, with collective responsibility and Government policy. [ Interruption . ] We will no doubt get on to exclusions at some point during our debate.

It is not accurate, as far as I am aware, to say that there was an agreement. I notice that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) did not say that there was an agreement that had been broken; he said that there was an agreement that he thought was there, but which happened not to be. As far as I am aware, there has been no agreement. I still hope that we can continue, as the hon. Gentleman said, and get the Bill on to the statute book.

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All parts of the House will be familiar with the fact that the issue that divides the elected House and another place, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is what is the appropriate way for the Bill to deal with deaths in custody. The Government have considered the position extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman was right, in the sense that the Bill was due to be debated in the other place on 2 July—but the debate there was postponed for a week, to provide for the new Government to consider the issue further. However, after that period of further reflection, and having given further careful thought to the concerns raised in this House and another place, the Government have concluded that we have gone far enough. The Government have offered considerable movement in response to the concerns that have been expressed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Minister. It is unfortunate that she is making her maiden speech in her new role on such a controversial matter. In fact, Lord Ramsbotham said in the Lords that there had been an agreement that had been withdrawn. However, whether or not that is so, is she aware that some Labour MPs, including me, are very unhappy—I said that I was last time, and I remain so—that the Government will give no indication whatever of a time when the Prison Service will be included? I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, who is listening, will before the end of this debate give further and serious consideration to the obvious concern felt by so many Members of both the Commons and the Lords.

Maria Eagle: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am, of course, aware of the great interest that he and others, in all parts of the House, have shown in this issue. Although until recently I was not the Minister dealing with it, I have had the great advantage of reading the Hansard reports of all the debates, so I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed, the interest that has been shown by hon. Members throughout the House and the points at issue. I can assure the House, including those who have expressed concerns and those who will no doubt speak later in the debate, that we have considered the issue further. The Government have offered considerable movement in response to the concerns that have been expressed. It would not be true to say that the Government have not moved.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister says that she has read the Hansard reports, and I am glad about that. If the Government are to be believed, it would seem that there is no issue of principle at stake, so what is the matter of practicality that inhibits the Government and prevents state custody from being brought within the corporate manslaughter regime?

Maria Eagle: The hon. and learned Gentleman anticipates my remarks. I shall deal with the points that he has raised shortly.

The Government have offered considerable movement in response to the concerns that have been expressed during the passage of the Bill. We have accepted the principle of the offence extending to custody, and provided a means in the Bill to bring that about. The Bill seeks to
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deal with a specific problem in attaching liability for gross corporate negligence to a corporate body. It addresses that problem against the backdrop of a number of failed prosecutions of large corporations over the years, as hon. Members present know. The Bill seeks to improve the prospects for a manslaughter prosecution in cases of that nature.

In dealing with that problem, the scope and application of the offence have been considered carefully at all stages. In debates in Committee and on Report, this House considered whether the offence should apply more widely than just to corporate bodies, and be extended to certain unincorporated bodies. We have made those changes in response to the concerns that have been expressed and the application of the Bill has, in that sense, been widened. Debates have also considered the penalties available for the offence, and whether that aspect of the law should be improved. Again, the Bill makes advances in that direction, too, providing for an entirely new sort of sentence—a publicity order.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Minister give way?

Maria Eagle: I shall deal with the hon. and learned Gentleman’s points in a moment.

From the outset, the Government have recognised that it would not be enough to apply the new offence to organisations in the private sector, and have tackled the principle of Crown immunity, making provision for the new offence to apply to Departments. But against that background, the Government have always been clear that it would not be right to apply the new offence to the exercise of certain public responsibilities. That position has been widely endorsed in both places, in most respects.

We have been prepared to reconsider that position in the light of the debates that have taken place in this House and the other place on the issue of deaths in custody, and we have offered considerable movement in response. I recognise that not all hon. Members accept that we have moved far enough, but they should accept that there has been movement. The amendments in lieu put forward by the Government explicitly recognise the principle of the Bill applying to deaths in custody, and set out a mechanism for bringing this about. That is absolutely right, and it represents considerable movement.

Nevertheless, there remain strong concerns about the practical implications of lifting Crown immunity. This brings us to the point that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has raised. The prosecution of Government Departments will represent an entirely new departure, and there are significant questions about the consequences of extending the criminal law to the management and organisation of activities that involve a high degree of public policy, and responsibilities that fall uniquely on the state.

There has been a good deal of recognition that it would be right to provide more time to consider the extension of the offence to custody. In our view, the right way to balance these concerns against the desire to make progress is to provide for an order-making
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power in the Bill, and I urge the House once again to send a clear signal to the other place that we consider that that is the basis on which the Bill should be adopted.

Mr. Garnier: I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say, but I am not sure that the logic of her argument suits general Government policy. The Government have been quite happy, through the Attorney-General, to prosecute battalion commanders for ostensibly vicarious responsibility for offences allegedly committed by soldiers under their command in Iraq— [ Interruption. ] Someone from the other side of the Chamber says, “Rightly so.” Why, then, is there any distinction in principle that would affect the practice that touches on deaths in custody? The Government cannot have it both ways. If the Minister is arguing that it is right in principle to do this, but not today, what is the difference that makes it right in principle tomorrow but not right in practice today?

Maria Eagle: I hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. I thought I had made it clear to the House that we have accepted the principle that the law could be extended—at the appropriate time—as those who object to putting the Bill on to the statute book without that extension have requested. However, there are large issues of practical application involved. It would not be correct for the Government to go ahead and agree to a timetable before we had had a chance to have a proper look at how the practical applications would impact on Departments and their functions.

Mr. Grieve: The more the hon. Lady goes on, the more I worried I get, because the original amendment, which provided for the introduction of this measure by statutory instrument at a later date, suggested that the Government had accepted the principle and that it was a matter of timing. Listening to her now, however, I am beginning to detect the signs that it is a matter of this year, next year, sometime, never. I suspect that the objections have come from the police—a matter that I shall comment on later—and that the resistance to this perfectly sensible proposal is now so great that the Government wish to duck out of it.

Maria Eagle: I would not accept that as a correct interpretation of what I am saying. The Government have clearly accepted the principle of the offence extending to custody, and we have provided a means in the Bill to bring that about. However, we think that the right way to balance the concerns of practicality against the desire to make progress is to provide for an order-making power in the Bill. I urge the House to support us on that, in order to send a clear signal to the other place that we consider that that is the basis on which the Bill should be adopted.

I would like briefly to explain a change in the drafting of the amendment in lieu before the House. The power to extend the offence applies slightly more widely than to those strictly in custody or detention, and includes people on specified premises. This ensures that the order-making power will be sufficiently wide to cover local authority secure accommodation where residents are not necessarily in custody, for example. It might also be desirable to cover certain other
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circumstances that do not constitute custody, such as approved probation premises. The drafting of this aspect of the power has been improved, ensuring that it is clearly targeted. There is much that is good in this Bill.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Maria Eagle: I am about to conclude my remarks.

The Bill will set out a new basis for holding organisations to account for gross corporate negligence, and it will send out a clear message that the law will bear down hard on organisations that do not take their health and safety responsibilities seriously. The Bill has been a long time coming and many people are anxious to see it on the statute book. The Government have offered considerable movement to those who want to see the Bill extend to deaths in custody, opening the door to achieve that, but that is as far as the Government consider it right for the Bill to go. Therefore, I hope that on the basis of a further clear signal from the House today, the other place will recognise that the time has come to allow the legislation to pass on to the statute book.

7.30 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am sorry for the Minister, that her first outing at the Dispatch Box on such a matter should be so unsatisfactory. Listening to her reminded me of when my children were smaller, and engaged in what psychologists call displacement activity: when they are confronted with something about which they do not want to hear, they start parroting off about all sorts of other topics in the hope that we will be distracted from the main issue by their words. I listened to her tell us all about the merits of the Bill and how it was introduced to deal with large corporations, and all of that is very fine indeed.

As the Minister knows, if she has been properly briefed and has looked at the Hansard record, when this matter was dealt with in Committee, it was about as consensual a piece of legislation as it was possible to find. Everyone was willing to co-operate to ensure that the legislation worked in all areas—so it really is a subject of the deepest regret that we are now in ping-pong with the other place because of a major disagreement. Indeed, there must be a serious threat that the Bill could fall completely unless the Government decide to extend the time, which I believe expires on 19 July. The ball is very much in their court.

The Government’s position is not only unjustifiable, but has become very unfortunate. There is no doubt that one of the problems we had was the rabid opposition of the previous Home Secretary to the idea of including deaths in custody. Having seen his intemperate behaviour at the Dispatch Box on the matter, and his intemperate words on the subject in general, I was hoping that with the arrival of the new Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), for whom I have the greatest possible respect, at the Ministry of Justice, some common sense would prevail at long last.

Indeed, last week, all the indications were—the Minister has confirmed this—that reason had at last prevailed, because, following representations in the
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other place, the date for the debate was moved. Lord Ramsbotham, who has been the great proponent of including deaths in custody, was informed that the Secretary of State for Justice was minded—and I emphasise that word—to include custody in the Bill and asked whether he would be happy if there were a delay while that was considered. Everyone, including myself, rejoiced that at long last we would have a sensible outcome. We expected the sensible outcome to be that the Government would say that they wanted a long lead-in time.

As the Minister will know, if she has read the Hansard reports of previous debates, we were prepared to agree a long lead-in time, because we accept that when a culture change is being brought about, with possibly rather recalcitrant organisations, providing time for them to prepare is very sensible. In fact, that agreement collapsed. I hazard the suggestion, to which I hope the Minister will respond, that the cause of the collapse came not from the Ministry of Justice but, interestingly enough, from the Home Office—and, I suspect, from the police. I regard that as a rather shameful matter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I am worried that the opposition should have come from the police. Perhaps my hon. Friend will forgive my making this point: some 40 years ago, when I was practising at the criminal Bar—and on a separate occasion when I served as a special constable—I saw in custody unreasonable force being used on people who were detained by the police. It was not fatal in those cases, but it was undoubtedly serious, and the sort of thing that we must guard against.

Mr. Grieve: I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. We have said it before, but it is worth repeating: 2,000 deaths occurred in custody of one form or another between 1995 and 2005. I am sure that many were inevitable, sad events, for which no one is to blame. However, there have also been 10 verdicts of unlawful killing in that period, and deaths have taken place in police custody that appear to be worrying and give rise to concerns that there has been at least gross negligence.

We are considering a legitimate subject for concern. In the circumstances, it is especially important to include deaths in custody in the corporate manslaughter regime. The Under-Secretary said that the measure was aimed at large corporations but, in the context of governmental organisations, the Prison Service and the police are exactly that. I am at a loss to understand how the national health service can be prosecuted for gross negligence and corporate manslaughter for the death of patients who take their own lives in mental hospitals, when the Prison Service, the police and other custodial environments are exempt, as special hospitals would be under the provisions.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have taken a specific interest in this issue. I am worried by his suggestion that the opposition has shifted to the police, because they would probably find it easier to adapt to the new law than the Prison Service would. That is a serious allegation. Does he have any evidence, or is it based on supposition?

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Mr. Grieve: I am aware of the problems of collective responsibility, but it would nevertheless be useful to have some clarification of the source of the objection. Last week, we understood that the Secretary of State for Justice was minded to accept the proposals, presumably with a long lead-in time. If I may say so, that was greatly to his credit. The impression that I derived from anecdotal evidence was that the objection came from the Home Secretary, who was repeating the objections that the previous Home Secretary had so emphatically made. However, the previous Home Secretary’s objections were made when he was responsible for the police and the Prison Service, but the Secretary of State for Justice is now responsible for the Prison Service. Let us consider the matter logically: if the Home Secretary is making vociferous objections, the reason for that must lie in opposition from the police. I hope that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), as a Government Back Bencher on an inside track, may have further information.

This is a question that we want answered. Where is the problem? If it is a question of a long lead-in time to give organisations time to adapt, the Secretary of State must know that he will find us conciliatory and willing to help; we always have been. However, listening to the Minister this evening I began to feel much more anxious that although the power may reach the statute book, it will only be able to be invoked by the Government, if they wish to do so.

Given that the instincts of the Secretary of State for Justice appear to be have been superseded by the views of others, I detect that in some quarters there is no intention of allowing the measure to appear on the statute book. I am convinced that it is needed and will contribute to exactly the same culture change for which the Government have argued so forcefully in respect of large corporations and their attitude to negligence. I am also convinced that, in most cases of unfortunate deaths in custody, nobody need worry about the possibility of prosecution. However, there will be some cases when prosecution is entirely justified.

Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend seeks, in his polite and kind way, to acquit the current Secretary of State for Justice from the charge of objecting to the change in law that we require, and to heap the blame on the current Home Secretary and the previous Home Secretary, who had responsibility for both the police and prisons. However, bearing in mind the current dangerously overcrowded state of our prisons, and the fact that since January 2006 about 100 people have taken their own lives in the prison estate, might not the current Secretary of State for Justice and his Ministers of State be scared witless that if the Bill were adjusted to include responsibility for corporate manslaughter within the prison system, the Attorney-General could be knocking on their door with a summons?

Mr. Grieve: That is possible, although the initial reaction of the Secretary of State for Justice when he first came to office was—very encouragingly, as I have said—to ask for a delay while he considered something that I suspect he found quite reasonable. I am detecting that the right hon. Gentleman might be wanting to intervene; if so, I shall happily give way to him.

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