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The third reason for the higher penalties in the Bill is the need for greater efficiency in the court system. There seems to be no doubt that at present the lower
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courts will often refer more serious cases, which they are otherwise quite competent to hear and judge, to the higher courts because they feel that they do not have adequate sentencing powers. Consequently, cases are delayed, court time is wasted and the more valuable time of the higher courts is used up unnecessarily. By extending the £20,000 maximum fine to the lower courts and making imprisonment an option, the effect of the Bill will be that more cases will be resolved in the lower courts. Justice will be faster, less costly and more efficient.

I now turn—somewhat reluctantly, as a non-lawyer—to the Bill’s engagement with the European convention on human rights. The convention point at issue is article 6, paragraph 2, which concerns the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, and its relationship with section 40 of the 1974 Act, which has the effect of reversing the burden of proof on to the defendant when the offence is subject to the statutory qualification “so far as is reasonably practicable”.

The question is whether the Bill increases the likelihood of a successful ECHR challenge by introducing the option of imprisonment for an offence to which the reverse burden of proof applies. The answer is twofold. First, it appears that such a provision can be compatible with article 6, paragraph 2 if it is justified on the basis that it is reasonable and proportionate and does no more than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the aims of the statute. Secondly, it appears that the Court of Appeal has recently concluded, on the basis of several compelling factors, that so far as “reasonable practicability” offences are concerned, section 40 of the 1974 Act represents a fair balance between the rights of the individual to a fair trial and the protection of life and limb from dangerous work practices. For those reasons, I am assured that the Bill’s provisions are not incompatible with the convention. The argument is set out at greater length in the explanatory notes, and I hope that this explanation will be to the satisfaction of the House.

Let me draw my speech to a close. The 1974 Act is a remarkably durable and successful piece of legislation. In its 33 years, it has experienced minor amendment from time to time—this Bill is one such amendment. The Act has been added to by hundreds of regulations, but its substance—the structures, duties and offences and the approach to safety in the workplace that it established—has remained intact and has stood the test of time. The standards of culture that it enshrines have been sustained by the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, two bodies of high national and international repute, and by the highly respected role played by environmental health officers at a local level.

The 1974 Act’s record speaks for itself. Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent. The number of reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent. If we look behind changing employment patterns during that period, we see the same picture. Between 1974 and 2007, the rate of fatal injuries per 100,000 employees fell by a huge 76 per cent. Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. The EU average was 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers; the figure in the UK was 1.1.

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However, that still equates to about 250 workplace deaths a year and many more injuries. There can be no complacency; hence the need for the Bill. It will allow us to punish the criminally negligent who put life and limb in danger, deter those who attempt to cut costs by breaking health and safety law, and render justice faster and more efficient—and it will do so without introducing any new regulatory requirements or new compliance costs in any sector. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.40 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), particularly on the clarity of his explanation. He may have appreciated the fact that I was listening attentively, as I am not exactly an expert in the field; I was here for the previous debate.

The right hon. Gentleman made two important points. First, we are often concerned about over-regulation, but when we look at what can happen in the workplace when insufficient attention is given to safety, we realise how important it is to employers, employees and their families. The impact of a big incident can spread throughout a community.

Secondly, on deterrence, I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill covers the issue that I am about to raise, but I shall do so briefly, as he might be able to consider it. I have been asking questions recently about how many incidents have taken place involving children under 16. The number has doubled over the past few years. One could say that it is not a large number, but the fact that children are involved gives it some significance. In one well-documented accident, a young man lost his hand in a mincing machine in a butcher’s shop. I have met him, and I must say that Sam has made a remarkable recovery from that terrible occurrence.

We are not debating child employment legislation today, but an awareness of child employment legislation—for example, the fact that work permits are needed—should be brought to light. We know that children are working without work permits or risk assessments because of out-of-date regulations. From the survey work that I have done with several local authorities, I have found that some issue very few work permits. I am deeply concerned that there is a lack of awareness about children in employment. I feel that proportionate measures, fines and publicity where appropriate would raise awareness of the issue generally as well as in relation to children, and of the need to understand what the law is.

1.43 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his clear and logical introduction of the Bill. He set out the reasons why he thinks it necessary; I agree with them, and I have a couple of other reasons why I think that it is appropriate and should be put on the statute book. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her comments. She mentioned in particular the issue of
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child injuries at work. I agree that we need to consider it carefully, and I shall make a few comments on it in the course of my remarks.

As we are holding a Second Reading debate on a health and safety matter, I will, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, go a little wider than the Bill, because we do not often have opportunities to debate health and safety in the House. That is a pity because they are extremely important.

The health and safety profession currently has a severe problem. Doubtless many people who are watching the debate are concerned that we are looking to put a Bill on the statute book that would increase health and safety offences, because health and safety has had a bad press in recent years. Let me read two letters to a national newspaper in October last year. The first states:

Another letter from the same day states:

the lady

Even Tom Mullarkey, the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said on 12 November:

The Institution for Occupational Safety and Health, an excellent organisation and the professional standards body for health and safety professionals in public and private practice, spoke of its concern for the public

I mention those concerns because, as the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the reality of serious
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injuries and death in the workplace is very different. In 2006-07, the provisional figure that I had was 241 staff killed in work-related accidents. The right hon. Gentleman cited 250, so perhaps it has increased. That is an 11 per cent. increase on the previous year. The figure that especially shocked me from our debate in Westminster Hall on the construction industry was that in the six years to 31 March 2004 there were 504 deaths from construction accidents—only 18 fewer than the number of regular service personnel killed through accidental or violent causes. Who would have thought that being a builder was nearly as dangerous as being a soldier?

In 2006-07, there were 28,267 work-related major injuries. Those figures are unacceptably high and some individual incidents are frankly scandalous. Seventeen-year-old Daniel Dennis was killed by falling through a skylight. He had been given no training, he had no harness and the skylight around which he was working was not even fenced off. It is really important that the Health and Safety Executive should counter the many false allegations laid at the door of health and safety; it does not always do so. In a national newspaper last year, an ex-service parade at Droitwich was reported to have been cancelled for health and safety reasons. I rang the Health and Safety Executive to find out whether that was the case. It was not, but I did not see any media rebuttal. Tom Mullarkey said that he came across—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have allowed him a little latitude, but I sense that he is bursting the bounds of the long title of the Bill. As he knows, the Bill is about the mode of trial and maximum penalties applicable to certain offences. He can argue about what should be in the Bill and how it might be extended, but we cannot have a too general debate about health and safety.

Andrew Selous: I accept your guidance absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was coming to the end of that section of my speech; I assure you that the rest of my remarks will relate directly to the Bill. However, it is important to set the context within which we are having this debate; the matters that I have mentioned touch on the substance of the Bill as well.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which the Bill would amend, was brought in by the Conservative party. The fines that the Bill would amend were set in 1991 and 1992, so on grounds of inflation alone there would be a good case for amending them. As the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the Bill would also allow imprisonment in certain cases—that, of course, would give a permissive, not a prescriptive, power—and allow cases to be heard in the lower or higher courts in certain circumstances.

Everything in the Bill was first called for in 1999. Why has such a Bill not been introduced in Government time since then? I am aware that much important legislation has got on to the statute book through the private Member’s Bill route, but given the importance of the matters that we are debating, I would be interested to know the Minister’s answer to my question. There are concerns about front-line
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construction inspectors in particular. In a letter that the Minister wrote to me after the Westminster Hall debate last year, she pointed out that there had been a decline in full-time-equivalent construction inspectors from 133 to 125 since the previous year.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, judges are calling for tougher penalties. Paul Regan, a cowboy gas fitter, put customers at risk from deadly carbon monoxide fumes. The judge said:

and declared that he would not allow the man within 150 miles of his own house. He also said that the man

Another case involved two students who were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. When the landlord was sentenced, the judge said:

In another case, two workmen were badly burned by an underground methane gas explosion; the judge said that given how serious the matter was, he was surprised that fines were the only penalty available to him. In yet another case, the directors of a firm were convicted of seven charges of illegal child employment, and the judge said:

Frankly, I do not think that our constituents would want us to deny powers that judges are calling for in our courts, on this or any other matter.

As the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the Bill would place no additional requirements on employers or businesses, but should have a strong deterrent effect. He is right to say that there is a moral obligation on all of us to take all reasonable steps to ensure that workplace accidents and fatalities are reduced to as few as possible. I would also argue, however, that the Bill would go some way towards reducing some of the burdensome enforcement policy that employers sometimes complain about.

The right hon. Gentleman quoted from the Macrory report. Its full title is “Regulatory Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”, and it was published in November 2006. In it, Professor Macrory said:

He went on to state:

So there is even an argument that the Bill is pro- business efficiency.

Another argument, which I do not remember the right hon. Gentleman using, is that there should be a level playing field for all business. The Macrory report says that

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Sadly, a small minority of rogue employers are coming to the conclusion that it is cheaper to pay the fines than to keep their staff safe, as the vast majority of businesses do. Could the Minister clarify what provision there will be for the regular uprating of the fines that would be adjusted by the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill? That is a reasonable question, given that those figures have not been changed since 1991 and 1992. The Bill does not make it clear whether it would be by annual regulation-making power or any other means.

The official Opposition support the Bill, which is a necessary and important measure in ensuring that all our fellow citizens have the best possible chance of getting up in the morning, going to work and coming back without in any way being injured or even, God forbid, suffering a fatality.

1.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). I am pleased that he has decided to introduce and take forward the measures in this Bill. I am delighted that he recognised the efforts of some of his predecessors, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), who was the most recent Member to try to deal with these issues. I also thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about the support that he has received from the Department for Work and Pensions and health and safety officials. I congratulate him on his comprehensive and detailed exposition of the terms and implications of his Bill, which was exemplary—although I would not have expected anything less from him. I am glad that his talents and skills, which were well recognised in his previous role, have now been exposed to us all in his new, or resumed, role as a Back Bencher.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for the Bill. Most of what he said was valuable. However, it was a pity that he tried to drag across the old myth about health and safety, sometimes expressed in the newspapers, that things are always the fault of the Health and Safety Executive. He almost perpetuated some of the myths that he identified in the letters to which he referred. I want to make it clear that the HSE is not against children getting skint knees—that might be a Scottish expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it means grazed. We are not against poppies having pins in them either. Last October and November, it was suggested that one of the big charities had changed the style of its poppies because health and safety people said that it could not put pins in the back of them. That was palpably untrue. The charity did not identify that problem and the HSE knew nothing about the story.

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