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The hon. Gentleman mentioned Remembrance day parades. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission wrote to all chief executives of local authorities about the need for a sensible approach to health and safety. He was not imposing new burdens or saying that the authorities had to do things a certain way. For many years, the HSC and HSE have said that there needs to be a sensible and measured approach to health and safety. They know full well that we cannot
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remove every risk from everyday life. We can, however, be sensitive to the fact that by taking some action, we can reduce the risks to the general public.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the HSE was not more robust in dealing with media stories. I am sure he knows, as a politician of some skill, that it is not always possible to get the rebuttal in because it spoils the story.

Andrew Selous: Of course I accept what the Minister says about rebuttals not always being printed. However, the HSE has an important role in countering false allegations and misplaced stories in the media. Whether we like it or not, such stories are printed in newspapers and our constituents pick them up and read them. The rebuttal role is important. I urge her to ensure that the HSE takes that role seriously.

Mrs. McGuire: I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the HSE takes that role seriously, but unfortunately it has no control over what is printed in the media, what editorial judgment is exercised by those who print the stories in deciding what is a good story and whether a rebuttal from the HSE would undermine the “fun” of criticising it. In some respects, it has become a bit of a national pastime to ridicule the HSE, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham identified, the work done over many years has made Britain’s industrial and general activities safer than they are in many other countries. However, I appreciate that I may be tempting fate a little, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by going on too long about that aspect of the debate.

The Bill’s proposals are consistent with the Government’s health and safety strategy and the wider considerations of regulatory sanctions in the Hampton and Macrory reports. We are satisfied that the HSE and local authorities are doing all that they can to bring successful health and safety prosecutions. Indeed, in 2006-07, the success rate for prosecutions was 74.3 per cent., reflecting the effectiveness of the HSE’s investigation and decision-making process.

I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to the debate, but it is not for me to comment on the issues that she raised. However, I will ensure that they are drawn to the attention of those who can respond on the problem of children working in dangerous conditions—a matter that is covered by the HSE—without suitable permits.

The HSE prosecutes when it is proportionate to do so, when failures to comply with the law are serious and when serious risks are not prevented. That is in line with Health and Safety Commission policy and the enforcement principle supported by the Government. The proportionate approach is evident in the fact that all HSE activities, including inspection and investigation, in 2006-07 resulted in the executive issuing 8,071 enforcement notices and prosecuting 1,141 offences. The response to most breaches is advice and information, given in the spirit of working with companies, individuals and organisations.

Cases that are brought to court represent the most serious breaches of health and safety legislation, in
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which people are unacceptably exposed to the risk of serious harm. Although the prosecution success rates are high, the lower courts, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham highlighted, are prevented in serious health and safety cases from imposing adequate, realistic penalties. Consequently, as he said, cases are delayed and court time is wasted, as the lower courts refer to the higher courts cases that they are otherwise competent to hear but for which they believe they lack adequate sentencing powers. That is the crux of the problem tackled by the Bill.

In addition, there are serious breaches for which it is not possible to impose a custodial sentence, even in the higher courts, except in limited circumstances. My right hon. Friend generously raised the work of our hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on the issue of carbon monoxide poisoning, and mentioned his Adjournment debate. I was privileged to reply to that debate and, both as a constituency MP and on a personal level, I have experience of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and the work of unregistered gas installers, which can eventually lead to illness or death. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire also raised the matter. He mentioned the Paul Regan case, which encapsulates the need for my right hon. Friend’s important Bill. The judge in that case said that he would not allow Mr. Regan within 150 miles of his house and that although he should go to prison, the rogue gas fitter could be fined.

The Bill will make imprisonment an option for the judiciary and the courts for a wider range of serious breaches of health and safety legislation. It will also help to address the mounting concern at the anti-deterrent effect of what many people regard as derisory penalties handed down by the courts—another point made both by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham and by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. As long ago as 1998, the Court of Appeal found that the general level of fines in health and safety cases was too low, and gave examples of aggravating and mitigating factors that might be relevant when a court decided on a sentence.

Let me explain why the Bill has been introduced on five occasions—on one occasion in a slightly different form—and why the Government did not appear to find time for it. As I hope Members recognise, there are different ways in which legislation can be processed. I do not think we should underestimate the importance of the private Member’s opportunity. I can tell the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that we have been trying to get the Bill through the House on Fridays since 2000. I am surprised that Back Benchers with experience of some of these matters should complain that we have not attempted to give the Bill priority when we have tried to get it through on five occasions during five parliamentary Sessions. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the Bill, but I do not think the complaint about the Government stands up to scrutiny. We have supported my right hon. Friend and those who have presented the Bill previously, and have said in the House more than once that we want to get it on to the statute book. For a number of reasons, some of which are a mystery to me, that has not happened so far. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that today is the day on which we are all on the road to Damascus, and I congratulate
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him on allowing that to happen. I venture to suggest that when we debated the subject in Westminster Hall he was somewhat embarrassed about the fact that the Bill had not been passed for various reasons, although not through any fault of Her Majesty’s Government, or, indeed, the Back Benchers who had promoted it.

The Health and Safety Executive has always been clear about the need to improve the levels of fines. There is a disparity between fines imposed for other regulatory breaches and those imposed for health and safety offences. In 2007, British Airways was fined £121.5 million for illegally fixing fuel charges on passengers. The postal regulator fined Royal Mail nearly £12 million for service standard failures, and in 2005 the Financial Services Authority fined Shell £17 million for serious misconduct amounting to market abuse. The biggest ever United Kingdom fine for a health and safety offence was the £15 million that Transco was fined following the Larkhall explosion which killed a family of four in 1999.

I agree with my right hon. Friend and others that for social and economic reasons it is important for breaches of financial and competition regulations to be punished heavily, but it is also right for corporate health and safety crimes to attract more serious sanctions such as increased fines and, in the most serious cases, imprisonment. It is vital for the House to send a message to those who seek to flout the health and safety regulations and put at risk the safety of employees and other individuals through either their desire for profit or their incompetence.

Andrew Selous: I asked the Minister a question that I do not think she has answered yet. How are we to amend the fines? Must we wait nine years for another private Member’s Bill, can we do it annually or will it be done by regulation?

Mrs. McGuire: Obviously this is a matter for primary legislation, but future increases will be considered in the context of general issues relating to fines for criminal offences. As far as I am aware, there is an ongoing review of those issues.

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I again thank my right hon. Friend. I hope and suspect that the Bill on this occasion is going to get the fair wind that it deserved in 2000, and 2001 and on all the other dates. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

2.14 pm

Keith Hill: With the leave of the House, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her generous remarks and support. I am grateful, too, to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her support. She raised a specific question about the relationship between child employment and the risk of injury. The provisions of the Bill bear on that. Indeed in one well-known judgment the judge complained about the lack of imprisonment as an option in a dreadful case involving the employment of children found to be exposed to asbestos.

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), especially in the light of the history rehearsed by my hon. Friend the Minister. He spoke powerfully and graphically about the continuing high level of death and injury in the workplace, and of the continuing need for health and safety legislation. It was not a point that I dwelt on, but the hon. Gentleman was right to link deterrence and regulation. The Hampton thesis is that effective deterrence makes for lighter inspection and enforcement. Indeed, his report is entitled “Reducing administrative burdens.”

Without further ado, I look forward to further exchanges in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time , and committed to a Public Bill Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order).

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Forces Widows’ Pensions (Equality of Treatment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.16 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the Bill to the Floor of the House. I am representing my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). I am grateful to the Minister for his time, and I know that I can always expect a fair hearing from him.

I will give a bit of background first, but I will be extremely brief. Improvements to the armed forces pension scheme in 1973 led to an increase in the provision for service widows. As with all improvements to public sector pension schemes, the change was not retrospective. In this case, that meant that an anomaly was created whereby widows whose husbands served before 31 March 1973 receive only one third of their late husband's pension, whereas the widows of servicemen who served on or after 31 March 1973 receive one half of their husband's pension.

Those who served in the forces on or after 31 March 1973 contributed to the higher rate of widows' pensions through the deductions from their salaries. Although those who were serving at the time could "buy in" their pre-1973 service, so as to ensure that their wife was eligible for a half-rate pension on their death, those who retired before the change could not do so.

In 2002, the European Court of Human Rights ruled out various challenges to the armed forces pension scheme in respect of widows. It rejected the argument that the changes in 1973 had treated service personnel unfairly. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire wishes to introduce the following provisions.

The Bill does not provide an increase from one third to one half of the relevant forces widows' pensions, because to do so would breach the ban on private Members’ Bills spending public money. Instead, the Bill provides for the Government, through regulation within 12 months of the Bill becoming law, to provide pensions to the spouses or civil partners of servicemen or servicewomen who retired before 31 March 1973 and between 31 March 1973 and 6 April 2005 on an equal basis. That means that the Government can either increase the pensions of those currently receiving a one-third pension, or reduce the pensions of those receiving one half. Clearly, the latter is a non-starter.

It is difficult to be exact about the cost of that. The cost of raising pensions to one half does not seem to be available from the Ministry of Defence. It has said that it does not know how many widows are in this position. In evidence to the Select Committee on Defence in 2002, the MOD estimated the cost of making the 1973 change retrospective at between £25 million and £30 million a year. The cost of course is falling all the time as, sadly, widows die. The Ministry of Defence figure is a gross cost; part of the expense would presumably be recouped through higher tax receipts.

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I fully understand the arguments against my right hon. Friend’s Bill, but every Member represents widows who are caught in this anomalous position; we have all had mail, pressure or surgery cases involving such widows. I personally know many widows—not so much from my generation, but certainly from my father’s generation—who are now in this pensions trap.

This is a right and sensible alteration to make, and the Government would be wise to listen to my right hon. Friend’s proposal. I hope that they will see reason, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s arguments.

2.20 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I just wish to place on the record the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Bill, and to note that three of my party colleagues are among its sponsors.

2.21 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on his clear and lucid account of the Bill’s provisions. We understand what it seeks to achieve. Equality of treatment is a matter of fairness, which we support. He mentioned cost and said that it was not an option to reduce pensions currently in payment, and I think we would all accept that we must not do that.

The key question for the Government is how much this measure would cost. On 6 November last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) tabled a written parliamentary question. In the reply, it was stated that the Government Actuary had confirmed £50 million as the cost of the measure, and it was also stated that if the measure were applied across all public sector pension schemes the total cost could be between £300 million and £500 million. Will the Minister respond specifically on that point, so we know exactly how much it might be?

Will the Minister also say something about the war widow’s special allowance? I have tried to find out about that, although not with any great success. Does the special allowance increase the value of the pensions of the widows who receive it to the half-pension level that pre-1973 retirees would have enjoyed? I would also like to know how many widows whose servicemen husbands retired before 31 March 1973 are not receiving that allowance. Those are all facts that we need to know in order to be able to take the Bill forward.

The official Opposition are sympathetic to the sentiments behind the Bill, as expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark. We back the policy of equal treatment or fairness; that should run through everything we do in this House. However, there are significant questions that we need the Minister to answer before we can proceed.

2.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on obtaining the time for this debate, and the hon. Member for
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Newark (Patrick Mercer) on coming to the Chamber to speak in support of the Bill. I also pay tribute to his distinguished service in the armed forces. I know that he takes a great deal of interest in the welfare not only of the armed forces but of their families and, sadly, widows as well—of which, of course, we have had a number in recent years, in addition to those from earlier conflicts.

I pay tribute to Mrs. Jenny Green of the War Widows Association, who will be known to many Members of this House. She has done sterling work on behalf of war widows, and will be stepping down some time this year. She has taken a great interest in war widows’ issues and has been a forceful character in pursuing them.

Let me first give a general picture, so that a number of points are on the record. I hope that the House will bear with me. The Government of course value greatly the work and commitment of the individuals who have served in our armed forces over the years; in that regard, we need only look at the outstanding and courageous work that our people are doing in Iraq today. Of course, these individuals have received all the benefits that were considered appropriate at the time, and that were part of their terms and conditions of service when they served. It is a long-standing principle that, where changes are made to the benefits of public service pension schemes, they are implemented from a current date for future service only and are not made retrospective.

There are of course a number of legacy issues, including those relating to widows’ and widowers’ benefits, that have arisen as a result of Government economic policies and improvements that were made in the past—mostly in the late 1970s—to the armed forces pension scheme 75, known as AFPS 75, that did not cover those who served before the changes were made. It is in this context that I want to address the three key legacy issues relating to the Bill.

On pensions for life, following a change of policy in 2000, widows and widowers whose spouses died for reasons associated with service life have been able to retain their pensions on remarriage or cohabitation. However, the change was extended only to those individuals who had not already remarried or cohabited; it was not made retrospective. The change made in 2000 was exceptional and for a very special group of war widows; it was not extended to widows or widowers whose spouses had died for reasons unrelated to service. The one-off cost of buying back the liability to restore the attributable pensions of those who remarried before the change would be about £40 million. The future cost of providing pensions for life for non-attributable widows and widowers would be £14 million a year, with retrospective costs of £460 million for the armed forces scheme, and of some £3 billion if applied to the rest of the public sector.

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