Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Jun 2008 : Column 580

I was also grateful to Mr. Smyth for finding time for our lengthy discussion. The Northern Ireland CBI, like its Great Britain counterpart, supports the principle of the Bill, but continues to have several concerns about provisions to widen the imprisonment powers of the lower courts. I hope to respond to those broader issues in my speech on Third Reading.

Meanwhile, I hope that it will be for the House’s benefit if I set out the process whereby the amendments appear before us.

Mr. Dismore: Earlier, my right hon. Friend mentioned accident statistics, which he aggregated between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Does he have separate figures for Northern Ireland? Is Northern Ireland’s record better or worse than that of the rest of the country?

Keith Hill: Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because it enables me to put on record the precise statistics for Great Britain and for Northern Ireland and to compare them with those for the European Union. In 2002-03, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers in Great Britain was 0.8 per cent. In Northern Ireland, the figure was 0.9 per cent., and the statistic for the European Union as a whole was 2.1 per cent. That shows that our record for health and safety not only for staff in workplaces but members of the public who visit workplaces is excellent compared with that of our neighbouring countries. I commend the work of the Health and Safety Commission and all the partners involved in the process. We must remember that it is a three-way process, which involves not only the health and safety enforcement authorities, but business and the trade unions.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many silent partners support the Bill, including environmental health officers, who have witnessed severe breaches of health and safety laws and desperately hope that the Bill reaches its final stages today?

Keith Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the sentiment that she expresses. My sense is that it is the will of the House that the measure reaches the statute book. She is right that a large health and safety community is following its progress in detail. I hope to be able to pay tribute to organisations that have expressed active support for the Bill.

Mr. Dismore: My right hon. Friend provided some interesting statistics on fatalities for Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. Does he have similar figures for serious accidents?

Keith Hill: I am afraid that I do not. We know that, for 2005-06—the last year for which separate statistics are available for Great Britain—there were 241 fatalities, some 30,000 serious accidents and approximately 100,000 less serious accidents in the workplace. That is a reminder of the need for constant vigilance and an important reinforcement of the purposes of the Bill—to ensure the appropriate punishment of those who are negligent and to deter those who would seek to cut costs by infringing health and safety arrangements.

13 Jun 2008 : Column 581
10 am

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Keith Hill: I will, but then I want to make some progress before becoming available to take further interventions.

Ms Butler: Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether, for example, breaches of fundamental requirements to conduct risk assessments for breaches of asbestos regulations would be included?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the House might usefully have a little guidance. We have essentially two debates today, one of which is on the group of amendments that we are now discussing, which relate to the Bill’s applicability to Northern Ireland. This debate must concentrate on that. There will, I hope, be an opportunity, if the House makes progress, to have a more general debate on Third Reading.

Keith Hill: I am grateful for your guidance and for the opportunity that you signal for a wider discussion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Briefly, the answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes, and that will apply in Northern Ireland as well as Great Britain. However, I hope to say a little more about those matters in due course.

Mr. Dismore: My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. He gave us the most up-to-date figures for Northern Ireland, which were from 2002-03, yet he gave much more up-to-date figures for the rest of the United Kingdom—although even they seem to be rather out of date, if I may say so. Does he think it a matter of concern that we do not have real-time numbers, in this day and age of computers, to allow us to know much more accurately the position in Northern Ireland, as opposed to the rest of the United Kingdom?

Keith Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he allows me to clarify an observation that I have made. I will make progress after this, but he should bear it in mind that the statistics that I gave for 2005-06 were the numbers of fatalities and accidents in the workplace. The figures that I gave for the earlier period were, of course, comparative percentages. I am confident that we in Great Britain and Northern Ireland maintain our statistics on such matters as efficiently and in as up to date a way as possible, but one must also wait for the publication of other countries’ statistics when engaged in the business of comparative analysis.

Let me turn to the amendments before us. The health and safety authorities in Northern Ireland have a long-standing policy of maintaining legislative parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in health and safety at work legislation. In fact, the health and safety regime in Northern Ireland is governed by the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which essentially replicates the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 covering England, Scotland and Wales. Thus, although the 1978 order originally allowed for different administrative arrangements, it otherwise transposed in their entirety the general duties and the enforcement and offences aspects of the 1974 Act to Northern Ireland.

13 Jun 2008 : Column 582

In 1998, the 1978 order was significantly amended, to create a Health and Safety Commission and Executive for Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the order remains the controlling legislation, and so needs to be amended to extend the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

Over the years, the health and safety authorities in Northern Ireland—now the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland—have worked closely with the mainland Health and Safety Executive to ensure that legislative parity is maintained. In practice, that means that regulations made in Great Britain are used as the template for Northern Ireland regulations, with the substance and intent remaining the same, but with the appropriate Northern Ireland legislative references.

As hon. Members will recognise from that brief history, health and safety in Northern Ireland has always been a transferred—now a devolved—matter. However, as hon. Members will also appreciate, the substance of the Bill deals with the criminal justice system, and specifically the creation of offences and penalties, which are reserved matters and the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. I am assured that there is no requirement for a legislative consent motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly, given that the Bill deals predominantly with criminal penalties and prosecutions, and that primary legislation here in Westminster is the most appropriate way forward.

As a consequence, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have agreed to seek support to have the Bill extended to Northern Ireland. They have done so for three reasons: first, to ensure parity across the United Kingdom for penalties and offences; secondly, to avoid a potentially significant time lag in bringing about consistency between the Northern Ireland and Great Britain penalty regimes; and thirdly, to save resources in what is a straightforward parity policy area.

Having described the process by which the amendments have reached us, let me turn to their purpose, before briefly explaining their content. As I have said, the relevant Northern Ireland penalties are those set out in the 1978 order and the health and safety regulations made under that order. The effect of the amendments that we are considering is to amend the order in exactly the same way as the Bill amends the 1974 Act.

The key amendments in the group would alter the current framework of maximum penalties set out in the 1978 order, to ensure that the courts can more easily set sentences for health and safety offences at a level that is likely to deter those tempted to break the law and which will deal appropriately with those who have done so. The amendments seek to raise the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences.

Mr. Dismore: The explanatory notes to my right hon. Friend’s Bill contain a helpful annexe, which sets out a comparator between the present mode of trial and maximum penalties and those proposed by the Bill. However, I understand that the explanatory notes were produced before the amendments that we are discussing. Will he confirm that the present mode of trial and maximum penalties in Northern Ireland would be the same as those that apply to the rest of the United Kingdom, as set out in the annexe, so that we can see what we are dealing with?

13 Jun 2008 : Column 583

Keith Hill: I am again grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an extremely important point. My response is to say, first, that we hope to be able to provide a further set of explanatory notes to deal with the extension of the Bill’s application to Northern Ireland before it proceeds elsewhere. Secondly, there are one or two fairly minor differences between the schedule applying to Great Britain set out in the Bill and the schedule that will form part of the amended Northern Ireland order. I hope to identify those differences in due course, if my hon. Friend will exert the patience for which he is famous in these precincts.

The power to impose a fine of up to £20,000 is available already, in respect of some of the offences under the 1978 order, such as breaches of the general duties on employers arising under articles 4 to 7. However, the current maximum penalty for specific breaches of health and safety regulations, which may be just as serious as breaches of general duties—exactly the sorts of issues to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) alluded—is a £5,000 fine, hence the extension to the new maximum of £20,000.

Secondly, these amendments serve to make imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences in both the lower and the higher courts. At present, imprisonment is an option only in certain cases—for failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice or court remedy order or, in the High Court only, for failure to comply with licensing requirements, explosive provisions or disclosure of information in breach of the 1978 order. These amendments will extend the option of a custodial sentence to a greater range of offences, thus responding to the fact that in several cases over the years judges have remarked on the lack of imprisonment as an option and have said that they would have jailed the offender had they been able to do so.

Mr. Dismore: I have been looking at the explanatory notes. I assume from what my right hon. Friend said that they provide a reasonable guide to what we are dealing with in Northern Ireland. I am particularly concerned about an offence under section 33(1)(a) in respect of the duties of employees under section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. I do not know the exact equivalent in Northern Ireland, but no doubt my right hon. Friend will be able to tell me where it fits into the 1978 order. A breach of a duty under section 7 carries quite significant penalties under his proposals for Northern Ireland, but is it fair to impose on conviction such high penalties on employees who have only been doing their job, albeit negligently or recklessly, as on neglectful employers who have the responsibility to make profits?

Keith Hill: I am grateful once again to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He raises an important philosophical and moral question, to which I have to say that my instinctive answer is yes, it is. Employees who behave in a way that leads to the loss of life or limb or that puts the lives and limbs of fellow workers in danger deserve an equal level of punishment. It is their neglect and negligence that is at fault. Quite frankly, for a victim of such negligence it hardly matters whether an employer or an employee is responsible for the injury, and the same applies to a member of the family of someone who has died. What those affected want in
13 Jun 2008 : Column 584
those circumstances is proper justice. I thus have no hesitation in saying that the provisions in the schedule are entirely right.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Keith Hill: I see that my hon. Friend wishes to respond on that point.

Mr. Dismore: I have listened to what my right hon. Friend said about acts and omissions by employees who should be prosecuted because they cause a hazard to others, but what about hazards to themselves? For example, should someone be prosecuted for not wearing goggles when operating a grinding machine? That would be a health and safety offence under the Act and the regulations. In those circumstances, the only person actually at risk is the employee. It is quite right that they should be prosecuted if it is a repeat offence, for example, but is it right that they should face imprisonment for something like that?

Keith Hill: I make two points in response to my hon. Friend. The first, which I want to develop at greater length, probably on Third Reading, is about the likelihood and frequency of imprisonment. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me and wait for those exchanges, which will provide a further opportunity for an interesting dialogue. Secondly, I very much doubt that there are ever circumstances in the workplace in which a single solitary employee is at risk. If the health and safety provisions are not being properly exercised, it is my strong suspicion that that presents a risk for every person who is operating in that workplace. To that extent, it is right that those who are negligent in respect of themselves should be punished because they are potentially negligent of other people in the workplace as well.

Let me continue to describe the effect of these amendments to the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. The third change is that certain offences currently triable solely in the lower courts will in future be either way offences—in other words, like most health and safety offences, they will be triable in either the lower or higher courts. Those would include the offence under article 31(1)(e) of contravening any requirement imposed by an inspector under article 22 on powers of inspectors, and the offence under article 31(1)(f) of preventing or attempting to prevent another from appearing before an inspector or from answering an inspector’s questions.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Keith Hill: Just to complete that thought, I should add that under these amendments those offences could in future attract the tougher penalties available in the higher courts.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful yet again for my right hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way. I am afraid I do not know enough about the Northern Ireland criminal process in comparison with that of England and Wales, but under the either way procedure in Northern Ireland, is it possible for the defendant to opt for jury trial as opposed to a magistrates court if he wishes to do so? Is it a matter only for the prosecution or is it an option for both sides to decide whether to go for jury trial in Northern Ireland at their wish?

13 Jun 2008 : Column 585
10.15 am

Keith Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I hesitate in my response for two reasons. First, he is, of course, a lawyer and a good deal more familiar with the judicial process than I am. Secondly, I can answer only on the basis of an impression that I have formed rather than on certain knowledge. My impression is, however, that as in Great Britain it is possible for the accused to opt for a trial in a higher court. If I prove to be wrong about that, I would be delighted to write to my hon. Friend to set the record straight.

I shall expand on this point in my subsequent observations, but it is important to note that the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland has a superb record of successful convictions. Indeed, it runs at 100 per cent. Interestingly, it adopts a somewhat different procedure from the Health and Safety Executive and the inspectorate in Great Britain in that it gives all its cases to the Crown Prosecution Service rather than bring the prosecutions directly as an enforcing authority. It finds that to be an efficient and effective way of dealing with the matter.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Keith Hill: I am about to come on to the detail of the amendments, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend just one more time at this juncture.

Mr. Dismore: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. He tells us that the prosecution success rate in Northern Ireland is 100 per cent., but 100 per cent. of what? How many prosecutions have been brought in Northern Ireland on average year by year? One of the real criticisms made of the Health and Safety Executive on the mainland, if I may put it that way, is that it is far too timid in bringing prosecutions and should be prosecuting more vigorously, more effectively and more often. In comparison with the rest of the UK, are more offences prosecuted in Northern Ireland? An answer to that would help to explain what is meant by a 100 per cent. success rate; of course, if only one case were successfully prosecuted, that would still be 100 per cent.

Keith Hill: I am grateful yet again to my hon. Friend, but on this occasion I have to throw myself on his mercy—and that of the House—because I do not know the particular number of prosecutions brought in Northern Ireland. I shall expand on the point later, but I do not condemn enforcing authorities if they have extremely high thresholds in respect of the rigour of the criteria that they apply before bringing prosecutions. The rigour of those criteria will become even more important in future when, under the Bill, the option of imprisonment will become far more widely available.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire) rose—

Keith Hill: I rather suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister may have the answer, so I happily defer to her.

Next Section Index Home Page