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Nevertheless, I recognise the concern expressed about the extension of the option of imprisonment in the Bill, which is why I undertook in Committee to approach the Sentencing Guidelines Council with a view to its issuing fresh guidelines to the courts in response to the Bills
new provisions. I have approached the SGC, in the form of a letter dated 3 June 2008 to its chairman, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers. As I gave a specific undertaking to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to do so, I shall read it into the parliamentary record. It stated:
Dear Lord Phillips,
I am contacting you to bring to the attention of the Sentencing Guidelines Council my Private Members Billthe Health and Safety (Offences) Bill 2007-08which has its report stage and third reading in the House of Commons on Friday June 13.
This Bill would amend Section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. In particular, it would:
Raise the maximum fine which may be imposed by the lower courts to £20,000 for most offences
Make a prison sentence an option for most health and safety offences in lower and higher courts
Make certain offences that can currently only go to trial in lower courts, triable in either the lower or higher courts.
In working to ensure that the Bill has a successful passage through both Houses, I have met with a range of interested parties, including Government officials, MPs from all sides of the House, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Health and Safety Executive and the Engineering Employers Federation. In particular, the EEF, while supporting the principles of the Bill, raised concerns over the potential application of the Bill. I therefore undertook to contact the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure that the courts have the right guidance to help them to respond proportionately to the new health and safety offences.
I note that you have recently issued revised Magistrates Court Sentencing Guidelines, to be implemented on 4th August 2008. I also note that you are minded to do further work on environmental and regulatory offences when you come to review your work programme for 2008-09. It is clear that if my Bill becomes law, the Sentencing Guidelines Council will need to produce new guidelines based on these penalties, as both the current and proposed guidance will be out of date and inappropriate. I am also aware that the revised guidelines have sparked concern from both the HSE and the Office of Rail Regulation, in that the slimmed down guidelines risk undoing the previous helpful guidance on adopting a proportionate approach that appeared in the earlier version of the guidelines.
I therefore believe it would be extremely timely if the council were, as a matter of priority, to draft new and improved guidelines in this area that take into account the provisions in the Bill and the concerns of the EEF, the CBI, the HSE and the Office of Rail Regulation. I would be happy to meet with you to discuss this matter further. In the meantime, please find enclosed further details of my Bill.
Let me draw my remarks to a close by expressing my thanks to the organisations and individuals who have helped me in the passage of this Bill. First and foremost, I thank the Health and Safety Executive here in London and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and the Engineering Employers Federation. I thank also the Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensionsthe Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), and my noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Lutonand their officials for their stalwart support throughout the process.
I offer particular thanks to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, for his enlightened and generous support, for lending his nameothers did so tooto the Northern Ireland amendments, and for his advocacy of an appropriate level of publicity for, and a campaign on, the new provisions of the Bill should it be enacted. Again, I should like to thank my assistant, Joe Moll, for doing most of the work behind the scenes.
The United Kingdom is the world leader in health and safety, but we must always strive to do better. I hope that this short Bill will play its part in that endeavour. Its purposes are clearto punish the criminally negligent who put life and limb in danger in the workplace, to deter those who are tempted to cut costs by breaking the health and safety law, and to render faster and more efficient justice. The Bill seeks to do all that with no new regulatory requirements or new compliance costs in any sector, and I commend it to the House.
Andrew Selous: It is a pleasure again to respond to the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). I think that we all hope that the powers in this Bill never have to be used, but that they will have a strong deterrent effect to ensure that our fellow citizens can go to work and come back at the end of the day without having been injured or, God forbid, killed.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, 241 of our fellow citizens were killed at work in 2006-07, with another 30,000 suffering serious injuries and 100,000 other injuries. Although our health and safety record in this country is very good, as he said, we should note that the 2006-07 figures for fatalities sadly show a 17 per cent. increase on the year before, so there is no room for complacency.
The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that worldwide there were some 355,000 workplace fatalities, according to the International Labour Organisation, half of which occurred in agriculture. Overall, we can take considerable credit from the fact that although we are the fifth largest economy, only 241 of those deathsstill too manyoccurred in the United Kingdom.
We have rehearsed the reasons why we need the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee. It is no part of my personal political philosophy to deny judges the powers that they berate this House for not having given them when it comes to serious cases in which people have been killed and injured, so I am pleased that we are giving the judges what they tell us they need.
The Bill will also go some way towards reducing unwelcome bureaucracy and burdensome regulation, to which the McCrory report drew attention. We can say that this is a pro-business Bill, and we have to remember that it is businesses that pay all our salaries in this House. The Bill will also support those decent businesses that are already doing the right thing. It will stop them being undercut and ensure that they have a genuinely level playing field on which to operate.
Some specific concerns remain, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reading out his letter to the Sentencing Guidelines Council. He is right that both the CBI and Network Rail have remaining concerns. The CBI brief on the Bill comments that
the enforcers choice of who to prosecute is often simply a matter of protocol or pressure from publicity.
I do not personally believe that to be the case, but I can understand why people who run businesses are worried. They need to try to make profits every day and they have many other things to worry about, so they do not want the unnecessary worry that they might wrongly end up in prison when they were not personally at fault.
imprisonment of an individual, in whatever capacity, is only a relevant possibility where there is personal fault.
Everything that I have heard from the right hon. Gentleman and from the Minister has reassured me and others with those concerns that that will be the case. However, the right hon. Gentleman did not enlighten us as to the response from the Sentencing Guidelines Council, although he said that he hoped that it would make work on this issue an urgent priority in its programme. Perhaps when the Minister responds, she will be able to update the House on whether she has had any communication with the council. If not, I hope that she can confirm that it will be an urgent priority for her Department, so that we can reassure people who still have some worries about the issue.
My final point relates to the publicity campaign that the Department will need to run on this legislation. As I said earlier, we hope that the Bill will act as a deterrent, and will not need to be used, but it will have that effect only if people know about it. There is a tendency for Members of Parliament to think that the public hang on our every word, but the sad truth is that that is not the case. They have busy lives and do not always catch up with everything that we do. I hope that the Minister can tell me how the Department will inform businesses, small and large, about the Bill so that the deterrent effect works and the provisions never have to be used.
Paul Rowen: I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on the work that he has done on this important Bill. Health and safety knows no boundaries, and there is a strong cross-party consensus on what we need to do to make health and safety law more effective. When I looked at the provisions in preparation for this debate, I was surprised to find that much of the relevant law is delivered by regulations. The Acts, such as the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, are enabling legislation. I was also surprised that magistrates in the lower courts cannot impose the maximum fine of £20,000. It is not that I expect that fine to be imposed on every occasion, but as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, much of what we do in health and safety is about deterrence.
People need to be aware of the possible penalties that they face, although it is lamentable that the penalty for failure to follow asbestos regulations is only £5,000 if the offence is dealt with in the lower courts. I represent a constituency that contains what used to be the worlds largest asbestos factory, and we still live with the problems, so I know that it is hugely important to have an education programme so that employers, employees and directors of companies understand their responsibilities. The
maximum fine of £25,000 sends a clear message that we are concerned to ensure that the directives and regulations are followed to the letter.
I know that the media like to suggest that some health and safety regulations are pointless and banal, but that is not the case when we consider some of the incidents and accidents that occur. Recently, for example, we have been trying to ensure that young people entering jobs for the first time get the appropriate support, advice and education. Health and safety regulations are important, and the £25,000 fine will send a clear message.
On the imprisonment option, I can understand the CBIs concern on one level, but again I do not expect that that option will be used on many occasions. It is right for the judges to berate us when they do not have that option.
As we said during the debate on the Northern Ireland amendments, it is not for us to tell judges how to do their jobs, but we need to provide them with the tools to do so. In particular, in serious cases where loss of life can clearly be put down to negligence on the part of a named person, the option of imprisonment should be available to the courts, whether the director of a company has failed to ensure that a piece of legislation is enacted or a prohibition order has been deliberately ignored, resulting in the loss of a life. People should know that when a prohibition order has been served it is their responsibility to implement it. If their failure to do so results in loss of life, it is right for the judge to be able to give a custodial sentence. That sends a clear message from us about the importance of health and safety regulation and it shows that we are serious when we say that such regulation must be not only looked at and left on the shelf, but followed.
I welcome the legislation. I would be interested to know what the Minister has to say about her discussions with the Sentencing Guidelines Council, because it is important that we allay CBI fears. However, once we have the law in placeI hope that the Bill now gets a speedy passage in the other placewe can ensure that we have the right sentencing guidelines to make it clear in which circumstances a custodial sentence will be imposed. I am glad to be able to support the Bill.
Laura Moffatt: I cannot think of a better reason to be in the House on a Friday morning than to support this excellent Bill. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his work.
I have had a long-standing interest in health and safety matters. As a councillor with Crawley borough council, I chaired the environment committee for nine years and worked closely with not only environmental health officers but the Health and Safety Executive. Nothing was more distressing than to have a clear understanding that someones safety had been disregarded by their employer but the feeling that no adequate prosecution could follow. That is why I am delighted to support these proportionate and sensible initiatives. By ensuring that all quarters of the House feel able to support the Bill, my right hon. Friend has succeeded where other Members have failed in the past. I believe and sincerely hope that consensus will lead to success today.
After looking at the provisions in the Bill and hearing the arguments on Report, I believed that it was crucial that the Bill should address the important issue of Northern Ireland, and it is truly a measure of success that some sensible amendments have been made to the Bill to that effect. To those of us who are true Unionists and who want to ensure that all our UK countries have protection under the law, it was vital that work was undertaken today to approve the amendments. I am delighted that we have ensured that people in Northern Ireland who work in construction or other dangerous professions, and are under the same pressures as workers elsewhere in the UK, have the protection offered by the Bill.
Laura Moffatt: I do not think that I will intrude on private grief, particularly this week. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to talk to his colleagues to see whether they support the legislation.
My hon. Friend rightly points out that aspects of the Bill are, for some of us, more important than others in terms of the signal that they will send out. Good employers will not be worried about the legislation one bit because they will say that it is the right thing to do, that they do their best for their employees and that they would therefore expect other employers to do the same. I hope that my hon. Friend also agrees that good employers will expect their colleagues who might be running similar businesses to raise their game and to think about the issues identified in the Bill. As the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) rightly pointed out, the effect of the publicity that the Bill will receive will be almost more important than the fact that it could be used to prosecute. In fact, most of us agree that we hope that the provisions will not need to be used, but the deterrent effect is as important as the fact that the measures will be on the statute book.
I am particularly interested in health and safety matters, because, as I am sure that the House will know, Gatwick airport is based in the Crawley constituency. Some 30,000 workers derive their living from an industry that has an excellent safety record. However, as in most matters, we can improve that recordthat is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has introduced the Bill. Many contractors and subcontractors work on the site, particularly because of the renewal programme at Gatwick and the airports 50th birthday this month, and it is a huge task to keep an eye on them, to ensure
that they are all properly protected under the law and to ensure that their employers do all they can to guarantee that they are working in a safe environment.
Sadly, we have seen an increase in the number of injuries in the aviation industry, and we must address that. Things have been going in the wrong direction, and trade unions at the airport, which care deeply about their work force, have highlighted the problem to ensure that that record improves.
Ms Butler: I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, will have received correspondence that shows that the trade unions are pleased that employers now have to carry out a fundamental risk assessment in the workplace. Often, their failure to do that results in accidents that could have been avoided.
Laura Moffatt: My hon. Friend raises an important point. It all contributes to the atmosphere that the Bill is trying to promote, which is, Do the right thing and, as an employer, you will be protected and you will also, much more importantly, be protecting your employee. There is no better method of doing that than conducting a risk assessment programme. May I have some water? I am getting rather a dry throat.
The Bill will really make a difference to the entire work force, but closer examination of the categories of injuries and deaths that occur in the construction industry and throughout heavy industry reveals that the main sufferers are young people. It is the most appalling thing when a family have to face the death of a young person who only recently started work. Sadly, that group is disproportionately affected by accidents at work. So, I view the Bill as an important part of a package of Government measures that will ensure that young people are safe at work. That is why it was timely that my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham brought forward this legislation at the same time as the Department for Children, Schools and Families brought forward legislation to ensure that young people will remain in education until the age of 18. That also gives
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Lady is not going to tax her voice unduly by straying outside the terms of the Bill. It is not a general debate about health and safety, however important that is; it is a debate about the Bill, and on Third Reading remarks should be very tightly drawn, to fit within the terms of the Bill.
Laura Moffatt: I am grateful for that guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was just trying to point out that it is important for us to use a panoply of legislation to improve the health and safety of workers.
The crucial part of the Bill is the provision for either way cases. Most of us would agree with the sentiment that justice delayed is justice denied. Therefore, particularly for the families of those who have been seriously injured or have been killed at work as a result of negligence, it is important that those cases are dealt with as quickly as possible. The Bill allows that to happen, by giving the power for the lower courts to deal with cases more swiftly, instead of passing them on to a higher court.
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