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The provisions of the Bill need to be widely explained. There is a huge community out there, who are watching with interest, but we need to ensure that the message
gets through, especially to hard-pressed employers. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out, this is a pro-business Bill, but we must accept that many smaller businesses have their head down, working hard, and may sometimes miss what we believe to be incredibly important legislation passing through the House. They may miss what I sincerely hope will happenthe enactment of this Bill.
Ms Butler: To help those small businesses especially, the Health and Safety Commission has local environmental health officers, whose role is preventive. The Bill adds to that preventive function, so employers should not fear the Bill, but should implement it in order to prevent accidents.
Laura Moffatt: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The lives of most people working in the health and safety sector are dedicated to preventing injury and death. They will be able to use the Bill as a deterrent, to make employers think more carefully about aspects of their business that might put someone at risk.
I hope that I am in order here, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do not know whether hon. Members have been listening to the Radio 4 serialisation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists on Sundays. I raise this point because on Report, the issue was raised of whether employees should be subject to the Bills provisions. I firmly believe that they should. If an employee puts other employees at risk, they should find themselves in the firing line. I mentioned that serialisation because it happens to be running at the moment, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is playing the police officerrather magnificently too. It is a fantastic book anyway, but specifically it is relevant to the debate because Old Misery, as the works manager is called, puts huge pressure on the people who work for the company to do things that they probably would not wish to, and he is doing it on behalf of someone else. I suspect that many employees today, who are trying to deliver and may be subject to a bonus, may be caused by such pressures not to do the right thing.
Mr. Dismore: I do think that my hon. Friend is putting the cart before the horse, and I hope, if I catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I can make this point in more detail. She argues that working practices are putting pressure on employees to cut corners and potentially commit health and safety offences. Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the employee, who often has no option, or of the employer who puts the employee in that appalling position?
Of course it is a sticky issue, but in my opinion it would not be sensible to exclude an employee from the measures in the Bill, because I have no doubt that a disreputable employer would quickly find someone who was employed in the company to, as they say, take the rap on the Bill. They would put the blame on them and say, I gave the right advice, but sadly my employeethe managerdid not follow it. To allow that would be a mistake because it would send the wrong message. Let us remember that this is a pro-business Bill. On the whole, we are talking about really good employers who
care about the people in their work force, but we knowwe are not stupidthat there are people out there who do not.
Ms Butler: I thank my hon. Friend for giving away again; she has been very generous. The Bill deals with prosecutions, but it is reserved for the most serious offences, so does she agree that employees should not fear if they are doing their job correctly? Only the most serious offences would go to court.
Laura Moffatt: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. A theme runs through this Third Reading debate that if it is a pro-business Billa Bill that supports good employersonly those who are guilty of clear negligence or disregard for their work force will be affected by it. That is why I return to the point that the hon. Member for Rochdale raised about publicity. I believe that the Bills deterrent factor will be enormous. I sincerely hope that the Bill becomes law. Important work has been done recently and in the past to enable us to reach this point. We have a responsibility to go out there and share the news with the community who will be most affected. We all have contacts with our business community, and I think this is a good-news story, which Members of Parliament could help our business community to understand.
Scare stories about such Bills often suggest that everyone will end up in prison, when we have clearly said, certainly in preceding debates and todays debate, that that is not true and that such provisions apply to the most severe cases. There is a real sense of public interest in the Bill. It is important as Members of Parliament to say, We are on your side. This is important legislation that helps to protect you and your family at work, and the Bill certainly does so.
We have talked a little about the partners who have been involved in the legislation. Certainly, in my time in the House of Commons, I have worked closely with IOSHthe Institution of Occupational Safety and Healthwhich is, again, very supportive of the Bill. It spends most of its time trying to dispel myths about not being able to take schoolchildren on trips because it is unsafe. It has a fantastic website, which has a myth buster about health and safety legislation. Its core business is ensuring that people remain safe at work.
We all have a right to think that the House is prepared to protect us on our behalf when we do difficult jobs. We have a right to expect that, when we go to work, those who employ us have legislation on their shoulder to remind them that it is important that we do the right thing in the workplace. That must be coupled with education and training, because that is how we move legislation forward.
Once again, the Bills provisions are sensible and proportionate. They allow us to understand that health and safety law in this country supports what is an excellent record. The Bill takes us forward and ensures that the message that we send out is one of caring about
those in the workplace. We are determined to ensure that that is a record of which we are proud. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham on giving hon. Members the opportunity to support the Bill at this crucial stage, and I hope very much that it becomes part and parcel of health and safety law in the United Kingdom.
Ms Butler: I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on bringing this very worthy Bill before the House and, as an ex-trade union official, it is a pleasure to support it.
Last year, employees in Britain suffered nearly 250 work-related deaths, nearly 30,000 major injuries and well over 100,000 lesser injuries. As hon. Members can imagine, that has caused great grief to the families of those who died, but it has caused a huge economic impact on industry, with a lot of people being off work sick. Many people have been compensated, but many others have not. In industries where some health and safety measures could have been implemented but have perhaps been overlooked, the Bill will help to focus the minds of those employers to ensure that they make the necessary amendments to their workplaces.
In 2006-07, more than 120 members of the general public were killed and nearly 17,500 people reported injuries in the workplace. It is therefore important that the House debates the Bill to ensure that not only employees but members of the general public are protected. The Bill will help to make public life safer. It is apt to discuss the Bill, as we are lucky enough to be hosting the Olympics in 2012. We have had many debates on the Olympics; we have major construction on the way in east London and all around the country. As part of the Olympics, we hope to leave a lasting legacy, and we must ensure that part of legacy is not an increase in the number of work-related deaths. The Bill will help to avoid such an increase.
The Bill also adds to protection, as I have said previously. I hope that, as we have a diverse work force, employers will ensure that different languages are used on health and safety notices in the workplace. We must recognise the importance of the impact of such incidents on the employees who suffer the injuries and on their families. Whether the injury is big or small, its impact is lastingso I thank my right hon. Friend for introducing the Bill.
Laura Moffatt: My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of different languages. Does the House have a role in reaching the different communities in our constituencies to try to ensure that the Bills provisions are sent out and discussed in those different languages? Is there any value in calling meetings with our constituents?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As my constituency is the most diverse in the UK, I think that it is powerful and important point. We must ensure that everyone understands the legislation and their responsibility, and that might mean that we need to translate aspects of the Bill. Ignorance is no excuse for not obeying the law, and employers cannot
cite ignorance in that respect. I hope that the House and perhaps the Minister in responding will take forward that recommendation.
My hon. Friend mentioned the HSE earlier. It is has always been clear about the need to increase the fines to make them relevant and cost a fair bit, so that an employer cannot easily dismiss them as a trade-off for not making improvements. The fines must make employers think again.
Laura Moffatt: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does she agree that the introduction of a prison sentence will prevent some of the trade-off from going on? Many of us were fearful that someone might pass off a fine as a cost to their business. A prison sentence is very much more serious.
Ms Butler: Absolutely; a prison sentence certainly focuses the mind. In 2005, Philip Hampton noted in his report on regulation and enforcement for the Treasury that the existing maximum fine of £5,000 was an insignificant sum for most businesses. That point was reiterated in 2006 by Professor Macrory in his regulatory justice report, subtitled Making Sanctions Effective.
On the option of imprisonment, there is a history going back to the mid-1990s of judges expressing discontent at being unable to impose jail sentences for health and safety offences. Indeed, on 8 January, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) cited just such a case in his Adjournment debate on carbon monoxide detectors. He noted that, in 2006, a judge in Nottingham Crown court complained of being able only to fine a man whose negligent work on a gas boiler had led to two deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. The threat of prison will indeed focus the minds of those employers who avoid making the necessary corrections.
It should be stressed that the Bill is pro-business. Its purpose is not to punish businesses, especially small businesses, but simply to protect the health and safety and well-being of employees and the public in general.
There are considerable disparities between fines imposed for health and safety offences and those imposed for other regulatory breaches. In 2007, British Airways was fined more than £121 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 is the £15 million that Transco was fined following the Larkhall explosion which killed a family of four in 1999. The Bill will help to end such discrepancies. It will also remove fear from those who are not doing wrong, while ensuring that those who are doing wrong become fearful.
Laura Moffatt: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is not about revenge or about getting back at employers, but about improving practice in the workplace? I think that that is the message we should send.
Ms Butler: Absolutely; it is important for the House to send a clear message about what is expected of employers and a clear message to workers and the public that we will protect their rights, and the Bill will enable us to do that.
Breaches of financial and competition regulations should be punished heavily when appropriate. As a trade union official, I often felt frustrated when suitable punishments were not imposed. Although employees sometimes noted health and safety breaches in the accident book, they would frequently not bother, thinking What is the point? Nothing will be done. I hope the Bill will empower people by assuring them that something serious will be done, that they need not fear that they are doing something they ought not to be doing, and that they will not risk losing their jobs or being alienated in the workplace.
It has been a pleasure to support the Bill. Let me end by reiterating that it is important 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 members of the public, through either their desire for profit or their incompetence, that the House considers such actions unacceptable.
Mr. Dismore: I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on having achieved so much that has been attempted on many previous occasions without success. It is a tribute to his skill and diplomacy that he has built such an amazing consensus among people and organisations, particularly those who have tried to block similar Bills in the past. I understand that he intends to retire at the next general election. Perhaps his swansong will be the achievement of what many others have been unable to achieve: a successful private Members Bill. I assume that the House will give it a Third Reading today, and that there will be no difficulties in the other place.
My right hon. Friend has, as I have said, built a consensus across the divide between employers and employees. There may be arguments to be had about matters of detail, particularly the question of imprisonment, with which I shall deal later; but the fact remains that there is general agreement that the existing penalties, which date back to 1974or even earlier, to the Robens report, which my right hon. Friend did not mention and which gave rise to the Acthave proved inadequate. It might be interesting to think about the possible reasons for that.
In 1974, money was worth rather more than it is now because of appalling inflation under previous GovernmentsI will not proceed down that route, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know you would stop me if I didbut there was also a whole new way of dealing with health and safety in the workplace. The traditional way had been much more regulatory, involving the Factories Act 1961 and many similar Acts and subordinate regulations. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 provided a new way of regulating more generally through the more general duties that it imposed. It contained no provisions for civil compensation; its effect was purely criminal. That may well be why the penalties that were available in 1975, when the Act came into force, were somewhat less than they might have been had some thought been given to that aspect.
Laura Moffatt: I was interested to read that earlier in proceedings on the Bill some Members suggested that it would be a good idea to uprate the penalties over time to ensure that they remained relevant. Has my hon. Friend a view on that?
Mr. Dismore: I think that my hon. Friend is right in principle, but in practice I am not sure that it would make a great deal of difference. The penalties available to the magistrates court are still limited, although broader than the original 1974 proposals, but in the Crown court, where the more serious cases will be prosecutedbecause that will be the prosecutions optionthe penalties, both fines and imprisonment, are limited.
Before I came to the House, I was a personal injury lawyer. I suppose I still am: once a lawyer always a lawyer, and I still have my practising certificate so I ought to declare an interest to that extent. I should add, however, that I have never actually prosecuted a case. That is one of the problems with the existing law: it does not allow private prosecutions. Prosecutions can be brought only by the Health and Safety Executive or by others on its behalf, and I believe that in more serious cases they must be authorised by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Certainly that applies to private prosecutions. I do not think it has ever been done, although I once tried to do it on behalf of the Fire Brigades Union. We found that it was impossible to prosecute, which may be a matter for a future Bill. If my right hon. Friend is successful in next years ballot, he may wish to take it up.
The etc. in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 should not be forgotten. The Act also covers various matters related to welfare, which I suspect are caught by this Bills amendments to existing penalties. I am not entirely sure that there have been many prosecutions under the welfare provisions.
Currently, magistrates cannot impose a fine higher than £20,000 if the offence relates to a breach of the 1974 Act or to similar Acts, or higher than £5,000 if the offence refers to a breach of regulations, such as those that have become known as the six-pack regulations as they have been updated. Most prosecutions tend to relate to the regulatory offences rather than to the Act itself. If sentencing takes place in the Crown court, there are no maximum fines. The Bill before us will raise the maximum fine for breaches of the regulations to £20,000 in the magistrates court, and in both the lower and the higher courts it will make imprisonment an option for health and safety offences.
The courts will be able to pass a custodial sentence if it is felt that the gravity of the offence justifies it. That is entirely appropriate, because if we consider the records so far, statistics show that the average penalty per conviction in 2006-07 was £15,370, which to me and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is quite a lot of money, but to some of the companies involved it is peanuts. Fines in excess of £100,000 are very few and far between, so if we exclude from the calculations the very few very high fines, because they distort the norm, the average is only £8,273, which is considerably below the maximum possible figure of £20,000. That prompts the question whether, even with my right hon. Friends very welcome amendments to the regulatory regime, we are going far enough.
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