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Mr. Dismore: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but I think that the idea is a little fanciful. I am not for one minute suggesting that an employee should be exempt from prosecution. The part of the regime in
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question goes back to the original 1974 Act, and even beyond that to some of the old regulatory offences. My only question is whether it is appropriate in employee cases for the significantly higher penalties to become available in place of the existing penalties. Should an employee be liable for an unlimited fine? Or should they be liable for the £20,000 fine—an awful lot of money to the average working person?

Keith Hill: That is the present position.

Mr. Dismore: As my right hon. Friend says, the present position is that they face a £20,000 fine. His Bill provides for unlimited fines and potential imprisonment. My basic question is whether it is fair to impose those significantly higher penalties on the working person, as opposed to the employer, who ultimately has control over the workplace.

Mr. Skinner: It can be different in common law.

Mr. Dismore: I am not entirely sure whether I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but if he is talking about compensation claims—

Mr. Skinner: It is different.

Mr. Dismore: Well, I am not sure that it is that different. In a compensation claim, the chances of an employee being sued are pretty slim because they have not got any money. As a personal injury lawyer, the basic rule was, “Don’t sue anybody who ain’t got no money or insurance.”

Mr. Skinner: It is mainly, but not entirely, different because, for example, in the pits somebody might have not erected the proper pit props and as a result somebody else might have finished up with a broken thigh, and a negligence claim might then have been pursued, but throughout the 21 years I was working underground there was never one case taken out against the employee for negligence; the employer who was employing that person was regarded as negligent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who has great experience of these debates, will not allow himself to be diverted too widely. I have to say again to the House that we are discussing the Third Reading of this Bill.

Mr. Dismore: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would simply say that I understand now what my hon. Friend is talking about: it is vicarious liability for the negligence of an employee. You are right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that strays a little far from the Bill, because the Bill is about the criminal side of health and safety, whereas my hon. Friend’s intervention was about the civil compensation side, which is a separate issue. One of the general failings of the 1974 Act is that we cannot bring civil cases based on the obligations under it. That is a digression, however, and we must now return to the detail of the Bill.

A useful comparison can be drawn with the level of fines for breaches of financial law and regulations. The Financial Services Authority is the regulator that performs a similar role in the financial sphere to the HSE in health and safety. In 2006-07, the average fine imposed
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by the FSA was £232,000 and the average fine for the five years to the end of 2006 was £712,000. Two recently reported cases demonstrate the discrepancy I wish to highlight. On 16 January this year, the FSA fined HFC Bank Ltd £1.085 million for failing to take reasonable care to ensure that the advice it gave to customers to buy payment protection insurance was suitable. On 20 January—four days later—Asda was fined a mere £225,000, less than a quarter of the earlier amount, after a customer was killed by a car park barrier that smashed through his windscreen. That highlights the disparity in how our enforcement system in this country works. How can it be right that someone being killed by a car park barrier falling through his windscreen is worth less than the negligence—or improper advice, rather—given by a bank to its customers and it not taking reasonable care?

I hope that one of the consequences of the Bill will be that we see a bit more of a level playing field between these financial regulatory offences and health and safety regulatory offences. I do not deny that serious financial offences should be punished accordingly, and be subject to significantly higher fines, but it is the glaring difference between the level of fines that causes most concern. Breaches of health and safety often lead to death and serious injury and cause great distress to the person concerned and their family, and that must be reflected in the sanctions imposed on the negligent party, which is what the Bill provides for.

It is one of the guiding principles of the British justice system that victims of negligence should receive appropriate redress for the wrong that has been done to them. This is not just a question of natural justice. Many families involved in health and safety cases are more concerned that similar events do not befall other innocent people. That is an important factor. We recently talked about inquests, and one of the key issues is that people want to know not necessarily that they will get compensation, but that steps will be taken to ensure that the same thing does not happen again to some other unfortunate person or family. The additional penalties that provide the deterrent effect in the Bill—and, if there is a prosecution, that lead to widespread publicity and the naming and shaming of the company or employer involved—can only help to send a message to the whole of society that breaches of health and safety will not be tolerated and, it is to be hoped, that lessons will be learned when offences occur. The point is that the measure will, I hope, at long last start to make it more expensive not to adopt health and safety measures than to adopt them, which is the problem that we now experience.

Of course, it is all very well our legislating in this way, but ultimately, enforcement is a matter for the courts. The penalty is a matter for the judge or the magistrate. Instrumental was the fact that it was previously acknowledged by the courts, the Government and the HSE itself that fines for breaches of health and safety laws and regulations are too low. Judicial support for this view came in the case of the Crown v. Howe & Son (Engineers) Ltd in 1999. The judge said:

So there is some judicial support for the suggestion that fines are not as high as they could and should be. I therefore hope that we will see judges taking on board the new powers that the Bill will provide, assuming that it becomes law.

The Health and Safety Commission itself, in its response to the draft Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill, said:

That is the point: at the moment the courts are not imposing the penalties that they could within the powers that they have. The maximum is £20,000 and as I said earlier, if we take out the very big cases, that is about half what they should be fining. Let us hope that the House is sending a clear message to the courts today that we are not satisfied with the level of fines being imposed, that we are giving them the discretion to impose much higher penalties, and that they should use those powers much more vigorously when they convict somebody and the penalty is imposed.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s Bill. In introducing it, he has done a service not just to the House but to every single working person in the country by hopefully making their place of work a little safer and their employers take safety a little more seriously. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s initiative and I, for one, think that this Bill has enormous merit.

12.27 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In the last weekend of Easter, there is always a very moving ceremony outside the Minster in Rotherham, the parish church, at which the vicar of Rotherham—together, usually, with a Muslim imam—gathers with workers and trade unionists to lay wreaths to commemorate all the people who died in workplace accidents in the past year in Britain. Workers’ memorial day has grown from being a very small event into quite a large gathering. The Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), which is achieving its Third Reading with all-party support, will be warmly welcomed by employees and workers in Rotherham.

I am of course conscious that my right hon. Friend has a distinguished trade union background, serving the railway workers of Britain in particular before entering this House. It worries me slightly that the same number of people with such background and experience are no longer to be seen on the Benches of either side of this House. It is important that the difficulties that employees and workers face are adequately reflected in this our House of Commons.

As the MP for Rotherham—for that great steel, engineering and mining town—I am of course extremely conscious of the devastating toll that workplace accidents still take on the lives of people in my constituency and in the whole of south Yorkshire. I could regale you with stories of some of the major workplace accidents that have taken place in Rotherham, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I suspect that you would not allow me to do so. I strongly commend a marvellous new book called “Black
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Gold”, which is about the Fitzwilliam family, who owned much of the land and the mines of Rotherham. They were actually a very progressive and socially conscious family. On a visit to Rotherham, King George V became the first monarch ever to descend down a mine. Everything was set up and carefully prepared for him. A day or two before that happened, there was a terrible mining accident, which shocked the whole community, but the King still went to greet the miners. I think that he understood from that moment some of the real difficulties faced by working people in Britain, of which the Governments of the day, whose representatives came principally only from what one might call the bourgeois, employer or capitalist class, had no idea.

It is important that the House acknowledges that far too many people still die or are seriously injured at work in our country—according to the latest available figures, 241 people were killed and 28,267 were injured in the workplace in 2006-07. That death toll is extraordinary. We rightly draw to the House’s attention the death of any one of our public servants—our brave military in Afghanistan, our police officers or our fire officers—when they give up their lives for us in the course of their duty, but we rarely hear mention at the Dispatch Box of anyone who has lost their life simply because we are not able to alter our mentality to prevent preventable accidents. The Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham is an important step forward in that direction.

I shall not adumbrate the Government’s efforts in the past 11 years to help the working people of Britain, which started with the minimum wage and the signing of the social chapter, and continued with last week’s agreement, thanks to a good example of working social partnership between the CBI and the TUC, on the agency workers question. It was endorsed by the European Council after 15 hours of long negotiation by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs.

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) attack that deal, saying that it was about a Government getting on the backs of employers. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), all of whose contributions to this debate I have read carefully, has been very supportive of the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham and of the Government’s support for it. We need to place on record the fact that were there to be a change of Government, the workers of Britain would need to watch out—we have already heard the language of withdrawing from the social charter obligations of Europe and altering the strike law in this country. There is no doubt that the men of immense wealth who sit in the shadow Cabinet and represent the Conservative party have no real care for the broader interests of Britain’s working people. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire is put up to support this Bill, and we welcome his presence, although he is, of course, alone in the House with a string of Labour MPs.

Andrew Selous: I very much resent the tenor of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks. If he had been here earlier, he would have appreciated the considerable degree of cross-party consensus, which, as the right hon. Member for Streatham will confirm, has been in place all the way
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through. I am not being put up to be here; I am here because I believe in this, and I resent the tenor of those remarks.

Mr. MacShane: I just praised the hon. Gentleman. If he reacts to praise in that manner, I fear that perhaps I am gently getting under the collective skin.

Mr. Skinner: It is a disease on that Bench.

Mr. MacShane: I would rather not get into that.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mr. MacShane: I shall leave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) our chance to make these points in a different way.

There is a substantial fear in our nation about any return to the kind of approach to this matter that was on offer before 1997. This law has been on the statute book since 1974. It would have been possible in 1981, 1982 or 1983—right through to 1997—to bring in the changes that my right hon. Friend proposes. The moment I hear about cross-party consensus, I tend to run for shelter, so perhaps I should say that it is also sad that it has taken 11 years for a Labour Government to find time for this Bill.

The important point is that the Bill puts the onus on employers to think a little harder about health and safety. It will raise the maximum fine that the lower courts can impose to £20,000. It will allow both lower and higher courts to make imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences. The whole idea of law in our country, in any sphere in which it mandates behaviour, is that examples are set in the courts, and an example is worth a thousand pages of earnest health and safety leaflets sent out by the HSE and other organisations.

The Bill will also give those concerned the chance to take certain offences from the lower courts to a higher level. If hon. Members had come with me to talk to those families who gathered in front of the Minster in Rotherham at the end of April, they would understand why those families would have liked this law to have been on the statute book some years ago.

Health and safety is the most concrete and explicit way to create partnership in the workplace. I think of the former US Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, who served for a couple of years under President George W. Bush. Before becoming Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. O’Neill was the boss of Alcoa, the giant US-based global aluminium company. During his tenure as chief executive officer, he insisted that each year his managers had to report a certain percentage reduction in workplace health and safety incidents. If they did not, they were fired. The job of a subordinate manager is usually to report more sales, more profit or more market share, but Paul O’Neill wanted his managers to report as few deaths and accidents as possible. That approach massively improved the productivity and performance of the American aluminium industry. He saved that industry and, to some extent, the world aluminium industry by his leadership. He also found that the trade unions came to respect him and were prepared to reach agreements in other areas, such as wages and manning levels, that they might otherwise have resisted. When he became Secretary of the Treasury, he insisted that— [ Interruption. ]
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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is now straying somewhat from the Third Reading of the Bill, which emphasises the increase in penalties for health and safety offences.

Mr. MacShane: I am sorry that I am upsetting Opposition Front Benchers, who are getting excited about what is happening in Ireland. The fact remains that Mr. O’Neill is a shining example of how, under good and creative management, the penalties in the Bill become less necessary. Alas, many people do not share his point of view. For example, Corus, now owned by Tata, which is the principal steel employer in my constituency—it is doing well and is setting on extra shifts, because British industry is doing better than people realise at the moment—starts any presentation with the accident rate in its workplace. We need to ensure that that culture, which already exists in the best British firms, becomes much more widespread.

Earlier, we heard mention of the fact that although 26 per cent. of British GDP is produced by industrial production, 70 per cent. is produced by the service industry. It is now in the so-called service industries—such as transport and delivery—where many of the worst accidents happen. For example, they are caused by the white van boys who cut corners. In the companies, from newspaper offices to others, that are based on data input, repetitive strain injury is a real problem.

I remember that when RSI first arose as an issue in newsrooms, employers and editors simply dismissed it. They suggested that their journalists should type a little less and have a break or two or a drink now and then, but RSI reduced men and women to agony. They would be unable to open a bottle of milk or to use a can opener as that very worrying industrial injury, which people did not recognise, suddenly took hold. I believe that if this law had been in place during the 1980s and early 1990s, it would have been possible for employees to use it to send out clear messages much earlier on that RSI was a real industrial workplace injury.

Over time, employers, in particular in the media industry—about which I know a lot as a former president of the National Union of Journalists—accepted that RSI was a genuine workplace problem and that they would have to start treating it as an industrial injury, not as a bit of malingering or an example of people who could not be bothered to do all the typing that was required, especially on the new keyboards as the electronic technology came in.

I hope that the Bill, once it becomes law, will give clear signals to employers up and down the country that they could face penalties, including imprisonment, if they do not work to improve health and safety in all areas of their employer responsibility. In the wider borough of Rotherham, which covers Rother Valley and Wentworth as well as the Rotherham constituency, we have about 4,000 VAT-registered firms. Most are small companies. Some are big, important firms such as Corus, Beatson Clark, Yorkshire Windows and other companies that take a very responsible approach to their work force, but some are small companies that have been created recently.

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