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Those small companies face an awful lot of cash-flow pressures, time-management pressures, employee-relation pressures and form-filling pressures. I accept and understand all that, but none of those pressures could ever be an
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excuse to cut corners on health and safety. That is why I hope that maximum publicity—not just a little story in the Financial Times—should be given across the country to the importance of my right hon. Friend’s Bill, just to make certain employers stop, pause and think.

I accept what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said about employees’ responsibility. I made a TV film for the BBC once about health and safety at work. We went into the paint shop at Ford in Dagenham, which was a filthy place with fumes and the most disgusting atmosphere. All the men there had to wear spacesuit-type giant plastic helmets locked into a breathing apparatus before they could go into the paint shop. We filmed a man who had very calmly drilled a hole in the front of his plastic visor so that he could smoke through it while on the job. I cannot blame the managers of Ford for that lunatic who was embracing an early death.

It is very responsible for us all to wear safety helmets and other safety gear if we ever go on to any industrial site. Sometimes we think that that is a bit crazy, and ask why we have to wear those glasses or that silly helmet, as the site is perfectly safe. Again, it is about sending out a signal, just as I wish that a certain former Member of this House might wear his crash helmet more often when he bikes around London to tell the children of London that wearing a helmet when they are on a bike is a very good idea.

The Bill has passed through the House and I believe that it will be welcomed by all. It is an important step forward. I accept that it has received all-party support and I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, whose speeches I have read. His sincerity, his straightness, is not in question, even if some of us worry about the fate of the working people of this country if by some tragedy there was to be any change of Government.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, who is leaving the House at the next election—unless he is going off to pull some weird stunt by calling a by-election. I hope that his services are not lost to public life, and indeed to parliamentary life, but that is a matter for other Bills that may be before the House. It is a tribute to his service as a trade unionist that he leaves the House having piloted this measure on to the statute book. We cannot abolish workplace deaths and injuries, but if as a result of the Bill, in a few years’ time there are 100 rather than 241 deaths, and 15,000 rather than 24,000 injuries, there will be families that will honour the name of Keith Hill for generations to come.

12.46 pm

Mrs. McGuire: I am delighted to make what I hope will be a shortish contribution to the Third Reading debate. Once again I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his efforts in piloting the Bill successfully through the House. I appreciate that praise has been showered on him throughout the process—[Hon. Members: “More!”]—but all of it is justified, as my hon. Friends have indicated, notwithstanding the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

A great deal of effort was made to ensure that we were more successful on the Bill’s latest journey than we had been in previous expeditions on this important issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham
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showed a willingness to consult widely with a range of stakeholders, and to take on board the views and concerns of hon. Members. The very fact that when, as we hope, the Bill has completed its parliamentary process it will be extended to cover Northern Ireland is a case in point. As was said earlier in the debate, there had previously been a time lag between Great Britain and UK legislation, and I know that my right hon. Friend was very keen to ensure that that did not happen in this case. He also went out of his way to ensure that parliamentary colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly and their officials were involved in the discussions, and that is to be commended.

I also express my gratitude to all hon. Members who participated in the process, and to those who have participated today, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), for Brent, South (Ms Butler), and for Hendon—who gave us the benefit of his extensive legal knowledge—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). It would be churlish of me not to extend my thanks to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous); to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), who helped to shape the Northern Ireland amendments; and of course to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), who made valuable contributions to the debate.

Obviously, it is not my responsibility to reply in any detail to the debate—that honour falls to my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham—but I should like to address some of the issues that have been raised with which it would be appropriate for me to deal as the Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions.

I should like first to underline again the fact that the Government very much welcome the Bill. It is the fifth time that such a Bill has been introduced in the House. The issues identified in the Bill are entirely consistent with Government policy, the HSE health and safety strategy, which the Government fully support, and the wider consideration of regulatory sanctions identified in both the Hampton and the Macrory reports.

Although hon. Members who have spoken have identified the number of people killed or injured in Great Britain, we cannot overstate the importance of continuing to reflect on those situations. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham and other hon. Members have highlighted, each of those statistics involves an individual who has a network of family and friends and represents a personal tragedy to that network and, indeed, to the working community in which they exist.

In fact, 241 people were killed at work, about 270,000 suffered serious or major injury and some 2.2 million suffered from work-related illnesses. In Northern Ireland, 18 people were killed, more than 3,000 suffered an injury and some 30,000 suffered from a work-related illness. I always think that it sounds a bit harsh to put that in economic terms, but we need to address the economic impact. The UK lost 36 million working days due to ill health and injury. Of course, as we all recognise, many workers and their families lost much more.

Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham highlighted that the UK has a good comparative record on health and safety at work, it is fair for us to say that the situation is unacceptable and that we need to do more to improve it. The UK needs every business
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or organisation to be well managed, and a vital part of that good management involves looking after health and safety.

I shall give an example from my personal experience of visiting an offshore oil rig in the North sea. The story starts in the oil company’s office. As we went downstairs, I was told to hold the rail while walking down the stairs. Apparently, the rule in that company, whether onshore or offshore, was that everyone had to hold the handrail when walking downstairs. Everyone in the organisation had to accept that responsibility. If someone was not prepared to hold the handrail—it did not matter whether it was the chief executive officer or the most junior member of staff—they could be advised by anyone in the company to get their hands on to the handrail. It was not just a pedantic issue; it was an important health and safety issue, for which everyone took responsibility. I am sure that we all recognise that many accidents, both onshore and offshore, are caused by falling downstairs. Of course, none of us ever thinks that we will ever fall downstairs, but we know how easy it is to trip.

Looking after health and safety is a vital part of good management. People should be able to go to work, expecting to return home again at the end of the day and to do so healthy and uninjured. That is morally right, and it is right for business. It is what the public expect. When people die or are injured or made ill as a result of poor management, society expects justice to be done. The HSE strategy makes it very clear that health and safety enforcement—enforcing the law—remains an important part of HSE and local authority work. That is reflected in the HSE’s annual business plan, and the Government are wholeheartedly behind that approach.

We expect the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities to be tough on businesses that wilfully break the law and put people at risk. It is very much a matter of enabling justice, so that those who put others at risk by failing in their duties can be held to account. To that end, the HSE and local authorities will continue to prosecute when it is proportionate to do so, for example when failures to comply with the law are serious and when serious risks are not prevented. In the light of some of the experiences that have been described today, I hope that that will afford some comfort to Members who have highlighted starkly some of the issues that can arise when health and safety issues are not taken seriously.

This approach is in line with the HSE board’s policy, with enforcement principles supported by the Government, and with the Government’s statutory regulators’ compliance code and regulatory principles. The Government fully support the proportionate, targeted, consistent and transparent approach that is set out in the HSE’s enforcement policy statement. Each year the HSE encounters some 60,000 organisations and individuals with duties in health and safety law. Its inspectors’ response to most breaches is to give advice and information, or where necessary to use enforcement notices to require a change. In 2007, 1,141 offences were prosecuted, which demonstrates that the cases that are eventually brought to court represent the most serious breaches of health and safety legislation. The prosecutions were in line with the code for Crown prosecutors, and it is clearly in the public interest to mount a prosecution in such circumstances.

As has been explained, the Bill’s purpose is to increase the penalties for the most serious health and safety offences that come before both the lower and the higher
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courts, primarily to ensure that the lower courts have available a level of punishment that constitutes a proportionate response by fully reflecting the seriousness of the offences, but also to deter irresponsible behaviour and further encourage employers and others to comply with the law. The Bill will also ensure greater efficiency in the dispensation of justice. Extending the £20,000 maximum fine to the lower courts and making imprisonment an option should make it possible to resolve more cases in the lower courts. As my right hon. Friend said, justice will be faster, less costly and more efficient.

Furthermore, the Bill will resolve the problem of cases involving serious breaches when, even in the higher courts, it is not possible to impose a custodial sentence except in very limited circumstances. I shall say more in a moment about custodial sentences, and will deal with points raised by the CBI. Every year, approximately 25 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by gas appliances and flues that have not been properly installed or maintained. Recent HSE initiatives against unregistered gas installers have led the courts to impose sentences that have generated significant local and national publicity on gas safety issues. However, imprisonment is available only in limited cases, when there has been a death and the police can find evidence with which to bring a case for manslaughter, or when a gas fitter has failed to comply with an enforcement notice previously issued by the HSE. There are still cases in which the courts cannot impose what they consider would be a proportionate sentence.

The availability of stiffer sentences would strengthen the deterrent to those who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley suggested, may think it worth their while to continue to benefit from carrying out work that puts innocent people in danger. By making imprisonment an option for the judiciary and the courts on a wider range of serious breaches of health and safety legislation, we believe that justice will be better served and, very importantly, that it will act as a deterrent to wrongdoers. In turn, that will benefit the vast majority of businesses that make real efforts to protect their workers.

Most prosecutions take place in the lower courts, and the average penalties for convictions, excluding fines of more than £100,000, have tended to increase year-on-year since 1990-91, with occasional exceptions. The average penalty is still less than £9,000, however, despite the possibility of fines of up to £20,000 on summary convictions for breaches under section 226 of the 1974 Act. Those breaches make up just over half the HSE’s prosecutions. The Court of Appeal’s view, expressed in 1998 but still relevant, was that the general level of fines in health and safety cases was too low. It also identified that particular aggravating circumstances could be taken into account, such as whether death resulted from a breach, whether the defendant failed to heed warnings—including, for example, previous HSE advice or action, including improvement or prohibition notices—and whether the breach was deliberate with a view to profit in order to save money.

In the Friskies Petcare case, the Court of Appeal also made a recommendation about how the prosecution and defence should assist the case by setting out in
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advance the aggravating and mitigating factors in it. May I assure Members that the HSE now ensures that the courts are made fully aware of those factors before sentencing? That has resulted in some improvement to the level of fines, but health and safety fines are still generally lower than those imposed on companies by financial regulators for regulatory breaches, for competition offences or for insolvency.

The Court of Appeal in 1998 is not the only one to have said as much; case after case can be cited to justify my right hon. Friend’s Bill. For example, in a case in 2006 the magistrate, Richard Clancy, told a Mr. Jarnell, who was up on a health and safety charge, that his conduct was “disgraceful” and that a hearing in a higher court would undoubtedly have resulted in a prison sentence. Further, Judge Roger Scott in 2006 branded Paul Regan “dangerous”, saying that in the case in question:

Judge Scott also said:

In 1996, 1998 and 1999, there were all sorts of cases. One judge said:

During the same case, in the 1990s, the judge also said that

Another judge, in opening his sentencing remarks, said:

The reaction is clear from our judges and Law Lords. They have asked that this particular piece of legislation—although, obviously, not identifying all its detail—be put through the House, so that it opens up the opportunity for them to deal specifically with serious health and safety offences. For that, my right hon. Friend deserves nothing but praise. While breaches of financial and competition regulations should be punished because of the impact on society as a whole, corporate health and safety crimes need more serious sanctions such as increased fines and, in more serious cases, imprisonment to address the personal cost and suffering attached to every single injury or fatality.

I remind the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that the Bill does not change the requirements on business by introducing any new duties or obligations. However, it does ensure that sentences for health and safety breaches relating to the current duties can more easily be set at a level to deter those who attempt to flout the law.

The hon. Member for Rochdale asked about our view of the comments made in the CBI report. There are other regulatory regimes whereby imprisonment is available as a sentencing option. For example, the maximum sentence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is five years, and two years under subsidiary regulations, and there are maximum sentences of two years under the Water Resources Act 1991 and the Food Safety Act 1990. Before the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire rises to claim the credit, as those pieces of
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legislation were introduced under a Conservative Government, I hope he will accept that we give credit where it is due. There were other situations in which previous Governments recognised that some breaches were potentially so serious that they needed to attract a prison sentence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned the various legal systems. I should like to clarify that matter for the House because it is important. The Scottish judicial system differs from that in England and Wales. In Scotland, cases that would be taken by the HSE or by local authorities are taken by the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service. Health and safety cases heard in the magistrates court in England and Wales will in Scotland usually be heard in the sheriff court before a sheriff under summary proceedings, and will on conviction attract the same penalties as in the magistrates court in England and Wales. Cases taken on indictment, which would be heard in the Crown Court in England and Wales, are usually heard in the sheriff court before a sheriff and a jury—my hon. Friend asked about jury trials—and will on conviction attract the same penalties as in the Crown Court. There is that read-across. The sheriff, for the benefit of anybody who has not come across that law qualification, is a legally qualified officer of the court who is appointed from the Scottish Bar or the solicitor profession.

Andrew Selous: Will the hon. Lady respond to the point about the time scale within which the Sentencing Guidelines Council will respond to the letter from the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill)?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman is impatient; I still have some bits and pieces to say. I will come to sentencing guidelines shortly.

In Scotland, the most serious cases are heard in the High Court, and exceptionally health and safety cases may be referred to the High Court for sentencing. Trial in the High Court is on indictment and heard before a judge and jury. I thought it important to put that comparison on the record.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire and the hon. Member for Rochdale mentioned the Sentencing Guidelines Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham read into the record the full text of his letter to that body. If the Bill is enacted, it will clearly necessitate changes to the guidelines. As has been said, my right hon. Friend and the Health and Safety Executive have already informed the Sentencing Guidelines Council. No meetings have yet taken place, but HSE and Sentencing Guidelines Council officials have agreed to work together to ensure consistency and proportionality in sentencing. The council will keep the matter under review, and the guidelines are binding on all courts. Courts in Scotland and Northern Ireland also have regard to the guidelines, although no bodies similar to the guidelines council have been established there.

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