HC Deb 30 March 1976 vol 908 cc1255-63
Mr. Rifkind

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 7, line 12, after 'or', insert' fatal'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we are to take Government Amendment No. 9.

Mr. Rifkind

This is a minor drafting amendment. As the House will be aware, in its present form Clause 9 contains the words For the purposes of this Act a death or accident which has occurred". This is the one place in the Bill where is would appear that the provisions refer not to a death or fatal accident but to any accident, whether death has followed or not. This was not the purpose of the Bill.

The Government have suggested amendment provides consistency in the the objection I raised. I am quite happy that the Government's wording should be use in preference to my own. Either Amendment provides consistency in the Bill and removes any question of ambiguity. The Government's amendment is certainly acceptable to me.

The Lord Advocate

Perhaps I may say a few words to reinforce the hon. Gentleman in what appears to be his intention to withdraw the amendment. The wording of the Government amendment is distinguished from the hon. Gentleman's amendment, as he might well expect, by virtue of the fact that the door turned upon the hinge of Clause 1(1). In other words, the wording we have used in the Government amendment articulates properly with the carefully phrased words in Clause 1. For that reason it is preferable to the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I accept that his has the same effect.

Mr. Rifkind

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 9, in page 7, line 12, leave out 'accident' and insert ' any accident from which death has resulted '.—[The Lord Advocate.]

10.43 p.m.

The Lord Advocate

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The main effect of the Bill is to modernise the procedure at public inquiries into deaths in Scotland, and in particular to dispense with juries, which have proved to serve no useful purpose and have made the procedure unnecessarily cumbrous and expensive. There has been remarkable unanimity in our debates that this is desirable and that the provisions of the Bill generally provide a sensible and overdue measure of law reform.

There has been general agreement with the provision enabling inquiries to be held into deaths occurring in connection with oil operations on the Continental Shelf. Perhaps in that connection I may respond to an invitation that the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) made on Second Reading about the provisions of the Bill concerning the apportioning of oil fields in the North Sea between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I emphasise what I said then—that the Bill has no effect in apportioning oil fields in the North Sea between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It has no significance as regards the ownership or control of these oil fields. It simply provides that, for reasons of administrative convenience, sheriffs in Scotland are to have jurisdiction to inquire into deaths occurring in a certain area of the United Kingdom Continental Shelf.

In this the Bill simply extends the provisions of the Continental Shelf Act 1964, which provided that for convenience civil actions for delict arising from events in certain areas of the Continental Shelf in connection with mineral operations should be tried in Scottish courts under Scots law. Both the 1964 Act and this Bill apply certain restricted parts of Scots law to the Continental Shelf for certain restricted purposes, and neither has any more general significance.

The provision enabling mandatory inquiry into deaths of people in custody has also been generally welcomed. The one area of disagreement has been about whether there should be mandatory inquiries into deaths resulting from accidents at work. Although we have disagreed most strongly about this, it has all along been apparent that both sides have been sincerely concerned to safeguard the interests of workers and their relatives. They have differed only about how the public interest can best be served.

Although we have maintained the principle of mandatory inquiries, the Bill will represent a net saving in public expenditure and will not increase public service manpower. That being so, I hope that it will be possible for the House to give the Bill its support.

Finally, I thank all hon. Members for the many constructive suggestions that they have made during the Bill's passage, and for the searching, positive and constructive way in which they have examined its provisions.

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Rifkind

As the Lord Advocate has indicated, there has been general agreement on both sides of the House that the Bill brings forward useful measures of reform and modernisation to the law relating to fatal accidents. It is not the feeling of Conservative Members that it is a bad or undesirable Bill. I thank the Lord Advocate for accepting the principle behind the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends. I think that the House will be agreed that the Bill is now in a slightly better form.

As the Lord Advocate has indicated, there remains one major area of disagreement between the Government and the Opposition—namely, mandatory inquiries. I do not wish to go through the long and detailed arguments that we have had on the subject. That is not because the arguments are any less relevant now but because I anticipate that the Government are unlikely to have a death-bed repentance, if that is the appropriate phrase to employ.

There is, however, one point that must be stressed that goes to the crux of the whole issue. The Government have taken the view, contrary to the recommendations of the Grant Committee, that mandatory inquiries must be retained for accidents arising out of industrial employment and that they must be extended to cover all accidents arising out of employment. If I or any of my hon. Friends thought for a moment that the safety of those at work would be increased or enhanced by such provision, we should have no doubt whatsoever about its being desirable to include it in the Bill. But not merely the Grant Committee but the vast majority of those who gave evidence before it, the Conservative Benches and all the organisations concerned, with the exception of the STUC and, in a slightly more qualified sense, the Law Society, take the view that it is necessary to emphasise the disagreement that exists.

The Secretary of State for Scotland indicated in an answer to me that over the past five years there were approximately 2,000 fatal accidents in Scotland. In fact, there were slightly more than that, about 2,200 or 2,300. For the sake of argument I say that there were approximately 2,000. Therefore, over the past five years there could have been a maximum of 2,000 fatal accident inquiries—that is, if the Lord Advocate had decided in the exercise of his discretion that each accident required a fatal accident inquiry to protect the public interest.

In another answer to one of my Questions the Lord Advocate told me that over the past five years there have been approximately 200 fatal accident inquiries before the tribunal. According to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, approximately 55 per cent., or 100, of the inquiries took place without him having discretion. They were mandatory inquiries under the 1855 Act. By the process of simple deduction the conclusion can be drawn—this was accepted by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in Committee—that in only 100 of the 1,900 other fatal accidents did he think the public interest required a fatal accident inquiry.

The Lord Advocate

The hon. Member is going back to his figures and in fairness I feel that I should give him the breakdown that I was unable to give him in Committee. Of the 2,290 accidents in 1975, 787 were fatal road vehicle accidents, 945 were fatal home accidents, and 558 were fatal accidents arising from accidents elsewhere. As the total of 2,290 includes 241 deaths in respect of which fatal accident inquiries were held in that year, and since virtually all the home accidents and the vast majority of the road accidents would fall outwith the ambit of the present legislation, it follows that the maximum number of fatal accidents which will fall to be considered under the Bill cannot be more than 296. The best estimate I can make is that probably many more than half of these will not call for any form of inquiry.

It follows, therefore, that the maximum figure is considerably under 150. This is consistent with the figure I obtained on an empirical basis, based on spot checks of past experience, which leaves us with a figure of 75. The hon. Gentleman is therefore exaggerating.

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to the Lord Advocate for the figures he has managed at this late stage to produce out of his magician's hat. My case, however, is based on Government figures. The figures that the Lord Advocate has now given and which I have not had the chance to study lead him to suggest an absolute maximum of 296 cases falling to be considered under the Bill. Of those 296 in the year in question only 100 fatal accident inquiries were held. Therefore, even on these latest figures on only a proportion of one in three would the Lord Advocate feel it necessary to hold a mandatory inquiry.

Another matter does arise, however, Although the vast majority of road accidents and accidents in the home may at present be excluded, they cannot be excluded under the Bill. Any road accident case in which the driver is in the course of his employment—whether self-employed or working for an employer—will automatically require a mandatory inquiry to be held, even if the death was in no way related to his employment but merely happened while he was driving from point A to point B.

The Lord Advocate

Again the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating. He dealt first with the situation where the accident occurred in the course of employment. Then he said that it was in no way connected with it. These two statements cannot be reconciled.

Mr. Rifkind

Clause 1(1), which refers to mandatory inquiries, refers to death which has resulted from an accident occurring in Scotland while the person who has died, being an employee, was in the course of his employment". The Bill does not say that the accident must arise out of the employment. As long as at the time of death the deceased was in the course of employment, there must be a mandatory inquiry.

The Lord Advocate

But the hon. Gentleman suggested that the death was not connected with the deceased person's employment.

Mr. Rifkind

The important point that I am stressing is that in these 700 fatal accidents arising out of road traffic accidents a number of the deceased will have been in the course of their employment and that, however ludicrous it may be, a mandatory inquiry will be necessary for them. The absurd situation arises in which two cars could crash and their drivers be killed. In one is a postman driving to the post office and in the other is someone going out to the cinema. The former will require a mandatory inquiry. The latter will not. Neither accident will have had the slightest connection with conditions of employment or the safety measures taken by an employer.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is technically correct in his discussion of the application of the Bill. But if someone is involved in a road accident in the course of his employment, even if he is travelling from A to B there may be circumstances arising out of his employment which should be investigated in the courts.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Member is absolutely correct—there may be. That is exactly why we want the matter to be discretionary, so that the Lord Advocate can decide whether such a matter deserves an inquiry. The Lord Advocate has implied that only accidents which have occurred during employment—in other words, in a factory or a shop, or something of that nature—will need to be the subject of an inquiry under the Bill. In fact, a good proportion of road traffic cases will be deaths arising while the person was in the course of his employment. Therefore, the maximum figure to which the Lord Advocate refers is not a maximum figure.

The important point is that the Lord Advocate's maximum statistics are not maxima. They are a maximum of a certain category of fatal accidents, but, on the basis of his own Bill, I think that he must accept that a death in a road accident when a driver is in the course of his employment will need to be the subject of an inquiry.

The Lord Advocate

I have allowed for that.

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, but nevertheless the Lord Advocate told us that about 700 accidents were road traffic cases. He implied that these could be disregarded merely because they were road traffic cases. They cannot be disregarded, because a proportion will also involve a driver dying in the course of his employment.

In respect of this clause the Bill is unsatisfactory. The new information and statistics which the Lord Advocate has presented emphasise the artificial nature of the Bill in its present form.

We do not seek in any way to inhibit the safety of employees. We wish to give the Lord Advocate powers that he is reluctant to take—powers that he has taken and exercised for many years in relation to all fatal accidents that do not bear a relation to a person's employment. We trust the Lord Advocate to continue to exercise that discretion in all other spheres.

The purpose of the Bill in its present form is artificial. It does not seek to bear a relationship to the background of the accident or its seriousness. We should not object to the Bill in its present form if it did not have damaging consequences. Unfortunately, it has. It will require sheriff courts to take up a large proportion of their time conducting inquiries which the sheriffs have made clear they believe to be unnecessary and a waste of time. It will require expense and bureaucracy and a great deal of time as is presently required for unecessary inquiries imposed merely because of the rigidity of a statutory provision.

We believe it desirable that the Lord Advocate should have discretion. If he believes that 700, or 900, or 1,000 inquiries are needed to protect the public interest, we would not question his judgment. but we stress that to say that with every death, irrespective of the obviousness of the circumstances that have led to it, people must go through the laborious procedure of a formal inquiry, with all the witnesses and relatives being faced with the distressing experience of such an inquiry, is undesirable and unnecessary.

The Bill as a whole is good, but this part puts a blot on a good Bill. We hope that the Government will soon realise that this cosmetic addition to the Bill, which is a rejection of the recommendations of the impartial committee that considered this matter, is a damaging addition, that it is not in the interests of good, sound or economic practice, and that it is not in the basic interest of the employees whom it is designed to protect.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. George Thompson

I do not intend to detain the House for any length of time. I appreciate the desire of hon. Members to proceed with the business as rapidly as possible.

I simply remind the House that I gave the Bill a qualified welcome on Second Reading and, now that we are speeding it on its way to the statute book, I give it a rather more than qualified blessing on its way there.

In response to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) said about all the extra expense, bother and fuss, I do not believe that it is nearly as bad as he makes it in the interests of his advocacy of his own position. However, if at any time in the future in Scotland it is felt that reform of this legislation along the lines of the Grant Report, or along some other lines, is desired, it will not take 70 or 80 years, because quite soon we shall have our own Scottish Parliament which, I hope, will be entitled to reform this type of legislation at home in Scotland and will be able to prosecute vigorously the modernisation of our legal procedures and the consolidation of our legislation, a matter which right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House have at heart.

In those circumstances, I can safely give the Bill more than a qualified blessing.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) describing how the Bill makes necessary a mandatory inquiry in the event of a fatal accident to someone in the course of his employment. The very way in which he advocated his case convinced me of the necessity for the Bill.

If a man or woman is killed in his or her employment, making the need for an inquiry discretionary on the Lord Advocate means that the information which reaches the Lord Advocate is passed to him by at least one other party. In other words, he does not examine each individual case from the grass roots by himself. The initial inquiries have to be undertaken by someone else, information has to be passed to him, and it is on the basis of second-hand information that the Lord Advocate has to decide.

In saying that, I do not question the integrity of anyone carrying out the initial inquiries or the integrity of the Lord Advocate who has to deal with these matters. But there are always doubts when someone is killed at a factory or in a road accident when driving a lorry and, where there is doubt, the relatives are entitled to be quite certain that the full procedures of the law have been carried out.

I give the Bill a warm welcome and I hope that it proves to be extremely successful.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed with amendments.

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