HC Deb 10 February 2004 vol 417 cc1270-2 12.32 pm
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the prosecution and punishment of offences which are, or are treated as being, offences under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 or the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969. Thirty years ago, throughout 1973 and most of 1974, I worked as a labourer on the M1 extension in London, and my abiding memory of that time is of the very shoddy, to say the least, working practices on the site. That brought home to me personally the importance of health and safety at work, and the very strong reasons why the scandal of health and safety failures led directly to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the original Act—a piece of legislation that has served not only working people but the wider community with great success.

Working as a labourer on a building site, or on the shop floor, can be hazardous, and the work environment has historically been plagued with injuries and work-related ill health. Although the 1974 legislation was a considerable achievement, we now need to re-engage on a number of important work issues to revitalise and renew the legislation, which has, perhaps not surprisingly, become out of date after 30 years.

In the 21st century, most employees naturally expect working life to be, if not exactly comfortable, at least safe. Employees have a right to expect not to be maimed or laid off for life, and they are certainly entitled to expect that their place of work will not lead them to an early grave. A recent Health and Safety Executive national statistics study for 2002–03 revealed that the number of work-related fatalities fell to 226 in that year, from 251 in the previous year. The same study shows that, while the rate of work-related fatal injury is roughly what it was three years ago, it is around one third of the rate recorded in 1981. Most of that success can be put down to the impact of the 1974 Act, but those involved in health and safety recognise that the legislation must reflect the realities of today's workplace. That can be done by strengthening the penalties for those responsible for taking unnecessary risks with safety on sites and in workplaces across Britain.

Occupational health and safety is an integral part of workplace well-being. We live in a world of greater uncertainty and risk than was the case in 1974. My Bill would meet public concern by amending the 1974 Act to increase the penalties for offences. It would do that in two ways. First, it would raise the maximum fine from the present level of £5,000, which is now out of date, to £20,000. Secondly, it would introduce the possibility of a custodial sentence for the most serious breaches of health and safety regulations.

I believe that these measures, which were first identified in the Health and Safety Commission report entitled "Revitalising Health and Safety", launched by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in June 2000, will address health and safety concerns in workplaces across Britain. We all know of many good companies and safe workplaces that operate good health and safety policies. Sadly, we also know of bad companies, or at least have heard of poor companies with bad health and safety track records.

In 2001, 295 workers lost their lives as a consequence of work-related activity. That is unacceptable, and the cost in human terms is immeasurable. In 2002, more than 1 million people were injured at work, while approximately 2 million suffered from ill health caused by work. That level of death and injury is caused because health and safety concerns are being ignored, and because the law is being broken in many cases.

One example concerns a company and one of its directors, prosecuted following an HSE investigation into allegations that the company had not tested its crawler cranes, and that test certificates had been fabricated and offered to other companies' clients as proof that the tests had taken place. In his summing up, the judge in the case remarked: Were prison an option that was open to me, today you would be going to prison, because there is no offence to my mind which is more grave than a managing director of a company of this kind signing certificates one after another, purporting to have examined a crane and not having done so…I sincerely hope that Parliament will look again at this legislation and amend it to allow the sentencing judge the option of a custodial sentence. We need to act to ensure that the hard-won improvements in health and safety continue to reduce the rates of work-related injury and death. We have been reminded, in the most tragic terms, of the need for an effective health and safety regime. At Morecambe bay last Thursday, 17 men and two women died at the hands of unscrupulous gangmasters operating outside the law.

My Bill is simple and straightforward, as it follows basic common sense. It is supported by the TUC, many trade unions—including my own, the Transport and General Workers Union—and the CBI. Any employer in breach of the 1974 Act should pay a fine commensurate for that breach. We need to get tough on breaking safety laws, and the Bill's principal provisions would raise the maximum level of fines for most health and safety offences. For the more serious offences, the Bill makes it possible, for the first time, to impose custodial sentences on the most recalcitrant employers.

It is important to note, however, that the Bill would not change the requirements on business; companies complying with the law will not be affected by changes in the criminal penalties available to the courts. The Bill also recognises the need to improve the situation as regards employers' liability insurance, especially the implications of increases in that insurance if some firms thought they would be better off not taking out insurance at all. My Bill would ensure that good employers continue to be supported and helped, and that they are not undermined, but that bad employers face stiffer penalties. It recognises the need to reflect the realities of today's workplace; it will encourage good practices and punish bad ones.

I cannot close my remarks without pointing out the contribution made by other Members to the health and safety at work agenda. My hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) have worked assiduously in the all-party group on occupational safety and health to raise those issues in the House.

I commend the Bill to the House. It will make a significant contribution to improving standards in the workplace and to getting rid of cowboy practices. It will create conditions for good health and safety and provide a modern legal framework to encourage best practice.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Love, Jon Cruddas, John Cryer, Lawrie Quinn, Mr. Colin Breed, Ian Stewart, Mr. Richard Allan, Mr. Malcolm Savidge, Mr. Michael Clapham and Tony Lloyd.