HC Deb 14 May 2004 vol 421 cc630-48

Order for Second Reading read.

1.20 pm
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

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

Notwithstanding some of the comments that have been made, I am sure that everyone in the House will strongly welcome the tabling of those amendments today and the fact that we now have a listening Government who have responded to concerns. I strongly welcome that and, because of the all-party campaign that has teen running for some time, I hope that all sections of the House will welcome today's news.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

It is not clear from the amendments whether the scheme will apply to all those who lost their pensions—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I think perhaps that we should now move on to the Health and Safety at Work (Offences) Bill.

Mr. Love

Not having seen the terms of those amendments, it would have been difficult for me to comment in any detail.

This has been a remarkably productive Friday, with three Bills going through. I do not want to say that I hope to be as lucky as the first three, as that lies in the hands of the House and not my own. I shall endeavour to be brief, recognising the time.

The Bill seeks to make provision for the prosecution and punishment of offences that 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. As I have said, the reason for proposing these changes is the prevailing concern, shared widely by industry and the legal profession, that health and safety offences are treated less seriously than they ought to be. A case in point was the recent Morecambe bay tragedy in which 20 people died. That reminded us in the most shocking terms of the need to protect workers when subjected to the harshest and most dangerous working conditions in which workers can be exploited by a system thriving on the taint of illegality.

In the UK, we have a long history of trying to confront and address health and safety problems caused by work activities. My researcher discovered that, about 200 years ago, Parliament introduced its first attempt to regulate aspects of occupational risk, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802. The main provision in relation to these matters was in 1974, when the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive were set up. The legislation brought together many of the regulatory bodies dealing with occupational risk and provided a framework of duties on employers and employees.

Huge strides have been made in improving health and safety standards in the quarter of a century since the Act, with the rate of fatal accidents in the UK down to less than a quarter of what it was in the 1970s. However, the Institute of Directors told me that, over the last five years, industries in the private sector have had fatal and major accident rates exceeding 250 per 100,000 employees. These include industries such as construction, mining, quarrying and transport, as well as other varied manufacturing industries.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the original Act. The Act was a great achievement at the time, but we now need to re-engage with companies that evade their health and safety duties and which subject some of the most vulnerable workers to the hidden dangers at their work. These workers are often employed in a twilight world where the worst types of working conditions exist. Such worker exploitation can only occur when companies are allowed to put workers' lives at risk and where the small number of bad employers are able to undercut the good.

In 2002, the Institute of Directors said that public confidence in parts of the business community had been severely damaged as a result of a number of tragic and heavily publicised accidents. Occupational health and safety is an integral part of workplace well-being and many business voices accept the need to tighten the law covering health and safety.

I consulted the business and industry community widely in respect of the Bill. Following the introduction of the Bill in February, the CBI wrote to me to say that its members had no serious objection to the Bill proceeding to committee stage", and that there must clearly be severe sanctions for persons and organisations that have caused death by their deliberate and negligent acts or inaction. The Federation of Small Businesses, which I also consulted, commented: The FSB accepts that all employers have a general duty of care towards their employees and a duty to the inspectorate process. We also understand that there should be penalties attached to any infringement of the Act. Much more recently, the Institute of Directors told me, when I spoke to its health and safety officer, that novel approaches to health and safety breaches could be considered, such as the ability for courts to order a safety audit at the organisation's expense, or company probations involving implementing a safety system that was recommended following such an audit.

It must be pointed out, however, that those three organisations also have concerns about the Bill, particularly about its proposals for extending custodial sentences. Although they believe that the custodial sentences option should continue to be available to the courts for a limited range of offences, they believe that it should be used only if the circumstances of the case are sufficiently extreme to warrant it. I shall return to their comments later in my speech.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

This may be a premature question, but can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether any of those organisations or others commented on clause 2, which deals with employers' insurance offences? One of my reservations is that, given the well known difficulty that many small firms have in securing insurance cover, the penalties in the Bill are very harsh indeed. Has the hon. Gentleman encountered any opinions on that aspect of the Bill?

Mr. Love

As I said, I did receive comments on that issue, but I should like to return to them after I have explained the Bill more fully. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will pursue his point again at that time.

The Bill recognises that we live in a world of much greater uncertainty and risk than in 1974 and it is designed to meet public concern by updating the 1974 Act. It does so by removing the cap, currently standing at £5,000 for a range of less serious offences, on the level of fines for breaches of health and safety law. It will extend the possible punishment of prison custodial sentences to all breaches of health and safety laws. Currently, that applies to breaches of only a few sections of the 1974 Act, but under the Bill it could apply to all sections. Finally, to deal with the point raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the Bill significantly increases the fine for not having a valid employer liability insurance certificate.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

In case a different impression is created by another right hon. Member, it is important to say that many of us regard that provision as a crucial part of the Bill. I have had experience in my constituency of an owner of a private mine not having valid insurance when an accident took place in that mine. That meant that compensation from an insurance company was not forthcoming.

Mr. Love

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. Employers, and especially small businesses, have had some difficulties in gaining employer liability insurance, which is undeniably a contributory factor to some of the difficulties that companies have faced. However, there is also a considerable amount of evasion in respect of employer liability insurance. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a particular case, which I believe would be covered by the Bill.

The limited debate so far has reflected the fact that Parliament recognises the need for corporate accountability and social responsibility, and that that must involve safeguarding the health and safety of employees. The Bill is an attempt to respond to those needs by reflecting the realities of today's workplace, where tragedies do unfortunately occur. For example, the TUC drew my attention to a case in which Bournemouth magistrates imposed a fine on a company on two charges, after a man was paralysed when 2 tonnes of glass tipped off a trolley that the company had been warned was unsuitable for the purpose.

Sadly, current British employment law allows rogue companies—I accept that it is a very limited number—to continue to ply their trade. Surely, it must be unacceptable that unscrupulous, illegal operators can treat workers in this way without any real fear of intervention. The change must start at the sharp end. We must put in place an effective deterrent so that employers can no longer factor in potential fines when making contractual bids, knowing that they can still make a profit even if they are fined under the 1974 Act. These scams must be stopped, and the Bill is an attempt to do that.

We must bring the law up to the standard of the 21st century. Employees have a right to expect not to be injured or maimed when they go to work, or at worst, to find that the workplace leads to an early grave. It is the duty of Parliament to tighten up our health and safety laws and to prevent tragedies such as we have seen in recent years. I hope that it will reflect that concern.

The consequences of our inadequate health and safety legislation are harrowing and grave, and rogue employers must not be allowed to cheat workers out of a safe working environment.

There is widespread agreement on that, but some concerns remain among employers' organisations. The CBI's head of environmental affairs said that financial penalties for health and safety offences should be in line with the penalties for other offences and set at a level to deter offenders. However raising the limit from £5000 to £20000 could have a disproportionate effect on small and medium sized enterprises. Similarly, the Federation of Small Businesses, in its submission on employers' liability insurance, said that it is one of the biggest issues facing small businesses today … Penalising small businesses in this case will not deter the cowboys, who consciously choose to operate illegally, but will impact heavily on small employers who want to behave responsibly, but cannot do so.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

In the hon. Gentleman's discussions with industry, has he reached conclusions on whether those employers who have insufficient or no liability insurance are in that position through error, because they are financially hard-pressed and cannot keep up the payments, or simply because they are unscrupulous and have no intention of getting adequate cover? What is the breakdown and the balance between the three?

Mr. Love

I cannot claim to have carried out a comprehensive consultation exercise, so I cannot answer in detail. Undoubtedly, the representative organisations feel that small businesses find it difficult to get the insurance, but there is a body of evidence from cases that come to the courts suggesting that negligence and evasion are also factors. I hope that the Bill will be able to differentiate the two, to be sympathetic to the responsible employer, small business or not, but to crack down hard on those who are simply evading their responsibilities to their employees.

The Institute of Directors tried to pilot some rather innovative ways of responding to some of these issues. In a recent speech, its health and safety representative said: The Centre for Corporate Accountability has also suggested a system of proportionate fines for convicted companies … Instead of a significant fine, an executive … could be sent on an approved course. Putting a firm out of business surely cannot always be the best remedy … The emphasis surely ought to be about helping improvement come about. That sums up the reaction to my Bill. I was slightly surprised that so many caveats were expressed by a number of the organisations that I contacted, but the positive thing was that there was no outright opposition to the thrust of my Bill. I have quoted sentences from responses that show willingness to support health and safety legislation and to ensure that breaches receive appropriate sentences.

We should be able to explore the issues in Committee, including the appropriate fines for different types of breach. We should be able to explore the role of custodial sentences, too. There is some concern, especially among small businesses, that taking an owner/manager away from a business might well prejudice whatever business and employment it generates. For that reason, we must recognise the sensitivity of such roles.

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, there are issues concerning employers' liability insurance and we need to recognise sensitive points for small employers while also cracking down on those who simply evade their responsibilities. We shall have only limited time in Committee, but I think that the Bill can do that. We can bring back to the House a better Bill than the one before us so that we can make progress.

There can be two reasons for objecting to my Bill. I do not know which of them the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will choose. He may make a principled objection to private Members' Bills, and there is nothing I can say to that, except that it seems strange to take part in a process while disagreeing fundamentally with it.

On the other hand, there are concerns, expressed across the House, about regulation. As secretary of the all-party small business group, I understand that regulation is continually raised by businesses, particularly small ones. The Bill does not seek to extend regulation, which already exists under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The Bill seeks to make that existing regulation more effective, and the House, given the changes of the past 30 years and the serious problems that have brought business into disrepute in recent years, should be alert to the need to update legislation.

The Bill will make a significant contribution to improving standards and getting rid of some of the cowboy practices that a small number of businesses employ. It is a small number, but those businesses can taint the rest of the business community simply by wilfully disregarding their duties to protect their workers from the dangers and risks in the workplace. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.38 pm
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on having the opportunity to present the Bill to the House. I gather that his experience working on the construction of the M1 extension in the 1970s led him to take an understandable and keen interest in the health and safety at work agenda, and he has pursued a noble crusade throughout his political life.

The Opposition recognise the vital importance of effective health and safety practices to ensure the well-being of all workers, regardless of their place of work. It is 30 years since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was passed, and it is entirely reasonable, from time to time, to seek to revise and update legislation to make sure that it remains relevant and pertinent.

Our guiding principles in considering the Bill are that its provisions should be clear, unbureaucratic and, perhaps most importantly, just and proportionate. It has two principal purposes, the first of which is to raise the maximum penalties available to the courts in respect of certain health and safety offences. It amends the penalty framework in section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act in the following way: it raises the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences; it makes certain offences currently triable only in the lower courts triable in either the lower or the higher courts; and it makes imprisonment an option for more health and safety offences in both lower and higher courts.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend share my nervousness when he sees a specific amount for a fine or a penalty in such a Bill? Does he share my view that, paradoxically, that builds in inflexibility, which may be undesirable in the long run, and that it is better, if possible, to express penalties in terms of levels, which can be adjusted by statutory instrument? Does he not think that that may be a weakness in the Bill?

Gregory Barker

That is a well made point, and it is no surprise that it comes from my right hon. Friend. One of our principal concerns is the rigidity implicit in the Bill. That is why we believe that it requires stringent scrutiny, not least because of the impact that it could have on small businesses, which might not be able to withstand such fines. The net effect might be not to improve best practice or standards for workers in such a firm, but to drive the firm out of business, leaving family wage earners without a job. As for the maximum fine, the power to impose a fine of up to £20,000 is already available for some offences under the 1974 Act. The Bill extends that power to other offences that could be considered comparable. In Committee, we shall want to make sure that those offences are indeed comparable.

We are concerned about the provisions that are likely to lead to increased custodial sentences. That is a fairly big departure. The Government are presiding over a prison system at breaking point, and we shall want to examine the detail of that part of the Bill very closely in Committee to ensure that our test of proportionality is met.

The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors have all welcomed the Bill to varying degrees, but they all have concerns about those provisions. We understand and appreciate those concerns, and the knock-on impact that the provisions could have on jobs, enterprise and wealth creation. In Committee, we shall look closely at those elements and seek assurances.

The second purpose of the Bill is to amend the penalty for the main offence under the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969—an employers' failure to insure in respect of liability to employees for injury or disease sustained in the workplace. It also extends the time limit for bringing related prosecutions. That is a difficult area. Hon. Members will be aware of the rise in the cost of employers' liability insurance under the present Government. Indeed, some businesses, especially small businesses, find it impossible to obtain the right sort of liability insurance at all. For example, I am informed that in Northern Ireland, construction and scaffolding companies in particular find it impossible to obtain standard commercial insurance on anything like commercial terms. There may be a time bomb waiting to go off.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is just getting into his stride, but may I remind him of something? He may not recall, because I cannot remember whether he was in the House at the time, that when such a measure was attempted on a previous occasion, the Conservatives opposed it for the same reasons as he is now giving. Given the extreme difficulty that many companies, especially small companies, were experiencing in obtaining employers' liability insurance, increasing the penalties on them at the same time seemed very poor timing, to say the least. Does my hon. Friend expect, as I do, an indication from the Minister about whether the Government judge that it is now sufficiently easy to get the coverage to make the increased penalties appropriate? If the Minister is unable to do that, will my hon. Friend share my disappointment and extreme reservations about the Bill?

Gregory Barker

I hope that the Minister has heard that and will tackle those remarks in her speech. I also hope that she can inform hon. Members about the rigorous market testing and research that the Government will undertake before supporting the Bill. That is important.

I intervened on the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Edmonton to ask whether he believed that the liability lapse occurs through error or maladministration in small businesses, through simple inability to get or afford insurance or because there is a gap between the lapse of one policy and the commencement of another. A policy could lapse when small businesses are out in the market trying to find one and hoping to secure something. Does he believe that the liability lapse is simply down to unscrupulous practice?

Clearly, we have no truck with unscrupulous employers who have no intention of getting liability insurance and are trying to cut corners or make a quick buck the wrong way. However, we are worried about the small, struggling employer who is trying to do the right thing but is unable to get the liability insurance that he seeks in the commercial world.

Mr. A. J. Beith

Surely the hon. Gentleman would not condone even a hard-pressed small business man's sending an employee into potentially dangerous working conditions, for example on a roof or with chemicals, when the insurance was not in place.

Gregory Barker

Of course I would not condone it. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is more understandable and less reprehensible than a criminal case in which someone has no intention of ever getting a policy. It is up to the courts to interpret that, examine each instance and determine an appropriate final penalty for a thoroughly disreputable employer and for one who perhaps falls on the wrong side of the law but in more mitigating circumstances. Again, I refer to the position in Northern Ireland, where the insurance is simply unavailable. It is difficult to generalise when specific circumstances apply to each case. However, let us be clear that we are in no way, shape or form condoning the illegal actions of unscrupulous employers. That is not the concern that we are raising.

There is an additional point that increasing the penalties on firms will make the liability insurance more expensive. It will increase firms' liability and their premiums will rise. That could have a knock-on effect of putting insurance further beyond the reach of the smallest firms. We need to ensure that we have considered all those matters before putting the measure on the statute book. That requires close scrutiny in Committee.

The Bill amends the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 by replacing the maximum fine of £2,500 for each day prosecuted with a maximum fine of £20,000 for the period for which the charge is brought. It gives the Secretary of State the power to increase the fine through subordinate legislation. It extends the time limit for bringing prosecutions under section 5 of the 1969 Act. The current time limit is six months from when the offence was committed. The new time limit will be six months from the date on which the prosecutor considers that he has sufficient evidence to justify the proceedings. The Bill also provides that no prosecution can be brought more than five years after the commission of the offence. We shall want to study those changes in detail in Committee.

To sum up, Her Majesty's Opposition will not oppose the Bill but will let it proceed to Committee. We shall use that time to give it the scrutiny that it needs and deserves. We shall have no truck with bad practice or illegal practice.

Mr. Love

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about allowing the Bill to proceed. Does he accept that if we do not take steps to crack down on rogue employers, they will taint other employers? There is a strong rationale for the Bill.

Gregory Barker

We agree with the rationale that the hon. Gentleman has just articulated, but we are concerned about the detail of the Bill, the knock-on effects and the unintended consequences. We must guard against those effects and in Committee we shall want to ensure that there are no unintended consequences for small businesses, and that if the Bill reaches the statute book, it does what the hon. Gentleman intends, with no adverse effects on the business sector.

Any employer who does not follow basic health and safety regulations should certainly be held to account. We can all agree on that, but it is extremely important to ensure that the changes that would be enacted by the Bill are clear, unbureaucratic and proportionate. Those three tests will determine whether we give the Bill our support in Committee.

1.51 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I am glad to welcome the Bill and the opportunity it will give us in Committee to review the penalties for health and safety and employers' liability offences.

There cannot be many Members with my experience of dealing with constituents who have been the victim of industrial accidents or who, in the example to which I referred earlier, were working in a mine that had no valid insurance. As hon. Members have said, there are significant differences of circumstance. In some cases, people who are desperate for work take a job from a rogue employer who has no intention of complying and breaks every rule in the book, or such an employer may have taken over a previously responsibly run organization—as in the example that I gave—such as a National Coal Board mine, and be running it irresponsibly.

Other employers are careless and do not pay much attention to health and safety matters. Others, especially small businesses, are under cost pressures, not least from insurance. Without realising the dangers, they cut corners—whether on insurance or in the instructions they give their employees. One can understand how such things happen and have some sympathy, but from the victim's point of view it makes no difference whether the failure that contributed to the accident through which he was seriously injured was due to a rogue employer or a good employer. If there is no insurance, especially if the business goes bankrupt, he has no access to the compensation that would make his life bearable. I have come across many cases in which the victim of an injury or accident suffers for the rest of his life and is unable to work again.

We cannot condone any failure to observe regulations, but we must recognise the problems for small businesses, in particular, and work out how to help them. Insurance is a problem for many small businesses, which struggle with rising premiums, and both the Government and the insurance industry must consider that, especially in relation to the small craft businesses whose continuation we desperately need.

I should declare an interest as the chairman of a trust that sometimes contracts such businesses. I chair the Historic Chapels Trust, which uses highly skilled people to repair church steeples and high roofs and to decorate high ceilings. People doing such work are exposed to risk, so procedures must be correctly followed to ensure that they have safety provisions—whether harnesses, scaffolding or whatever. They also need insurance and the premiums are escalating all the time, not least due to high awards in court cases and the insurance industry's general fear of the growing litigation culture. Cases may be lost because the claims are unwarranted, but they still cost money to defend. Small businesses are therefore understandably frightened about other threats such as penalties, especially if they have to pay them because of an inadvertent action rather than a deliberate fault.

Mr. Forth

Has the right hon. Gentleman come across any cases in which the skills needed to undertake renovation are in danger of disappearing either because businesses or individuals can no longer get insurance cover or because they are scared off by the increased penalties in the Bill? Has he encountered such cases, or does he fear that they will occur?

Mr. Beith

I do not fear the latter, but the former is certainly a serious problem. The insurance premium has to be paid, while the penalty applies to an offence that an employer does not think he will commit. I have met small business people in both conservation and in small building and decorating work who do not think that they can carry on unless they work for themselves, because they cannot afford the insurance premiums for their employees. That is a genuine problem and we will lose craft businesses and small local businesses in many areas if we do not address it.

The Bill did not create that problem, although it may add to the pressure on employers. The problem forms part of the background to the Bill, but it does not diminish the requirement that people should be properly protected and insured. The Health and Safety Executive, however, does not always undertake proper risk assessments or correctly compare one risk with another, especially when dealing with public risk.

Like other hon. Members, I have encountered examples of the HSE's absurd insistence. For example, in the railway industry, it has devoted a great deal of effort to stopping the opening of new stations because some trains are slightly longer than the platform. It is just possible that the guard will open all the doors, not just those opening on to the platform, and someone will be foolish enough to fall 6 ft on to the ground, break their ankle and sue the industry. That is an unsatisfactory risk assessment, if we consider the risk of many more people travelling by road. The problem can be dealt with, as can many health and safety problems.

High roof risks can be tackled by the use of harnesses, abseiling techniques and so on. Other problems can be tackled by the use of scaffolding. There is usually a safe way of doing a job, although it is sometimes more expensive. It may require more education and training and more work force supervision. Many industrial accidents happen because workers cut corners. They want to get the job finished, and younger people in particular feel that they can take risks to do so. Their motives are genuine, but they can become victims of an accident.

We support the Bill, but we do not want to support the unrealistic or uninformed risk assessments sometimes undertaken by the HSE. We want proper assessments, the provision of sensible requirements, and serious penalties for people who break them. At the end of the day, it will be for the courts to decide whether there are mitigating circumstances in individual cases, including lack of intention to commit an offence and lack of awareness. The Bill must give a clear signal that businesses both large and small must protect their employees and must have insurance, which may protect them if something goes wrong—a situation that everyone should seek to avoid. If the penalties are not sufficient for current circumstances, we ought to review them, and the Bill provides an opportunity to do so.

The Government clearly support the Bill, as they have issued explanatory notes on it, and are sympathetic to the aims of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love). However, they must accept that their responsibilities do not end there—they must consider the problems facing small businesses and enable people in small, skilled businesses to meet their insurance costs and stay in business. The taxpayer may have to make a contribution if the insurance industry cannot and a way out, but discussions should certainly take place between the Ministers responsible and the industry about the way in which we deal with the problem.

1.59 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)(Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on introducing a Bill that is well overdue. I must declare an interest as a personal injury lawyer who has dealt with many people who have been injured, and families who have been killed, at work. I remain a consultant to my law firm, although obviously I take no cases while doing what is more than a full-time job as a Member of Parliament.

I feel that, if anything, the Bill does not go far enough. The Work and Pensions Committee, of which I have the privilege to be a member, is engaged in a major inquiry into health and safety. We have had some remarkable evidence. On Tuesday, we took evidence in Scotland, with particular reference to the construction industry. Some of what we were told was frightening. The Health and Safety Executive carried out a blitz on construction sites in Scotland and the north-east. It informed employers of the week, the day and the hour when it would arrive. It inspected some 440 sites and discovered about 250 infringements of health and safety law leading to the issue of improvement or prohibition notices. It intends to prosecute in 10 cases. Although the HSE had given employers so much notice of its arrival, it found those appalling infringements in what is, after all, a dangerous industry. I understand that the biggest problems were with small employers rather than big contractors.

We were told that the average fine following a prosecution after a death at work was about £9,000. That is a travesty of justice. The average penalty incurred by construction companies for a day's delay in delivery is £20,000 under contract. The incentives are all one-way: to cut the corners and get on with the job. That is why my hon. Friend's Bill is so important.

We should perhaps consider more imaginative penalties than fines. Some of the evidence we were given, including evidence from employer organisations, raised the question of whether we should allow courts to disqualify directors of companies that wilfully, and woefully, break health and safety law. Such penalties are already available for infringements of company law or laws relating to company accounts. It is bizarre that they are not available when a company kills or seriously maims someone.

Mr. Forth

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should introduce the subject of directors so early in his analysis. I have always found it odd that directors should be held responsible in this context, especially in industries such as construction. Surely the prime responsibility should lie with supervisors, who are there on the job and have a realistic opportunity to ensure that health and safety provisions are adhered to. Is it not strange that the role of directors should be constantly emphasised, when those directly responsible for management on the site are much more likely to bear the real responsibility?

Mr. Dismore

On the contrary, in the past it has always been the fall guy at the bottom who has carried the can. Following the Zeebrugge disaster, Mr. Justice Sheen's inquiry made it clear that the company was riddled with failure from top to bottom. The real health and safety issue is not necessarily the failure of the supervisor on the ground floor but, much more important, the company's overall attitude. Companies should establish proper health and safety systems, and mechanisms to ensure that they are implemented. It is a question of designing in health and safety at the outset in industries such as construction.

The Committee visited the new site of the Royal Bank of Scotland, where such practices are being introduced. We were very impressed. On a building site employing some 3,000 workers, there had been only one reportable accident in the time—nearly three years—during which the site had been operating. That shows what can be achieved if management are committed to installing the right systems throughout. It is an example that could well be followed elsewhere. We ought to give judges the power, in these cases, to order the rectification of the health and safety feature that caused the problem. There is a lacuna in the law in that the Health and Safety Executive can issue an improvement or prohibition notice, but if it prosecutes, the judge does not have a similar power to put things right.

In determining the level of fines for breaches of health and safety law, we ought to take into account the size of the company's turnover. When we fine people for ordinary criminal offences, their means are taken into account. That might also deal with the issue of small businesses.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend's proposals on compulsory employer's liability insurance. I would also like there to be a register of employer's liability policies. That is particularly important in disease cases, such as those related to asbestos. As a personal injury lawyer, I sometimes had to try to track down insurers from 20 or 30 years earlier, a task that often proved impossible. There were no centrally kept records and many of the companies had gone into liquidation or out of business. A central record of insurers would enable people who, many years later, wanted to claim compensation for appalling diseases to do so more effectively.

Much has been said about the high cost of insurance premiums. The difficulty arises not from the cost of the risk that we face today but from the fact that insurers woefully underestimated the risk of claims 20 or 30 years ago. We now see cases of what are called "long-tail diseases" causing insurers to pay out, which is why insurers are now trying to recover losses on policies from 20 or 30 years ago.

Mr. Forth

Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's profession, does he think that the increasingly litigious blame culture in which we now find ourselves—one of the few imports from the United States that I regret—is a major contributory factor, and that, one of these days, the Government are going to have to try to tackle the problem, as the United States is trying to do in different ways, even if it would put him out of work?

Mr. Dismore

As I said, in that respect I am not in work at the moment. The idea of a compensation culture, certainly as it applies to the workplace, is simply an urban and tabloid myth. If one looks at the accurate statistics that have become available over the past few years, one sees that the number of claims on employer's liability policies has not only flat-lined but slightly declined, and the total amount paid out has flat-lined. The evidence available through the insurance industry tells the same story as that from the compensation recovery unit, which probably has the most accurate statistics on this question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton and others referred to the problem of accidents, but the Bill is not simply about trying to penalise employers after an accident has taken place; it is an attempt to create a safety culture and to prevent accidents. It is instrumental that only one in five serious accidents are investigated by the HSE. I hope that the Bill will result in increased powers for safety representatives, who may be able to plug the gap left by the HSE's inability to investigate all the accidents that it would like to investigate. I hope that it will also include the necessary preventive measures. It is bizarre that trade unions cannot directly enforce the regulations on health and safety representatives.

I recall that the document produced in 2000 by the HSE and the Government, "Revitalising Health and Safety", recommended the removal of the requirement for the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring a prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 or the regulations on safety representatives. If the Government could find the time to do that it would be welcome because it would enable private prosecutions to plug the gap left by the HSE.

In considering penalties, it is important also to consider how we will enforce them—a question that has arisen in one or two other debates today. When I studied criminal law, I learned that the question is not only one of having the right penalties in place; another side of the triangle is making sure that those who commit an offence are more likely to be found out, because certainty of detection is as much of a deterrent as the level of the penalty that follows.

My concern is that the HSE is woefully under-resourced for the job that it has to do, and it may surprise you to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this country has more Members of the House than health and safety inspectors. That may say something about the respective merits of our trades, but I think that most people would be very surprised to learn that. There is an argument for significantly increasing the number of health and safety inspectors so that we can more effectively enforce health and safety law.

The trade union Prospect suggests that there should be a significant increase sufficient to allow each place of employment to be inspected at least once every five years, and once in the first year in a new undertaking. That is a not unreasonable goal for us to try to work towards.

There is widespread support for the proposals introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton. The evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee shows that there is support from the Government, which I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work will confirm in a few moments, although Prospect, the union that organises health and safety inspectors, has commented on the derisory nature of the fines, which have not increased since 1992.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health recommended that the HSE examine the case for remedial sentencing, which is the point that I have just made. It feels that employers simply do not meet their obligations because they have not invested sufficiently in competent advice and training or paid enough attention to that.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

To what extent are the courts using the powers available to them in fines and sentencing? My impression is that they go nowhere near the maximum on most occasions. The problem may be the culture in the courts, although there may be good reason for awarding such fines, but would increasing the maximum make any difference?

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have a vicious circle here in that the HSE perhaps does not prosecute as much as it otherwise would simply because the fines are derisory. The fine for killing someone is only a few thousand pounds—the HSE tends to prosecute such cases—but even less for ordinary regulatory breaches, which involve only a few hundred pounds, if that. Rarely do we see million-pound fines. That has happened only once or twice, for the major railway disasters.

The HSE says, "Why do we bother tying up so much inspector time and effort in carrying out those prosecutions when the courts impose so little penalty? Are we not better using that time for enforcement inspections?" Alternatively, it could be used for the new thrust of the Health and Safety Commission policy paper, which was published a couple of months ago. It aims to rebalance the emphasis towards more educational work, to put things in general terms.

I have a lot of sympathy with the HSC in that respect, which has relatively limited resources that I would like to be increased. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton has a point, but how are we to change that culture? Increasing the penalties would at least send a message to those involved in sentencing that they have been too lenient. It would also create a wider range of options, along the lines that I have suggested. I recall raising some of those issues with the CBI—my hon. Friend has prayed it in aid—and asking Dr. Asherson of the CBI about that point. She accepted that sentencing had to be looked at carefully and that some elements were out of step.

My hon. Friend has done us a great service in introducing the Bill. This is not the first attempt to put such a Bill before the House, but I hope that it will be the last and that this Bill makes progress.

Gregory Barker

I note that the hon. Gentleman has been speaking for longer than the Bill's promoter and Front Benchers representing Her Majesty's Opposition. I wonder whether he is up to his old Friday tricks again. While he professes support for such a Bill, is he filibustering to talk one out again?

Mr. Dismore

I never filibuster a Bill. If I had been filibustering, I would have been brought to book by the Chair on every occasion it is alleged that I have done so, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) knows.

I was about to bring my remarks to a close, but I have spoken for a little longer than might have been expected because I have taken a number o interventions from around the Chamber. This is an issue that I feel passionately about, having spent my whole working life in this area. I welcome the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton and wish it every success.

2.14 pm
The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy)

This is my first opportunity as Minister with responsibility for health and safety to mark the fact that today the ninth victim of the explosion at Grovepark Mills in Glasgow was recovered from the ruins, leaving 42 people injured, 16 of them seriously. I want to place on the record my deep sadness and dismay at the incident and confirm that the Health and Safety Executive will investigate the causes of the disaster with its usual vigour. No doubt all hon. Members look forward with interest to receiving its report.

I compliment the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on his first outing at the Dispatch Box. I am pleased with his constructive approach, as, no doubt, are other hon. Members. We join him in supporting the Bill, although I grant that there are some issues that he will want to raise, not least with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), in Committee, should we get to that stage, which I sincerely hope we will. All hon. Members, including the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), approached the issue with a constructive attitude, and I hope to deal with one or two of their concerns.

For the avoidance of any doubt, let me stress that the Government very much welcome the Bill. The proposals are entirely consistent with our overall health and safety strategy, and are additional and complementary to our other work. The courts are prevented from imposing adequate penalties in some of the most serious health and safety cases. It is important to remember that someone injured by a breach of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 is no less a victim than someone who is assaulted. It is vital that the courts reflect the growing condemnation that society reserves for businesses and individuals who gain at the expense of people's health and safety, or who fail to insure against the possibility of harm being done to those whom it is their duty to protect. It is wrong that a relatively small number of businesses can gain a commercial advantage from putting at risk the lives of their workers and members of the public, or from failing to insure their liabilities to their employees.

The Bill would not change the requirements on business, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, but it would help to ensure that sentences for health and safety offences can more easily be set at a level that deters those tempted to flout the law. It is for the courts to decide the appropriate penalty for the health and safety offences brought before them. By extending the £20,000 maximum fine available to the lower courts and making imprisonment an option for most offences, the Bill would give the courts the full scope to exercise their discretion and judgment. It would also significantly improve the main penalty provision of the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969.

Penalties currently imposed by the courts on employers who fail to insure are low, yet the offence can have very serious consequences. Employees who fall victim to an employer's failure of health and safety management would much prefer not to have been disabled or made ill. It is a great injustice if they cannot be compensated because their employer broke the law by not insuring his liabilities. Not only does non-compliance reduce the protection for employees, but it transfers the liabilities to the taxpayer when the employer is negligent and gives the unscrupulous an unlawful competitive advantage.

The House knows that we recently conducted a major review of employers' liability compulsory insurance, and we are working to deliver the resulting recommendations. Hon. Members expressed concerns about the level of premiums that businesses will face. I reassure them that we recognise that too many businesses have faced steep price increases, late renewals and premiums that fail to reflect their health and safety record. The market has not failed, but it has not worked well enough. We are taking forward the recommendations of the industry review, the detail of which I shall reserve for our discussions in Committee, when hon. Members will have an opportunity to probe further the Government's approach to the problem.

We have shown that we have recognised the problems in the market. We are committed to helping companies to find the appropriate cover, but as well as helping responsible businesses, we need to provide an effective deterrent to this type of offending. The Bill seeks to provide one. We welcome it, and I hope that it receives a fair wind.

2.20 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

What a marvellous day in the House of Commons, with lots of Bills under consideration and lots of progress being made. I am sure that that is a very good thing.

I start by answering the question that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) asked, because it gives me the opportunity to put on record yet again one of my very favourite quotations. He asked me whether I opposed all private Members' Bills, and my answer is to give a quotation from none other than Winston Churchill himself. In 1931, before the Select Committee on Procedure, he said: I am not very anxious to help private Member's Bills. I have seen a great many of them brought forward, and in most cases it was a very good thing that they did not pass. I think there ought to be a very effective procedure for making it difficult for all sorts of happy thoughts to be carried on to the Statute Book. Sir Winston Churchill, none other. I have always subscribed very much to that view, and that is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.

Those here present who are here every Friday, of whom I can see only one, namely the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—[Interruption.] And of course yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do apologise. Those Members will concede that I have on occasion been happy to allow progress to be made by—[Interruption.] And, I am reminded, that also here present is the Government Whip, the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger), lurking silently and sinisterly just to make sure that everything is as it should be. I apologise to him for not giving him that credit.

I hope that those hon. Members will recognise that I have on occasion been happy to support private Members' Bills and to allow them to make progress. Where I think that a private Member's Bill is modest in scope, is uncontroversial and involves no cost to the taxpayer, I believe that it should in most cases make progress. That has always been my view and it remains my view. However, if such a Bill is, by contrast, controversial, complex or significant in its scope, then I think that it should properly be a Government Bill.

This Bill almost certainly comes into that category. It is all very well for—[Interruption.] The Minister is sighing. I welcome her to her new responsibilities. She will not know this, but I myself was the Minister responsible for health and safety, way back in the good old days between 1990 and 1992 in the old Department of Employment, so I know a little of what I speak and of what I am about to say. I visited construction sites with my hard hat of as the Minister with responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive, and I was responsible for the HSE's budget. Today, my remarks will not be made out of complete ignorance or prejudice, which I know that some Members believe is often the case. On this occasion, they might actually be slightly informed.

Mr. Dismore

On the question of being informed, the right hon. Gentleman said that he was the Minister with responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive between 1990 and 1992. Will he clarify whether he supports the work of the HSE and wants to help it to improve its enforcement activities?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman would have to ask the HSE what its view was at the time. I hope that I discharged my responsibilities in a proper manner and gave it full support as the sponsoring Minister.

In a spirit of generosity to the Minister, I just want to remark that she looks so disappointed that the Bill is not going to float through the House today and into Committee, where she is so anxious to be able to let us know the Government's attitude. I am sorry, but her hon. Friends have already taken up quite a lot of time today—longer than I will have been on my feet by the time it gets to 2.30 pm, I should remind her. The House has been extraordinarily generous in its attitude to Bills today, but that generosity has just run out. The Minister will have to find another way forward. She will either have to persuade her hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton to find a different way to get the measure to make progress or—here is a really radical thought—perhaps the Government should make this a Government Bill.

This is a Government Bill anyway, we all know that. We all know that an alarming proportion of the Bills that pass through this House are Government Bills in very thin disguise, except for the many, many Bills that, as I reminded the House earlier, are killed by Ministers. The Minister should be aware of the fact that on every private Members' Friday this year, her ministerial colleagues have talked out six Bills from the Front Bench—I can provide her with the list of them that I have compiled, if she wants to see it. The other two were talked out by the hon. Members for Hendon and for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns). The Minister must therefore not be too disappointed if this Bill does not make progress today, because her colleagues—Ministers in this Government—have been responsible for the demise of several Bills already this year. But I do not want to get too bogged down in that matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You want me to get on to the Bill, and I shall be only too happy to do so.

We have already seen, from the analysis that has been offered to us by the promoter of the Bill, and by the hon. Member for Hendon and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), that there is a real tension between what we want to achieve and the downside risks involved in trying to achieve it. This is something that often surfaces in public and governmental life: a desire to see an objective obtained, either by legislating—as we have just seen in the case of the Sex Discrimination (Clubs and Other Private Associations) Bill—or by imposing penalties. We often have to measure this kind of thing against the likely results that could arise.

In this case, it has already emerged that one of the real risks of the Bill is that businesses—mainly small businesses—could be so adversely affected by it that we might suffer a significant loss of employment. I well recognise the dilemma involved. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed gave us an example in his excellent speech of a small business involved in a hazardous pursuit—in this case, mining—being faced with the dilemma of whether to continue with insurance cover, which can be very difficult and expensive to maintain, or to go out of business because it could not obtain or afford such cover, in which case the unfortunate man whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned would be unemployed instead of risking being seriously injured down the mine.

That is a dreadful dilemma, to which there is no obvious answer. There will certainly be no obvious answer to the people most directly involved. It is all very well for us to theorise about these matters, with a Bill in front of us and the best of intentions—as ever we have in this place—but we must always have regard to the realities of the people out there who are struggling to make a living, striving to build a business and undertaking the difficult responsibilities involved in employing other people. So when we come to consider this kind of measure, we should look at all these things in the round.

In that regard, the hon. Member for Edmonton was typically honest and straightforward in saying that, among the representations that had been made to him were a number from the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses, all of whom predictably said, "Of course we agree with the objectives of the Bill, but—". That "bull" is very important. They seemed to be arguing, on the one hand, that the custodial sentences built in to the Bill may well be too harsh, and on the other, that small businesses could be so adversely affected by the Bill that many of them could be driven out of business altogether.

It is also worth noting—this is just a footnote at this stage—that at the very time when complaints are being made about bulging prisons, the excessive prison population, and people being in prisons who should not be there, we are introducing yet another measure that at least has the potential to put more people into prison. It is for us to judge whether custodial sentences are desirable, and we shall make that judgment if the Bill makes any further progress, but let us at least take a sideways glance at the fact that at the same time as we and our colleagues are complaining bitterly about people being put in prison, we are being urged to support a Bill that would exacerbate the problem.

Employer's insurance forms a major part of the Bill. As I said in an earlier intervention, we should look at the advisability of incorporating into the Bill a specific amount in regard to fines and penalties. I have often come across this issue over the years—

It being half-past Two o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKERadjourned the debate without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.

Debate to be resumed on 16 July.