Crown Immunity (Removal from Workplaces)

– in the House of Commons at 4:10 pm on 18th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South 4:10 pm, 18th June 1985

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove Crown immunity from premises covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Food Hygiene Regulations; and for connected purposes. Crown immunity is an out-dated anachronism that allows so-called Crown authorities to flout the food hygiene laws and the health and safety regulations and protects many institutions which cannot be sued in the criminal courts unless it is specifically provided for by legislation. But the Government rarely provide for that. The reason is that Crown immunity has nothing to do with the Crown. It enables the Government to evade our laws which they press other people to obey. That is unacceptable in principle and unjust in practice, especially regarding the food and hygiene laws and the health and safety regulations. A few minutes ago the Prime Minister said that the law was indivisible and should be obeyed. One can say amen to that, but the law is being evaded by the Government because they are hiding behind Crown immunity.

I am a Member sponsored by the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union. One of the national officers of that union, John Edmonds, has organised a survey of hospitals. Some of the evidence that he has uncovered about hospital kitchens is horrific. For example, in one hospital there are open gutters. Foul-smelling grids and electrical equipment with broken switches and no proper defence mechanism. People spray insecticide in the kitchen while food is being prepared. That is taking place in a very large south-west London hospital that is preparing food for hundreds of patients. One can only imagine what goes on. The hospital cannot be prosecuted because of Crown immunity. The union survey found that no fewer than 25 per cent. of hospital kitchens would face closure if there were no Crown immunity, so patients and the public are beginning to learn about the dreadful condition of many hospital kitchens.

The Department of Health and Social Security knew about this problem seven years ago. In 1977, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers said that nearly 1,000 hospital kitchens were below standard and that 100 of those hospital authorities merited prosecution—how is that for flaunting the law?—but they could not be prosecuted because of Crown immunity. The response of the Department of Health and Social Security was to send a polite circular to the health authorities inviting them to ask the environmental health officers to visit those hospitals and suggest that they should comply with the food and hygiene regulations.

In bureaucratic terms, the problem was resolved but in reality the problems were neglected, as the tragic events at the Stanley Royd psychiatric hospital in Wakefield have proved. It is not for me to pre-empt the inquiry at Wakefield, but the House should know that a former medical officer of health, giving evidence there, said that seven years ago he warned the health authority that the kitchen of that hospital was a culinary disaster area. Secondly, an environmental health officer has said that he would have prosecuted that health authority, because of the conditions in the kitchens before the tragedy, if it had not been for Crown immunity. Without Crown immunity, therefore, that health authority would have been forced by the courts to act, and without Crown immunity 19 people who have died in that Wakefield psychiatric hospital might not have died.

Food poisoning there is not an isolated case. There have been recent outbreaks at Leicester, Cardiff and London. There are about 40 outbreaks of food poisoning every year in National Health Service hospitals. We can take no comfort from the attitude of certain health authorities. It may be remembered that when some cockroaches were found in a stew a few weeks ago one of the health officials said that it was all right; the cockroaches were sterile because they had been cooked.

The pest control group has said that many hospitals are infested with cockroaches. The Minister for Health should stop smiling and listen, because the hospitals for which he is responsible are in a shocking condition. He is responsible, he is negligent, and he is doing nothing about it.

The pest control group has said that the kitchens of the hospitals for which the Minister for Health is responsible are full of cockroaches and nothing is being done about it. The group has said that those vermin are causing disease—polio, hepatitis, gastro-enteritis and salmonella. The Minister should remember that salmonella killed 19 people in the Wakefield psychiatric hospital. What did the Minister do about the 19 people who lay dead because of negligence? Let there be fewer smiles on the Government Front Bench while I am introducing a Bill about a very important subject that affects people in hospitals.

My union is rightly concerned not only about patients but about people working in hospitals. It believes that hospital employees are very badly treated. I have no time to go into the details, but the hospitals cannot be prosecuted because of Crown immunity. Therefore, both patients and employees are at risk because the Government are hiding behind Crown immunity.

The Government defend Crown immunity by saying that the Crown cannot sue the Crown. That is legal mumbo-jumbo. That argument has been resolved in other countries and it can be resolved here. The principal argument is cash. If health authorities could be prosecuted, they would have to find the cash to clean up the hospitals and pay for improvements. If they had to pay for those improvements, there would be an end to this scandal of hospital patients dying through neglect. There would also be more protection for Health Service workers.

I hope that the House will sweep away the cloak of Crown immunity and provide proper protection for hospital patients.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jack Ashley, Miss Betty Boothroyd, Mr. Robert C. Brown, Mr. Conal Gregory, Mr. Michael Meadowcroft and Mr. Gerald Kaufman.