It has been suggested that the maximum fines available to magistrates' courts for breaches of health and safety legislation are not high enough. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has sought the views of the Health and Safety Commission and is now considering with colleagues whether there is a case to be made for reviewing those penalties.
Does the Minister agree with the statement made by the chair of the Health and Safety Commission earlier this year to the Select Committee on Employment when he said that it was morally unacceptable that management could be fined just £200 for a death that occurs at work? Will he approach the Lord Chancellor for stiffer penalties and consider increasing the £2,000 limit that can be imposed by magistrates' courts?
As a reflection of the concern expressed by the chairman of the commission we started the exercise of approaching colleagues to see whether the maximum fines available to magistrates' courts could be increased. A point that is sometimes not appreciated is that the limits on fines that can be imposed relates only to the magistrates' courts. For offences tried on indictment, fines are unlimited. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have taken heart from two recent decisions where fines of £250,000 and £500,000 were imposed. If the magistrates feel that their powers of punishment are insufficient, they can commit to the Crown court anyway.
I thank the Minister for his reply about consultation and investigation. However, does he accept that, since his Government believe in deterrence, one could come to the conclusion from the statistics that there is a case for extending penalties for people who contravene the health and safety regulations.
Again I understand the sentiments that prompt that question. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take account of the fact that before a Crown court the fines are unlimited. The problem we are discussing is whether the penalties available to a magistrate should be greater. As I have said, a consultation exercise is taking place precisely because the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McTaggart) are shared by us.
Is it not manifest that many accidents cause enormous distress not only to the person injured but to the employer, and that in many cases a financial penalty may be much less effective than insisting on some form of retraining and re-education of both workers and employer? Is my hon. Friend confident that the list of penalties available includes such re-education?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is entirely right to make the point that financial penalties are one thing, but that the degree of shame and opprobrium that particular cases can bring on employers is something of which many are conscious.
Will my hon. Friend consider the penalties and the case against employees, who often hurt themselves by refusing to use the appropriate methods laid down by their employer? There are insufficient charges brought against employees who deliberately break the rules of their employers.
I suspect that my hon. Friend speaks from experience. It is a fair point to make. In civil proceedings, contributory negligence can play a part. In the criminal law, there is clearly an obligation on employers and that obligation has to be met.