I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am proud and honoured to be able to present this Bill to Parliament on behalf not only of all the workers in the United Kingdom, but of the families who have suffered from bereavements in the workplace. Some of them are in the Gallery today.
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Bill has received widespread support not only in the House, but in the country. It has received widespread support from the vast majority of Back-Bench Members of Parliament, and received the backing of former Ministers and Secretaries of State, some of whom, I am pleased to see, are here today to support the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has just said that the Bill has received support from the vast majority of MPs. Frankly, if one looks around the Chamber, it does not look like that. Presumably he is confident that when we have a Division at the end of the debate—I hope we will—he will be able to back up his assertion with numbers in the Lobbies. If the Bill has the support that he says it has, Members will presumably be here in their numbers to express their support by their presence.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the small number of Conservative Members present is a rather sad reflection on the fact that such an important issue does not seem to attract their interest? In particular, will he challenge Mr. Forth on whether he intends to oppose the Bill? If he does, that would make the important statement that the Conservative party does not want such legislation.
In fairness to the right hon. Gentleman, he assured me that he would not pull any procedural moves to wreck the Bill, although he will speak and vote against it. I respect him for that.
The Bill has received constructive comments from the Opposition parties, especially the Liberal Democrats, who have been very enthusiastic about it even though they wish to iron out the provisions in one or two clauses. The official Opposition spokesman has also made constructive comments.
The main thing that has struck me about the Bill is the support that it has received from the country at large. It has received support from organisations such as the Transport and General Workers Union, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, which is my trade union, Amicus, Unison, the Fire Brigades Union and the TUC. Before Mr. Forth says that only the trade unions are backing the Bill, I shall point out that it is also supported by the Centre for Corporate Accountability, the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the corporate responsibility coalition, faith groups and charities, decent employers, the Simon Jones memorial campaign and the many families and loved ones of victims in the workplace.
I appreciate that comment. Other employer groups, which I shall mention in my speech, have also given their support to the Bill.
What does the Bill do? It seeks to introduce statutory health and safety duties on directors. Why should there be such responsibilities on directors? The simple answer is that directors matter. They control the policy and agenda of a company and they control its investment decisions. They are therefore in a position to control health and safety in a company. They are its controlling minds. They can determine how much is spent on health and safety and the priority that is placed on it. They can also identify unsafe working practices through their network throughout the company and are able to change them. In other words, directors have all the power within a company, especially over health and safety if they want it, but they have no responsibility under the law for health and safety.
Why do directors need statutory responsibility? Because, quite honestly, the law is not working. Over the past two years, there have been about 620 deaths in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive, which is no left-wing think-tank of the Labour party or the trade union movement but an independent body, has said that 70 per cent. of those deaths and injuries in the workplace could have been prevented, because they involved management failures.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the HSE—he may get to this later in his speech—but can he tell me whether the Bill applies equally to the public sector and private companies with directors? Will the Bill apply, for example, to the HSE itself? A lot of its employees are often put in positions of risk and danger, so will those in charge of the HSE be covered by the Bill?
That is a very good point. With private Members' Bills, as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, there is limited time and limited political movement. The likes of the right hon. Gentleman may try to talk out the Bill, but I would welcome such provisions being passed on to the public sector. If he is willing to support the Bill today and hon. Members allow its consideration in Committee, I would welcome an amendment from him to include the public sector, so everyone would be covered by these arrangements, but I have limited time and little political movement with the Bill.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his desire to improve the Bill in Committee. As he knows, I introduced a private Member's Bill last week and I was hopeful that I could get it into Committee as well, but I did not have the Government's support. Have the Government given any indication of whether they support the Bill and want it to be considered in Committee?
Let us wait until the Minister answers. That is probably the best way to deal with that question.
Why do we need to impose statutory duties on directors? The law is not consistent. How can that be fair? How can we justify the fact that, if a director financially mismanages his company, he can go to jail for seven years, yet if through his gross negligence, he causes the death of an employee, he can walk away scot-free? That simply cannot be justified. The law is inconsistent and the law is not just.
The Bill does not specifically refer to the offence of corporate manslaughter. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important that the Government introduce their long-promised proposals on the issue and that, of course, they should include the public sector as well as the private sector?
I welcome those comments. I welcome the Government's proposals, but I do not think that they go far enough, to be perfectly honest. The Government have turned around and said that they would introduce a corporate manslaughter Bill and reform company law. Although they may suggest that their Bill on corporate manslaughter will introduce harsher penalties, we will still be in the same position unless there are statutory duties. The point of the Bill is to introduce statutory duties for directors in the same way as there are the statutory duties on employees and even on the public. So why should companies and company directors not have the same statutory duties?
The law is not just. As I have said, the HSE report refers to 620 workplace deaths, yet only 23 directors were convicted. Throughout that period, the average fine imposed after prosecution was £6,500. The law is clearly unjust and unfair. Hon. Members may say that section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 states that, if a director is negligent, he can be prosecuted. In fact, that cannot be done under the current legislation because a director does not have statutory duties in the workplace. The company has those duties, and the director can hide behind that fact.
My hon. Friend talks about directors' legal responsibilities, but does he agree that directors have moral responsibilities—particularly those Members of Parliament who have lucrative directorships? Would it not be helpful if they took the lead and supported the Bill?
I think that there would be a conflict of interest, but I appreciate my hon. Friend's statement and I agree with him entirely.
At present, the Government rely on a voluntary code. Although the code is laudable, as it was drafted by the Health and Safety Commission—excellent—it is not working. It is worthless. Fewer than half the companies in this country report health and safety issues to their boards, so thousands of companies are ignoring the HSC's voluntary code of conduct.
On companies not taking seriously health and safety matters, does my hon. Friend agree that it is an outrage that, when the HSE considered the amount of time that directors spent at board meetings discussing health and safety, it found that more than 50 per cent. of companies had not discussed health and safety in the past three years? Is that not the crux of what we are trying to do? We want to make them responsible not just for their staff, but for discussing health and safety issues at part of their everyday business.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. This is a very simple Bill: all we are trying to do is bring health and safety responsibilities and awareness into the boardroom, so that the controlling minds of the company can make a real difference.
Following the previous intervention, I wonder whether my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to look at the Government's response to the Select Committee on Work and Pension's report on the HSC's and HSE's work, where the Government say that an estimated one in six organisations in which boards do not provide such direction or take such responsibility have no plans to do so either.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point that epitomises the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to bring health and safety into the boardroom, where the controlling minds of the company are found, thus putting such issues at the forefront of business to safeguard workers.
Tens of thousands of companies are ignoring the Government's recommendations that they should adopt and comply with the voluntary code. Let us make no bones about it. Even if every company in this country—there are about 3.7 million of them—signed up to the voluntary code, it still would not be worth the paper that it is written on, because at the end of the day, it is not backed up by law. A prosecution can never be brought against a director for negligence if it is backed by a voluntary code. The voluntary code needs to be backed up by the law of the land.
Last year, one person died every day in this country because of a workplace accident. I happen to be involved in the construction industry. I am a member of UCATT—the construction trade union—and I worked in construction some years ago. The construction industry accounts for about 7 per cent. of the work force in this country, yet it accounts for 30 per cent. of deaths in the workplace. That is absolutely disgraceful.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dismore mentioned employers' organisations and the CBI's warm support for health and safety matters. The Construction Confederation—the employers' organisation—has expressed support for the Bill's principles. It said that the Bill would "reinforce corporate accountability" and
"ensure that boards of directors take on ownership of health and safety management."
That is our purpose: we are here today to bring that about.
We are all aware of the headline-grabbing, tragic incidents and accidents that have happened in this country in the recent past: the King's Cross fire, where 31 people died; the Southall rail crash, where seven died; the Paddington rail crash, where 31 died; the Hatfield rail crash where seven died; and the Potters Bar rail crash, where seven died.
May I add to my hon. Friend's list the Herald of Free Enterprise incident, where 188 people died? This Sunday, its 18th anniversary memorial service will take place in Dover. I know that the relatives and survivors of that incident will be pleased to hear his words and support the Bill.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments and his thoughts on that tragic incident.
I gave the headline incidents, but every day of the week a worker dies in the workplace. Those people do not make the headlines.
The statistics show the devastating effect of work on ordinary people's lives, but another aspect is the way in which many people's health is affected by exposure to a variety of things, in particular asbestos. My hon. Friend worked in the construction industry, where asbestos was used widely. We know that at least 83 people die each week as a result of cancers or chest diseases that have been caused by exposure to asbestos. As a result of one of the latest studies, we know that the number of people who are likely to die between 2000 and 2050 as a result of exposure to asbestos is 186,000 in the UK alone, yet we have had legislation since 1974. He referred to section 37 of the 1974 Act, and it is clear that that has not worked, because many people were exposed negligently to asbestos after 1974. The Bill is important because it would tackle that problem.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for his work on health and safety in exposing consistently the problems that workers face.
I mentioned the headline incidents, which are tragedies, but every week the number of workplace deaths add up to another Hatfield rail crash and every month the number of workplace deaths add up to another King's Cross fire. Rather than talking about the statistics, however, we should talk about the people: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, loved ones and individuals. One of my constituents, Mr. Tom King, an elderly gentleman, came to see me. His only son went to work on an oil rig in Scotland and died in a tragic accident. He has explored every channel and gone down every path, and I have tried my best, but without justice. The sheriff at the Scottish fatal accident inquiry into the case of Richard King said that it was inexcusable that no individual had been prosecuted. In the light of that, how can anyone oppose such a simple Bill?
Since launching the Bill, I have spoken to many families and they have the same stories and tragedies to relate. We met some at a reception in Parliament last night. Simon Jones's mother, Anne Jones, gave a heartbreaking story about the trauma that she has suffered. We come across such stories every day.
I was at that reception and the relatives of people who had died had terrible stories to tell. Did my hon. Friend also discover the shocking fact that inquests are not held? Although the law is not properly in place to hold directors to account for health and safety problems, the bureaucracy goes through the process of considering the law as it is and, after years, nothing is done and directors are not prosecuted. In the meantime, inquests are not held, and it might take years until they are. That is not justice for the families. Did he hear about that from the relatives?
Absolutely. Part of the Bill's purpose is to bring justice to families by closing the justice gap. At the moment, families that have suffered tragedies cannot get justice. People come to see me and other Members of Parliament because their loved ones were killed in accidents that were later proven to be preventable. They see negligent directors escaping the law. Families have been broken emotionally and financially by their pursuit of justice, which they have never been able to get. If there are still doubters, they just have to read Mr. Justice Scott Baker's comments on the 1997 Southall rail crash. He said:
"it is virtually impossible to bring a successful prosecution against a large corporation" in current law.
The HSE says that 70 per cent. of workplace deaths and injuries were caused by management failures. The logical step is to assume that they could have been prevented. That is why the Work and Pensions Committee, on which Opposition Members serve, recommended legally binding duties on company directors. It studied the evidence and facts, considered the figures and interviewed the experts, and came up with that independent view. The report says that legally binding duties on directors would have a positive impact on the current levels of preventable workplace deaths and injuries. Unfortunately, the Government rejected that advice. I hope that in the light of this debate and the debate that has been going on around the country since that report was published, the Labour Government go back to the 2000 commitment to introduce legally binding duties.
The Bill is about preventing deaths in the workplace. It would also make economic sense. About 38 million working days were lost last year as a result of deaths and injuries in the workplace. That makes no sense to the individual who is injured, because he loses his wages. It makes no sense to the country, which has to pay benefits and sick pay. It makes no sense to the company, which loses out on both productivity, because that worker is off, and subsequent profits that that worker would create. The Bill would create a level playing field between those decent companies that comply with the voluntary code and those rogue operators that do not. Surely it is a good economic argument to raise everyone's standards up to that attained by decent companies, rather than lowering standards down to those of the spivs.
The Bill has given rise to many myths about red tape, bureaucracy and placing extra duties on directors. I cannot see that happening and nor can the Government. They are telling all companies to abide by the voluntary code, although companies do not seem to care to do it. If that is not red tape today, it would not be red tape tomorrow if it became the law of the land. Someone might say that extra responsibilities and duties would be placed on directors, but they already have responsibilities. They have legal burdens for finance because they have to return their tax and VAT forms. They have legal burdens because of equal opportunities law and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Why then, when we talk about saving people's lives in the workplace, do people talk about placing legal burdens on company directors?
The Government's promised draft Bills have been mentioned. Draft Bills on corporate manslaughter and company law reform are due to be introduced later this year after a process of negotiation. Although any improvement in health and safety is welcome, it does not go far enough to address the problem. Even the Government say in their press release on the draft Bill on corporate manslaughter that it
"would not be a suitable basis for prosecuting individual directors."
All the proposed corporate law reform would do is codify existing commercial duties to shareholders, customers, clients, creditors and suppliers—everyone at the bottom of the balance sheet—but it mentions nothing about the worker and health and safety.
My Bill is simple. It makes two proposals and would not go as far as the voluntary code of conduct, which the Government urge companies to take on. It takes in only points 2 and 5 of that code. First, the Bill would place a legally binding duty on all company directors. That would be a general duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that companies comply with the health and safety law of the land. How simple. Those reasonable steps would not be outlined by the Government; they would be handed over to the Health and Safety Executive. Nobody could say that the Government's hands were all over business. There would be no extra regulation. The HSE could sort out the code of conduct—between directors' and non-executive directors' roles, for example.
Secondly, the Bill would require the appointment of a health and safety information director in a large company. Why a large company? Small and medium-sized companies might have only two or three directors whose roles are pretty transparent—they all tend to be hands on, everybody knows what is going on and they are traceable in a trail of events—but large companies might have up to 50 directors. As we have seen in the aftermath of some of the headline-grabbing disasters, one director of a large company might not always let another know what is going on. The job of an information director would be to spread health and safety information throughout the company to ensure that every director knew what was going on.
An information director would inform the other directors of the measures that needed to be taken for the company to comply with health and safety legislation and of any health and safety failures, and would ensure that any deaths and injuries in the workplace were reported to the board of directors. It is quite simple: an individual would disseminate information to directors throughout a company so that, in the event of disasters and tragedies such as those we have seen, nobody could say, "Well, I didn't know about that, because he was doing it." To anyone who might ask whether I am proposing a director for carrying the can, the answer is no.
I want to follow up the point made by Mr. Forth. I know that my hon. Friend's Bill does not deal with the public sector, but if it makes progress, I would hope that we could address that matter. I give a specific example. As a lawyer, I represented the victims and bereaved of the King's Cross fire. The Fennell inquiry into the disaster criticised not only London Underground but the way in which, from a health and safety perspective, the London fire brigade firefighters dealt with the incident. That should also be covered by similar responsibility arrangements.
I agree, but as I mentioned, a private Member's Bill has limited political manoeuvring and parliamentary time. As I said to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, if my hon. Friend wants to bring forward such proposals when the Bill goes into Committee, we could take that on and improve the legislation even further.
I will return to this matter subsequently if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On my reading of the short and long titles, it is extremely doubtful that we would be able to amend the Bill to meet the problem that I and Mr. Dismore have outlined. I am sure that Mr. Hepburn does not intend to lead us astray, but on my reading of the Bill—and my knowledge of procedure is imperfect—we could not do what has been suggested.
I appreciate those comments and the right hon. Gentleman's advice and experience in the Commons. If he is willing to support the Bill and for it to cover the public sector, I am sure that everybody on the Labour Benches would support him. I do not understand why you are raising the matter, because you have no intention of supporting the Bill—
Order. I am sorry to have to correct the hon. Gentleman again on a small procedural point, but he must not say "you", as that means me. He must refer to the hon. or right hon. Gentleman.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the present Government have wisely introduced a procedure whereby every breach of health and safety regulation in the public sector that requires Crown censure must be brought to the attention of relevant Ministers? His Bill introduces a comparable procedure to the workings of large companies. In that sense, it is extending into the private sector improvements that the Government have already made in the public sector.
I appreciate those points and that clarification.
To return to the second principle of the Bill, the health and safety director would not be carrying the can in the company. He would not become the scapegoat director, because the first principle of the Bill is that there would be a legal duty on all directors to take cognisance of health and safety matters. So the Bill would create not a blame culture but a responsibility culture. We are trying to introduce to the boardroom a responsibility culture to try to prevent workplace accidents.
Although my hon. Friend says that the Bill is about creating not a blame culture but a responsibility culture, there is significant merit in having a named director who is responsible for health and safety. One sensible amendment, on which I am sure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would want to support me—I know that my hon. Friend does not intend his Bill to do this, but it would move us in the right direction—would be to require a designated named director who would have responsibility, and who in breach of it would end up in the worst possible cases before the court. One problem is that there has never been the opportunity to prosecute the controlling mind or the mind at fault when great or less well known tragedies occur. Therefore although I totally support the Bill, I urge my hon. Friend to take it a little further in Committee.
I understand entirely my hon. Friend's point, but that is not the purpose of this Bill. The named director will be merely a facilitator of the dissemination of information to a number of directors throughout a large company, in order to ensure that everyone knows what is going on and that there are no health and safety slip-ups.
Would the hon. Gentleman tell the House how he envisages the named director for information functioning in a company that is part of a group that comprises a large number of subsidiary companies? Does he have in mind—we could explore this in Committee—whether there would be a single person responsible for information on the entire group's activities, or would that be devolved to individual companies? Is there some uncomfortable join to be explored?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. That is exactly what this Bill is about. He talks about disparate organisations in a large company, and that is why large-scale tragedies have occurred; the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. The information director would work from the top, disseminating information on health and safety practices and on avoiding problems throughout the company.
All my hon. Friends and I ask is a simple thing. Let any director who is so negligent and irresponsible that he causes the death of one of his employees be held accountable under the law, just as a member of the public or an employer would be. What can be more simple and fair than that? It is a simple Bill that would bring about positive change, greater responsibility in the boardroom and increased accountability of directors, and would improve the safety of workers and deliver justice for victims.
The existing law is patently not working. It fails to impose legally binding duties on the one group of people in a company who can make a difference to workers' welfare and safety—the directors. The voluntary code is ineffective; it is failing to change the boardroom culture that the Bill is designed to change. The only way to make a difference is to impose legally binding health and safety duties on company directors. The health and safety experts say that, the Work and Pensions Committee says that, and the Bill says that; it is also what the Government once believed.
The Government have asked the Health and Safety Commission to report in December on the effectiveness of the voluntary code, but the code is not working at all. Between now and then, one person each day will die in a workplace accident. We have to ask ourselves how many deaths could have been avoided had the provisions of the Bill been enacted. It is time to think again about directors' duties—there is no doubt about that. It is time to ensure safety in the workplace, responsibility in the boardroom and justice in the courts. We must ensure that the Bill goes through today.
I support the Bill, although I am concerned about one or two aspects of it. I shall share with the House my direct experience of accidents in which liability was established but prosecution of individuals was not possible under existing law.
In my constituency, there are many workplace accidents for which there is no directors' liability. I have in mind accidents on farms involving self-employed farmers. In the past 18 months, a farmer in my village managed to get on the wrong side of a bale of hay—one of the rolled-up bales, which weigh about a tonne. It started to roll and he—foolishly, but probably impulsively—tried to stop it and was killed. Today in my village the funeral takes place of a 10-year-old boy who died in another completely unforeseen farm accident, albeit it was not a workplace accident. The boy was rolling snowballs on his friend's father's farm and a quarter-tonne snowball rolled down the hill on top of him, killing him instantly.
No one can be held responsible for such accidents—they cannot be foreseen. We cannot eliminate all accidents, but there are some accidents that raise clear issues that the Bill is designed to address. Many of my constituents work in the offshore oil and gas industry, in which, regrettably, accidents do happen. I do not suggest that the industry has an appalling safety record or a bad safety culture—quite the contrary. I can hardly recall a meeting with the directors and operational heads of any of the significant North sea operators in which safety has not been raised by the management and directors themselves, anxious to assure us that the safety culture is something that matters offshore. None the less, accidents happen.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in almost all cases there is a strong business case for having an active safety policy? It is as much in businesses' interest as in their employees'.
I agree. The case that I intend to set out is an example of extremely bad business practice, which led to the company's being liquidated, but not before someone had lost his life.
The hon. Gentleman will remember vividly the Piper Alpha disaster. Although I appreciate that it led to a change in attitude in the North sea oil industry, at the time the committee of inquiry found that, despite the business case for doing so, the oil companies did not have proper health and safety policies. It is important to recognise that when the oil companies that operate in the North sea operate in more marginal parts of the world—west Africa and the far east, for example—their safety record is nothing like as good as it is in their North sea operations. That is because public pressure and a legal framework to protect ordinary people are not present in such areas.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my speech. I was going to say that there was plenty of evidence that Occidental did not have an acceptable safety culture, which is why the company no longer operates in the UK—indeed, it no longer operates. That makes the hon. Gentleman's point well, but it is no comfort to those who have been bereaved because of negligent practices. I agree entirely that good businesses and good business practices promote safety. Such companies have nothing to fear from the Bill, but in some cases good business practice does not apply, and negligence—wilful or otherwise—is a significant contributory factor in loss of life.
The Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster examined various possibilities, including the Norwegian option, but decided, rightly, to propose an alternative regime, which has since been enacted in the UK. The Norwegians had tried to establish an extremely complicated legal framework to force everyone engaged in the operation of a platform to follow, in effect, a tick list, but the evidence showed that that did not produce as good a result as making the operator responsible for the safety case of its installation and for satisfying the Health and Safety Executive on how it was making the installation safe and what its procedures were. That was better than imposing a framework on operators, because they knew better than anyone where accidents were likely to occur and where risk was present. It was felt that engagement between companies and the HSE to produce an acceptable safety case was likely to lead to a better outcome, and experience suggests that that approach has been vindicated, although accidents have not been eliminated entirely.
I am pleased to learn that. Although I have to point out that the offices of the HSE in Aberdeen are called Cullen house, not Forth house, I give the right hon. Gentleman credit for having listened to a sound judge who produced an extremely good report, which was translated into effective law.
One case encapsulates one of my points of concern about—not opposition to—the Bill. I agree with the approach of creating a general responsibility, rather than imposing specific restrictions. My concern centres not on that general responsibility, but on the role of the health and safety information director. I shall share with the House the specific constituency case that, more than anything else, makes me believe that a Bill of this sort is necessary.
A knackery in my constituency was for many years run by a company called Dundas Brothers. I cannot think of a year, or perhaps even a month, of the 22 years in which I have been an MP when I have not been engaged in correspondence with constituents who were concerned about the plant—the offensive way in which it was operated, the dreadful smells, which spread for miles, and the general incompetence, appalling negligence and wilful mismanagement that characterised the company. In the past 12 months, the company has gone into liquidation. As far as I am concerned, it is a happy event.
One of the problems is that no one really likes talking about knackeries—they are not mentioned in polite company—but they are an essential component of farming. Our farming industry has suffered some appalling traumas in recent years: first, there was BSE, the consequences of which were devastating to my constituency; then, there was foot and mouth disease. No cases of foot and mouth and no significant incidence of BSE were seen in my constituency, but being a beef-rearing constituency, it suffered all the consequences of the regulations and impositions that flowed from those dreadful problems, including the over-30-month scheme. Unfortunately, there was a clash between the urgent need for rendering capacity and the company's health and safety duties. I had numerous consultations with council officials and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, who more or less acknowledged that the plant was not fit to operate. If they closed it, however, they were not sure where rendering could take place, because there was not any alternative capacity.
Against that background, a teenage boy—I cannot recollect whether he had just left school—began work in the knackery yard. On his first or second day of employment, he climbed on to a forklift truck, even though he had never operated one before, and managed to start it. Tragically, it toppled on top of him, killing him. The plant was relatively small, and the case is unavoidable—people responsible for that plant should never have allowed circumstances to develop in which a boy could behave in that fashion. There is no justification for their conduct, and although I do not have the report with me, I have paraphrased the words of the sheriff who dealt with the case. In the sheriff court, as in the lower court, the maximum penalty is a fine of £20,000, and that was imposed on the company. The sheriff regretted deeply that he did not have greater powers to impose a much more severe penalty.
Unsurprisingly, the boy's parents came to see me. I supported their representations to the procurator fiscal to ensure that a prosecution was brought, but equally, when they came to see me afterwards, I accepted their argument that this was not justice. The fine was not adequate and was not an acceptable maximum penalty for their son's loss of life. A criminal prosecution of a director should have been pursued. Interestingly, the evidence in the briefing notes suggests that there have been few prosecutions—indeed, there have been only one or two. None of the authorities in the case that I have outlined believed that a prosecution would succeed. I cannot think of anything more extreme than that case, but clearly there have been such circumstances for prosecutions to be successful.
The principle of requiring directors to have a general responsibility is a good one. I agree, however, that we must determine what that means. Clearly, we must address the apprehension among directors that they could be held liable for something that takes place far from them and about which they could not possibly know. I would like an assurance that the Bill would not make them accountable for such things.
I shall seek to return to that point later, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there is a paradox? The smaller the company, the more a designated director is expected to have direct knowledge of what is going on—that applies to the case that he mentioned. However, the larger the company, the more levels of management and the more dispersed its operation, the less likely it is that a director will have sufficiently detailed knowledge to take responsibility for what happens in every workplace.
That is true, but it does not deliver a hammer blow to the Bill, which seeks to ensure that directors take responsibility before tests of reasonableness apply. In Committee, we can explore those mechanisms.
The research paper says:
"Between 1992/923 and 2003/04 the number of fatal injuries to the self-employed increased . . . from 63 to 67."
It goes on to say that workers in smaller companies are exposed to more dangers than employees working for larger companies.
That has been borne out by the flow of my argument. I pointed out that safety measures for oil and gas companies do not stop accidents, but in most cases, accidents are investigated by health and safety officials, and in Scotland, if appropriate, there is a fatal accident inquiry. As a general rule, lessons are learned, but there is not a demand for a criminal prosecution. Officials look at what happened, what procedure was applicable and why it was not followed. However, I take an alternative view to Mr. Forth. In the case of Occidental oil management and Piper Alpha, for example, there was liability and negligence. Occidental board members in the United Kingdom should have been aware of the safety case for such an installation and should have known what could happen. The same is true of onshore refineries or any particularly dangerous plants.
The vast majority of directors and companies would, I hope, act responsibly. My experience post-Piper Alpha is that that culture is strong in the oil and gas industry, and I do not think that anyone wants a queue of cases in which directors are prosecuted and brought to court. The primary objective is to create an awareness mechanism to reduce the number of accidents, not to increase the number of prosecutions. Nevertheless, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, unfortunately, the worst practices may occur in medium-sized companies. They do not have the advantage of extensive training and corporate culture, but they should be aware of their responsibilities. They should be made aware that legally, if there is a serious or fatal accident in their company, they may be held liable, so they must ensure that they keep abreast of current practices in management techniques and operations.
I worked for the National Coal Board when there were more than 250 collieries. The board had overall responsibility, but colliery managers had responsibilities similar to those in the Bill. Periodically, they reported to the board about the situation at their particular collieries, and as a result of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, which laid down that practice, we had the safest deep mine industry in the world.
The hon. Gentleman has long experience in the coal industry, and we can look at examples of best practice. I suppose that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would want to know whether the chairman of the coal board had the same responsibility. I do not see why not, and that is why I support the Bill.
If general responsibility for health and safety could lead to criminal liability, directors need guidance about what that means. The Bill therefore requires directors to inform themselves about health and safety practices and to take all reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that they know what they are. If there are any problems, they should support remedial action. In those circumstances, they should be able to satisfy the Crown Prosecution Service and others that they have followed all the relevant procedures and taken reasonable action, so a criminal prosecution is not justified.
I accept the argument of Mr. Hepburn that the health and safety information director should be charged with informing other board members about health and safety issues. I disagree with Tony Lloyd, however, because if a particular director was the nominated health and safety director they could become a scapegoat for the board. In addition, it might be difficult to get people to accept that responsibility. There is a danger of undermining the main purpose of the Bill, which is to make all the directors responsible for health and safety, collectively and individually.
The hon. Gentleman and I have the same philosophical view of the Bill. I agree that the board should be collectively responsible for health and safety, but the problem in areas such as financial irregularity in companies is that unless there is a designated finance director, no one has responsibility to drive through prudent financial policies. The health and safety case is the same, and there needs to be a controller who drives through a health and safety policy. That is not a blame culture, because those who do the job well will have a proper defence in law, as the hon. Gentleman described, by demonstrating prudent operation. Those who fail, as in cases such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and other tragedies, will end up in the dock.
That is one of the issues that we must explore to understand the thrust of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman extended his description of the function of the information director beyond what is stated in the Bill. The information director's job will be to direct and convey information to the board, not to disseminate it throughout the company. I would be concerned if there was a huge responsibility to disseminate the information, not least because it would be expensive and bureaucratic. The Bill introduces a specific responsibility, and as long as the hon. Member for Jarrow takes on board the hon. Gentleman's intervention, I am less concerned than I was, although I still think the issue should be explored further in Committee.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there could also be a serious conflict of interest between the directors in relation to the health and safety information director, because the obvious defence after something has gone wrong is to say, "If only he had given me the information, I would have exercised my directorial duties and acted on it."? There could then be a further conflict of interest.
The counter argument is likely to be that the information director would be anxious to ensure that he shared problems with the rest of the board, to offload his responsibility. It would be a two-way process. I am not saying that this is the wrong approach or that it will not work, but we should explore it a little further. I support the Bill, and those are issues that could usefully and constructively be explored in Committee. I share the reservations of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the long title of the Bill and the public sector. It is interesting that Labour Members agree that it should be parallel, but that would probably require further legislation.
No doubt the Minister will explain the Government's position, but the briefing suggests that they are less than wholehearted in their support, which seems to be a slight change in their position, as Labour Members have said. I am not trying to make mischief, but I want to press the Government to be consistent and logical, because they have rowed back from their initial position. They promised a Bill covering corporate manslaughter, but we are not sure whether their proposal amounts to that or whether it is just an extension of the existing regime. People are looking for criminal penalties in extreme circumstances, which one hopes will be rare, but may arise. If the Government are serious that corporate manslaughter should be an offence on the statute book, it is difficult to see how they can avoid adopting something like the Bill as part of the framework in which liability for corporate manslaughter can be established. A duty of care must be clear and explicit before a director can be accused of having breached that duty to a criminal extent.
There is a lack of clear, coherent momentum in the Government's approach. Not only have they backed off, they are not fitting everything together. The Minister should take a more constructive approach and work with the hon. Member for Jarrow to take the Bill through. If, for reasons we understand, it does not get on to the statute book, the Government should take on board the points raised in this debate, and in the discussion that would take place in Committee, and incorporate them into their legislation on corporate manslaughter. That would be the right way forward. I assure the Minister that my party would be willing to work constructively with the Government on that. They know that we believe that there should be an offence of corporate manslaughter. We all want prosecutions and convictions to be rare, but we want to create a climate in which people accept their responsibility. We also want to be sure that in circumstances such as those that I described in my constituency, directors are left in no doubt that they could face a prison sentence for criminal negligence if it led to the death of one of their employees. That is right and proper for victims and their families and would be accepted by the wider public.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman's argument. The Government may wish to consider another argument. As we move to risk management for fire and rescue, all premises will have to carry out risk management exercises. Fire and rescue services are often called to premises when an accident has happened, so that will have to be taken into account. The Government may see a connection between what will be required by the fire and rescue services and how the Bill might fit into that.
I am grateful for that intervention.
I am bringing my comments to a close, but I want to reinforce my case. The Government have a responsibility to respond to their own Members and to our concern that they are not receiving the Government's full support. However, I shall not speak for Labour Members, because they can speak for themselves.
The Government have given positive support to the principle of corporate manslaughter and criminal liability of individual directors in extreme cases. My party has backed that constructively and consistently. It would serve the Government well to take a constructive view of the proposals in the Bill. If they cannot support those proposals in their present form, they could give a commitment to incorporate the ideas, as well as the role of the public sector, into one Government Bill. The hon. Member for Jarrow is making a constructive attempt to take the matter forward. It fits in with the corporate manslaughter Bill and the Government should respond in that spirit.
I hope that my speech, with its reservations, demonstrates a constructive engagement and a desire to make effective and workable legislation that is not excessively bureaucratic. We are keen to put responsibility where it lies and leave people to make their own judgment within a framework and guidance that everyone can understand. If we can do that, we will help to reduce the number of accidents at work, which everyone wants and which would benefit business.
On the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I am not sure that leaving the matter to a voluntary sense of good business is sufficient, because although many businesses have a culture that delivers that, others—I have identified one—do not, and they must be confronted with the law to make them understand the risks that they take if they are negligent.
It is a pleasure to follow Malcolm Bruce on the Second Reading of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn. I welcome especially what the hon. Gentleman said about the broad approach adopted in the Bill. He was right to place the Bill in the context of the Government's proposals for legislation on corporate killing, which we expect to be brought forward shortly. I certainly welcome that.
I also appreciate the consensual approach to the Bill which the hon. Gentleman adopted. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 was introduced by the then Labour Government at a time of bitter industrial dispute—there were two miners' strikes in 1974 and the three-day week. The bitter divisions between the parties were set aside in an attempt to find a consensus on health and safety issues that was acceptable to the Conservative and Liberal parties, as well as to the Labour party. The structure of the 1974 Act has been remarkably successful. It is general, rather than specific, and regulations come from the Health and Safety Executive and are supervised by the Health and Safety Commission. Ministerial oversight is exercised with a light touch.
I welcome the Minister for Work, my right hon. Friend Jane Kennedy, to her place today. It is right that ministerial oversight of the work of the HSC and the HSE resides with the Department for Work and Pensions and sits alongside the family of organisations that have oversight of the activities of our fellow citizens of working age.
The Bill has been widely welcomed, and nowhere more so than in the communities that we represent on Tyneside. Our communities have a proud industrial history, but we also have more than our fair share of the legacy of that history. We have rates of industrial deafness much higher than the national average. Indeed, it is possible to visit branches of the boilermakers' union, now the GMB, where every single member is deaf because of the working conditions in the industry. The members grew up together, they were made deaf together and have now retired. The same is true of mesothelioma cases, of which we have a disproportionate number on Tyneside. That is why the Bill has had a warm welcome in our area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow was fortunate in the ballot, although he was less fortunate in the year in which he was fortunate, as other events may interrupt the progress of the legislation. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that he was right to have proposed his Bill and I am proud to be here to support him today.
The general duty approach in the Bill is right. It parallels nicely the structure for health and safety at work and sits happily alongside the Government's proposals on corporate killing. Corporate citizens have an important role in our life, and that is recognised in our legislative structure. Specific responsibilities are placed on the shoulders of those who run our great corporations and those who have small businesses. It is sometimes argued that legislation on health and safety is disproportionately burdensome on those who operate small businesses, but from my experience—both as a Minister with responsibility for the issue for two years and as an official of the GMB before becoming a Member of Parliament—small businesses are also disproportionately victims of the lack of activity in the area.
Some industrial sectors are more dangerous than others, of course, and reference was made earlier to the disproportionate number of serious and fatal accidents in construction. Other industries have more than their fair share of accidents. I am familiar with the problems in agriculture, which is one of the eight target areas for a reduction in accidents, but it is not usually a case of a large employer who is remote from the day-to-day activities of the work force. In many agricultural businesses, the employers are a substantial proportion of the work force and, because their homes are often sited alongside the business, the accidents occur close by. The main accidents are caused by people falling off things, dropping things from a height or getting trapped in machinery. Those accidents are avoidable, but that requires thinking about working practices that should be adopted, such as ensuring that ladders are properly secured before being climbed. That is not complicated, but it needs to be done. In other words, all sizes of businesses should focus on the importance of health and safety.
It is a cliché to say that most accidents are avoidable, but they are if only someone will take the responsibility for avoiding them. That is the main thrust of the Bill and it is right. It should not be an issue that divides the political parties. There are two broad arguments against activity on health and safety issues. One is that it is a burden on business and the other is the question of the public sector. Why should legislation be imposed on private sector companies, but different arrangements or even Crown immunity apply to the public sector? In an intervention, my hon. Friend Mr. Cousins mentioned the duty in the public sector to report to Ministers, but as Minister with responsibility for agriculture for three years and a Minister in the DWP for two years I never saw such a report. They may have gone to other Ministers, but it seems unlikely that I should have survived five years in government without seeing such a report.
My right hon. Friend will agree that few Labour Members would not want to bring the public sector firmly within the framework of this legislation. One of the interesting reasons for the lack of progress on legislation on corporate manslaughter is blocking by senior civil servants who are concerned that they will end up in court. As the Government, we should make it clear that we expect to see senior civil servants in court, just as people from the private sector would be in court if they were responsible for putting the health and safety, or even the lives, of their employees at risk.
My hon. Friend will know that I am sympathetic to that approach, and I will come to the issue of the public sector shortly. In a Second Reading debate, it is permissible to talk about matters that are not in the Bill but are related to it.
I have two constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, whose son Paul tragically fell to his death in a construction accident at the age of 24. Members of Parliament have many tasks to perform, some of them very difficult, but in 22 years I have found nothing harder than dealing with constituents whose grievance is real but for whom there is no effective remedy, because the law does not provide one. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were heartbroken at the death of their son. They knew that the accident in which he died was avoidable. The case was prosecuted and financial penalties imposed on the large corporate citizen employer. The defence barristers said that the firm had genuinely attempted to have a proper system of work, and there was no deliberate disregard for safety, but no one realised what measures were needed.
That is unacceptable. The responsibility for overseeing a job lies with the employers and those acting as their agents. It is not a defence to say, "We did not realise." Four men died unnecessarily. All that Paul Stewart's mum and dad want is their day in court. They want the person who should have properly supervised the system into which their son was sent to work to explain in court what he did and to admit the negligence that was so clearly there. They will not get that, and until the courts provide such a remedy we shall have constituents—I am not saying that there will be a large number—who have the loss of a son, for example, overshadowing their lives until the end.
The right hon. Gentleman has used the term "properly supervised", which I think is key. In the case to which he is referring, where, in his assessment, did the proper level of supervision reside? Does he accept that, depending on the size of the company and its range of operations, locating the proper level of supervision may in some instances be obvious but in others it may not, and that it will not always be at director level?
I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Responsibility operates at different levels and works in different ways. The first controlling line is clearly the main contractor. There rests responsibility to have a policy on health and safety and to make that explicitly clear to the subcontractors. Once that has been made clear, the subcontractors are under an obligation to ensure that what they are contracted to do is done, and done safely. In other words, it is not a defence to say that no one knew what measures were needed.
The case to which I referred concerned a specialist subcontractor. A galley was hanging about 100 ft above the ground. There was a professional obligation to know how to do the job, and to do it safely, and to ensure that the workmen who were sent up in its gantry were sent up safely. The gantry just slipped off the rails and plummeted. Thought should have been given to ensuring that everything that could be done to avoid that happening was properly done.
Responsibility would operate at different levels, but there would be a clear chain of command and a clear acceptance of responsibility. How that would work in practice would ultimately, in the proposed system, be for the courts to decide. That is the correct approach and it is the one, in terms of general duty, that the Bill would facilitate.
Nothing will bring back Mr. and Mrs. Stewart's son, but they know that their boy need not have died. In my opinion, they are entitled to their day in court. A good Government—Government—should be on their side. We all have constituents who could be faced with the same situation. We, as a Parliament, should be on their side. The consensual approach that the hon. Member for Gordon is adopting is, I think, the correct approach in these circumstances.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point in setting out the tragic case of the family of one of his constituents. May I put to him the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow, who introduced the Bill, that the inquest system is not working in such cases? There are extremely long delays, if inquests are heard at all. I do not know whether there was an inquest in the case of Paul Stewart. We heard at a reception yesterday that coroners are incredibly inconsistent from one area to another in how they deal with cases involving health and safety and death. Is there not a case for the Government to examine closely how the inquest system works and improve it?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At the heart of the matter is the need for Parliament to be clear about what it wants and to set a lead. We should be advocating that responsibility is clearly set out so that the courts can take their cue from that. Far too often the inquest system defines what has happened but does not go on to pinpoint the individual who should have had responsibility for ensuring that the accident did not happen. It is that weakness in our system that needs to be remedied.
A sole trader could find himself held specifically responsible for shortcomings in this area. A company may be responsible as a corporate entity but the individuals—the so-called controlling minds in the company, or those who had a subsidiary responsibility because the responsibility was specifically delegated to them—are rarely held accountable under the present system. It is to ensure that individuals must accept responsibility for health and safety, just as they must accept responsibility for financial matters, that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow is introducing the Bill.
On the point about where responsibility lies, it would not be a defence for a director of finance of a great corporation to say that nobody told him that there was wrongdoing at a much lower level of the company and that he was not aware of it. All companies have a system in place to check what is happening to income and expenditure to ensure that money is being properly handled and properly reported. The same approach should apply to health and safety matters.
To complete the point about the burden-on-business argument, most of our corporate citizens strive to do these things properly. Construction, for example, is aware of the poor record in the industry and has made proposals to try to remedy the situation. Targets are being worked to along with the HSE. How dispiriting it is for those in the sector to know that they may be undercut by someone who does not take safety responsibilities seriously, or will cut corners to try to win a tender or to increase profit margins in a way that is clearly against the interests of the work force, and must be against the public interest as well.
Industry should see the HSE and the commission not as bodies that check and try to find fault, or are looking for an excuse to prosecute, but as advisers, allies, and institutions that are in place to help on health and safety problems and to set out good practice. Were the Bill to become law, it would be a defence to say, "We took the advice of the HSE and remorselessly followed it, but something still went wrong. There was metal fatigue in a component that failed, which no one could predict."
No one is advocating prosecution or holding people individually responsible for running a job in those circumstances. There might be a case against a manufacturer, but that would be a completely different matter. If advice is clearly followed and if thought has been given to how the lives of the work force can be protected, that would surely be a defence. In most cases that would have the effect of protecting the lives of the people whom we are trying to help.
My right hon. Friend is right to identify the crisis, especially in construction, where the level of fatalities is rising almost annually. In part, that is because of demands to get the job done, the demise of trade unions in the industry and the level of subcontracting. Like me, my right hon. Friend was at a reception last night at which it was illustrated how a young man, Simon Jones, died. He died because he was put on a job without having had any training. If nothing else, the Bill will place a responsibility on directors to give workers proper and adequate training.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Parliament sets a lead and the law is clear, I think that most corporate citizens will follow. The best of those citizens do so now. Others do not, but should. We should move in that direction.
The point is often made about the involvement of the public sector—the civil service and local government, and it used to be said of the NHS as well—and anywhere where Crown immunity applies. Crown immunity is difficult to justify. It is outdated, and for those who passionately believe in not just paying for public services but having public services delivered safely in the public sector by public employees, surely it logically follows that we should set rigorous standards for protecting the health and safety of public servants, just as we are insisting on rigorous standards for those who work in the private sector.
The real debate is not whether this should be done, as it most definitely should, but how it should be done. In my role as a Minister—I am not sure whether one is allowed to refer to this, but I will—I saw notes going round Departments saying that permanent secretaries could be liable and prosecuted as individuals, and some panic-stricken hand had written in "Or maybe even Ministers", as if that would act as a sort of prompt to dissuade Ministers from introducing legislation in this area. Of course, it should not. All it means is that more energy must be applied to discovering a fair structure for the public sector, just as we are trying to find a fair structure for the private sector. The points that I made earlier about responsibility operating at different levels and in different ways, work just as well for a public agency, even for the civil service itself, as for the private sector, so the matter is not quite as difficult to resolve as is often said, but one can understand why some are worried about the consequence.
That leads me to the final point that I want to make. Yes, it is right to focus on those industries where accidents are most prevalent, such as agriculture and construction, which are at the heart of this debate, but it is also worth reflecting on the fact that by far and away the two largest areas that take our fellow citizens out of work or cause them to end work altogether are not the result of physical injury, in the sense of an industrial accident, but the twin areas of stress and back pain. It is not beyond the scope of human ingenuity to reduce the amount of back pain and to think far more carefully about how we manage stress in the workplace, which is the fastest growing area and can, in extremis, be fatal, leading people to take their own lives because they just cannot cope.
It should not be a facet of modern working conditions that those two forms of injury are increasing, but they are, so as we reflect on the important industrial areas that the Bill deals with pretty bluntly and directly, it is right to reflect also on those growing areas of predominantly white collar ill health, and to resolve to bear down on those as well. Steps can be taken in the context of health and safety, but that requires a recognition that the problem exists and a certain political leadership and resolve. It is admirable that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow has introduced his Bill in this area, and is saying firmly and clearly that something should be done and we know what that is, so now let us set out and do it. I strongly commend his Bill to the House.
I should preface my remarks by saying that unfortunately I have to leave the Chamber early, so I apologise both to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn, who has introduced this important Bill this morning, on which I congratulate him. It is part of the armoury that will improve health and safety in Britain, and my hon. Friend should be congratulated on picking up the challenge.
However, I must share a little frustration with the House of Commons. Mr. Forth and I have been debating health and safety over a good part of the last two decades, off and on, and despite the fact that he and I often disagree in our conclusions, I share with him something that is perhaps one of his hallmarks—a degree of cynicism in these matters. I am cynical not for the same reasons as he is, but because I have taken part in many of these debates, which I have always found fascinating and sometimes quite uplifting, showing as they do that there is a real demand for change in the way in which we do these things. Over the years I have come to realise that I still come back, and back again, to the fact that we are not making the real progress in preventing the daily deaths in the workplace and the literally millions of days lost through ill health caused by workplace accidents and injuries.
I also share the right hon. Gentleman's cynicism about human nature, which goes back to my now rather distant youth when I worked in a number of highly dangerous industries, where people, perhaps not deliberately, but almost certainly by neglect, tried to kill me. I worked in the asbestos industry for a time and one of these days my final speech might be to say, "I leave this place because asbestos has finally got me after all these years," although I trust not, at least for a week or two—but it will not be because the company that I worked for did anything to prevent that. I worked in the demolition industry, which in those days was very dangerous. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown said, people competed on the basis of undercutting, part of which involved undercutting on the health and safety of the employees, because there was no safety culture or adequate legal framework. Since then, legislation has improved matters, but I do not doubt that the same people who employed me then would still put the younger me, were there such a person, at risk in this day and age if they could get away with it, because there is the same attitude of mind. Bad employers must be constrained, to be fair to the good employers—but more importantly, to be fair to their employees.
One matter that we have not heard quite so much about this morning but which is still important in health and safety terms, is that those responsible for health and safety also have a duty to the wider public. The farm accidents in his constituency to which Malcolm Bruce referred threaten not only the sole employee or the farmers' employees, but, potentially, members of the public who are on that same piece of farmland.
I have never made the charge that people wilfully set out to kill and maim in the workplace—that is just not sustainable—but I do make the charge that the business case argument that the very decent hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) on the Opposition Front Bench would want to make does not work. The business case when P&O killed many people in the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, to which my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw referred, was very important and should have scarred many of us. Lives were lost and the description of the company at the time was of a company riddled with sloppiness, right up to Sir Jeffrey Sterling, the most senior and controlling man, who clearly did not think that there was a business case for health and safety, which consisted in ensuring that the bow doors in an seagoing vessel were closed. I cannot trust the business case to be for the defence of employees and the wider public.
I do not seek to comment on the Herald of Free Enterprise case, but on the general point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and in a sense attributed to me. In saying that there is an important business case, which I strongly believe, I do not wish to say that there is never a case for intervention through the criminal law if what has happened can be appropriately shown to involve criminality, and if it can be addressed to the appropriate guilty party. If that is done, I suppose that that is the substance of today's debate, so it is right that we should debate on that basis.
There is probably not much between us on this, because the hon. Gentleman touched on the central points in the health and safety debate, and we are ensuring that we have a regime that defines where criminality ought to be considered. At the moment we simply do not have laws that make criminal the cases of reckless negligence that ought to be criminalised, and certainly would be criminalised if they were motoring offences, for example; no one would even want to dispute that.
My hon. Friend Harry Cohen made an interesting point about the inquest system. He is right to say that we do not investigate death and injury in the workplace with the same intensity as we would other accidents, such as motor traffic accidents, because in our culture it is not seen to bear the same level of moral opprobrium. We must change that health and safety culture to make it clear that putting people's health and safety at risk really matters, and that in serious cases of negligence and so on, the criminal law should be brought to bear.
I am fairly hard-line on these things, because I can think of almost no other debate in which people would stand up in Parliament, as hon. Members have done this morning, and say, "We are not trying to bring people into the court system." Well, I am indeed trying to bring people into the court system. The worst offenders should come before the courts and be locked up, as a salutary example to the rest. That is what would happen in other areas of the criminal law—nowadays even in the case of gross violations of social behaviour, and it would certainly happen in the case of motor traffic offences, where we do expect the criminal law to give a strong signal about what is acceptable and what is not.
I think that we all recognise the cases where we think that there should be criminal prosecution. Indeed, I described one. But what I wanted to say, as I think other hon. Members did, is that if we have the right culture we will reduce the incidence of accidents and the need for prosecutions. I am not saying that there will be no prosecutions, but this is not just about prosecution but about lowering the accident rate.
That is exactly the point, because in the end I hope that we would all want to achieve a reduction in the accident rate. But we have to accept that, judged by that standard, we did very well in the 1970s, when the health and safety at work legislation was introduced and the Health and Safety Commission was set up, but we have not done extraordinarily better since then. There are areas where we have done better, but my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan told the House this morning that in the construction industry things are definitely not going in the right direction at the moment. We need to remember that.
My hon. Friend played a tremendously powerful role recently with his own legislation relating to new types of working. We have to recognise that the world of employment has changed significantly in recent years. The days of the old factories and large institutions, which were easy to slot into a safety regime, are almost over, and the Health and Safety Commission is not geared up to the modern world of a work force with people are being shipped in—sometimes legally, sometimes illegally—to do types of work whose existence we scarcely even recognise. Those are the areas where we need to take a proper look at the whole safety case.
Over the years I have dealt with many cases—not simply the great tragedies such as the Herald of Free Enterprise or King's Cross, but cases such as that of the individual family who has lost a son, like the case that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend mentioned. People in my constituency have suffered these individual tragedies, and they are not necessarily deaths. People may simply have had their life changed permanently because of accident, injury or other things that happen in the workplace through exposure to the wrong substances—things that really are life-changing, and life-changing always in the worst way. I believe passionately that in view of such situations, we need to alter the safety culture, because this is a cultural phenomenon. That is why construction and demolition always were more dangerous, because they do not have the safety culture that would operate in a well-regulated chemical plant, for example. Anyone who has visited such places would know that instantly.
My hon. Friend Mr. Clapham has spoken about the coal industry. Once it was not a safe industry; it was very dangerous indeed. That was felt to be unacceptable. The safety culture and nationalisation played a large part in improving safety, but the improvement was motivated by a demand for a changed safety culture, and crucially that process was driven through in a way that put responsibility at many different levels of the organisation. That is an important point, on which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was seeking clarification.
That culture in the mining industry transformed health and safety. But in the end, there had to be those at the very top of the Coal Board who drove through the safety culture and the safety case. Part of that was done by delegating responsibility for safety—making it clear that it could be delegated and that, having adequately secured the safety regime and established a proper work safety culture, it would be a defence to say, "I have discharged my duties as director"—or as a middle manager—"and the negligence applies somewhere else." The message was communicated that it would be a legitimate defence to say that the responsibility lay elsewhere in the organisation, but that it had to start from the very top of the organisation. That is why we have to define directors' duties, and it is why I always insist that only one person heads the health and safety effort. It might be the chief executive or the managing director; I do not mind whom we designate legally, as long as it is very clear that there is a controlling mind who takes the ultimate responsibility.
The hon. Member for Daventry said that if one person was responsible for the dissemination of safety information, others would say, "If only you had told me." That of course is a legitimate defence, because a designated person would be responsible for telling them, and for creating that safety regime. But things go badly wrong when everybody says, "If only somebody had told me." In such cases people feel that nobody is responsible, because everybody is responsible. That was what caused the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, that is what killed Simon Jones and that is what maims people daily in workplaces.
But does the hon. Gentleman not think that there is at least a danger that if we appear to concentrate exclusively at the top level and keep talking about directors, those operating beneath directoral level, at management and supervisory level, will think, "Well, it's them up there who will get the blame and have their collars felt, not me," which could be counter-productive if we are not very careful and do not get it absolutely right?
Well, let us get it absolutely right. The right hon. Gentleman remembers that when he took legislation through this place after Piper Alpha, many hours were spent in ensuring that we got that legislation as right as we could, to ensure that the responsibility for health and safety was diffused throughout the organisation. Nevertheless, if he looks at his legislation he will recall that it does in the end make certain provisions for certain controlling people, not simply within the oil companies but in different areas, to take responsibility. That is the important point.
Yes, of course I would always say that not only is it right to allow the defence of saying, "I operated and exercised my duties in a legitimate way," but it is important to go beyond that and say, "And in order to do that properly I had to make other people take their own responsibilities seriously." As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend said, we certainly would do it when looking after pound coins, £5 notes, cheque books and electronic money transfers, because companies have been doing that for some time. It is not unreasonable to say that the wit of man or woman in our large and small companies can operate in the same way, and ensure that we drive that safety case through the organisation. That is what we ought to be doing.
On the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, is it not the case that more workers than directors are prosecuted under health and safety legislation? If they are negligent it is right that they should be, but could it be simply that it is easier to prosecute the workers than the directors, although the directors might be much more to blame?
While my hon. Friend is making very good points about the culture of safety in big companies, will he agree that the Government's faith in the voluntary code has been misplaced? The code has not worked, and that is proven by the Health and Safety Commission, which when it released its figures for 2003–04 said that the previous year deaths had increased by 4 per cent. and injuries by 9 per cent. Do we not need to go further than that voluntary code, with the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow is proposing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both points. It is a statistical fact that more employees are convicted than employers. However, let me be absolutely clear: I take a hard-line approach on those who put the health, safety and lives of their work colleagues, employees or the general public at risk. Employees should be prosecuted when that is appropriate. A person who drives a lorry recklessly and kills a child should not be able to use the fact that he is an employee as a defence before the courts. However, dealing with people who allow employees to operate machinery unsafely is equally important. My hon. Friend mentioned the voluntary code, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work will pick up on that.
The Bill is important, but most of us are sadly reconciled to the fact that intruding events may stop it from completing its legislative passage. However, it is inevitable that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow and others will return to the theme. The Government must sharpen up their response to the whole health and safety debate. I am afraid that I must make the criticism that we have become complacent about health and safety, both politically and institutionally. We all talk the rhetoric that the existing legislation is sufficient, but it is not.
We know that deaths, injuries and ill health are preventable. We are all paying for the problem, because some 38 million working days are lost every year because of occupational illness and health and safety matters. It is outrageous that we waste so many of our national assets in such a cavalier way, given that up to 70 per cent. of such cases are preventable. Let us start the proper process of prevention and reinvigorate the Health and Safety Commission to do the job that many who work in it wish to do. Let us begin to drive through the safety culture, save lives and save the British taxpayer an awful lot of money.
I am entirely convinced by the case for imposing legally binding health and safety duties on directors, so I shall fully support the Bill. As the House will know, I had the honour of steering the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 on to the statute book during last year's round of private Members' Bills. There are many parallels between that Act and the Bill that my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn is promoting. My call for a gangmaster's licence was backed by a respected House of Commons Select Committee, as is my hon. Friend's call for directors' duties. My Bill tried to bring irresponsible, negligent and unaccountable bosses within the reach of the law, and my hon. Friend's Bill would do likewise. My Bill was an attempt to protect the lives of vulnerable people in the workplace, and my hon. Friend's Bill tries to do exactly the same thing.
The passage of my Bill was set against the backdrop of the Morecambe bay tragedy in which 23 innocent people lost their lives because of negligence on the part of those employing them. The terrible events on the sands of Morecambe bay undoubtedly played a key role in focusing all our minds on the need not only to legislate but to regulate. It was against that tragic backdrop that the principles and objectives of my Bill won the support of the Government and the House.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will sign up to the principles and objectives of my hon. Friend's Bill, because with deaths in the workplace, there is a Morecambe bay tragedy in this country every month. Someone loses his or her life in a workplace accident every day, but according to research conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, 70 per cent. of those deaths are preventable. Why are they not prevented? The answer is simple. On one hand there is a voluntary code that bad directors ignore at will, and on the other hand, there is a weak law that hinders the prevention of accidents and fails to hold directors to account for their negligence.
In the 30 years since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 was passed, 10,000 people have been killed in work-related accidents. A mere 322 directors were convicted of any health and safety offences during that time. How many directors were imprisoned as a result of those 10,000 deaths? The answer is just four. In any other walk of life there would quite rightly be a public outcry. Imagine if 10,000 people had been stabbed to death in street robberies or burglaries over 30 years, yet only four people had been imprisoned for those crimes. The plain and simple truth is that negligent directors are literally getting away with murder, because they have no legally binding health and safety duties under existing law. Yet how about this for irony, Mr. Deputy Speaker? The workers whom directors employ—workers who lose life and limb as a result of directors' negligence—do have legally binding health and safety duties under section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. That is why in the 30 years during which the Act has been in force, more workers have been prosecuted and convicted than directors. Surely that makes a mockery of the law.
The law in its current form lets those with all the power in the workplace—the directors—off the hook, and punishes the workers, who have no say or influence over health and safety in the companies in which they work. As well as being unjust, the current law is also inconsistent. As other hon. Members have said, directors have legally binding duties on equal opportunities, financial matters and even data protection. Why on earth can directors not have legal duties on the most important matter of all—the prevention of accidents and the saving of lives?
Directors matter because they are the key to delivering safer workplaces, so directors' duties matter. The respected Work and Pensions Committee concluded that such duties would prevent accidents and save lives. However, directors' duties would also ensure that the victims of workplace accidents and work-related deaths would get justice. Such duties would enable the courts to do what has been almost impossible until now—to identify the controlling mind and will of a company. Directors' duties would allow courts to hold directors accountable for gross negligence that resulted in workplace accidents. Is that so controversial? Is it picking on or scapegoating directors? I do not think so.
If directors have been so irresponsible and negligent that people have been killed, surely they, like any other citizen, should not be above the law. Surely the law should be able to hold such people to account. If we want to reduce the number of workplace accidents, deaths and injuries, as well as getting justice for victims, we must introduce legally binding duties.
We also need to introduce legally binding directors' duties if we want the Government's promised reform of corporate manslaughter to work. Let me explain why. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government have promised a draft Bill on corporate manslaughter. That will be welcome, because reform of the corporate manslaughter law is long overdue. The Government have made it clear that the draft Bill will make it easier only to prosecute and convict companies; it will not address the issue of directors' duties, and will not make it possible to prosecute and convict negligent directors. Failure to introduce legislation on directors' duties will undermine any reform of corporate manslaughter law, because the law would be unable to hold to account any negligent director who was responsible for a workplace death. Victims of negligence resulting in death will never receive the justice that they deserve if a legal entity known as "a company" is found guilty and merely fined.
It is directors who make workplaces safe or unsafe, not companies. My views about the potential weaknesses of the Government's proposed reform of the law on corporate manslaughter are shared by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, Bill Callaghan, who, in the Financial Times of
"I think the honest answer is no."
We have waited a long time for legislation on corporate manslaughter, so for the sake of all those who have lost their lives and for the sake of all the loved ones left behind, let us get the measure right. I am thinking particularly of the young man Simon Jones, who suffered a tragic death, as we heard from his mother last night. Getting it right means underpinning the new law on corporate manslaughter with a new law on directors' duties. They are two sides of the same coin. Let us do the right thing today. Let us back the Bill and get on with the job of delivering safety in the workplace, responsibility in the boardroom and justice through the courts.
My hon. Friend Tony Lloyd made a number of points about injuries in industries in his area, as did my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown, who noted the great impact of industrial deafness on his community. My hon. Friend also spoke of the effects of the asbestos industry.
Similarly, there is a great deal of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in my community. In 1997, a local authority survey of the community found that about one house in every three included a disabled person. That disability related to their work in heavy industry, such as steel and coal, much of which has now gone.
When the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 was being considered, the then Government—a Conservative Government—called in Lord Robens to produce a report. The idea of voluntarism actually came from the 1972 Robens report, because the 1974 Act, which embraced the concept of voluntarism, followed from it. There is no doubt that the Act had a positive impact across industry, bringing to industry in general what was already available in the mining industry. Lord Robens had of course spent a 10-year stint, between 1961 and 1970, as chairman of the National Coal Board, so he knew how the coal industry worked, with its worker safety representatives and safety committees. They had access to what was called "covered accommodation", which was actually a small library at the colliery where the colliery plans and all the safety legislation were available for the local safety representatives, to ensure that they were up to speed with what was happening in the industry.
Lord Robens suggested that the same facilities should be made available to the rest of industry and that is what the 1974 Act did. Many benefits resulted, but they have now slowed down, so we need to revitalise health and safety at work. Indeed, a couple of years ago, the HSC produced a document, "Revitalising health and safety" and we need to pick up on that. The Bill presented by my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn will do that and he deserves congratulations. The measure will take health and safety forward. It complements the Government's proposals on a corporate manslaughter Bill while helping to reinvigorate the 1974 Act. That is most important.
Health and Safety Executive research shows that about 70 per cent. of all accidents at work are avoidable. They can be foreseen and we should work to avoid them. By placing a general duty on directors, with an added duty on directors of larger companies, the Bill will help to drive forward best practice. It will not radically change the present situation. At present, there is a voluntary code of practice and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, his Bill takes points 2 and 5 of the code and makes them mandatory on industry. That will drive forward best practice. It will help to focus minds and ensure that we get to grips with preventable accidents.
When we remember that 70 per cent. of workplace accidents are foreseeable, it calls into question the idea that has arisen of late that we have a compensation culture, because if there really was one, the courts would be weighed down by the number of claims. In fact, people in industry in general, and especially trade unions, take a much more reasonable approach to health and safety.
It is important that we deal with some of the devastating failures. We heard from my hon. Friend about the number of accidents: one death for every day of the year. An enormous number of people are killed at work. About 83 people die every week from being exposed to substances that cause respiratory disease or mesothelioma cancer. That is an enormous number. As I mentioned in my intervention, asbestos or exposure to asbestos is likely to cause 186,000 deaths between 2000 and 2050. Unfortunately, there is little that we can do about that, because that bitter legacy is already with us, but we need to consider a treatment and care strategy for people who have been exposed to asbestos, and the Bill could have a connection to that. I hope that Health Ministers will think in those terms. We cannot avoid that legacy, but we can deal with it and make things better for its victims. Such a strategy for mesothelioma sufferers is enormously important for the future. By focusing on the improvements that need to be made, the Bill will connect with that issue.
Although the 1974 Act had certain benefits, it is estimated that, in the 30 years since it was introduced, some 10,000 people have been killed at work and 1.3 million have suffered major injuries, including amputations and crippling back injuries. That has placed an immense burden on the community. That is why business is supporting this Bill. Members who sit on the Work and Pensions Committee say that the CBI is favourable to such legislation because it recognises that those 1.3 million major injuries and 10,000 deaths impose an enormous burden, as do the number of people who have lesser injuries but tend to be off work for long periods of time. It is estimated that 38 million days a year are lost, at a cost to industry of £11 billion. Business recognises that we need to do something to revitalise health and safety to get to grips with those figures and energise industry in such a way that productivity increases. Those lost working days impose burdens not only on the community but on industry.
During that period since 1974, only 322 directors have been prosecuted, and of those only two were disqualified for health and safety offences. The Bill would take a reasonable approach to the way in which we work with industry to achieve the results that we want. It is clear that the voluntary principle that was imported into the current legislation from the Robens report is no longer working. Since 2001, when the voluntary code was introduced by the Health and Safety Commission, accidents at work started to increase in certain industries such as construction, where last year deaths at work rose by 4 per cent. and serious injuries by 9 per cent.
I defer to the hon. Gentleman's great knowledge of this matter and ask him to help me with a genuine point of information. Given the recent influx of many workers, mainly from eastern Europe and many of them into the construction industry, is it not possible that additional problem may arise through lack of mutual understanding, and that language barriers at the most basic level of the workplace might be a contributory factor in the figures that he cites? Even if managers and supervisors are making a genuine effort to maintain health and safety, problems will arise if they are unable to communicate effectively with workers who cannot understand them.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that important point. The responsibilities set out in the Bill would ensure that the genuine problem that he mentions would have to be dealt with. For example, in the Simon Jones case involving the young man who was killed in an industrial accident on his first day at work, the banksman signalling to the crane driver on the ship did not speak English but Polish. The Bill provides a mechanism for dealing with that problem, because it would place a general duty on directors to ensure that they focus on becoming aware of the working practices that are being used in their industries, which would result in better training.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. When Simon Jones's mother addressed the meeting the other evening, she made it plain that there is no universal language of hand signals for crane drivers in the UK. We have a standard, but it is not universal. That needs to be considered, because hand signals could help to overcome some of the language barriers. We require better training and a full understanding that people speaking different languages must be able to communicate in a way that will result in safer working methods. The Bill deals with many of those issues and would allow us to take a much more positive approach.
I take on board what has been said about large companies. While placing a general duty on all directors, the Bill would have a greater impact on those in large companies. There are some 3.4 million companies in the UK, but the great majority are small and medium-sized, with around 8,000 larger companies. They present a different problem because of the way in which they are structured, but I believe that that can be dealt with. I mentioned my previous experience with the National Coal Board. In the 1960s, the NCB had an enormous structure involving an industry made up of around 250 coal mines, some of which employed as many as 3,000 people. We could use its health and safety structure as a model for how larger companies deal with directors' duties.
In those days, each colliery had its safety representatives and its safety committee relating to what we called a consultative committee at colliery level, which met regularly with the colliery manager and the safety officer. The consultative committee at regional level, which comprised representatives from the collieries who were on the safety committees, again met at regular intervals. That led up to the consultative committee at national level, which was presided over by a director with responsibility as the industrial relations director. That system worked in a way that resulted in our coal mines being the safest deep coal mines anywhere in the world.
The mining industry at that time is a good example of how things can be done. It may help Mr. Forth, who raised the legitimate question of how we drive a Bill through without losing responsibilities at different levels, if my hon. Friend can confirm that, while rights were devolved to a low level in the National Coal Board system, very clear and binding duties were also imposed on people at all levels.
They were indeed. The embracing legislation of the time was the Mines and Quarries Act 1965, which placed duties all the way down the line, right to the coal face. What was interesting was how production was arranged so that safety was a major part of the process. On each coal face, before the administration pact that came in the 1980s and 1990s, a deputy had responsibility for safety and an overman, or under-manager as they later became, had the duty of production. The one with the duty for safety had the overruling duty under the Mines and Quarries Act. The deputy responsible for safety could stop the production process if he thought that lives were being put in danger by the way in which the work was proceeding. There were duties all the way down the line, right down to the individual, just as individuals have duties under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. All that worked well throughout the mining industry and it provides a model for how directors' duties in large companies might work.
On the health and safety information director, who would work in large companies, the Bill says that he would have the responsibility
"to inform the other directors, not less than four times a year, of . . . how the companies activities are affecting the health and safety of its employees and of other persons not in the company's employment".
We could, then, use the structure I referred to—the regular meetings of the consultative committee under British Coal that resulted in the annual report. Those meetings might have happened more than four times a year, and information, through the minutes of the meetings, was distributed down the line. That model fits well with what we are talking about in terms of the duties of the health and safety information director.
Duties other than those relating to employees are important, too. It will be recalled that companies such as Turner and Newell manufactured various things using asbestos. People who lived around the factories were subjected to emissions of substances from the factories to the extent that, we now know, they picked up asbestos-derived diseases, such as various types of respiratory problem and cancers. Indeed, women who washed their husbands' clothes that had asbestos dust in them later picked up cancers, too. We must consider that. The Bill gives an opportunity to focus directors' attention on how they would consider such matters and protect the public living near a factory. That would be an enormous step forward, I am sure we would agree across the piece.
Indeed, my friend, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may be encouraged to support the Bill. I had not realised until this debate that he was responsible for the legislation relating to Piper Alpha, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central said, resulted in our getting to grips with that issue. It was good legislation, and I am sure that input from the right hon. Gentleman, if we can encourage him to give it, would result in the Bill's being much more—shall we say—considerate of other factors, but which would still be appropriate. I hope that we can encourage him to come on board. I think he may well be so encouraged, but we shall hear later whether that is so.
Some of the case studies that have been referred to are alarming. The briefs on the Bill refer to a large number, but I want to make the House aware of just two, which I think the legislation would let us get to grips with. In the first, a maintenance worker fell to his death through a roof. All that he had to work with was safety boards; he did not have a harness. The Health and Safety Executive held an inquiry after the death and found that the company involved had been warned by an inspector about carrying out high-risk roof work without enough safety measures. The company was found guilty on two health and safety offences. No director was convicted of manslaughter, but in a way, that is what that case was. The directors had a warning, and it was foreseeable that an accident of that type could happen. They ignored the warnings and they were not complying with legislation. But the legislation did not have the force that the Bill would have, and the directors ignored it with the result that a person at work lost his life.
The case studies also refer to two steeplejacks killed by a ball of fire while they were working inside an industrial chimney. Again, the company had been warned that that was likely to happen. In that case, the company was fined just £2,000. Two men were killed in the chimney, but the company was fined £2,000. No company director was convicted of manslaughter.
The Bill does not seek to be vengeful. It is about working with industry. Many trade unions support it, as does the Confederation of British Industry. Small and medium-sized businesses would get many benefits from it. We are seeing the development of a network of industrial advisers being built up around the country. There is an advice network in Liverpool and another in Sheffield. I understand that there are five advice centres. Indeed, a reception was held in Westminster only a fortnight ago to welcome some of the work that the network does. The network will become extremely important in working with small and medium-sized enterprises if the Bill becomes law.
In conclusion, I believe that the Bill will bring about improvements, and industry generally welcomes it. The Bill will reinvigorate health and safety and protect people at work.
I am pleased to make a short contribution to the debate. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the hard work of my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn. He has a proud record of fighting for workers' rights, and he has worked hard to bring the Bill to the Floor of the House for its Second Reading. I congratulate him.
I have personal experience of not being afforded proper health and safety training while at work. When I left school, I picked fruit in the farms of Kent and I later become a care assistant. Both jobs involved bending—either in lifting people or picking fruit. I was never given proper training, but that was not because the employers were wilfully negligent; it just did not occur to them.
My hon. Friend has forcefully made the point that we want to change the culture. We want directors to consider the issue so that health and safety permeates the whole organisation. That does not mean that if workers are negligent, they should not be prosecuted. We are not saying that. The Bill is not about bashing bosses, but about ensuring that we save the lives of ordinary working people. I know that the proposals are backed by many organisations, including the trade unions and, in particular, the TGWU, UCATT and Amicus. The e-mails that many of us received calling on us to support my hon. Friend's Bill came from all round the country. They were a powerful demonstration that the issue affects working people from every region of the United Kingdom.
As has been said, we are only too aware of high-profile cases such as Hatfield and Potters Bar. In my part of the world, Kent, we remember that, on
The inquiry into the Herald of Free Enterprise showed a failure of basic positive reporting methods to ensure that the ship's doors were closed. As we know all too well, they were not closed and a prosecution was brought by the families. However, it was impossible to identify those responsible.
We have heard that injuries and deaths take place all too readily, and I shall come to that point later. However, I now wish to refer to a subject in which I have a particular interest—the paper industry. It has had a very poor safety record, but in paper mills across the country, companies and unions such as the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, which has now merged with Amicus, are working together in a determination to drive up health and safety standards and drive out the dangerous practice that leads to lost time, accidents, serious injuries and fatalities.
My constituency has the largest concentration of paper and board manufacturing in the United Kingdom. As the chair of the all-party group on the paper industry, it is evident to me that the industry has made considerable progress. It needed to; it had an appalling record of safety despite a stable, skilled and well paid work force enjoying good industrial relations. All sides recognised that they needed to do more, and considerable improvements have taken place. It was one of the worst industries, but it is now performing better than most other paper industries in Europe.
In 1998, the industry experienced two fatalities and had an accident rate of 23.4 per 100 employees. The setting up of the Paper and Board Industry Advisory Committee brought together the unions and HSE representatives to set a target of reducing accidents in the paper industry by more than 50 per cent. over a three-year period. In response to that challenge, the number of reportable injuries started to decline. Although the target had not been reached by the end of March 2001, there had been a 27 per cent. reduction in fatal and major accidents and a 10 per cent. reduction overall. In broad terms, 174 fewer people have been killed or seriously injured during that initiative. As time has gone on, there have been further reductions since then. The result has been a 19 per cent. reduction in 2004.
We would all applaud such good practice, and the commitment came from the very top. The chief executive officers of all the companies devoted time and came together for six annual meetings on the issue. That shows a culture change which was achieved in that industry, but most workers do not work in such large organisations. To bring about such a change in the disparate types of company in which so many are employed is very difficult, and introducing the voluntary code, while welcome—it certainly helped to concentrate minds in the paper industry, which is grateful to the Government and the HSE for their support—will not necessarily assist many people in smaller industries.
What the Bill seeks to achieve is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was describing when he said that safety at work is
"the mark of a civilised society."
Last year, 235 workers were killed in work-related incidents. Many of my hon. Friends have reported that 70 per cent. of those fatalities could have been prevented. There are endless, appalling accounts. We heard a very graphic example from Malcolm Bruce earlier, and my hon. Friend Mr. Clapham referred to the one that I was going to mention, so I will not repeat it.
The Bill is timely. It sits very well with the British sense of fair play. Hon. Members have given up their time and come along to support the Bill because the lives of too many of our fellow workers and people in the United Kingdom have been ended far too soon, when accidents could have been prevented. Let us change the culture. There has been a start—the Government are committed to introducing the draft legislation—but things need to be improved that bit more. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow has done very well. This has been a measured debate, highlighting good examples of where we need change, and the Bill will have the popular support of the vast majority of people in this country.
When the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 became law, I was a young shop steward working in the engineering industry. It was a good piece of legislation, and my recollection is that many employers found themselves close to panic because the perception was that people responsible for unsafe working practices that led to injury and death could go to prison. Management reacted positively, in the main, in those early days of the Act by concentrating their minds on health and safety, and as a result, there were real and substantial improvements to health and safety standards, with untold workers' lives and limbs saved.
Before the 1974 Act, the industrial scene could often be described as a nightmare, with the most horrific and dangerous practices commonplace. There were no general duties, and if something was not specified in the Factory Acts, workers and employers did pretty well what they chose to do. The fear of personal prosecution made a fantastic difference, but 30 years have now passed, and the reality has been somewhat different, with the prisons not exactly full of managers and supervisors.
The truth is that tiny numbers of people have been prosecuted and convicted, and some of the fines imposed have been pathetic. The higher up the promotional ladder people go, the safer they get from prosecution, when the very opposite should be the case. The result is that the industrial establishment has become relaxed, those in it have felt increasingly secure from prosecution, so there is now a clear and urgent need to apply their minds again. Company directors and employers are, of course, not eager to hurt their employees, but the pressures of work and profitability often take precedence. They must never be allowed to do so.
Many years ago, I worked as a works convener in an engineering company that machined a material containing asbestos. There was no indication in the material's name that the substance was in any way dangerous. The men who processed it did so in ignorance, with no protection. There were no masks or extraction. They were sometimes covered from head to toe in the powder, which they washed off at the end of the day. They then took their clothes home and allowed their wives to wash them. They even blew the powder off their machines with compressed air and scattered it around the machine shop for everyone else to share.
When it came to my attention that the material could be dangerous, I quite properly contacted the factory inspector, who visited and insisted on extraction and respiratory equipment. The works manager was not at all pleased, to say the least. He considered it an inconvenience, but was forced reluctantly to comply. A short time later, he was moved to another factory some miles away in another town. The process of machining the asbestos material went with him.
I lost contact with the process, but some years later I learned to my surprise that the other factory was manufacturing the product without safety measures. The factory inspector came in again and imposed the same safety procedures. There was no prosecution. The manager did not even get his knuckles rapped. He fully understood the dangers, yet he kept his mouth shut and chose to put his productivity levels before his employees' safety, because for him, masks and extraction were too much trouble.
This was a man who went to church every Sunday, and in the eyes of the village community, he was a decent, God-fearing man. In my eyes he was a villain who should have gone to prison because what he did knowingly was as bad as, if not worse than, someone driving a car while blind drunk. He simply had no time for health and safety. He knew that nothing in the law could touch him. He was fully aware that the hidden killer—asbestos—was entering his workers' lungs and that it would take years to show itself. The man has since retired and died, but the men he harmed may have yet to die before their time as a result of what is, in my view, his criminal neglect. The truth is that no one will ever be brought to justice for their deaths.
I am sorry to say that that man's behaviour has been replicated over the years across our industrial scene. Too many men and women to mention have suffered and died without complaint. Middle management is often under so much pressure to produce that they are forced to turn a blind eye to health and safety, and I am afraid that some company directors allow them to get on with it. So when the Bill introduces duties on directors to act in the interests of health and safety, I say, "And about time, too." No one else should be allowed to suffer without redress. If the responsibilities contained in this proposed legislation had been in effect when we were machining that asbestos, I am confident that it would have been a different story, because the safety standards would have been transferred with the work.
To be fair, my experience of company directors and senior management is that they have no desire whatsoever to put their employees at risk, but the problems often lie lower down the managerial chain. Legislation that puts a clear duty on individual directors by insisting on good standards and good systems is bound to apply their minds to health and safety issues, and as such it can only do good.
The manager in my story who put production before safety was wrong in both moral and financial terms. As has been emphasised, it is simply not good business in the long term to run an unhealthy and unsafe workplace. The loss of productivity alone through sickness and absence, in addition to the poor morale that inevitably runs throughout a work force who are treated like cannon fodder, more than compensates for the small short-term gains of the unsafe working practices that kill and maim so many people.
This is a good Bill; it is an excellent Bill which is long overdue. My hon. Friend can be proud of this piece of legislation and should be congratulated on his work. I urge the House to support him.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn on bringing this Bill before the House. It has been said that the ballot for private Members' Bills is very much a case of chance, but I always like to look at what Bills Members choose to promote, because it can be almost a window on the soul. In choosing their subjects, my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow and for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) have shown not just their great empathy and sympathy for the working people of this country but that they want to right the wrongs which those who are left behind to pick up the pieces of the tragedies that have been mentioned so desperately want us to address.
I declare an interest as a director of a limited company—Northampton Town football club. On a lighter note, I sometimes wish as a director that I could do more to prevent the injuries of some of our staff. They tend to be quite highly paid, but I sometimes wonder why when I see them sitting on the bench not contributing to what we are trying to produce. On a darker note, and also linked to the world of football, my fellow directors and I take very seriously the health and safety of our staff and those who enter our premises. We all well remember the tragedy of Hillsborough. If we could turn back the clock and prevent that loss of life, we would all do so.
I mention Hillsborough for two reasons. The first is that this morning we have spoken a great deal about the impact on the work force, but we must remember that directors and their companies have a responsibility to members of the public. In many of the cases where lives have been lost because of the act or omission of directors, innocent members of the public have been tragically killed.
Secondly, I mention Hillsborough because it has been asked whether the Bill should apply to the public sector as well as to the private sector. It would be only too easy to transfer the Bill's duties to the public sector. To take Hillsborough as an example, there were of course no convictions, but members of the police authority involved, for example, should be responsible people and take seriously their duties in respect of health and safety. The same could be said of local councils and their executive boards, and of primary care trust boards. We could therefore transfer the responsibilities of my hon. Friend's Bill to the public sector quite easily. I repeat the challenge issued to Mr. Forth and ask him to allow the Bill to go into Committee so that we may debate these issues sensibly.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's generous offer, but I repeat what I said earlier, on which I have now taken some advice. Given its long title, it is most unlikely that it would be possible to extend the Bill to cover the public sector in anything approaching a meaningful way. What he proposes would not be possible in this case. We have to consider the Bill as it is, focused on the private sector and directors.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I have to say that the fact that we might not be able to go as far as we want is no excuse for not putting the Bill on the statute book or for allowing 300-plus deaths a year to continue unchecked. Perhaps the Government will have to come back at a later date to extend coverage to the public sector; if so, so be it. We should not allow that to distract us from the need to take action in respect of the private sector.
Today, I wish to speak for the victims—for those who have been killed and for those who have been left behind. We all share the desire to get to the truth. When we lose someone close to us, we go through a period of grief and then one of anger. We all want to find out precisely what happened, why it happened, whether one individual is responsible and whether the tragic incident could have been prevented. In all too many cases, management action could have—should have—been taken to prevent the deaths. More than 70 per cent. of such tragedies could have been avoided and were the result of management inaction.
We have discussed language and communication and whether they have played a part in some of the tragedies. Although I accept that the overwhelming majority of directors are good, law-abiding citizens, I think that there is a problem in that sometimes some of the directors who are responsible for those acts or omissions speak only the language of profit and they allow profit to get in the way of their acting decently and providing proper health and safety protection for their employees. Last night, we heard Anne Jones speak passionately about the death of her son. Something she said that is worthy of repetition was that her son was working for an agency, which sent him to his death with no training, no information, no protective footwear or headwear, and no idea of what would be expected of him at that place of work. Through the Bill, we are saying that directors are responsible—not only directors of companies that employ workers directly, but the directors of work agencies. Such agencies operating in this country must take seriously the role that they can play in health and safety by ensuring that they do not send people into dangerous situations.
Do workers need more protection? Yes. If they did not, such a large number of deaths—one a day, hundreds a year—would not be occurring. Do directors need direction? Yes. If not, the Health and Safety Executive would not be reporting the outrageous fact that over a three-year period fewer than 50 per cent. of boards discussed health and safety. Do we need legislation? Yes. The voluntary code has failed; it has not delivered the reduction in the number of accidents and deaths that it was intended to achieve. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to give us some good news about the Government's intentions and I ask Opposition Members to think again about allowing the Bill to go to Committee unchallenged, so that we can continue the debate and ensure that we get proper legislation on the statute book as quickly as possible. Speed is of the essence. Every day that we do not act, another person loses their life. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow for presenting the Bill to the House and wish him success.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn, both on his good fortune in achieving a high place in the ballot and on his wisdom in choosing to raise the important subject of company directors' legal responsibilities for health and safety. I congratulate him, too, on the weight of support that he has received in this morning's debate. It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Clarke, and I wish his company success in all its endeavours.
I depart, however, from the majority view in one important respect, as I do not agree that the law as it stands is failing to work. Legislation can always be improved to make the workings of the law more effective, but we must discuss whether the Bill is the appropriate vehicle for doing that. I sympathise a great deal with hon. Members' general comments, but they will broadly agree that we already have a health and safety record of which to be proud. In recent years, there has been much progress, which is the result of the hard work and dedication of the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive, employers, workers, lobby groups, and of course the trade unions. I congratulate and thank everyone who has contributed to that improvement in the health and safety record.
The House, however, will know that deaths and injuries continue to occur. Every death is a tragedy, and even one is too many. Indeed, only a fortnight ago, two construction workers were killed at a school building site when a crane collapsed on top of them. We must therefore strive constantly to drive up health and safety standards. Last week's construction health and safety summit was attended by the chief executives of some of the UK's biggest construction companies as well as trade union general secretaries in the field. They acknowledged that progress has been made but that, as has been argued today, much more could be done. As hon. Members will be aware, it has been the Government's long-standing policy to encourage all employers to take responsibility for ensuring that risks to their employees' health and safety are properly controlled. We consider it essential that boards of directors in all sectors and in organisations of all sizes play their part by providing the necessary leadership and direction to ensure the health and safety of their employees and of people affected by their activities.
There is evidence that a growing number of boards of directors have taken responsibility for health and safety and are providing the necessary leadership. There are differing views, however, about the speed of that progress. I acknowledge that in a significant number of organisations—one in six, it is estimated—boards have not taken on that vital responsibility and have indicated that they have no intention of doing so, so there is more progress to be made. We are doing a great deal already, and it is not all about legislation. A key theme of the Health and Safety Commission's workplace strategy is helping people to understand and benefit from sensible health and safety policies and practices. I agree with Mr. Boswell about the business as well as welfare benefits that flow from sound health and safety practice. That includes publicising examples of best practice, the benefits of board-level corporate responsibility and the persuasive evidence of the benefits, both economic and social, of director leadership.
We have evidence that the guidance issued by the Health and Safety Commission in 2001 on directors' responsibilities has had an impact in raising the profile of health and safety at board level and in changing director behaviour. The Government welcome the recent action by the commission to make the case for director responsibility and leadership more persuasive. The House may be aware that the Health and Safety Executive recently published a series of director leadership case studies containing powerful messages about the social and business benefits of such an approach.
We are sure that the case studies, drawn from the private, public and voluntary sectors—employers such as Esso, Anchor Housing Association and Buckinghamshire county council—will attract considerable interest among peer organisations and will drive improvements. The Government will study carefully the impact of those and other measures in persuading reluctant directors to take responsibility.
Legislation is already in place covering such matters. The Government expect company directors to be fully aware of their legal duties and to discharge them seriously in the interests of their workers, customers and shareholders. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 imposes requirements, which are relevant and have an impact on criminal liability. Under sections 36(1) and 37, directors can, in specific circumstances, be found personally guilty of a health and safety offence in their capacity as directors in addition to the company being liable corporately. My hon. Friends have referred to that and have drawn attention to the low number of prosecutions. Under Section 7 of the 1974 Act a director may, in specific circumstances, be found guilty of an offence in his capacity as an employee.
The Government, the Health and Safety Commission and the executive would expect company directors to be fully aware of the criminal liability that they already face and to ensure that they and their companies discharge their statutory duties seriously. The commission's enforcement policy statement, published in February 2002, states that
"when the enforcing authorities are investigating possible health and safety offences, they should consider the management chain and the role played by individual directors and managers. Enforcing authorities should take action against them where the inspection or investigation reveals that the offence was committed with their consent or connivance or" could
"have been attributable to neglect on their part."
The Health and Safety Commission and the executive are monitoring the impact of that policy statement on investigation and prosecution decisions in cases undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive.
Yes, not only would a message go out from the House but many of the relatives of those involved in those cases described to us this morning—they attended a reception last night—will be listening to the debate and watching our actions in this House. We must all stand accountable for the decisions that we take.
The Health and Safety Executive's health and safety offences and penalties report 2003–04, which is its most recent report, stated that the executive prosecuted 17 directors and managers of which 11 cases resulted in convictions. That is fewer than during the previous year, and the executive believes that that suggests progress rather than failure under the existing legislation.
A sanction of disqualification of company directors is also available to the courts under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 and I assure the House that that power has been and will continue to be used. However, there are further calls for more legislation covering directors' duties involving health and safety, often with the backing of the trade unions, and the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow is an example. I accept his comment that the weight of opinion in support of the Bill goes wider than the trade union movement, important though that is.
I referred at the opening of my remarks to the weight of opinion that has supported my hon. Friend's Bill. He has drawn into the Chamber for this debate experienced colleagues from throughout the House, including colleagues who have an experience of agriculture, the offshore oil industry, the construction industry and the mining industry. Mr. Forth, who has a distinguished record in the House as a Minister, has the experience of working for Ford, and therefore knows the manufacturing industry extremely well.
I assure my hon. Friend and supporters of the Bill that the Government are not deaf to these representations. I accept that the debate on the need for further legislation on directors' duties is an extremely important one, not only for directors who bear responsibility but for all workers and their families. It is one that is firmly on my agenda, as my hon. Friend knows.
Malcolm Bruce described a case where regret was expressed by the sheriff that there had not been a heavier penalty available to him to impose. There are other occasions when my hon. Friends would probably join me in bemoaning the fact that the courts too infrequently impose the maximum penalties that are available. Cases have been described to us where the fines imposed have been at the lower end of the scale that is available to the courts. It makes a great impression on those of us who listen to the representations being made when it is reported to us that it is those in charge of the courts who are commenting on a lack of more severe penalties.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Brown—it is a great pleasure to share this debate with him, and I know that he took a great interest in these matters when he held the post that I am now privileged to occupy—made some forceful comments. Indeed, he makes forceful representations outside this place, which have not been lost on the current holder of the post that he once occupied. He made a thoughtful and telling contribution, as did my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked us to consider whether it would be possible, if the Bill were to become an Act, that those lower down the chain of authority might feel that some of the responsibility had been lifted from their shoulders. I think that there would be some hollow laughter if that were to be the effect of the Bill. The point has been made that a higher proportion of those who are prosecuted now seem to be at the lower end of the responsibility chain within management.
I was interested to hear about the former experience of my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw. I, too, was a care assistant. Far too many workers in the public sector, too, are left to learn safe practices by watching colleagues and emulating them, rather than learning from a structured programme of instruction on safe working practices.
We accept and recognise that a change in the law as proposed in the Bill may well assist prosecutions of errant directors of large companies. However, it is far from clear what improvements in health and safety would result from the proposed changes. We must be sure that such a change in the law would have a major impact on reducing injury and ill health in the workplace. At present, we do not have that confidence.
Reference has been made to the recommendations contained in a report of the Work and Pensions Committee's health and safety inquiry, calling on the Government to introduce proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny during this Session. In our response, we stated firmly our belief that there is already an appropriate balance of legislative and voluntary responsibility on directors in relation to occupational health and safety. We asked the Committee to note that we had no immediate plans to legislate as recommended. However, this might be an appropriate moment to say that we have a firm intention to legislate on corporate manslaughter and Crown immunity—two sides of the same coin—and the Bill will be published shortly.
The evidence to the Committee made clear the contentious nature of the research findings on what motivates directors to take responsibility for and to provide leadership on health and safety. We appreciate the views of those who consider further legislation and regulation as the only real influence on motivating directors to take responsibility, but we need to be convinced that making directors more liable to prosecution is one of those key motivators.
Will my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow consider the regulatory impact of his Bill? When framing new law we must be clear about its costs and benefits, and we would be interested to know what, if any, information he has on that. Several hon. Members have referred to the fact that the Bill deals with the biggest companies, corporations and institutions in the UK. It is worth noting that fewer than 8,000 companies would be affected by the Bill's requirement to nominate a health and safety information director. It requires only large companies to appoint such a director. According to the DTI's figures, the UK has some 3.7 million businesses, of which 99.8 per cent. are defined as small and medium-sized, all of which are excluded from that requirement.
Hon. Members will also be aware that the Government, in their response to the Committee, reported that we have asked the Health and Safety Executive to undertake a further evaluation to assess the effectiveness of current measures on director responsibility. We have asked it to review all the available evidence and to report its findings, together with recommendations, by December 2005, and that work is under way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend described the good and healthy working relationship between the Health and Safety Executive and Commission and Ministers, such as he and I, who exercise the relationship between Government and the executive and commission. It is the executive and commission's firm view that the balance of the legislation is broadly right. However, the Government never seek to duck the opportunity to test our policy against firm arguments such as those that have been advanced today. The Government are not able to support the Bill, but neither shall we oppose it.
Mr. Hepburn is to be commended on introducing his Bill to the House, and all hon. Members who have participated in today's debate, no doubt well informed by the extensive and generous briefing that we have received, have done so in a thoughtful and constructive way. That is perhaps the most important outcome, particularly in view of what the Minister has just said, which I am sure will come as a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman.
I understand the Minister's doubts. I notice that they have become rather more intense in recent years, and that there has been a certain backing and filling in the Government's position. But as far as I and I hope all hon. Members are concerned, the more of a political consensus we can get on health and safety matters and the less we bat it from side to side, the happier we shall be, and the more constructive the outcome, as has been evident today.
I go back to the remarks of the Bill's promoter at the beginning of the debate when he detailed the deaths and serious injuries that have occurred at work and the fact that this measure is about individuals and their families and successors, sadly. Almost all of us as constituency Members of Parliament, and, dare I say, quite a number of us as individuals, including myself, have had some experience of accidents to close members of our families and in having to handle the outcome of such situations.
I suppose it would be fair to say that the immediate need, beyond the period of grief, is to look at the issue of redress, including financial compensation—not that that is always well handled, or embraced in the Bill. There is, as has been said from a number of points of view, a need to try to get at the facts of what happened—a lot of people strongly want to do that—and sometimes legal process, even if it is designed to discover those facts, actually operates against that ready disclosure. People are not ready to put their hand up and say that they were wrong; it has to be dragged out of them.
Beyond that, I would simply say that in my experience many more constituents are interested in using the sad experience of their bereavement or loss for positive ends, to say that it should not happen again, than in punishing those who are guilty. It will vary, and perhaps it is right that people should have the privilege of taking their own view on it, but what we are concerned about here is to learn from what happened and see whether we can bring about an improvement.
Conservative Members are interested in any proposals that can be shown to make a significant contribution to improving health and safety at work. I am a small employer, although not a remunerated director, and I share that view. I have already made the point to the House that there is a strong business case, as a good employer, for doing that.
The House will know that ever since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, the obligation to address these issues has fallen equally on employers and employees in industry, and that is right. Good safety and good working practices should be the mutual responsibility of all those engaged in industry. Beyond that, there is an expectation that as experience of what is safe and what is not develops, as technology improves and new sensors, new warnings and new smart systems can be introduced, and as a new and safer generation of machines comes along, we should, collectively, generally be able to show a better record than we have in the past, and indeed we need to do so.
As the Minister of State has reminded the House, however, this has generally been the case in the United Kingdom. British industry has one of the best safety records among members of the European Union, and it is possible to go not too far beyond the channel to find cases where compliance and attitude are perhaps less intense. Of course, in saying that, I do not want to be caricatured as in any sense saying that we can be complacent. One death is still one too many, and we all want to struggle to see how we can effectively improve the situation.
I shall pick out two themes that have emerged from the debate. In a way they are rather antagonistic, as the details of legislation always are. The first theme is the developing nature of what has to be done in safety. I will except for the moment wider issues of occupational health, in which the Minister of State and Mr. Clapham know that I am interested. There is an important issue about occupational health as well, but in this debate we are primarily dealing with the accident situation. I think that we are moving towards a more modern approach to accidents.
When I first came on the scene—I grew up on a farm; it is a dangerous industry—legislation introduced guards, in what was seen as a passive exercise to stop people doing silly things near moving machinery. That was in a sense rather simple, because either the guard was there or it was not; somebody had taken it off when they should not have done, or it had never been fitted in the first place. Now it is all more complicated.
In a separate context it so happens that I have recently taken one of the officers' positions in the recently established—rather late in the day, perhaps—all-party parliamentary group on patient safety, which had its inaugural meeting earlier this week. We were addressed rather compellingly by the chief medical officer. He spoke about patient safety in the NHS and made the point—I do not have the exact text of what he said—that we were moving towards a system of not so much operational safety in which one takes note of individual incidents, but of ensuring that systems are safe using a procedure of interlocking checks and balances. That is entirely sensible and consistent with what goes on in modern industry.
The second underlying theme of our debate is that we are all anxious to try to pin blame, if that is the most appropriate term, on those responsible for incidents. As several hon. Members have made clear, the problem is complex because there are different places where responsibility could operate, ranging from the workplace itself right up to board level, which is where the hon. Member for Jarrow argues that it should lie.
As an employer, I know that there is always a little disquiet when one comes away from the operational situation. As I am in Parliament, obviously I am not on my farm today. I have a well trained staff of one, who has the necessary certification to apply agrochemicals and perform other procedures. I am confident, and need to be confident, that such procedures would be carried out properly and safely in my absence. Nevertheless, people sometimes do things wrong and disregard instructions, so central management might feel unable to control that situation, even if good safeguards were in place. I think that that problem lies behind the disquiet that is sometimes expressed in terms of scapegoating or corporate manslaughter. People say, "We'll get them," but we are never quite sure who they are.
It is clearly wrong for employers just to walk away from their responsibilities saying, "It doesn't matter; we're not interested," and the Minister referred to that in her speech. However, it is impossible to achieve some things at board level, so it is perhaps unreasonable to penalise people who have done their best to put safe systems in place. We must deal with a difficult set of legal issues. Perhaps mercifully, we have not heard too many legal contributions to the debate—I am not a lawyer, anyway—but we would have to try to work out where blame should lie. It would perhaps be more constructive to say that a common obligation exists and that that must be examined collectively by industry.
Let me turn to the Bill itself. It would amend the Companies Act 1985 and impose specific duties on people in their capacity as company directors. I do not think that a distinction has been made sufficiently clearly between executive and non-executive directors. Executive directors are likely to be employed by their companies, so they have health and safety duties as employees. Their companies will also have general health and safety duties. From my lay interest in law, I suspect that if one looks down the fiduciary duties of company directors under common law, one could get the whisper of an idea—a judge could run further with this—that directors already have a duty not to walk away from the interest of their employees. Perhaps that is a matter for later discussion.
As I have suggested, there is a worry that non-executive directors who do not have day-to-day responsibility for a company might find themselves put at risk by something over which they have no direct control. I can conceive of circumstances in which the negligence of a non-executive director could have contributed to a failure in safety, although I do not have a specific case in mind. However, I would be surprised if that was the norm. It falls to the promoter of the Bill and his colleagues to comment on that, including my constituency neighbour, Mr. Clarke, who spoke effectively on the matter and, indeed, my neighbour on the other side of my constituency, my hon. Friend Tony Baldry, who is a sponsor of the Bill.
To be fair, I think that today we have largely avoided promoting a culture in which the response to anything that goes wrong—things do go wrong from time to time—is to press the blame button automatically and find someone to collar without examining the underlying causes of an incident. It is at that point that concerns arise about the public sector, as well as wider issues about corporate manslaughter. Mr. Brown speculated about whether the permanent secretary or the Under-Secretary should do time for whatever went wrong. That is an interesting point, but whoever it was they would not be subject to the Companies Act 1985, at least not in that regard. However, they clearly have some general responsibility for the supervision of their operation.
It is not clear, and the fairness is questionable, whether a duty should be imposed on private sector directors under the Companies Act which did not extend to their counterparts in the public sector. That is all the more true as evidence shows that some performance in the public sector—for example, the NHS, where there is no longer Crown immunity—is from time to time the most disappointing in the whole sphere of health and safety. The NHS employs many people and there are some difficult procedures. As some Members know, I have taken an interest in issues of latex allergy; indeed, the DWP has helpfully responded, for which I thank the Minister. There are also patient safety issues. Many things go wrong in the health service and I am not sure that locking up the permanent secretary at the Department of Health will actually stop them happening.
There is a wider point on corporate manslaughter. If the Minister disappointed the House in her comments on the Bill this morning, she has equally disappointed the Labour party, given the manifesto it offered the electorate at the last general election. Will the Labour party be repeating its pledge on corporate manslaughter legislation? An underlying theme may be the reluctance of civil servants to assume responsibility, as well as some of the concerns about directors that the Minister expressed. As she knows, I share some of those concerns, although I understand the reason for the legitimate concerns of the supporters of the Bill.
These issues are interesting. They matter to individuals, but more generally they affect public policy outcomes for our citizens. The overlap between corporate responsibility, issues of corporate manslaughter, where the blame should lie and how that should be reflected in legislation is complex. In an intervention, I mentioned as an example the relationship between constituent companies in groups of companies.
I note that the Work and Pensions Committee suggested pre-legislative scrutiny. In a sense, the Bill is about pre-legislative scrutiny, but it is unlikely to reach a final conclusion, even with the eloquence of the hon. Member for Jarrow.
In conclusion, I strongly advise the House against over-reliance on the measure as if it were a magic bullet for such a real problem. We cannot guarantee to prevent accidents through the Bill. I am not sure that we can reinforce the need to encourage and celebrate individual excellence, nor am I absolutely sure how much we can achieve through the Bill on any improvement in collective attitudes to safety, although we should all welcome that. However, the hon. Gentleman has performed a service to the House by putting the issue on the table. Like the Minister, I shall not try to frustrate him in his efforts to get the Bill into Committee.
I do not need to say very much because I agree almost entirely with what was said by the Minister and by my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, a position that usually embarrasses me but to which I am happy to admit on this occasion. Although, of course, I acknowledge the motivation and sincerity of Mr. Hepburn and his friends in bringing the Bill to the House, I take the view, as those who attend regularly on Fridays will know—unfortunately, I do not see many of them in the Chamber today—that we must be even more careful with private Members' Bills than with Government Bills. That is simply because private Members' Bills often represent the dreams of this or that group and the proper aspirations of good-minded people, but are not necessarily very well thought through. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's Bill is an example of that, and that we would be foolish to rush into supporting it, especially given that the Government have indicated that they are seriously considering the matter in a much broader context.
I will seek to divide the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if only to test the amount of support that the Bill really has. I come here every Friday for private Members' Bills—I am that sort of person—and often listen to colleagues whom I have never seen before, and will probably never see again, arguing for a Bill that they think the most important thing that we can consider. They always say, as the hon. Gentleman did today, "There is huge support for this Bill inside and outside the House, and it has cross-party support from all these Members who have sponsored it." Then I look around, ever optimistic, to see where they are. All we ask them to do, as Members of Parliament elected to legislate, is to turn up on one Friday of the year to show physically their support for a Bill. That is not an awful lot to ask. Today we will see just how much support there is for this Bill in the very real sense of how many Members are here to demonstrate in the Lobby that they believe that it should proceed further.
I have expressed my reservations in a couple of interventions and need not rehearse them at this stage—I am anxious that my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford, who has the next debate, should have an opportunity to get it started after we have our little Division—but I have a couple more points to make.
Sadly, the Bill is excessively narrowly focused on the private sector, and some people could think it almost vindictive. In picking out only directors of private companies, it appears to ignore other potential areas of difficulty. That was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry and other hon. Members. If we are to proceed along this track, I would much prefer to look more broadly at the parallel responsibilities in the public sector, where, after all, a very large number of people work, often in very hazardous conditions. We should also pause to consider whether legislation of this kind should focus so narrowly on directors alone. I believe that responsibility for health and safety rests at every level in every organisation, large and small, and that we should head in that direction instead of merely singling out directors.
The Minister was too modest, as always, to quote herself to the House, so I shall do it for her. The Work and Pensions Committee has frequently been mentioned, and I want to put on the record what she told it in evidence last May, which very much reflects my view:
"The evidence . . . has shown that directors are giving leadership and direction, that increasingly companies are directing health and safety at board level, and that better guidance to companies is what is needed rather than legislation or further regulation. Des Browne was advised by the Commission"— that is, the Health and Safety Commission—
"in January of this year that new legislation was not needed as a result of that and he, therefore, accepted that advice."
That is a very balanced view. The Minister has said that she is participating in the process and has instructed that an ongoing review be conducted by the end of this year.
This may sound odd coming from me—it will look all right if it is quoted in context, but pretty peculiar if not—but I believe that Government legislation has a better chance of being more carefully examined, more carefully structured and having resulted from broader consultation and consideration than is necessarily possible for private Members' Bills. For that reason, I come here when private Members' Bills are considered to try to make sure that we look more carefully at them than we able to do for Government Bills. All in all, I am content with what the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry have said, but nervous about the Bill and the way in which it seeks to take us. I shall therefore seek to divide the House in order to assess the real support for the Bill.