Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 11:35 am on 28th June 2007.

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Votes in this debate

Lords Reasons for insisting on their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed and for disagreeing to the Commons amendments to the Bill in lieu, considered.

Lords Reasons: Nos. 2B, 3B, 5B, 6B and 10E.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 12:31 pm, 28th June 2007

I beg to move,

That this House
insists on disagreement with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10, but does not insist on its amendments Nos. 10C and 10D in lieu thereof, and proposes amendments (a), (b), (c) and (d) in lieu of the Lords amendments.

The other place has for a third time sent to us amendments to the Bill that would extend the new offence to deaths in custody in all circumstances. Hon. Members will be familiar with the Government's position. I do not intend to rehearse this at length, but I do want to place this issue in the wider context of progress on other issues in the Bill and to set out why we are not persuaded to set a timetable for custody.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, I have always made it clear to hon. Friends and Opposition Members that the Government would listen carefully to arguments to improve the Bill, and we have done so. The Government responded to concerns about the test for liability in the Bill as it was first introduced, we have shown flexibility in terms of the sort of organisations to which the offence applies and extended the Bill to certain unincorporated associations. We have offered real progress on the sort of penalties that will be available against convicted organisations and made provision for an entirely new sort of disposal against corporate bodies—a publicity order.

When concerns arose about the possible impact of the new offence on prosecutions against individuals on a secondary basis for health and safety offences, we again offered amendments to clarify the position. The Government openly recognised the strength of concern in this House and in the other place on the question of custody, and again offered positive movement. That is not just in terms of a power to extend the new offence—a move that explicitly opens the door to a future extension to custody— but in practical terms. Putting the prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing will strengthen the position of that office to provide an independent investigation of deaths in prisons and other forms of custody.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Will the Minister confirm, yet again, that the latest set of amendments that the Government have tabled actually enable any future Secretary of State to restrict the introduction of any measures to extend to custody in exactly whatever way the Government see fit? The suggestion that it is simply a device by which at some future date the Lords amendments can be brought into force is not accurate. In fact, it would allow for the complete rewriting of the Lords intention.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I do not accept that, and I will say why I think that we need to support the position that we are in. I have accepted the principle of what has been said, and putting the office of prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing will strengthen that office.

Hon. Members will see that, in the criminal justice Bill that was introduced yesterday, we are delivering on our commitment. We will be strengthening the arrangements for decreasing the occurrence of such deaths in the first place through the commitment to strengthening the forum for preventing deaths in custody. That is considerable movement on the Government's part, and it is against that background that this House should measure where we are now. This is not resistance for the sake of it; it is because we genuinely consider that this is as far as the Bill should go at this stage.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

At the end of it all, I will probably vote with the Government, but I will do so with the greatest reluctance. I have read the exchanges in the other place and my view is that compelling arguments were advanced for the Government to go further. I am very disappointed that it has not been possible for my hon. Friend to tell the House that the Lords amendments should be accepted.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am sad that my hon. Friend is disappointed and saddened, but if he has followed the debate all the way through from the Government's original position, he will fully understand why we are in this position today. Many groups and stakeholders were involved in the progress of the Bill and they had different views about its progress, but they were flexible and understood the Government's position. We have moved genuinely forward on the issue of deaths in custody.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I will but I want to make progress, because I suspect that we will be rehearsing arguments that have been made before.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister without Portfolio

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but he keeps telling the House that the Government have moved and accepted the position in principle. However, he did that the last time we debated the issue, but with a qualification—"if" the powers were ever needed. It is important to see whether the Government have moved from the word "if" to the word "when".

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

If the hon. Gentleman listens, I think he will hear me provide the strong qualification that he is looking for.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I acknowledge that the Government have been listening and that they have moved. I also acknowledge my hon. Friend's sincerity. However, he has had many predecessors and there will probably be a lot of successors, and it cannot be guaranteed that his successors will share his view. The Bill as framed makes it possible for this commitment to be forgotten about, and that is why many of us are worried.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

That is not the Government's intention. During the debate on deaths in custody, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Home Affairs Committee and other bodies in the House have made sure that the issue has developed in the way that it has. I am clear that they will continue to ensure that the issue is dealt with. It is my fervent belief that we need to give the prisons and probation ombudsman the opportunity to develop his role and we also want to strengthen the forum for preventing deaths in custody. Other issues may flow from those two arrangements and they may affect the issue even further.

It is not the Government's intention to condone or protect circumstances in which there are serious failings in the management of custody. The issue is about the appropriate application of a new criminal offence. The Bill recognises that there are difficult decisions to be taken about the application of the new offence to the operation of public services. That position was debated at length in proceedings in this House and in the other place. This House has supported excluding the exercise of a number of public responsibilities from the scope of the offence. It is therefore an overstatement to say that equality before the law demands the application of the offence to those in custody. Accountability for the exercise of public functions raises difficult and complex issues. The forums for investigating and holding to account those responsible for public responsibilities, including the management of custody, recognise this.

The Government have been prepared to meet concerns that the offence should apply to custody by opening the door clearly in the Bill to that being the case. That is a serious acknowledgement of the issues here and accepts clearly the principle of the offence applying. However, this issue must also be seen in the wider context of lifting Crown immunity. Applying the new offence to Government Departments brings with it considerable uncertainty. How these bodies discharge their public responsibilities is intimately bound up with wider questions of public policy.

It is tempting to consider that faults in the management chain and operational matters can be isolated from the organisational context within which they occurred. In practice, that is a difficult distinction to make and, in the exercise of public responsibilities, the systems and processes by which an activity is managed can involve fundamental questions of policy, not least in relation to the allocation of resources. Those matters need to be answered for politically.

On one view, that is a reason for not lifting Crown immunity or at least never extending the offence beyond the sorts of duties already set out in the Bill. We have taken considerable steps beyond that by accepting in principle the application of the offence to the management of custody. However, there must be an opportunity for Departments, investigators and the courts to become familiar with the concept of criminal liability for Crown bodies in areas such as employer and occupier responsibilities before looking to apply this sort of offence to the discharge of public functions any more widely than the Bill currently allows. That will also provide time for the changes to the ombudsman's powers to become established and for the forum for preventing deaths to be further developed, and time to consider how the wider application of the offence will operate alongside those changes.

I cannot set out the timetable today and the right approach to acknowledging the uncertainty is to include a power in the Bill to extend the offence. There can be no doubt that Parliament envisaged the application of the offence to custody—the principle of that is accepted, but the exact timing is not. There will be a considerable opportunity to question the Government on the matter: for example, through the Select Committees. The Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights have demonstrated their interest so far. Our proposals for putting the prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing include provision for publishing and laying before Parliament various reports. That will provide a new source of information on the management of custody.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The Minister knows the reality: implementation by statutory instrument is a matter wholly at the discretion of the Government of the day. No Member of Parliament can introduce the statutory instrument to try to force the Government's hand. If we lose this opportunity—there are many caveats from the Minister about when the measure might be introduced—is it not the case that we will be taking something on a promise that looks even more remote today than when we last considered the matter?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Again, I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view, but I do not agree with it. Clearly, the House should consider the matter in the round and think about what we have tried to achieve. We are in a difficult position. Many organisations and bodies want to see the Bill enacted and it will be sad if the movement that the Government have made is not acknowledged and if the other place continues to reject what we are saying. That will not help people in terms of resolving the issues around deaths in custody and it will certainly not reflect the main inspiration for the Bill.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister without Portfolio

Why should private sector organisations have no timetable for changing their processes to prepare for the offence, when public sector bodies—in this case, the Prison Service—have carte blanche and may never even have to face up to the measures? Are public sector managers in the Prison Service so much more inefficient and incompetent than private sector managers? Will the Minister explain the logic of that to the House?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 12:45 pm, 28th June 2007

That is entirely wrong. The hon. Gentleman has not looked at the core of the issue. This is about public functions. The Government are lifting Crown immunity—that has never been done before—where the Crown operates as an employer and an occupier. There are other ways to inspect the way that public policy is outlined. I have explained that in previous discussions. He is quite right to talk about the private sector. One of the reasons for applying the offence to the private sector was to read across to what we needed to do in the public sector. That was the motivation for removing Crown immunity.

I understand the passion around the issue of deaths in custody and we all agree that we have to try to find ways to prevent those deaths. The Government have set out a way of doing that. Opposition Members underestimate the powers of Select Committees and other bodies to continue to pressurise the Government in the future. I want to make sure that we do not compromise a complex situation that involves the relationship between public policy and organisational matters.

We have made two changes to the amendments in lieu since they were last considered. First, there is a change to address a point raised by Mr. Hogg in our previous debate. He was concerned at the inclusion of the scope—in subsection (2) of the proposed power to extend the offence—to specify exemptions to the forms of custody to which the offence would extend. I undertook to consider that point. As I said, I have always tried to address matters of concern where possible and we have removed the ability to specify exemptions.

It will remain necessary for the order to set out the forms of custody to which the offence extends. It is right that that should be the case. There are a number of technical points that are not adequately addressed in the amendments proposed by the other place. In the context of an order-making power, it is right that the exact description of custody should appear in the order itself, but there will not be the scope to specify exemptions.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am grateful that the Minister has taken on board the points raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, but is not the reality of the wording that it would be open to the Government to introduce the measure in relation to certain sorts of custody, but not to others—if they were minded to do so? That is how I read the amendment. Clearly, the Lords intended the introduction to apply to all forms of custody. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that that may make some Members a little nervous about the direction in which the Government are going.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Hon. Members cannot have it all ways. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham asked us to reflect on the matter. We have done that and we think that we have hit on the right way forward. This is not an attempt to deal with the matter in an underhand way; it is a genuine attempt to meet the requirements of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope that Mr. Grieve will accept that.

Secondly, changes have been made to make it clear that the definition of "premises" in subsection (1) of the power is the same as the definition in clause 2. That definition will now appear in the wider interpretation clause that is inserted by amendments made in the other place.

This is an important Bill that will strengthen the law and make sure that organisations have strong health and safety policies. I hope that the other place and Members in this House recognise the lengths to which the Government have gone to try to address the points raised on both sides of the House. I hope that hon. Members will support us today.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am always pleased to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box, but I am rather sorry to hear what he has to say. There is plainly a wide measure of agreement in this House and the other place concerning this matter. We are all in agreement—the Minister has reiterated this today—that the issue of deaths in custody is serious. It could not be anything other than that. There were some 2,000 deaths in custody between 1995 and 2005. Unfortunately, not a year goes by—sometimes I think not a month goes by—without our hearing of another example that gives rise to concern.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of the deaths are nobody's fault, but, from time to time, there is pretty clear evidence that a death may be the result of neglect of a kind that would not give rise to any personal criminal liability by an individual, but that would certainly fall within the scope of what the Bill is intended to consider. There may well be corporate failures within the Prison Service or other organisations that have allowed such a death to occur.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The problem that my hon. Friend outlines is going to get worse tomorrow, because the Government, under their chaotic arrangements for dealing with overcrowding in prisons, are going to release thousands of inmates back on to the streets, without supervision or assessment. Many of them will be drug addicts. While in prison, they have been cared for by the Prison Service and the health service, but once they are released—if they are released when they are still suffering from drug addiction—many of them could come to untimely ends as a consequence of the lack of care. Does he accept that the Prison Service's duty of care covers not only the period during which those people are in custody, but must foreseeably extend to a situation in which it releases unsuitable people who are affected by drugs on to the streets from within its care?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

My hon. and learned Friend makes an interesting point, although it pushes the bounds of what can be foreseen a little. I am not sure that I wish to encourage his line of reasoning because it might make it even less likely that the Government will extend the corporate manslaughter offence to the Prison Service.

In the context of prisons, I have always thought that the main scope of the offence was the care delivered in the prison system. However, my hon. and learned Friend makes a perfectly fair point. Someone who was known to be a serious suicide risk might suddenly be thrown out of the prison hospital wing one morning. If no provision had been made for their care after release and the first thing that they did was to throw themselves under a railway train at the nearest station, that could give rise to interesting legal and factual arguments about the possible extension of the duty of care. I accept what my hon. and learned Friend says. From his experience of visiting prisons in his capacity as our prisons and criminal justice spokesman, he knows only too well the worrying fact that an overcrowded Prison Service is poor at delivering care to the most vulnerable.

That live issue is one of the reasons why we believe that the corporate manslaughter offence should be extended to protect people in custody. The Government appear to have accepted that principle, albeit not without considerable argument, and that was the major concession made by the Minister in one of our ping-pong sessions. However, rather than following the logic of his argument of saying that the Prison Service will need time to prepare for the change, the Minister hides behind the statement that the system will be introduced by statutory instrument as and when the Government think that everything is ready.

The Government pride themselves on target setting. The old Government—I suspect that the same will be true of the new Government because the new Prime Minister seems to be as wedded to this as anyone—said that they liked targets because they enforced discipline. Ministers have proudly said at the Dispatch Box that the Government will be able to match targets for the implementation of measures. Why, therefore, will not the Minister pick a reasonable target for changing the culture in the Prison Service and elsewhere so that a full assessment can be made of the response to the measure, which, as the Minister concedes, is entirely justified?

I realise that we are in times of change. The new Prime Minister has a reputation in the press—perhaps it is grossly unfair—of being a little curmudgeonly. Here is his opportunity, with his new vision for Britain, to take a grip of government and take a different stand. I mean that seriously. Conservative Members are looking to him to show leadership on a matter on which there is much cross-party consensus. When the Minister has the opportunity to see the new Prime Minister, I hope that he will point out to him the extent of the disquiet in the House and what we are seeking.

I am not sure whether we have a new Home Secretary yet, or whether he is moving from ministerial substance into ministerial ectoplasm. However, it appeared that he was a serious impediment to the implementation of the proposals. As he is vanishing into thin air as I speak, this must be a tremendous opportunity—I had rather hoped that the Minister would have been in a position to grasp it with both hands today—for the Government to shift by saying that they accept that such a timetable would be possible. If that happened, we could all congratulate ourselves mutually and go away, which is what I want to happen.

This might be a little premature. I am conscious that doors are swinging as people go in and out of No. 10 Downing street. There has not been time to present new Ministers with their briefs. The Minister is probably not quite sure what his post will be in 24 hours. All that makes life very difficult, but it is all the more reason why we should ensure that this issue is kept live so that we can come back to it next week and the week after. I am confident that the other place, on a cross-party basis, is resolute on this matter and will not let it drop, given that the Government's explanations for their position on the implementation of the amendments have been really incoherent.

My children are now growing up, but when they were little, they used to engage in distraction when one wished to scold them for doing something wrong. They would introduce a new argument, or something would happen, to distract one from the main issue. The Minister has been doing such a thing rather well. We have been told about systems and given promises of reform in the future, even though there are absolutely no assurances that we will get it. I even detected that it was vaguely suggested in the other place that the Lords amendments might not work quite as intended. If that is the case, the ball is firmly in the Minister's court because the Government would have not the slightest difficulty curing that problem, if they wished to do so.

I am sorry that we are again not succeeding in making progress. The Bill will continue to go backwards and forwards. It has been pointed out that unless the time period is extended, the Bill has until 19 July. If the Government wish to continue the argument, they can extend the time allowed until the end of the parliamentary Session. If they do so, I will be only too happy to come back to the Dispatch Box to debate the matter further with the Minister because as long as it is alive, there is some hope that we will reach the outcome that everyone in the Chamber—including, I strongly suspect, the Minister—would like to see.

I hope that reasonableness will prevail. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we cannot support the Government's motion. However, whatever happens in the Division, I hope, if the Minister is not promoted, that he will give us his benevolent presence again in the Chamber and that we can reach the happy moment when we agree that we have a sensible timetable and target so that protection for some of the most vulnerable members of our society will finally be provided in a completely reasonable fashion.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The Bill is an excellent measure and the sort of legislation that one would expect from a Labour Government. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the progress and concessions that have been made as a result of debates here and in the other place. However, through no fault of his own—presumably, he does not make the decisions on these matters—the principle of addressing death in custody has not been put into effect. If the death of prisoners was relatively unknown and a minor matter, one could understand the Government's position. However, some pretty tragic cases have been cited by Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons who tabled the Lords amendments. I find it difficult to understand for the life of me why the Government will not go a step further. As we have heard, there is no doubt that the principle has been accepted. Why should the Bill become an Act without covering those who die in custody? Even at this very late stage, I hope that the matter will be given further consideration.

I have no doubt that the Government will not have a problem getting a majority at the conclusion of this debate. There will be no rebellion. I will probably vote with the Government, albeit with much hesitation. Government Members often ration the number of times that they vote against the Government or abstain. I certainly do so, although I am not sure whether it is appreciated by the Whips. I am very conscious of my responsibilities as a Member. As I said in an intervention, I read with considerable care the arguments put forward on Monday in the House of Lords, and they seem to be compelling arguments to which it would be difficult to object. I have not the slightest doubt that if we were on the Opposition Benches, we would make precisely the sort of speech that Mr. Grieve made, but of course it is quite likely that if we had a Conservative Government, the Bill that we are debating would not have been introduced.

As I have said, I am saddened and disappointed. I believe that the Government should go further, and that the Lords were right. I would not be surprised if they insisted on their amendments and the Bill came back before us once again.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister without Portfolio 1:00 pm, 28th June 2007

Mr. Winnick joins the long line of distinguished Labour Back Benchers who are contributing to the cross-party support for our argument with the Government. In a way, he has done so in order to try to push the Minister to where the hon. Gentleman and I believe the Minister wants to go. Debate on the Bill and on the issue that we are discussing has been of high quality. The arguments have been put forward clearly, but today the Minister has yet again not come forward with a strong argument for his position. We have heard a number of arguments about the process, and they have all been destroyed, both in this place and the other place. They really do not stand analysis.

One particular argument, which is out of tenor with the other arguments that have been made, has been heard outside this place, and Members of the Commons and the other place have been lobbied on it. It is the idea that those of us who support including provisions on deaths in custody in the legislation are somehow trying to kill the Bill. That is absurd and completely wrong, and anyone who has seen the way in which Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members have supported the Government's overall thrust throughout the Bill's progress knows it to be wrong. Only one group of people can kill the Bill, and that is the Government. They need to listen to Parliament, and to arguments by Members of all parties, in this place and the other place. If they refuse to do that, they will kill the Bill.

I find it quite shameful that there has been pressure from outside bodies that rightly want the Bill, and which know that all parties in the House want the Bill, but are trying to suggest that we are behaving poorly by pushing the Government on the issue. We are behaving in exactly the right way. We are behaving as a democratic, open Parliament should behave, and we are flexing our muscles in the only way we can. I believe that this House, and Parliament in general, is not strong enough. It is only on rare occasions such as this that we can show the Government that they really need to move and listen. As Mr. Grieve made clear, if we do not include the measure in the Bill now, the chances of having another occasion on which to do it are remote, so we need to win this battle, and the Minister needs to listen.

In many ways, the issue of whether or not the Minister will still be in his position in a few days' time should not concern the House. If he is promoted, or moves sideways or whatever, I am sure that he will talk to his successor. I hope that he will also talk to the new Secretary of State for Justice, the new Home Secretary and indeed the Prime Minister, to convince them that this is a golden opportunity to show that there is change. Yesterday, we heard the Prime Minister talking about change—change of heart and a change of approach—and about wanting to listen. Well, here is his first opportunity.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister without Portfolio

Yes, it is the acid test, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will give the Prime Minister that first bauble; we will congratulate the Minister if he does.

I want to make two more points on the substance behind the issue. To refer back to my first intervention on the Minister, he and his colleagues in the other place keep telling us that the Government accept the principle behind the measure. We want to believe that and take it at face value, but there are so many caveats—so many ifs and buts—that it is difficult to believe that the principle really has been accepted, and that the Government are not simply using parliamentary and legislative devices to avoid the pressure that is being put on them. If the Minister was prepared to say that it is no longer an issue of "if" or "whether", but rather of "when", that would be a shift. As my hon. Friend Mr. Heath suggested the last time we debated the amendments, the Minister could come before the House with a commencement order that named a date two or three years hence. If he did that, I am sure that reasonable people on both sides of the Chamber would give it serious consideration, even though many of us want the measure to be introduced very quickly.

Although the Minister has been courteous, generous and attentive to the remarks of hon. Members of all parties throughout the passage of the legislation, on this last point he really has not gone far enough. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is quite right: the other place will stand absolutely firm on the issue. One only has to read the Hansard report of the debate in the other place to realise that the other place feels very strongly about it, and it is being backed, and encouraged to stand firm, by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Benchers in this place. The number of Cross Benchers and Labour Members of the other place who support the Conservative and Liberal Democrat position is very large. The Minister mentioned to me in passing, yesterday evening or the day before, that he thought that a number of Lords had peeled off, but I have to tell him that the numbers against him are still very large. There might have been an extra-nice dinner on the evening of the vote, but the resolve of the Lords is clear.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

It is worth mentioning on the record the persuasive powers of Lord Ramsbotham, who is key on the issue, and who speaks with far more experience of conditions in the Prison Service than almost any of us, or any Member of the other place.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister without Portfolio

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and anyone who reads the speeches of the noble Lord Ramsbotham will learn of the cases that he has come across in which the offence that we propose might well have applied, or in which a death in custody might not have happened if the provision had been on the statute books, as it would have created an incentive for the management to put its house in order. This House must continue with its opposition, and must send a clear signal to the other place.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

I certainly agree with the opening remarks of Mr. Davey. As far as I am aware, no one wants to put an end to the Bill. I started campaigning for the Bill some 20 years ago, in my former professional capacity, and after 20 years' hard work I certainly do not want to see the Bill go down the tubes. I have some reservations about whether its health and safety aspects are strong enough, and I have expressed them previously. Those who criticise the Bill and raise questions about it would do better to focus on those health and safety points, rather than on some of the issues that have been raised today. However, I feel strongly about the issue of deaths in custody, particularly after the work that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, did on the issue.

Mr. Grieve was right to remind us of what the issue is really about: it is about vulnerable people who die when in the state's custody, when the state has responsibility for their safety. He is also right to say that the overwhelming majority of those deaths, while tragic and unfortunate, are ultimately not the fault of anybody in authority. However, a very small number—perhaps a dozen or so over the past 10 years—do merit further detailed inquiry, perhaps under the provisions of the Bill. The Bill is meant to be a deterrent. It is not meant to be used to prosecute; it is meant to try to make people who come within the ambit of the Bill, from whatever walk of life, take their responsibilities seriously, whether we are talking about the transport network, accidents at work in factories, or death in custody.

I am pleased that the Government have made significant concessions since we first raised the issue on Report. On that occasion, we were met with what was virtually a "no surrender" statement from the Home Secretary. I am pleased that the Government have listened and made concessions on the need for statutory powers for the prisons and probation ombudsman. We do not yet have a date, but I hope that measures will appear in the forthcoming Queen's Speech, following the review by the forum for preventing deaths in custody—we were told that that would take six months or so—and the amendments conceding the principle in the Bill. That is an important concession, and my hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the way in which he has approached the issue and engaged with Members on both sides of the House who have raised it, and with the other place, to make progress. It is even more important than it was when we first started to debate the issue. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Government introduced a new order to amend the rules on restraint in secure training centres which, on the face of it, broadened the powers to use restraint. The inquest on the death of Gareth Myatt has only just taken place, highlighting the need for additional protection in the Bill. I am not suggesting for one minute that those powers will be misused, but if they are to be broadened, the safeguards that accompany them must be broadened, too. I am pleased that my hon. Friend Ms Keeble prayed against the order, as I did myself, so that the issue can be discussed and fleshed out.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows full well from today's debate and all the ping-pong that it comes down a question of whether he will name the day. That is all that we are interested in. I have suggested a number of different ways in which that could be done, and ways around the problem. Last time we discussed the matter, I suggested replacing the words in the first line of the new clause,

"The Secretary of State may by order", with the words, "The Secretary of State shall by order". As we know from case law, the Secretary of State is obliged to keep that duty under active review to make sure that it is not overlooked. It should be a mandatory rather than a permissive power, and it would be a major step forward in efforts to resolve the problem.

My hon. Friend is over-cautious in his proposed timetable. As has been said, we are asking for a target date. As I mentioned in our previous debate, a target is not mandatory—it suggests that we want to do something by a certain date. I am not even proposing that the target should appear in the Bill. If my hon. Friend commits to a date two or three years hence, and if it proves impossible to meet that date because of the improvements that we want to achieve, he or his successor would have to return to the House and explain why that was so. That is one way forward. As has been said today and previously, without a target date, there is no incentive to make the improvements necessary to make sure that prisons are safer and that the recommendations from the forum for preventing deaths in custody and from the ombudsman are put in place. We hope that the change will be made, and if my hon. Friend went down that route, it would be a major concession that could well be the way forward. He need not necessarily include a binding date in the Bill, but we would like a commitment to try to do those things by a certain date. That would go a long way towards resolving the issues that we face.

Last time we debated the Bill, and on previous occasions, I told my hon. Friend that without a date the measure will not be accepted by the other place. Indeed, the other place has made that clear on the two or even three occasions on which the Bill has gone backwards and forwards between the two Houses. Given the number of Members voting against the Government in the other place, the Bill will come back again. However, time is running out: as has been said, the Bill must complete its passage through the Commons by the middle of next month; otherwise the Government will have to return with a further continuation order. That would look silly, because we would have exactly the same debate, and the Bill will keep coming back. In the end, if the Government seriously wish to make progress on the Bill—I accept that there have been reservations in the Government about whether the Bill is important, but I put the matter to the former Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee, because it is a fundamental commitment by the Government in several manifestos and in the Warwick agreement, so it cannot be dropped—why can the Minister not make a little movement today and name the day? We will not take breach of promise action if, in the end, the date cannot be met, but it would be a good step forward. If we could not meet the date, we could examine the reasons for failing to do so on a future occasion.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I agree with pretty well everything that Mr. Dismore said as a matter both of practicality and of principle. I could say the same, too, of the speeches made by Mr. Winnick, my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve and Mr. Davey. As other hon. Members have suggested, I think that the Minister himself would rather like to have made the speeches that we have heard.

Under clause 1, the offence of corporate manslaughter would catch mismanagement at a senior level that led to the death of an individual to whom a duty of care was owed. That would bind a Department listed in schedule 1—the Home Office is listed as one such Department—and police forces. As a matter of principle, I cannot see—and I do not think that the Minister can, either—why a death in custody that fits within the narrow compass of the offence should be excluded from the offence of corporate manslaughter. I have yet to hear a coherent or reasonable argument from the Minister for that exclusion. He said that the Government will simply repeat what they have said before, but there is a difference between repetition of a reasonable argument and stubborn refusal to see reason. Reason has been laid before the Government, both in the Commons and in the other place, on numerous occasions, by people who do not have a party political axe to grind. Lord Ramsbotham is an apolitical peer, and does not have any party political affiliations. He is interested in the proper, humane and efficient management of our prisons, and I invite the Government to take his advice in the spirit in which it was given.

I suspect that, although the Government suggest that they have accepted the principle, by using the affirmation system—the delaying system on the Order Paper—they have converted their lack of principle into some form of acceptable principle for the purposes of debate. That will not do, I am afraid. The hon. Member for Hendon said that all we need is some form of target date. We will not nail the Government to the floor and say that if they miss the date we think they are malevolent. However, if they have genuinely accepted the principle, they should accept a date on which it should be implemented. An extended non-dated principle is no principle at all; it is a disguised way of the Government pretending that they accept the principle without wishing to accept the consequences of that acceptance.

My concern that the issue of deaths in custody should be brought within the ambit of the Bill derives from the Government's historic failure to manage prisons over the past few years. The Minister knows very well that our prisons are woefully overcrowded, and that Operation Safeguard has been extended by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Hanson, to the end of the year, so police and court cells will have to be used until then to deal with overcrowding. Over the next 12 months or so, the early release system, which comes into effect tomorrow, will result in the early release of 25,500 or so offenders to reduce the prison population by a net figure of 1,200. Let us not worry about whether that is a good idea or not: let us put it in the context of the Government's concerns about the Bill. Surely they recognise that overcrowded prisons create all sorts of difficulties for prison management, which brings me back to clause 1. Lots of people in prison are drug addicts, and lots of them are mentally ill. If people in prison are both mentally ill and substance abusers, the chances of a death in custody are enhanced. It may well be the case that the Government are terrified that if prisons were included in the measure, there would be calls for prosecution on the grounds of corporate manslaughter. The Government, first, should be braver and, secondly, should be careful. This is the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, who skilfully parked my question on one side.

Tomorrow the Government will start throwing on to the streets drug addicts and mentally ill people who will be short of care. They cannot get the requisite care inside prison, but they get some. Class A drug users—heroin and crack cocaine users—are having their health maintained, even if they are not being brought off drugs by the use of methadone and Subutex within the health care system in prisons. If such people are pushed out the back door of prison in order to relieve the overcrowding of our prisons to some extent, the care that they should have got inside prison is unlikely to be given to them outside prison, and some of them may die outside on the street, even if they are not dying inside.

It is a difficult, a nice, a huge area of concern, and the Government must not try to escape their responsibilities. They must also not try to escape their responsibility to the House and to the proper development of legislation, which we all want to see, as a result of denying the Bill the prospect of having deaths in custody brought within the confines of the narrow offence of corporate responsibility. I urge the Government to be brave and to get on with it, for goodness' sake, and to bring deaths in custody within the confines of corporate manslaughter responsibility.

The Government should use that as a spur better to manage the prisons, the overcrowding and the care of inmates who suffer from mental ill health and from substance abuse, so that the prospects of being prosecuted are hugely diminished and the improvements in our prison system are enhanced as a consequence of the spur that the offence would bring.

I know that the Minister will say, "No, thanks. We've heard it all before," but it is time for him to demonstrate a change. If the Government really do mean change—I am not in the least bit convinced that the present Prime Minister is any different from the Chancellor of the Exchequer who presided over us for the past 10 years—and if the Prime Minister meant what he said on the steps of Downing street yesterday, he will produce a real change that goes beyond simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 1:15 pm, 28th June 2007

I congratulate and pay tribute to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I am aware of the strength of feeling on the matter, but that narrow issue is affecting the Government's movement right across the Bill.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for their speeches, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon who, through his Select Committee, has pursued the matter and graciously accepted that the Government have made progress and have made concessions. He will know that the Bill published yesterday contained the proposals for changes to the prisons and probation ombudsman, as I had said, and that on the forum on deaths in custody, there is a time scale which I set the last time we discussed the matter.

Hon. Members seem to imply that the Government do not want to change, but it is this Government who are lifting Crown immunity. That raises complex issues about the Crown acting as an employer or occupier which need to be addressed. I want to make sure that we get the legislation in the best shape possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon was right to say that the Bill is intended as a deterrent. We all agree that we do not want the penalties in it to be enforced—we want appropriate health and safety measures to be put in place. My hon. Friend mentioned secure training centres and the review of restraint methods. That is entirely appropriate.

I would not want anyone to think that the Government do not care about deaths in custody. We certainly do, and for all the reasons that have been set out, we must continue to investigate what happens and why. That is the function of the forum on deaths in custody. There are also the changes to the prisons and probation ombudsman, and we accept the principle of extending the Bill. We envisage that the Bill would be enacted as we set out, but the judgment on when its extension to custody should take place will be made at a future time, when all the outstanding issues have been considered.

Lifting Crown immunity is a significant step forward. I accept what Mr. Davey said. I do not accuse anyone in the House of trying to kill the Bill. However, people outside are worried because we do not seem to be making progress. The Government are making concessions, but we are not seeing any movement by others. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that Crown immunity has been lifted.

We face a problem with the timetable. It is true that an extension is possible, but only if there is a prospect of moving forward. At present there is no such prospect. Our position is clear. I do not want all the hard work and effort that have gone into the Bill, which has been around for a long time—

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I do not want to undermine the possibility of the Bill becoming law, so I shall not vote against it, as I fully support nine tenths of its content. I hope that if the Lords insist on their amendment—as I said, I will not be disappointed if they do—my hon. Friend will have frank discussions with the new Home Secretary to see whether a compromise can be reached that will satisfy both Houses.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall continue to try and resolve these issues, but I would be misleading the House if I said that there was a prospect of the Government changing their position dramatically. I hope the House will reiterate its view today. The second Chamber is supposed to be a reforming Chamber, as I hope will be acknowledged. It is important that we get movement, or the Bill will be lost, which I do not want.

I hope hon. Members will reflect on what has been said. I hope they will think again about the complexity of the issues involved. If, as I hope, we achieve majority support for the Government's position, Members in another place will reflect on that.

Question put, That this House insists on disagreements with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10, but does not insist on its amendments 10C and 10D in lieu thereof, and proposes amendments (a), (b), (c) and (d) in lieu of the Lords amendments.

The House divided: Ayes 251, Noes 157.

Division number 163 Orders of the Day — Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Aye: 251 MPs

No: 157 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Government amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments agreed to.