Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 11 July 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 Amendment to the Bill in lieu, considered.

Lords Reasons Nos.: 2C, 3C, 5C, 6C and 10J.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 7:17, 11 July 2007

I beg to move,

That this House
insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10, but does not insist on its Amendments 10F to 10I in lieu and proposes the following further Amendments to the Bill in lieu of Lords Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10: (a), (b), (c) and (d).

It falls to this House to consider the Bill again, as it was not settled by the other place earlier this week. That is a matter of regret. I have arrived at a late stage in its consideration, and I should like to begin by thanking my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr. Sutcliffe, for all the work that he did on it. I hope that this will be the last time that we need to debate it in this House.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I will, although I have barely begun my remarks.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in her new role. She said that she was troubled that the Bill had not been settled on the previous occasion. So are we, because we understood that an agreement had been reached that would enable it to go through the other place, swiftly come back here, and then move on to the statute book with everybody rejoicing. We now discover that the agreement that appeared to have been arrived at does not in fact exist. That will be the subject of this debate. I hope that when the Minister addresses the House she will explain why the suggestion that there should be acceptance of the inclusion of deaths in custody, and that there should be a long lead-in date, has been abandoned.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words of welcome. I am sorry to be a disappointment to him the first time that we meet across the Dispatch Box, but there we are. I will do my best in future to be as un-disappointing as I possibly can—commensurate, of course, with collective responsibility and Government policy. [ Interruption . ] We will no doubt get on to exclusions at some point during our debate.

It is not accurate, as far as I am aware, to say that there was an agreement. I notice that Mr. Grieve did not say that there was an agreement that had been broken; he said that there was an agreement that he thought was there, but which happened not to be. As far as I am aware, there has been no agreement. I still hope that we can continue, as the hon. Gentleman said, and get the Bill on to the statute book.

All parts of the House will be familiar with the fact that the issue that divides the elected House and another place, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is what is the appropriate way for the Bill to deal with deaths in custody. The Government have considered the position extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman was right, in the sense that the Bill was due to be debated in the other place on 2 July—but the debate there was postponed for a week, to provide for the new Government to consider the issue further. However, after that period of further reflection, and having given further careful thought to the concerns raised in this House and another place, the Government have concluded that we have gone far enough. The Government have offered considerable movement in response to the concerns that have been expressed.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I, too, welcome the Minister. It is unfortunate that she is making her maiden speech in her new role on such a controversial matter. In fact, Lord Ramsbotham said in the Lords that there had been an agreement that had been withdrawn. However, whether or not that is so, is she aware that some Labour MPs, including me, are very unhappy—I said that I was last time, and I remain so—that the Government will give no indication whatever of a time when the Prison Service will be included? I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, who is listening, will before the end of this debate give further and serious consideration to the obvious concern felt by so many Members of both the Commons and the Lords.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am, of course, aware of the great interest that he and others, in all parts of the House, have shown in this issue. Although until recently I was not the Minister dealing with it, I have had the great advantage of reading the Hansard reports of all the debates, so I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed, the interest that has been shown by hon. Members throughout the House and the points at issue. I can assure the House, including those who have expressed concerns and those who will no doubt speak later in the debate, that we have considered the issue further. The Government have offered considerable movement in response to the concerns that have been expressed. It would not be true to say that the Government have not moved.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister says that she has read the Hansard reports, and I am glad about that. If the Government are to be believed, it would seem that there is no issue of principle at stake, so what is the matter of practicality that inhibits the Government and prevents state custody from being brought within the corporate manslaughter regime?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. and learned Gentleman anticipates my remarks. I shall deal with the points that he has raised shortly.

The Government have offered considerable movement in response to the concerns that have been expressed during the passage of the Bill. We have accepted the principle of the offence extending to custody, and provided a means in the Bill to bring that about. The Bill seeks to deal with a specific problem in attaching liability for gross corporate negligence to a corporate body. It addresses that problem against the backdrop of a number of failed prosecutions of large corporations over the years, as hon. Members present know. The Bill seeks to improve the prospects for a manslaughter prosecution in cases of that nature.

In dealing with that problem, the scope and application of the offence have been considered carefully at all stages. In debates in Committee and on Report, this House considered whether the offence should apply more widely than just to corporate bodies, and be extended to certain unincorporated bodies. We have made those changes in response to the concerns that have been expressed and the application of the Bill has, in that sense, been widened. Debates have also considered the penalties available for the offence, and whether that aspect of the law should be improved. Again, the Bill makes advances in that direction, too, providing for an entirely new sort of sentence—a publicity order.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I shall deal with the hon. and learned Gentleman's points in a moment.

From the outset, the Government have recognised that it would not be enough to apply the new offence to organisations in the private sector, and have tackled the principle of Crown immunity, making provision for the new offence to apply to Departments. But against that background, the Government have always been clear that it would not be right to apply the new offence to the exercise of certain public responsibilities. That position has been widely endorsed in both places, in most respects.

We have been prepared to reconsider that position in the light of the debates that have taken place in this House and the other place on the issue of deaths in custody, and we have offered considerable movement in response. I recognise that not all hon. Members accept that we have moved far enough, but they should accept that there has been movement. The amendments in lieu put forward by the Government explicitly recognise the principle of the Bill applying to deaths in custody, and set out a mechanism for bringing this about. That is absolutely right, and it represents considerable movement.

Nevertheless, there remain strong concerns about the practical implications of lifting Crown immunity. This brings us to the point that Mr. Garnier has raised. The prosecution of Government Departments will represent an entirely new departure, and there are significant questions about the consequences of extending the criminal law to the management and organisation of activities that involve a high degree of public policy, and responsibilities that fall uniquely on the state.

There has been a good deal of recognition that it would be right to provide more time to consider the extension of the offence to custody. In our view, the right way to balance these concerns against the desire to make progress is to provide for an order-making power in the Bill, and I urge the House once again to send a clear signal to the other place that we consider that that is the basis on which the Bill should be adopted.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say, but I am not sure that the logic of her argument suits general Government policy. The Government have been quite happy, through the Attorney-General, to prosecute battalion commanders for ostensibly vicarious responsibility for offences allegedly committed by soldiers under their command in Iraq— [ Interruption. ] Someone from the other side of the Chamber says, "Rightly so." Why, then, is there any distinction in principle that would affect the practice that touches on deaths in custody? The Government cannot have it both ways. If the Minister is arguing that it is right in principle to do this, but not today, what is the difference that makes it right in principle tomorrow but not right in practice today?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. I thought I had made it clear to the House that we have accepted the principle that the law could be extended—at the appropriate time—as those who object to putting the Bill on to the statute book without that extension have requested. However, there are large issues of practical application involved. It would not be correct for the Government to go ahead and agree to a timetable before we had had a chance to have a proper look at how the practical applications would impact on Departments and their functions.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The more the hon. Lady goes on, the more I worried I get, because the original amendment, which provided for the introduction of this measure by statutory instrument at a later date, suggested that the Government had accepted the principle and that it was a matter of timing. Listening to her now, however, I am beginning to detect the signs that it is a matter of this year, next year, sometime, never. I suspect that the objections have come from the police—a matter that I shall comment on later—and that the resistance to this perfectly sensible proposal is now so great that the Government wish to duck out of it.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I would not accept that as a correct interpretation of what I am saying. The Government have clearly accepted the principle of the offence extending to custody, and we have provided a means in the Bill to bring that about. However, we think that the right way to balance the concerns of practicality against the desire to make progress is to provide for an order-making power in the Bill. I urge the House to support us on that, in order to send a clear signal to the other place that we consider that that is the basis on which the Bill should be adopted.

I would like briefly to explain a change in the drafting of the amendment in lieu before the House. The power to extend the offence applies slightly more widely than to those strictly in custody or detention, and includes people on specified premises. This ensures that the order-making power will be sufficiently wide to cover local authority secure accommodation where residents are not necessarily in custody, for example. It might also be desirable to cover certain other circumstances that do not constitute custody, such as approved probation premises. The drafting of this aspect of the power has been improved, ensuring that it is clearly targeted. There is much that is good in this Bill.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am about to conclude my remarks.

The Bill will set out a new basis for holding organisations to account for gross corporate negligence, and it will send out a clear message that the law will bear down hard on organisations that do not take their health and safety responsibilities seriously. The Bill has been a long time coming and many people are anxious to see it on the statute book. The Government have offered considerable movement to those who want to see the Bill extend to deaths in custody, opening the door to achieve that, but that is as far as the Government consider it right for the Bill to go. Therefore, I hope that on the basis of a further clear signal from the House today, the other place will recognise that the time has come to allow the legislation to pass on to the statute book.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 7:30, 11 July 2007

I am sorry for the Minister, that her first outing at the Dispatch Box on such a matter should be so unsatisfactory. Listening to her reminded me of when my children were smaller, and engaged in what psychologists call displacement activity: when they are confronted with something about which they do not want to hear, they start parroting off about all sorts of other topics in the hope that we will be distracted from the main issue by their words. I listened to her tell us all about the merits of the Bill and how it was introduced to deal with large corporations, and all of that is very fine indeed.

As the Minister knows, if she has been properly briefed and has looked at the Hansard record, when this matter was dealt with in Committee, it was about as consensual a piece of legislation as it was possible to find. Everyone was willing to co-operate to ensure that the legislation worked in all areas—so it really is a subject of the deepest regret that we are now in ping-pong with the other place because of a major disagreement. Indeed, there must be a serious threat that the Bill could fall completely unless the Government decide to extend the time, which I believe expires on 19 July. The ball is very much in their court.

The Government's position is not only unjustifiable, but has become very unfortunate. There is no doubt that one of the problems we had was the rabid opposition of the previous Home Secretary to the idea of including deaths in custody. Having seen his intemperate behaviour at the Dispatch Box on the matter, and his intemperate words on the subject in general, I was hoping that with the arrival of the new Prime Minister and Mr. Straw, for whom I have the greatest possible respect, at the Ministry of Justice, some common sense would prevail at long last.

Indeed, last week, all the indications were—the Minister has confirmed this—that reason had at last prevailed, because, following representations in the other place, the date for the debate was moved. Lord Ramsbotham, who has been the great proponent of including deaths in custody, was informed that the Secretary of State for Justice was minded—and I emphasise that word—to include custody in the Bill and asked whether he would be happy if there were a delay while that was considered. Everyone, including myself, rejoiced that at long last we would have a sensible outcome. We expected the sensible outcome to be that the Government would say that they wanted a long lead-in time.

As the Minister will know, if she has read the Hansard reports of previous debates, we were prepared to agree a long lead-in time, because we accept that when a culture change is being brought about, with possibly rather recalcitrant organisations, providing time for them to prepare is very sensible. In fact, that agreement collapsed. I hazard the suggestion, to which I hope the Minister will respond, that the cause of the collapse came not from the Ministry of Justice but, interestingly enough, from the Home Office—and, I suspect, from the police. I regard that as a rather shameful matter.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am worried that the opposition should have come from the police. Perhaps my hon. Friend will forgive my making this point: some 40 years ago, when I was practising at the criminal Bar—and on a separate occasion when I served as a special constable—I saw in custody unreasonable force being used on people who were detained by the police. It was not fatal in those cases, but it was undoubtedly serious, and the sort of thing that we must guard against.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. We have said it before, but it is worth repeating: 2,000 deaths occurred in custody of one form or another between 1995 and 2005. I am sure that many were inevitable, sad events, for which no one is to blame. However, there have also been 10 verdicts of unlawful killing in that period, and deaths have taken place in police custody that appear to be worrying and give rise to concerns that there has been at least gross negligence.

We are considering a legitimate subject for concern. In the circumstances, it is especially important to include deaths in custody in the corporate manslaughter regime. The Under-Secretary said that the measure was aimed at large corporations but, in the context of governmental organisations, the Prison Service and the police are exactly that. I am at a loss to understand how the national health service can be prosecuted for gross negligence and corporate manslaughter for the death of patients who take their own lives in mental hospitals, when the Prison Service, the police and other custodial environments are exempt, as special hospitals would be under the provisions.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have taken a specific interest in this issue. I am worried by his suggestion that the opposition has shifted to the police, because they would probably find it easier to adapt to the new law than the Prison Service would. That is a serious allegation. Does he have any evidence, or is it based on supposition?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am aware of the problems of collective responsibility, but it would nevertheless be useful to have some clarification of the source of the objection. Last week, we understood that the Secretary of State for Justice was minded to accept the proposals, presumably with a long lead-in time. If I may say so, that was greatly to his credit. The impression that I derived from anecdotal evidence was that the objection came from the Home Secretary, who was repeating the objections that the previous Home Secretary had so emphatically made. However, the previous Home Secretary's objections were made when he was responsible for the police and the Prison Service, but the Secretary of State for Justice is now responsible for the Prison Service. Let us consider the matter logically: if the Home Secretary is making vociferous objections, the reason for that must lie in opposition from the police. I hope that Mr. Dismore, as a Government Back Bencher on an inside track, may have further information.

This is a question that we want answered. Where is the problem? If it is a question of a long lead-in time to give organisations time to adapt, the Secretary of State must know that he will find us conciliatory and willing to help; we always have been. However, listening to the Minister this evening I began to feel much more anxious that although the power may reach the statute book, it will only be able to be invoked by the Government, if they wish to do so.

Given that the instincts of the Secretary of State for Justice appear to be have been superseded by the views of others, I detect that in some quarters there is no intention of allowing the measure to appear on the statute book. I am convinced that it is needed and will contribute to exactly the same culture change for which the Government have argued so forcefully in respect of large corporations and their attitude to negligence. I am also convinced that, in most cases of unfortunate deaths in custody, nobody need worry about the possibility of prosecution. However, there will be some cases when prosecution is entirely justified.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend seeks, in his polite and kind way, to acquit the current Secretary of State for Justice from the charge of objecting to the change in law that we require, and to heap the blame on the current Home Secretary and the previous Home Secretary, who had responsibility for both the police and prisons. However, bearing in mind the current dangerously overcrowded state of our prisons, and the fact that since January 2006 about 100 people have taken their own lives in the prison estate, might not the current Secretary of State for Justice and his Ministers of State be scared witless that if the Bill were adjusted to include responsibility for corporate manslaughter within the prison system, the Attorney-General could be knocking on their door with a summons?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

That is possible, although the initial reaction of the Secretary of State for Justice when he first came to office was—very encouragingly, as I have said—to ask for a delay while he considered something that I suspect he found quite reasonable. I am detecting that the right hon. Gentleman might be wanting to intervene; if so, I shall happily give way to him.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman is doing his best to provoke Government Front Benchers to engage in tittle-tattle about what he has heard might have gone on last week, following the postponement of a debate. The Government were prepared to consider further the serious issues raised during the course of these debates, which was a sensible course that shows a certain degree of flexibility. There was no agreement of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has speculated upon, and our conclusion was that the movement that had already been made was movement enough. The hon. Gentleman knows that he will not draw me into saying anything further than that.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I would have thought that I could legitimately draw the hon. Lady into indicating where, among those who have custodial charge of individuals, the greatest objections to these proposals lay. That must be a legitimate question of debate, and it seems to me that it does not touch on collective responsibility at all. The Minister can answer that question, and I very much hope that she will do so at the end of the debate, or in response to my interventions or those of other hon. Members.

What I can say to the Minister is this: without the inclusion of deaths in custody, the Bill is seriously flawed. The other place has made its position crystal clear and it is, I believe, going to continue to send the Bill back to this House until reason prevails. The Government's position is unreasonable. I believe that many loyal Government supporters also believe it to be unreasonable. The Minister's current position worries me much more than when we first started this ping-pong process, because I am left with the uncomfortable sense that the promise made was an entirely hollow one. I urge the House to support the Lords amendments and to put the Bill on the statute book with deaths in custody included.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to her place on the Front Bench for this debate. I am afraid that it is rather a difficult job to pick up after such a long gestation.

It is important to recognise the concessions that the Government have made, the most important of which was to extend the Bill to include Crown immunity. I recall our debates over the issue of deaths in custody and I believe that the Government made some significant concessions, which we should acknowledge. The question is whether they go far enough.

The statutory powers of the prisons and probation service ombudsman are now in a Bill before the House, there is the review of the preventing deaths in custody forum, and the Government's proposals the Bill. Those are all very positive measures and are sufficient, from my point of view, to represent a compromise. Unfortunately, however, we are left with the question of the date. I am afraid that I have to agree with the House of Lords on that—and, indeed, with what Mr. Grieve had to say about it. I shall support the Government tonight, but with reluctance, because there is strong merit in the argument that we have heard.

To develop my earlier intervention, I would be very surprised if it was the police who raised the objections, as this issue has been floating about for some time. My understanding all along was that the police were quite laid back about the extension of the Bill to them. I would be very surprised if their position had changed. The difficulty always was the Prison Service, and I recall that several years ago—long before this Bill came before the House—I had a meeting with the present Attorney-General, in her former guise as a Home Office Minister, to discuss plans for previous legislation. I later learned that everything had fallen apart because of the objections of the Prison Service even then—before we got into the sort of debates that we are conducting now.

I suspect that the problems still emanate from the Prison Service. If so, it is the wrong position for the service to adopt. A well-run prison has nothing to fear from the extension of the provisions covering deaths in custody to the Prison Service. A well-run Prison Service has nothing to fear from that either. The Bill is not about prosecuting people, but about acting as a deterrent to make sure that things are run properly in the first place. We know that the Bill would apply to only a very small number of cases and we hope to see a lever to improve standards, rather than prison managers being prosecuted, which is not the intention.

If there has been a change, it may be because some people have misunderstood the Bill. It is about not individual liability, but management liability. There is no question of an individual prison officer or police constable facing prosecution under the Bill; the senior management would be held to account. Maybe some of the opposition stems from a misunderstanding of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 7:45, 11 July 2007

I have had representations from a senior manager in the health service who tells me that prison hospitals will be the responsibility of the health service and not the Prison Service, yet she cannot get changes made in prisons and keeps warning the service about that. If death in custody extends to the health service, those involved could be charged when the fault lies with the Prison Service, which has responsibility.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The hon. Gentleman is right and highlights an important anomaly in the Bill. People in custody in a mental institution may not be prisoners—they probably will not have been convicted—but he makes an important point. The examples, while not identical, are similar.

We come now to the question of the date and there are lots of different ways in which this problem could be dealt with. We could change the wording of the Government amendment from "may" to "shall", which indicates an intention to legislate rather than a permissive power. That would make a significant difference. I would not even press for a date to be in the Bill. We are looking for a target date to which the Government will work to bring the Prison Service up to scratch. It would then know the date by which it has to be sure that it is dealing with the issues properly. A measure tabled along those lines would go a long way towards satisfying the other place. I know that Lord Ramsbotham suggested 1 January 2009, less than 18 months away. That is a rather ambitious timetable, but Ministers naming the day is more important than the specific date.

My hon. Friend should also resist the suggestion from the other place to extend the deadline for the Bill from 19 or 20 July. Frankly, I cannot see any point in that; either we resolve the issue or we do not, and extending the date will make no difference to the forceful arguments that have been made. We are getting to the constitutional limits of the debate and perhaps if the House finds the Government's case persuasive—sadly, I do not, but I will support the Government because of the reasonable concessions that have been made—the Lords will accept that the elected Chamber should prevail. The Government may win the vote but I do not think they have won the debate. I hope that even at this late stage, my hon. Friends will seek the sort of compromise that appeared to be on offer before.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain what Lord Ramsbotham meant when he said that an offer had been made and then withdrawn? What was that offer and why was it withdrawn? That is a serious point.

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

Mr. Dismore has left us with a constitutional conundrum. He says that the will of this House must prevail and that that requires the confidence of this House in the Government's arguments. However, he has no confidence in their arguments and yet he will support them to demonstrate the will of the House. That suggests to me that the other place should pay more attention to the arguments in this House than to how it votes.

I should start by welcoming the Minister to her post. I regret that in her first outing she has to put such a tawdry argument to Members. I regret even more the Government's obstinacy in maintaining a position that has no logical credibility in terms of what they say they want to achieve. It betrays an unfortunate dog-in-the-manger attitude in the face of what has clearly been demonstrated to be broad support for both the Bill's general principles and the measure under discussion. Many Members felt when John Reid set down his heavy burden that there might be an opportunity for progress; we are disappointed that that is not the case.

The Government's position is to accept the arguments made in all parts of the House that death in custody should be part of the remit of the Bill—and they trumpet that as being a great concession—but then to say that they are not prepared to give any indication of when or if the part of the Bill applying to death in custody will ever be implemented. Therefore, the Government are in the same position as St. Augustine of Hippo—they want to be chaste, but not yet. What is the reason for that delay? What is the conceivable purpose in saying, "We think it is wrong to allow gross negligence of a corporate nature in the management of the prison or police services that results in death in custody when a duty of care should apply, but we will let a few people die in the meantime while we think about whether we will implement this measure?" That is, in stark terms, what the Government are saying. They are saying that they will accept a position where such corporate negligence is okay and they will not put a date on the implementation of the death in custody measures.

The point made by the hon. Member for Hendon is important. This is a corporate manslaughter Bill. It is not individuals who will be found wanting in the execution of their duty; it is management, policies and the structures that are in place. For how long must we expect to wait before an adjustment is made so that we have Prison Service policies that do not allow deaths in custody when they can be avoided by better management? What is the obstacle to the Government going ahead at the fastest speed possible to achieve that?

The Government say that they want to send a clear signal to the other place, but a clear signal is being sent to them. They should listen to what Back-Bench Labour Members have had to say, not only tonight but on every occasion. Has a single word been uttered from their Benches in support of their position? No, they have been roundly condemned by every contributor to the debate because their position is absurd.

The statutory basis for a prison ombudsman is welcome, but that measure is in a Bill that is yet to receive its Second Reading and which will be carried over into the next Session, when I am sure that there will be many other issues that will take a long time to discuss. Therefore, that is not an immediate mitigating factor.

We have offered a number of ways in which the Government could discharge their responsibilities in this respect. We have not said that this must be implemented tomorrow, or even next year. We said to the Government to name their date—any date. If they cannot put it in the Bill, they could just name a date in debate. They could say that they intend to ensure that our Prison Service and police service are in a state in which they are no longer grossly negligent in the execution of their duties by whatever date they choose—2009, 2010 or even 2020. If the Government named a date, the House would be satisfied. The obstinate refusal to name a date is what makes people so very irritated with the Government's position.

I wish to raise one specific issue about the amendment in lieu. I hope that the Minister will explain how we should construe the two parts of amendment (c). It is important that we have a clear statement in subsection (1) of the proposed new clause of the power to extend the meaning of "relevant duty of care". If that takes precedence over subsection (2), I have no problem. But if subsection (2) is a "however" section, so that even if subsection (1) were to be implemented, it could still be reduced in its effect by the exceptions and exemptions in subsection (2), we are no further forward. Can the Minister confirm that the power to extend is the first principle and that anything within subsection (2) is subordinate to subsection (1)? That is an important point, because it will tell us whether there is doublespeak even within the concessions that the Government propose today. I hope that the Minister will reply to that point.

The Government should have resolved this issue a long time ago. This is an absurd argument and a waste of everybody's time and effort. The concession has been made, so let us get on with it and get it implemented. If the Government cannot do it tonight, surely they will do it at the other end. If we reach 19 July and we still have not resolved the matter, the Government should come back with an extension. That would be absurd and unnecessary, but if it would achieve a resolution of this matter, please let us do it. The best thing we can do is ensure that this Bill, in its entirety, including the duty of care for those in custody, passes through both Houses of Parliament. It could do so tomorrow if the Minister would simply say the right words in responding to this debate.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The Lords are entirely right. Perhaps the House will forgive me if I say that I have a little personal experience of such matters. Many years ago I was a police Minister, and for about 18 months to two years I was Minister for prisons. I have also been a special constable, and for the last 40 years off and on I have practised at the criminal Bar. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve, on at least two occasions when I was in the cells—once in my capacity as a special constable and again as a criminal barrister—I saw police officers using force of a wholly unacceptable kind. We know that it happens, and I have also dealt in chambers with cases in which unreasonable force was unquestionably used by police officers. When I was prisons Minister, I was very concerned by some of the standards of behaviour and systems that I saw. I am much reinforced in my view by the fact that Lord Ramsbotham, the former inspector of prisons, is such a strong advocate of this provision.

I shall not speak for long, as I know other hon. Members wish to speak, but I wish to make some general points. The first is that prisoners, whether in prisons or police cells, are in an extremely vulnerable position. There is very little outside monitoring and, often, very little outside concern. The truth is that, but for a small community of people, our fellow citizens do not care very much about what happens in prisons or police cells. They put it out of their minds. It is a terrible thing that that should be so, but it is so.

Death or injury in prison or police cells can happen for a variety of reasons. For example, it can happen because of a breakdown in systems. There is the person who is suicidal but not properly watched. There is the person suffering from drug withdrawal whose condition is not properly managed. That constitutes a serious breakdown in the system. Deaths can occur because of dangerous premises—for example, because the authorities, be they the police or the prison authorities, simply have not addressed properly the condition of the premises. Death or injury can occur by reason of the action of fellow prisoners against the deceased person, in cases where the police or the prison authorities should have guarded against that, but did not. Of course, deaths can also occur because police or prison officers act in an irresponsible and gross manner. In that latter category, it is certainly true that the individual officers concerned can be liable under the ordinary principles of common law, but if there has been insufficient supervision, the managers should be responsible as well.

Given all that, I ask myself whether there is any reason of principle why public authorities should be placed in a different situation from that of private authorities, and I say that there is no difference of principle of any kind. Indeed, this House has a particular duty to ensure that those in custody, and thus in the care of the state, are properly protected.

The Government say that they have come up with a compromise. The truth is that it is no proper compromise. I shall respond briefly to the point made by Mr. Heath in that regard, and then I will sit down. There is no indication whatsoever of when the provision will be introduced. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, in that I suspect that it will be a very long time in coming, if it comes at all. Secondly and differently, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is right in thinking that subsection (2) enables the Minister to "restrict or disapply" the exceptions. My own belief is that it is an additional and overarching measure that is not subordinate to subsection (1).

The effect of the "compromise", as it is described, is as follows. First, it does not have to be introduced at all. Secondly, through the application of proposed new subsection (2), the safeguard can be so restricted as to be no proper safeguard. That is no compromise. I have spoken for long enough, and I shall sit down as other Members want to speak.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South 8:00, 11 July 2007

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, to her place this evening, even though she appears to have drawn the short straw. This is an otherwise thoroughly worthwhile Bill, and although I acknowledge that some progress has been made on this issue, I express disappointment at our being unable to resolve it. There is a great deal of good will in all parts of the House, and no one is making unreasonable demands.

It is hard to think of any good reason why the Prison Service and the police should be indefinitely exempt from the Bill's provisions. We all understand that there might be transitional difficulties and that some sort of timetable might therefore have to be set. However, we do not understand why it is not possible, as was said earlier, even to refer in debate to the kind of timetable that the Government have in mind, in order to put people's minds at rest. There is a suspicion that we have reached deadlock and that this is never going to happen unless it happens now. There is no better time than now to set out a timetable.

The problem in a nutshell is that we face a mighty vested interested—certainly in the case of the Prison Service. That mighty vested interest is going to be against its inclusion in the Bill's provisions now, next year, in five years' time, in 10 years' time or whenever the Government get round to trying to include it. Things will change for the better only when we have the political will to face it down. That is what Ministers are for, and what many of us on the Labour Benches are looking to Ministers for. I foresee that this will go on for a very long time, with no satisfactory resolution. I tell Ministers that there is no better time than the present to resolve the issue, at least in terms of setting some sort of timetable.

I shall support the Government in the Lobby tonight, because I want the Bill to go through. However, I want to place on record my disappointment that we have not been able to make more progress on the issue.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree with what the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) had to say about the arguments involved, although I am disappointed by their decision as to how they will vote. I think that Ministers would listen all the harder to what they have said, given their separate experience and reputations in this area, if they were to translate their arguments into votes against the Government this evening. I appreciate that that is a difficult thing for them to do, but the risk is worth while on occasions such as this.

I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to her new post, and the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to his. I have met the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Hanson, on a previous occasion and, although he may not want my welcome, I shall give it to him nonetheless.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

We get on fine, but we would get on better if the Government would pay attention to what is said in the other place.

If the Government have accepted the principle that deaths in custody should come under corporate manslaughter, they should take another look at the Bill. Clause 1(1) describes the offence of corporate manslaughter, stating:

"An organisation to which this section applies is guilty of an offence if the way in which its activities are managed or organised—

(a) causes a person's death, and

(b) amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased."

As my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve said—and he has said it probably two, three or four times now—not every death in custody will render the organisation to which we are referring liable for corporate manslaughter. There are plenty of accidental and self-inflicted deaths, as well as deaths by natural causes, in the custodial estate under the control of the Ministry of Justice, but they would never render it or its subordinate organisations liable for corporate manslaughter under the criminal law.

The Government therefore have no need to worry that a huge collection of criminal summonses will rain down on the Department and capture the Prison Service's director general and senior management. I suspect that only a very few cases will be caught by the law, and they will not only be of the type described by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg from his previous experience. In cases such as he set out, in which a police officer goes over the top, that officer could be personally liable for assault, or something worse.

The number of cases is likely to be low, and the Government appear to have accepted the principle that corporate manslaughter should, at some date as yet unknown, cover prisons and other forms of involuntary custody. That leaves us with the task of working out the real reason why they want to push the date into the distant future. If we analyse what the Government have said, both here and in the other place, in an attempt to understand their responses to the arguments put to them, it is clear that there is no principle involved in their decision. There may be some element of political expediency, but that is not a principle to which our country's courts would be attracted, and it should not be described as such by a Minister of the Crown. As a politician, I fully accept that political expediency plays some part in how we organise our affairs, but to raise it to the level of a matter of legal principle is a mistake, and a mistake that the Government seem to make more and more often.

When the previous Government came to an end the other day and were replaced by what we were told would be a new, exciting and reforming Government, I hoped we would see some new, reforming and exciting applications of legislation, but we have merely seen the same tired old Ministers, reshuffled, coming up with the same tired old arguments that were introduced on the past several occasions. I am sorry, because I had thought better of the hon. Lady who is now dealing with the arguments on behalf of the Government, but I have to suggest that when she read out her speech she was reading it for the first time; if a woman of her calibre had thought about it more carefully— [ Interruption. ] The duty of the Whip is to keep quiet—occasionally to listen, and perhaps to learn, but to keep quiet. The duty of the Minister is to learn from experience and from the mistakes that the Government made in their previous guise—before the changeover from last time.

I shall stop, because I have been sufficiently clear and also because the member of the silent service sitting in front of me wants the Minister to do her best to respond. I hope she does, because she and the Government are in trouble if they do not learn the lessons that the other House has taught them and that this House is gently trying to persuade them to remember.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I was rather enjoying the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech until just before the end when he became somewhat condescending and patronising, but I shall try to take his remarks in the best possible way.

I want to respond to the points that have been made and I shall do my best to get through as many of them as possible. Mr. Heath and Mr. Hogg made some specific points about the wording of the amendment in relation to proposed subsection (2). To give proper effect to extending the custodial functions under clause 2, certain exemptions in the Bill need to be disapplied. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was correct when he said that proposed subsection (2) provides for exemptions to be disapplied, but it does not provide for exceptions to be made to the forms of custody to which clause 2 is extended. Proposed subsection (2) provides no power to restrict the duties to which the offence is extended under proposed subsection (1). I hope that that assists the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome to understand the precise wording of the amendment.

Mr. Grieve tempted me in many ways to speculate about precisely who had said what to whom and who was in favour of or against the extension.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I do not want speculation. I would like the House to know where the problem lies, because plainly there is one or the Government would have implemented the provisions immediately. Is the problem with the Prison Service, the police, some other organisation or the bureaucrats in the Departments? Who are the people saying that the Government should give no finite date for the implementation of the provision?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 8:15, 11 July 2007

All Members should remember that the Government have accepted the principle of the offence extending to custody and have provided a means in the Bill to bring that about. There are always practical difficulties. We are ending Crown immunity for the first time, so organisations will have to deal with significant changes. It is not sensible to try to rush such things.

A number of organisations responsible for custody have publicly expressed concerns about the extension of the offence. The Government clearly set out their views during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. The Association of Chief Police Officers expressed similar concerns in its evidence. Therefore, concerns have been publicly expressed on the record during the progress of the Bill from its draft stage through to the ping-pong that we are now engaged in. I do not wish to go any further than saying that.

Mr. Bone made some points about deaths in prison hospitals that I want to reply to. The offence as it is currently set out applies to the supply of services, which would include the supply of medical treatment where a death relates to gross corporate negligence in the provision of that treatment. The offence would apply wherever the death occurs, whether in prison or otherwise. To that degree, I hope that I can reassure him.

What the Bill excludes is the exercise of certain uniquely public functions, such as the management of prisoners in custody. However, we have not said that we will never extend the Bill in the way that hon. Members on both sides have indicated that they would like us to. We want to do things properly and in the right way. We need to make sure that we do that. Now is not the time to put a stop to the Bill in total.

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [16 May].

The House divided: Ayes 263, Noes 143.

Division number 179 Orders of the Day — Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Aye: 263 MPs

No: 143 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.