Clause 23

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 31st October 2006.

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Extent and territorial application

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in clause 23, page 12, line 39, at end insert—

‘(4A) Section 1 also applies if the harm resulting in the death took place outside the United Kingdom, but the conduct set out in section 1(1) of this Act took place within the United Kingdom.’.

I realise what the Government are attempting to do with the clause, but I have identified a problem with it. The clause applies to harm resulting in death that takes place outside the UK, but I cannot get my head round why we pass legislation applying to UK companies operating here, yet the law does not apply in respect of UK citizens who are employed in the UK but are sent abroad on behalf of a company. A case could be brought under civil law, so I need to know what is the rationale for not providing in the Bill the ability to take action against a corporation. Why should a company that has a duty of care in the UK not be responsible when it sends UK citizens abroad?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The hon. Member for Eccles raises an interesting point. Historically, we have been reluctant to have jurisdiction for actions leading to harm outside our jurisdiction, except in the specific instances stated—on ships or offshore facilities—because trying to enforce it carries with it great evidential problems, for example, in finding out why the person died and what went on.

The hon. Gentleman may recollect that, in a previous sitting, I cited the example of the Wylfa nuclear power station—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield says that I mispronounce it. I have no idea of the correct pronunciation—my knowledge of Welsh is limited. It is confusing, because I have always been told that words in Celtic languages are supposed to be pronounced as they are spelled. However, when I attempt to pronounce the names of the Scottish mountains that I climb, I am always in terrible difficulty.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

It is pretty straightforward. As a Scot from Salford, I say that killing is killing.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

That I understand.

I simply make the following point. I cannot remember whether Dungeness nuclear power stationis still operational or whether it has been decommissioned. Let us suppose, however, that it blew up and a wind blowing strongly from the north-west carried the plume of radioactivity straight over to  Boulogne on the other side of the channel, killing its inhabitants. Quite apart from the international repercussions, the incident would raise the interesting point that the entirety of the conduct, which might amount to gross negligence, took place at location A in one state, but the victims were in the neighbouring state. That raises an interesting question of jurisdiction.

It would clearly be desirable for a gross negligence manslaughter prosecution to be brought against the corporation in this country under the corporate manslaughter provisions. In such a limited case, I can see that there could be a problem with the Bill as it stands, but I say to the hon. Member for Eccles that the general rule is sensible. Whenever we have attempted to have extraterritorial jurisdiction, it has usually led to tremendous problems. The hon. Gentleman may recollect that I commented on that issue in a completely different context during debate on the Bill that became the Terrorism Act 2006. There are difficulties with extraterritorial jurisdiction. Soon we shall hear what the Minister has to say on the matter.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Before that, I should say that I have read briefings that suggest—contrary, for a change, to what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has said—that it is possible under the current law on manslaughter for an individual to be prosecuted when gross negligence has taken place inside the UK and a death results outside the country.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. I am sorry for not having expressed myself clearly, partly because I used the words “gross negligence manslaughter” when I intended to refer to corporate manslaughter. I apologise.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Given that individuals can be prosecuted in such cases, the hon. Member for Eccles is right to raise the question. In such limited cases, why could corporations not be prosecuted? The Government have to explain why they would set up a system in which an individual manager could be charged for gross negligence manslaughter, but the corporation could not.

The Government do not seem to have been consistent. I accept the need to be careful about extraterritorial jurisdiction. The clause would mean that we could not prosecute a company outside the UK if its gross negligence led to a death outside the UK; extending the offence to that situation would probably be a step too far. However, the amendment is not about that. It deals with a company in the UK that was grossly negligent in the UK and a death resulted outside the UK. The hon. Gentleman has made a sound proposition, and the Minister will have to do well to convince me that he is wrong.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall continue to try to convince the Committee. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles raises an important question. What should the territorial limits of the offence be? As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield pointed out,  criminal jurisdiction usually applies on a territorial basis, with countries investigating and prosecuting crimes that occur within their borders.

Although it exists, extraterritorial jurisdiction is still very much the exception. There is, for example, extraterritorial jurisdiction for some sex offences, to ensure that British sex tourists can be prosecuted here, and for homicides committed by British subjects. As it stands, the Bill applies if the injury causing death occurs in the United Kingdom or in a range of other places where UK criminal law already applies, including in territorial waters, on British ships and planes and on offshore oil rigs. Apart from deaths that occur on the physical land of the UK, the Bill will therefore extend to cover a range of important circumstances. For example, because it covers death at sea within territorial limits, it would have applied to the Lyme Bay tragedy, when a number of canoeists were killed while at sea—indeed, that case led to the first successful prosecution for corporate manslaughter. The new offence would also have applied to the Zeebrugge tragedy. It will apply when death occurs on a British ship or as a result of a tragic accident happening on board a ship that results in people being drowned. It will also apply to fires on oil rigs, such as the Piper Alpha disaster.

During consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, a number of suggestions were made for applying the offence to deaths that occur overseas. Some have argued that the Bill should apply to British companies operating abroad, by analogy to homicide laws for individuals—a point made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. Another idea was to apply the offence to deaths in the EU but not more widely. Another was to apply the offence to the deaths of UK employees or employees normally based in the UK but posted abroad. The amendment reflects another of the ideas that have been raised in debate by proposing that the offence be extended to deaths abroad, but only if the management failure has occurred in the UK. The amendment is well intentioned, and I have a good deal of sympathy with what it is designed to achieve, but I am not satisfied that we have yet arrived at a workable solution.

The main reason for criminal jurisdiction operating only within a country’s territory is that that is where its police forces operate. Once we go beyond a country’s borders, the police no longer have jurisdiction and difficulties arise in trying to investigate an offence. There will be difficulties in gathering evidence. Only another country’s police force will be able to collect the evidence, and it will probably be subject to different rules—for example, few other countries rely on oral evidence as we do.

There is a further potential problem, however, in that we may seem to be exporting our health and safety laws by applying corporate manslaughter laws to overseas activities. Fundamentally, the way a company operates overseas is a matter for the country concerned, and the worry is whether the same regulatory standards apply there—an argument that was made during pre-legislative scrutiny. We doubt that the right response to that is to seek to impose our laws on them.

We are not satisfied about extending the new offence to deaths that occur aboard. Even if the management failure in question occurred in the UK, the police  would still need to establish why a person had died and that it was caused by the company’s management failure. That might not be straightforward, and it still leaves the problem of investigating a death at distance and in another country. If part of a company’s operations are run from aboard, it will become difficult to establish that a management failure—the way that the company as a whole managed an activity—had occurred only in this country.

I do not dismiss the important concerns that my hon. Friend has raised, but extending the new offence would be making a significant change in the law and we believe that it is important that we should learn to walk before we run. There may well be a case for looking at jurisdiction further down the line, but we need first to get the offence on the statute book and working. We think that it should extend to deaths that take place in our territory, where the law already applies, before we start raising hopes and expectations about applying it more widely. On that basis, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield gave the example of the Dungeness power station blowing up. We would be surprised if nobody there was killed in such an incident and if the company was not prosecuted. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my explanation. We accept what my hon. Friend says, but it is not appropriate to move forward at this stage, and I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

My hon. and good Friend was going down a path that made me feel very ill at ease, although I understand why he takes that line. The saving grace was his final comments, which were designed to make me feel more comfortable about withdrawing the amendment. We will return to the subject—and with renewed vigour, as I am increasingly concernedabout it.

I know that the Minister is concerned about siren voices from outside the House, but they will always be there. I have said that the Bill is a step forward. If the Minister is prepared to revisit this and the other clauses that the Committee has discussed, we can make it a significant step forward. That will not in itself result in a situation that I find satisfactory, so I am pleased that he has offered all Committee members the opportunity to examine any doors though which we can go collectively. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I extend my thanks to you, Mr. Gale, and to Mr. Benton, for the excellent way in which you have chaired our proceedings. I hope that you have found us tolerably well behaved.

We have tried to reach a consensus and to scrutinise the detail of the Bill—a necessary process. I thank the hon. Members for Beaconsfield, for Kingston and Surbiton, and for East Dunbartonshire and all  Committee members for the way in which they have dealt with the substantive matters that we have discussed. I give particular thanks to my hon. Friends on the Government Benches. Labour Members have been attached to the Bill for a number of years and I am pleased that my hon. Friends have had an opportunity to debate its provisions.

I am also pleased that the press has commendedus on our mature debate. There was a sketch inThe Independent that said that we were a progressive Committee and that we were prepared to look at possible ways forward. There have been some thought-provoking discussions. I shall genuinely consider many of the things that have been said and examine what can be done to improve the Bill.

I value the expert, freely given legal advice of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, given his experience over the years. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who has kept the Committee in good order by working with the Opposition Whips to ensure that we scrutinised the Bill properly within a reasonable time. I thank the Committee Clerks, the Hansard reporters, the police and the Bill team for their work. I hope that the Committee feels that we are making progress.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I join the Minister in extending thanks to you, Mr. Gale, and to Mr. Benton for chairing the Committee. It is extremely cheering to learn that a journalist paid any attention to what goes on in a Standing Committee. I long ago concluded that one of the great problems of Standing Committee work is that if one starts to show any sign of enjoying it, one is consigned to being considered a political anorak, because on the whole it requires quite a bit of work if it is to be done properly, and one gets virtually zero coverage for what one does. That is a pity, because this Committee has been a classic example of a sensible co-operation between all parties to explore whether we can improve legislation.

There have not been amendments other than Government ones, but there is certainly room for further inquiry so that on Report we can continue in the spirit in which we started and consider whether the Bill can be improved in one or two respects. I am particularly conscious of what the hon. Member for Eccles has been trying to do alongside the hon. Member for Manchester, Central—there was a lot in what he said that seemed to me to have merit and to deserve further consideration. If there are ways in which we can make progress I would be perfectly happy to support sensible amendments, particularly in the area of probation for corporations.

I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who has acted as our Whip, and to all my hon. Friends—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch who stood in for me on the day when I could not attend. Finally, I thank all Committee members for having made it a particularly enjoyable and rewarding activity.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I shall make my Oscar ceremony speech as short as possible. I join in all the thanks, and I am pleased with the way in which the Minister has performed his duties, because he has listened and he  has made a few promises. We shall look at Hansard and await the delivery of those promises, but I am confident that they will be delivered. I conclude by saying that I am glad that we do not have to pay any bills to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, given the services that we have received from him.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

The Committee has been hopelessly out of order for the past five minutes. That seems to happen sometimes in Bills under my chairmanship—I cannot think why.

However, as we are completely out of order, I add my thanks to the officers and staff of the House, without whom our work would be well nigh impossible. Let me also say on behalf of Mr. Benton and myself that we have regarded the conduct of this Committee as absolutely exemplary. It has been conducted with good humour and great courtesy and productivity. I only wish that more people outside this place were aware of the kind of work that is done. I give my personal thanks to all members of the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at ten minutes to One o’clock.