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10.18 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I thank the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) for allowing me time to speak briefly. It is shocking that the number of deaths at work increased last year. This is a timely debate.

I have a personal interest in this subject because Simon Jones' cousin, Cath, lives in my constituency. Along with other members of his family and many supporters, she and her husband, Ray, have campaigned energetically for justice, both in memory of Simon Jones and for the sake of others.

I shall focus briefly on some aspects of practice rather than the law itself, which was covered by the hon. Gentlemen. Many changes are needed, and I shall consider four of them.

In 1998, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Health and Safety Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service developed the protocol to which reference has been made. There is an agreed procedure for liaison between these organisations where there is a work-related death. The protocol is a significant step forward, but we must ensure that the police, the Health and Safety Executive and the CPS are fully trained in this specialist area, preferably through joint training, thus enabling prompt and thorough investigation.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's call for every work-related death initially to be treated as a manslaughter investigation, until manslaughter can be discounted.

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Incidents should also initially be investigated from an organisational point of view—in other words, what went wrong in the system? Investigations of individuals should be in the context of any organisational failures that are discovered. Prevention based on a change in systems is usually more effective than simply focusing on individual blame. Arrangements for access to fatal accident sites must be clarified to ensure that it is clear who is in overall control and that the police do not deny HSE investigators prompt access to the site on the grounds that it is a possible crime scene. I therefore seek assurances from the Minister on joint training, initial investigation of manslaughter, organisational investigation and site access.

10.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing this debate; he made a number of important points about deaths at work. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), in a brief contribution, asked a number of important questions which need to discussed in the context of possible future legislation.

I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. I am aware of the awful circumstances surrounding the death of Simon Jones; it was a terrible and unnecessary tragedy and my deepest sympathy goes to his family and friends. His death has remained at the forefront of the minds of my colleagues in government as we work on improving health and safety. Too many people are still dying at work. The hon. Member for Banbury suggested that there had been 25,000 deaths at work since 1995. I believe that that was an inadvertent slip; 2,500 people have died at work since 1995. Last year, 295 workers were killed, which is unacceptable. It is a central tenet of health and safety practice that workers should expect to return home in roughly the same condition that they went to work; losing one's life as a result of one's employment is utterly unacceptable.

I fully recognise the concerns about Simon's death and shall respond to some specific points raised during the debate, particularly the questions at the end of the hon. Gentleman's speech and those asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. We shall certainly look carefully at the issues that the hon. Member for Banbury raised when we formulate proposals for legislation. I shall say more about legislative proposals shortly. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look carefully at the effect of any changes in the law on those enforcing it. For example, the national training programmes for the police service are reviewed and updated in line with changes to legislation, which are reflected as appropriate in the training that the police service receives. We shall also consider how the changes in the law will affect guidance issued to the police and the existing protocol.

The hon. Gentleman was critical of the protocol that has existed between the police, the Health and Safety Executive and the Crown Prosecution Service since 1998. It may assist the House if I explain that the protocol is an agreement between the signatories to ensure effective liaison between the organisations when there is a work-related death. It promotes and encourages joint decision making and a co-ordinated approach from investigation to, where appropriate, prosecution before the

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courts. I stress that the protocol is intended to supplement the operational guidance on the investigation and prosecution of cases by the police, the HSE and the CPS and does not dictate how an incident may be effectively investigated.

Experience of the operation of the protocol suggests that while it has proved an effective tool on a number of occasions, there is room for improvement. Accordingly, since September last year, a committee has been looking at how the protocol may be developed to address some of the concerns voiced by the hon. Gentleman, such as the approach to the initial investigation. I understand that a public consultation exercise to engage organisations that have had direct experience of the protocol took place between January and the end of February this year. Responses from the exercise will help to inform the review of the protocol. Following the exercise and other considerations, the revised protocol is expected to be introduced this autumn.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether corporate directors would be held responsible. We take the offence of manslaughter extremely seriously. We are always mindful of the need for businesses to operate successfully, but we also believe that companies must operate in a responsible and safety conscious manner. We outlined proposals for the reform of the law on corporate killing in the consultation paper entitled "Reforming the Law on Involuntary Manslaughter: the Government's Proposals".

Currently, the law requires that if a corporate body is to be found liable for a manslaughter offence, it is necessary to identify a controlling mind, typically a director, who can be proved to have committed the offence. That has made successful prosecution extremely difficult in practice, except in the case of very small undertakings, and has meant that there have been only three successful prosecutions for corporate killing.

The new offence of corporate killing that we propose seeks to capture conduct that falls far below what can be expected of a reasonable undertaking in the circumstances. The offence does not require the risk to life to be obvious. Instead, all that is required is that the way in which the company's activities are managed or organised fails to ensure the health and safety of its employees. Therefore, the undertaking as a whole is seen to have committed a management failure, even if the cause of the specific death is the act or omission of an individual.

We fully expect the new legislation to provide a clearer avenue for securing successful prosecutions against undertakings whose standards have fallen far below what could reasonably be expected, and where failure to uphold the standard has in part been responsible for a death. We envisage that the introduction of the new offence will encourage companies that have so far failed to do so to take their health and safety responsibilities much more seriously.

The hon. Gentleman implied that the HSE does not investigate all deaths at work. I emphasise that that is far from the case, as I shall make clear. The HSE is confident that it is informed about all deaths in the workplace, other than deaths that may be work-related but do not occur in the workplace and are perhaps road-related.

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The HSE's revised enforcement policy statement, which was published on 28 January, states that all work-related deaths reportable to enforcing authorities should receive a site investigation. That has always been the case. Deaths would also be investigated if they were accidents to members of the public on a site where work was taking place. The HSE's published accident figures include deaths to workers and to members of the public which result from work activities.

Other reported incidents or complaints are selected for investigation according to publicly available criteria. Perhaps I could deal now with the suggestion that the HSE did nothing about Euromin. In fact, Euromin had been visited by, or had other contact with, the HSE in 1994, 1995, 1996 and early 1998. Advice on a number of issues had been given, but no formal enforcement action had been taken.

The enforcement policy states that if an investigation reveals that prosecution is justified—that is, that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, and it is in the public interest—prosecution will go ahead. The aim of the revised enforcement policy is to achieve greater consistency and transparency in decision making on investigation and enforcement. I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury that that is very important.

The revised enforcement policy aims to ensure that the HSE and local authorities bring to bear the full range of health and safety enforcement powers, including prosecution, to ensure compliance with health and safety law. It has also been designed to achieve an effective balance in what enforcers do, and I support that approach.

Enforcement, including prosecution and deterrence, is crucial, but not at the expense of promoting voluntary compliance and models of excellence which also have a legitimate call on resources.

The preventive inspection programme is at the core of the HSE's business and it is always seeking to improve the way in which it carries out this work. Premises are selected for proactive inspection using criteria such as the risk from the processes likely to be taking place, past incident history, standards in the industry and our confidence in management. Only higher risk businesses are inspected.

We know that resources are an important factor in enabling the HSE to do its job, and that is why we have increased its overall resources. We provided an additional £63 million following the 1998 comprehensive spending review and a further £45 million in December 2000.

The increases over those three years have allowed for an overall increase in the HSE's staff, and that has enabled the HSE to make more visits and to handle more investigations and complaints. Since the Government took office, the number of HSE prosecutions and formal enforcement notices has increased. Last year, the HSE issued nearly 50 per cent. more improvement and prohibition notices than in 1996-97 and prosecuted nearly 20 per cent. more individual duty holders.

However, demands on the HSC and the HSE to improve health and safety will always be high and will always outstrip the resources available. That is why the revitalising health and safety initiative, launched in June 2000, is so important. Effective health and safety is about getting duty holders to fulfil their obligations as a matter of course, not just in response to an inspector's visit,

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and that means working in partnership with stakeholders to achieve long lasting improvements in voluntary compliance. That is not just a paper exercise and I am confident that it will deliver.

First, targets will be set for the health and safety system for the first time to reduce the incidence of fatal and major injury accidents by 10 per cent., and ill health by 20 per cent. by 2010, with at least half the improvement to be achieved by 2004. The setting of those targets has been a catalyst. It is encouraging to see the private sector committing to delivering targets, which contributes to the national effort. So far, 25 of the traditional industry sectors have done so, with a further eight to follow suit.

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Secondly, the HSC is prioritising and focusing its resources and efforts on areas where major improvements are necessary if the targets are to be met, and it encourages partnership. I am pleased that in many of the revitalising initiatives, industry, employees and the trade unions are involved together.

I reiterate my sympathy for Simon Jones' family, and I hope that what I have said this evening gives assurances about the Government's commitment to improve health and safety to minimise the risk of further tragedies.

Question put and agreed to.

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