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Harry Cohen: On the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, is it not the case that more workers than directors are prosecuted under health and safety legislation? If they are negligent it is right that they should be, but could it be simply that it is easier to prosecute the workers than the directors, although the directors might be much more to blame?
While my hon. Friend is making very good points about the culture of safety in big companies, will he agree that the Government's faith in the voluntary code has been misplaced? The code has not worked, and that is proven by the Health and Safety Commission, which when it released its figures for 200304 said that the previous year deaths had increased by 4 per cent. and injuries by 9 per cent. Do we not need to go further than that voluntary code, with the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow is proposing?
Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both points. It is a statistical fact that more employees are convicted than employers. However, let me be absolutely clear: I take a hard-line approach on those who put the health, safety and lives of their work colleagues, employees or the general public at risk. Employees should be prosecuted when that is appropriate. A person who drives a lorry recklessly and kills a child should not be able to use the fact that he is an employee as a defence before the courts. However, dealing with people who allow employees to operate machinery unsafely is equally important. My hon. Friend mentioned the voluntary code, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work will pick up on that.
The Bill is important, but most of us are sadly reconciled to the fact that intruding events may stop it from completing its legislative passage. However, it is inevitable that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow and others will return to the theme. The Government must sharpen up their response to the whole health and safety debate. I am afraid that I must make the criticism that we have become complacent about health and safety, both politically and institutionally. We all talk the rhetoric that the existing legislation is sufficient, but it is not.
We know that deaths, injuries and ill health are preventable. We are all paying for the problem, because some 38 million working days are lost every year because of occupational illness and health and safety matters. It is outrageous that we waste so many of our national assets in such a cavalier way, given that up to 70 per cent. of such cases are preventable. Let us start the proper process of prevention and reinvigorate the Health and Safety Commission to do the job that many
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who work in it wish to do. Let us begin to drive through the safety culture, save lives and save the British taxpayer an awful lot of money.
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): I am entirely convinced by the case for imposing legally binding health and safety duties on directors, so I shall fully support the Bill. As the House will know, I had the honour of steering the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 on to the statute book during last year's round of private Members' Bills. There are many parallels between that Act and the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) is promoting. My call for a gangmaster's licence was backed by a respected House of Commons Select Committee, as is my hon. Friend's call for directors' duties. My Bill tried to bring irresponsible, negligent and unaccountable bosses within the reach of the law, and my hon. Friend's Bill would do likewise. My Bill was an attempt to protect the lives of vulnerable people in the workplace, and my hon. Friend's Bill tries to do exactly the same thing.
The passage of my Bill was set against the backdrop of the Morecambe bay tragedy in which 23 innocent people lost their lives because of negligence on the part of those employing them. The terrible events on the sands of Morecambe bay undoubtedly played a key role in focusing all our minds on the need not only to legislate but to regulate. It was against that tragic backdrop that the principles and objectives of my Bill won the support of the Government and the House.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will sign up to the principles and objectives of my hon. Friend's Bill, because with deaths in the workplace, there is a Morecambe bay tragedy in this country every month. Someone loses his or her life in a workplace accident every day, but according to research conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, 70 per cent. of those deaths are preventable. Why are they not prevented? The answer is simple. On one hand there is a voluntary code that bad directors ignore at will, and on the other hand, there is a weak law that hinders the prevention of accidents and fails to hold directors to account for their negligence.
In the 30 years since the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 was passed, 10,000 people have been killed in work-related accidents. A mere 322 directors were convicted of any health and safety offences during that time. How many directors were imprisoned as a result of those 10,000 deaths? The answer is just four. In any other walk of life there would quite rightly be a public outcry. Imagine if 10,000 people had been stabbed to death in street robberies or burglaries over 30 years, yet only four people had been imprisoned for those crimes. The plain and simple truth is that negligent directors are literally getting away with murder, because they have no legally binding health and safety duties under existing law. Yet how about this for irony, Mr. Deputy Speaker? The workers whom directors employworkers who lose life and limb as a result of directors' negligencedo have legally binding health and safety duties under section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. That is why in the 30 years during which the Act has been in force, more workers have been prosecuted and convicted than directors. Surely that makes a mockery of the law.
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The law in its current form lets those with all the power in the workplacethe directorsoff the hook, and punishes the workers, who have no say or influence over health and safety in the companies in which they work. As well as being unjust, the current law is also inconsistent. As other hon. Members have said, directors have legally binding duties on equal opportunities, financial matters and even data protection. Why on earth can directors not have legal duties on the most important matter of allthe prevention of accidents and the saving of lives?
Directors matter because they are the key to delivering safer workplaces, so directors' duties matter. The respected Work and Pensions Committee concluded that such duties would prevent accidents and save lives. However, directors' duties would also ensure that the victims of workplace accidents and work-related deaths would get justice. Such duties would enable the courts to do what has been almost impossible until nowto identify the controlling mind and will of a company. Directors' duties would allow courts to hold directors accountable for gross negligence that resulted in workplace accidents. Is that so controversial? Is it picking on or scapegoating directors? I do not think so.
If directors have been so irresponsible and negligent that people have been killed, surely they, like any other citizen, should not be above the law. Surely the law should be able to hold such people to account. If we want to reduce the number of workplace accidents, deaths and injuries, as well as getting justice for victims, we must introduce legally binding duties.
We also need to introduce legally binding directors' duties if we want the Government's promised reform of corporate manslaughter to work. Let me explain why. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government have promised a draft Bill on corporate manslaughter. That will be welcome, because reform of the corporate manslaughter law is long overdue. The Government have made it clear that the draft Bill will make it easier only to prosecute and convict companies; it will not address the issue of directors' duties, and will not make it possible to prosecute and convict negligent directors. Failure to introduce legislation on directors' duties will undermine any reform of corporate manslaughter law, because the law would be unable to hold to account any negligent director who was responsible for a workplace death. Victims of negligence resulting in death will never receive the justice that they deserve if a legal entity known as "a company" is found guilty and merely fined.
It is directors who make workplaces safe or unsafe, not companies. My views about the potential weaknesses of the Government's proposed reform of the law on corporate manslaughter are shared by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, Bill Callaghan, who, in the Financial Times of 24 February, was quoted as saying that in its current proposed form the legislation on corporate manslaughter would not result in many more convictions for workplace deaths. Asked whether the new law proposed by the Government would make a dramatic difference, he answered:
We have waited a long time for legislation on corporate manslaughter, so for the sake of all those who have lost their lives and for the sake of all the loved ones
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left behind, let us get the measure right. I am thinking particularly of the young man Simon Jones, who suffered a tragic death, as we heard from his mother last night. Getting it right means underpinning the new law on corporate manslaughter with a new law on directors' duties. They are two sides of the same coin. Let us do the right thing today. Let us back the Bill and get on with the job of delivering safety in the workplace, responsibility in the boardroom and justice through the courts.
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