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June 22, 2008

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Offences Bill moves to Lords, as MP tries to quell CBI fears

Moves to increase the level of penalties that can be dished out for healthy and safety breaches have moved a step nearer the statute book, after a third reading of the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill won cross-party support from MPs in the House of Commons. It is expected to be considered by the House of Lords on 4 July.

If it becomes law, the Bill would raise the maximum fine that may be levied in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences, and create an option of imprisonment for more offences in both lower and higher courts (see SHP March, News — link below).

While supporting the principle of the Bill, on this latter point the CBI has raised strong objections. It argues, for example, that imprisonment applies to individuals, yet health and safety offences are rarely the fault of one person. It also suspects that the wider availability of imprisonment will raise the stakes, and encourage more challenges to prosecution.

Aiming to quash the CBI’s fears, Keith Hill MP, who introduced the Bill, told the Commons that “the availability of higher fines and custodial sentences in the lower courts ought to relieve pressure on the Crown courts, and therefore make for speedier and more efficient justice”, while the scope for challenge would be limited, owing to the “strength of the prosecutions brought”.

To ensure parity with the rest of the UK, the Bill will also now apply to Northern Ireland. Owing to changes to the Criminal Justice Act, which were not extended to Northern Ireland, the one major difference in its application here would be that a jail term could not exceed six months, compared with 12 months in the rest of Britain.

Hill told SHP that after the July reading it was unlikely the Bill would be voted on in the Lords again before October, but “if unopposed, it will then move immediately to Royal Assent, and ought to be in operation by January”.

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