In my last column I highlighted the recent imposition of a 100-hour community sentence order upon a director, following his guilty plea to allegations regarding his responsibility for serious breaches of health and safety requirements.
This month there is a further development to report in the journey towards tougher punishment for health and safety failings.
On 1 February 2008 the House of Commons debated the Health and Safety at Work (Offences) Bill, which, if passed (and most think it will with little difficulty), is likely to result in higher fines in the magistrates courts and prison sentences.
Starting with the jail penalties, judges have often remarked upon the general non-availability of imprisonment and experts have expressed their concern about the courts’ lack of sentencing powers.
Furthermore, many other regulatory offences carry imprisonment, and health and safety has perhaps stood out for not doing so. If the bill becomes law, it will enable courts to pass sentences of up to six months in the magistrates court (rising to 12 months when other legal changes are introduced) and two years in the crown court.
The bill has other impacts too. At present, the maximum fine that magistrates can impose for breaches of health and safety regulations is capped at £5,000. However, it is widely accepted that breaches of regulations are often as serious as a breach of general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
In 2005, the Hampton Report on regulation and enforcement noted that the maximum fine of £5,000 was “an insignificant sum” for most businesses.
So, under the new Bill, the ceiling for fines in respect of breaches of regulations will rise to £20,000, putting it on an even keel with breaches of the general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
As a consequence, magistrates will be more likely to retain jurisdiction over some cases which they would otherwise feel they had to send to the crown court.
The Bill also ups the potential seriousness of two offences, namely contravening a requirement imposed by an inspector and preventing a person from appearing before an inspector or answering his questions.
It is proposed that in serious cases the allegations will justify the case being sent up to the crown court.
These proposals will apply to England, Wales and Scotland.
Many attempts to reform the sentencing of breaches of health and safety have failed previously but, in light of the recent concern over the increasing figures of workplace deaths and accidents, this effort ppears destined for success.
As one MP put it during the debate: “Who would have thought being a builder is nearly as dangerous as being a soldier?”
Madeleine Abas is a partner at law firm Osborn Abas Hunt.