John Prescott pioneered the first health and safety summit for construction. Four years on, that zeal appears to be on the wane. His apparent attitude reflects a wider lethargy in this Government on the issue of corporate manslaughter. David Rogers looks at why a manifesto commitment has been diluted
TO SOME the mooted non-appearance of John Prescott at this month's upcoming construction safety summit is a worrying sign.
Giving the Deputy Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt for the moment, his office has not actually said he is definitely not going to the event at Queen Elizabeth conference centre in Westminster - a five-minute stroll from the House of Commons.
What is clear is that the eagerness with which he drove through the first health and safety summit, four years ago this month, seems to have gone missing from the this Government.
This cooling of enthusiasm seems to have manifested itself in other areas - namely the issue of legislation on corporate manslaughter, a manifesto commitment from the Labour Party in the past two general elections of 2001 and 1997.
To some in the construction industry the decline in the numbers of workers being killed on sites has led the Government to take its foot off the gas, to leave the industry to regulate itself without the need to bang heads together.
The 2001 summit was prompted in part by a 10-year high in site deaths.
With 105 people dying in 2000-01 the problem seemed out of control.
Bob Blackman, the construction secretary of transport union TGWU, is one man who thinks the Government has dithered on the whole issue of legislation in health and safety.He said: 'What drove the safety summit last time was the 10-year high and all this added to the drive on corporate manslaughter.
'The reduction in deaths since 2001 has helped slow down the push. If we had had another 10-year high last year, the whole process would have speeded up again.
'Any event like a safety summit that involves the Deputy Prime Minister will be the more powerful for it, particularly as he was the instigator of the original one in 2001.'
Since then the Government, despite its expressed commitment on the issue, has been consumed by other issues: the threat of global terrorism, immigration, pensions, fox hunting, the war in Iraq - all these have occupied increasing amounts of Parliamentary time.
A weary Mr Blackman added: 'We will finish up with legislation on corporate manslaughter; it's just a question of how effective it will be.
'The problem is that the Government doesn't see it as a vote-winner or a vote-loser. The amount of time it has taken to get to where we are is very disappointing. Corporate manslaughter affects everybody at work. Fox hunting affects those who indulge in it. But the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the oil.'
In the Queen's Speech last November, after a consultation period of three years, the Government gave a commitment to introducing corporate manslaughter laws. But there is no provision in the plans for the laws to extend to boardroom responsibility.Mr Blackman said: 'The reason for this is that Government has been discussing it with the very people who are going to be held accountable.'
The Centre for Corporate Accountability, a lobbying group, gave last autumn's news an equally guarded response. Director David Bergman said: 'No bill will actually be put before Parliament in this legislative session.
What happens to the bill depends entirely on whether the Labour Government gets re-elected or not.
'The elections are likely to be in May. Even if they do get elected, we will have to wait and see whether or not the new Government gives it any priority.'
He added: 'What impact will the new offence have upon company directors? We are concerned that the Government's proposals are unlikely to engage with increasing the accountability of company directors.'
To underline the painfully slow progress of corporate manslaughter legislation, in December the Home Office, which will be responsible for piloting it through Parliament, confirmed to Mr Bergman that the draft bill would not be published before Christmas, as it had promised.
The reason for the latest delay was the resignation of former home secretary David Blunkett. An unforeseen delay, yes, but a delay nonetheless.The Home Office now intends to publish the draft bill before the end of the current parliamentary session, which is likely to come to an end this spring with the expected announcement of a general election.
But the arguments over the details of the proposed legislation still rumble on. Last month in a House of Commons debate the thorny issue of directors' responsibility was raised.Many in the industry want to see this included under any legislation introduced.
Mr Blackman said: 'Employers are trying to dilute the legislation because you can put individuals in prison but you can't take a company to court and imprison it.'
Labour MP Stephen Hepburn is behind a private member's bill which aims to make sure directors are held to account by law. He said vague references by employers' groups to abide by a voluntary code of conduct on directors' responsibility are pretty much useless.
He told MPs: 'The facts show that, without the backing of the law, the voluntary code of conduct is not worth the paper it is written on.There are no incentives for directors to participate in the voluntary code and there is no punishment if they ignore or breach it.'
Liberal Democrat MP Sir Archy Kirkwood, the respected chairman of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, has also called for much more responsibility to be placed within the boardroom.
At the same debate, another Labour MP, Jim Sheridan, said Mr Hepburn's private member's bill was vital.
He said: 'I have to say from the outset that no individuals in a company are more important to ensuring safety in the workplace than directors.
'Company directors have the power to decide the level of resources that the company puts into health and safety, the extent to which managers in their companies prioritise health and safety, whether their company is subject to proper health and safety audits, whether it is proactive in identifying unsafe practices and how these practices can be changed.'
He called the Government's stance on directors'duties on health and safety 'unacceptable'and added: 'If all parties in the House are keen to demonstrate that they want to improve health and safety, I genuinely believe that they have an ideal opportunity with this private member's bill.'
Given that, assuming that recent opinion polls are not hopelessly wrong, of course, the Labour Party will win the next election, perhaps a law on corporate killing will be finally be passed.The Government has a duty, the unions argue, to push this through as quickly as possible.
Mr Blackman said: 'They are construction's biggest client and need to be showing a lead on this.'
So far, though, like its much-heralded 10-year transport plan, the Government's record on corporate manslaughter legislation has been one of monumental disappointment.
HSE's funding fears
WHILE the Government dithers on corporate manslaughter, Prospect, the union representing Health and Safety Executive inspectors, fears that the HSE's funding case is not being pushed strongly enough in Government, writes Russ Lynch.
Three different ministers - Nick Brown, Des Browne and now Jane Kennedy - have been responsible for the HSE in the last 18 months and the union is concerned that this lack of continuity is affecting the organisation's standing in Whitehall.
Although the Government states that it will protect the HSE as a front-line service, the organisation comes under the aegis of the Department for Work and Pensions. Chancellor Gordon Brown has targeted the department for 30,000 job cuts by 2008.
Steve Kay, chairman of Prospect's Health and Safety Executive branch, said: 'Far from introducing new legislation, deregulation is the flavour in Downing Street and the HSE is an easy target - it's easy to chuck us to the wolves.
'We've been trying to get a meeting with Jane Kennedy but we haven't seen her yet. Nick Brown's heart was in the right place and Des Browne took it very seriously but there's a feeling that we haven't got the people punching their weight in Whitehall.'
Mr Kay is also looking forward to a new HSE director-general to replace the outgoing Timothy Walker.
He added: 'We could do with somebody who is more passionate about the job, rather than a technocratic type who gets his kicks running a big organisation; somebody who gives the impression he cares when people are killed at work.'