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Threat of prison promised in safety crackdown

New health and safety legislation looks set for the statute book after it went before the House of Lords this week with the cross-party backing of MPs in the Commons.

Legal experts say the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill, which carries tougher new penalties including a greater threat of imprisonment, will beef up current safety laws.

The Bill - which had its first reading in the Lords on Monday - follows the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter Act in April and adds more pressure on firms to improve health and safety standards.

Its aim is to make imprisonment an option for more health and safety offences in both the lower and higher courts.

At the moment, imprisonment is an option only in certain cases and the corporate manslaughter legislation only has the power to fine firms up to 10 per cent of their turnover or impose publicity orders - naming and shaming guilty firms.

The legislation would also mean certain offences currently only tried in lower courts can be taken to a higher court. It would cover a range of breaches, including failure to assist safety inspectors and a company’s failure to leave a site undisturbed following an accident.

Alistair Day, an associate of legal firm Taylor Wessing, said the proposed legislation would be one of the most effective changes in a sweep of new regulations.

He said: “This is about adding more teeth to the current legislation. The main thing of interest is that where a lot of offences are currently punishable by fines there will now be the real possibility of imprisonment.

“And people are ultimately going to sit up and listen when there is the chance of a prison sentence rather than a fine.

“So if you have got an inspector asking questions, this new legislation would certainly increase co-operation.”

The Bill, introduced by former Labour housing minister Keith Hill, cleared the Commons after being given an unopposed third reading.

Mr Hill said his aim was to “punish the criminally negligent who put life and limb in danger in the workplace, to deter those who are tempted to cut costs by breaking the law, and to render faster and more efficient justice”.

He said the option of a custodial sentence would be extended to a greater range of offences under his amendments.

Mr Hill added: “Judges have remarked in several cases that they would have jailed the offender had they been able to.”

As well as the threat of imprisonment, maximum fines for health and safety offences in magistrates’ courts would be increased to £20,000, up from a current limit of £5,000.

The new rules will also now be extended to Northern Ireland. When originally drafted, the Bill had been aimed at England, Wales and Scotland only.

The hse says…

• There were 69 worker fatalities in 2007/08 and 77 fatalities in 2006/07

• The rate of fatal injury for 2006/07 was 3.7 deaths per 100,000 workers

• During the past 15 years there has been a statistically significant downward trend in the rate of fatal injury to workers – on average a 3.9 per cent year-on-year decrease

Safety targets

10% Reduction in the incidence of fatal and major injury accidents year on year from 2000 levels until 2010

20% Reduction in the incidence of cases of work-related ill health from 2000 levels

50% Increase in projects offering route to Occupational Health support by 2012

30% Increase by 2012 in the number of micro-SMEs and SMEs taking up health and safety training at an organisational level

*Targets outlined in Strategy for Sustainable Construction

The deaths go on

The Health and Safety Executive is investigating the death of an employee at logistics firm Wilson James while working on a Bovis Lend Lease site earlier this month.

The unnamed man is understood to have been walking along a path at the Sky TV site, in Brentford, west London, when he was hit by a steel beam.

In a statement, Bovis said: “Our immediate thoughts are with the family of the deceased and we are doing all we can to fully cooperate with the emergency services and the HSE.”

And earlier this week a worker fell from scaffolding at a Barratt site in Glasgow.

The accident occurred on Monday at The Laurels scheme in Rutherglen on the southern edge of the city.

A Barratt spokesman said: “We are aware of the incident and we are working closely with the police and HSE.

“The investigation is at a very early stage and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this
time.”

Analysis: Courting support for move to tougher sentencing

By Peter Atkinson

The call for increased sentencing has two origins: there have been repeated expressions of frustration by the courts at their inability to impose custodial sentences; and a consensus emerged in consultation leading up to the publication of the HSE’s Revitalising Health and Safety strategy that tougher sentences are required.

During this, the question of what penalties should be faced received the highest number of responses, demonstrating public concern.

The courts would like greater powers to fine companies and under this Bill we would expect to see a significant increase in trials going to a higher court.

Undoubtedly there is a general perception that penalties are too low. The Sentencing Advisory Panel recently recommended linking penalties to the turnover of the defendant company in cases involving fatalities.

It seems the only obstacle to this Private Members Bill is parliamentary time and whether the Government has more pressing problems to sort out.

Peter Atkinson is a partner with law firm Pinsent Masons