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House of Commons Hansard
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Health and Safety (Amendment)
08 February 2012
Volume 540

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to give health and safety inspectors the power to apply for a court order to freeze the assets, or parts thereof, of a company under investigation following a death or serious injury at work; and for connected purposes.

I start by declaring an interest: I am a proud member of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians.

Many in the House take our safety at work for granted. We are lucky enough to be in an environment where the risks that we are exposed to are limited, but thousands of people in our country are not so lucky. They do their jobs in dangerous situations every day. When we think of danger, our armed forces often spring to mind, but in a whole range of industries, such as construction, workers are placed in harm’s way—those who work with heavy machinery, large vehicles or electrics, for example. In these environments, there can be serious consequences if accidents happen. It is vital, then, that we have laws in place to ensure that every precaution is taken to keep people safe at work, and that employers who ignore their legal responsibilities are properly deterred and punished when they do wrong.

My reason for bringing this motion before the House today is simple: a worrying number of companies are not only ignoring the laws designed to protect their employers but exploiting legal loopholes to avoid proper punishment following a death at work resulting from their malpractice. In the brief time I have today, I want to mention two companies abusing these loopholes.

In 2007, construction worker Mark Thornton, aged 46, was killed on a building site in my constituency. A 6 tonne steel column struck him on the head and shoulders after the crane carrying it buckled and toppled over. Mark worked for Bryn Thomas Crane Hire. When the Health and Safety Executive investigated, following Mark’s death, it concluded that a

“series of health and safety warnings and procedures were ignored. The crane was simply not capable of lifting the steel column, when it was nearly 18 metres away, without it being overloaded. If the work had been properly planned, and the crane had been properly maintained, then Mr Thornton would still be alive today.”

In December 2010, shortly before the case came to trial, the company that Mark worked for went into administration, despite its paying out dividends of over £200,000 in each of the three financial years following Mark’s death. During the trial, the judge stated that he was unable to impose the appropriate fine of £300,000 for flouting health and safety legislation because the company was in administration. Instead, he was able only to issue a fine of just £4,500. While in administration, the company was bought out by two of its directors, and is now operating under an almost identical name. It is still run by the same people, and still using the same equipment. It is, to all intents and purposes, the same company. To date, inquires made by UCATT to the administrators about the moneys owed by Bryn Thomas and the huge dividends paid to the directors have not been adequately answered.

As I have said, the case of Mr Thornton is sadly not an isolated one. In February 2008, Noel Corbin was just 29 when he suffered fatal head injuries after falling from a roof in the course of installing a satellite dish for his employer, Foxtel Ltd. The ladder that he was provided with was too short and he had not received adequate training for the task that he had been asked to do. In fact, the property that he was working on had previously been visited by other installers and the job designated as impossible without a specialist team. His employer knew that, yet sent him to do the job alone anyway. Again, an HSE investigation took place and, just like Bryn Thomas, Foxtel entered administration shortly before the trial. Foxtel was found guilty of breaching health and safety laws, but because it was in administration, the court was able only to impose a fine of just £1. Just like in the case of Mark Thornton, Foxtel has since been resurrected, and continues to trade under virtually the same name.

Noel’s family were kind enough to join me in Parliament on Monday to launch this Bill. They bravely shared their tragic story and their sense of deep injustice. I can only begin to imagine how they must feel.

Mark and Noel are just two examples of people who should be alive today but are not, and I could have named more. The HSE has numerous powers to carry out investigations and inquiries where it considers that there may have been a breach of health and safety regulations. However, those cases clearly demonstrate that its powers are limited where a company under investigation for a serious breach of health and safety law goes into liquidation. The loopholes that that has created are wrong. They are exploited by negligent employers unwilling to take responsibility for the tragedies that they have caused, and they deny the victims’ families and friends the justice that they deserve. We have a responsibility, to the families and friends who have lost loved ones, to close those loopholes.

Giving health and safety inspectors the power to freeze a company’s assets when it is under investigation following an accident at work would help to prevent the sort of manoeuvrings illustrated in those cases. If the assets of Bryn Thomas Crane Hire Ltd had been frozen, it would not have been possible to run the company down by paying huge dividends to the directors while it was under investigation. Such powers would also send a clear signal to other employers that they cannot avoid being punished for breaking the law. Freezing orders are already used widely in cases of suspected fraud or drug crimes. They prevent the disposal or removal of assets before a judgment has been made. Those rules could apply equally to health and safety law.

There may be circumstances where it is not appropriate or desirable for the HSE to freeze all the assets of a company—if that would lead to its being unable to continue trading or to a loss of jobs, for example. In those cases, the Bill would allow the HSE to freeze part of a company’s assets, allowing it to continue trading, but preventing it from avoiding the correct level of punishment if found guilty.

All too often, our health and safety laws are maligned; they are attacked as pointless and obstructive, and characterised as regulations gone mad. When incorrectly applied, there could be some truth to that, but no one could disagree that Noel Corbin deserved the proper sized ladder or that the crane that killed Mark Thornton should have been properly maintained and fit for the task.

The Government have launched a red tape challenge, which they say is an attempt to cut unnecessary regulations for business. As part of that they are examining health and safety laws. I urge Ministers not to remove regulations that protect our workers. In the construction industry, strong health and safety laws save lives. If our laws were stronger, more lives might be saved. Last year, 50 people died on construction sites—that is 50 people too many.

Employers who wilfully avoid protecting the lives of the people who work for them must never be able to walk away without punishment or to continue trading and endangering others. That is why I have brought this Bill forward. In doing so, I hope that the Government will look at the issue and be persuaded that the time has come to put this modest but vital measure into law.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Luciana Berger, Steve Rotheram, Joan Walley, Huw Irranca-Davies, John Cryer, Angela Smith, Mr David Hamilton, Natascha Engel, Kevin Brennan, Julie Elliott, Mr Stephen Hepburn and Jim Sheridan present the Bill.

Luciana Berger accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April 2012, and to be printed (Bill 305).