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Construction Companies (Fatal Accidents)

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julian Smith.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate on an important subject that is all too often ignored. Construction is the most dangerous industry in the UK. Indeed, the recent unplanned collapse and tragedy at Didcot power station highlighted the dangers faced by construction workers on a daily basis. Last year, 35 workers were killed. That is more than in any other industrial sector, but amazingly it was a record low for the construction industry. In recent years, there have been an average of 50 deaths a year in the construction industry—almost one a week. It is our duty to ensure that that level of loss of life does not continue.

To achieve that, we need a Health and Safety Executive that is effective and dedicated to protecting workers, but, sadly, the information that I have uncovered reveals that in the construction industry that is not occurring. Construction is an industry with inherent dangers, but it does not necessarily have to be inherently dangerous. Deaths and accidents largely occur because safety laws are deliberately ignored or flouted. Far too many companies involved in the construction industry are willing to break or bend safety rules to boost profits. In an industry where site organisation is low and there are not enough safety reps—partially as a result of the blacklisting scandal—it is imperative not only that the HSE does an effective job, but that it is seen to be doing its job effectively. Following a construction death, if a company or individual is at fault they must be prosecuted. The HSE’s own research found that in 70% of construction deaths, management failure caused or contributed to a worker losing their life.

In Northern Ireland we take a proactive approach to this issue, and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland carries out surprise visits to construction sites to ensure that complacency does not occur. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we want to sharpen the construction industry up a bit and make it more effective and accountable, that is a way of doing it?

That is also the policy on the mainland, but, as I will reveal, sadly it is not as effective as it used to be.

In 2007-08 the HSE was successful in prosecuting 51% of construction fatal accidents. By 2012-13 that figure had dropped to a mere—and disgraceful—35%. No blame should be placed on the legal system for failing to convict killer bosses. The HSE is successful in achieving a guilty verdict in more than 90% of all prosecution cases—an impressive figure. Put simply, if the HSE is failing to prosecute following construction deaths, and if there are not enough high-profile stories about the fines and penalties imposed on companies that cut corners to boost profits at the expense of a worker’s life, an ever greater number of companies will flout safety laws, safe in the knowledge that if a tragedy should occur they are unlikely to be punished. That is certainly not the end of my concerns about the HSE’s performance.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the article in the Sunday Herald from 6 March 2016, entitled “Huge drop in construction safety inspections triggers fears for workers”? An academic from Stirling University in my constituency, Professor Andrew Watterson, who is part of the occupation and environmental health research group at the university, said:

“Westminster has savagely cut the budgets of the enforcement agency, the HSE, over many years…HSE increasingly looks and sounds like a toothless tiger—a lot of noise and increasingly little action.”

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that description?

I do recognise that description. It is the work of academics and trade unions that has brought about tonight’s debate. They are bringing these shortcomings to our notice.

There can be few worse experiences for a family than to lose a father, husband or son who has gone to work normally, like we all do, but, unlike the rest of us, has never come home. Even if a prosecution is mounted by the HSE, the agony of the bereaved family does not stop there. The delays between construction accidents occurring, then prosecution and conviction are excruciating. The problem is getting worse, not better. Families are being forced to put their lives on hold for years and years, with no hope of closure until they see those responsible for the death of their loved one brought to justice. Justice delayed is nearly as great a failure as justice denied.

In 2005, the average time between the death of a worker and a prosecution, was over two years. Ten years later, it has increased to two-and-a-half years. I must stress that these are averages, so the worst cases are a lot worse. The HSE has admitted that in 15% of cases prosecution does not even begin for three to four years. Beginning the prosecution, however, is just the beginning of the judicial process. There are many further stages that need to be completed before a conviction is achieved. In 2006-07, the average delay between a fatal accident and a conviction was 985 days. That was bad enough, but the latest figures are so much worse. In 2014-15, the average time between a fatal accident and a conviction in construction was now 1,267 days—or three-and-a-half years. I need to stress again that that figure is just an average. Delays in justice can be a lot longer.

Last week, Falcon Crane Hire was fined £750,000 following the collapse of one of its cranes in Battersea, which lead to the deaths of Jonathon Cloke, the crane driver, and Michael Alexa, a member of the public. That accident occurred in September 2006. It took nine-and-a-half years for justice to be done—nine-and-a-half years for the families of the victims of that accident to witness justice. I am sure the House agrees that nine-and-a-half years is far too long.

The Battersea crane accident might be the case with the longest delay, but it is not unique. I can give other examples. There are other ongoing cases where delays are highly significant. In January 2011, in the worst single accident for many years, Daniel Hazelton, Tom Hazelton, Adam Taylor and Peter Johnson were killed in a construction accident in Great Yarmouth. In February this year, over five years after the deaths of these workers, the case was finally referred to the magistrates courts. The eventual conviction of those concerned is still to come.

Given these agonisingly long delays, attention needs to turn to what the HSE’s response has been to the concerns that I and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, of which I am a proud member, have raised—

Order. If there is a case before the courts, we should not comment on it. We really ought to be aware that we do not want to put the House in the position of seeming to prejudge an individual case.

Thank you for that advice, Mr Deputy Speaker.

UCATT and I have raised concerns about the delays in prosecutions and convictions. In response, the HSE says that the delays are due to other bodies and agencies, such as the police, the coroners courts and even the justice system itself, especially if the matter is referred to the Crown Court. In other words, the HSE is saying it is not its fault.

Well, this House and the families of the victims of construction workers deserve to know exactly who is to blame. The one group certainly not to blame is the victims and their families who are being treated in such an abominable manner. It is time for the HSE to stop passing the buck and blaming others. These are straightforward cases where a worker has died. They are not major inquiries into a war, or how the Government covered up their failures following Hillsborough. They should not take this long. These cases are straightforward. If these problems are to be laid at the door of the HSE, we need to know whether they are a result of the 35% real-terms grant cuts the organisation has suffered over the last five years, as was mentioned earlier.

At the start of my contribution, I said how important it was that the HSE had a high profile in order to discourage the breaking of safety laws in construction. There is another area where its performance has been found wanting. A freedom of information request by UCATT has revealed that since 2012-13, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, the number of unannounced inspections made in the construction industry in the UK has declined by 8.7%. This decline occurred at a time when the industry was expanding and the number of sites in operation was increasing, following years of decline owing to the recession and Government cuts.

Within that overall decline were some truly shocking figures: the number of inspections in Scotland has dropped by 55%; in my region of the north-east, the number is down by 28.5%; in the north-west, the figures have declined by nearly a third; and in the south-east, where construction is booming, the number is down by 19%.

There are numbers that make this even clearer. The hon. Gentleman referred to the 55.7% drop. Some years ago, there were 1,248 inspections, but that has dropped to 552. It just shows how big a swing there has been.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making the statistics more graphic and showing how disgraceful they are.

These inspections are vital. They are the deterrent that keeps the industry honest and observant of safety laws. If companies think they will not be inspected and that there will never be a surprise knock at the door, the HSE loses all its authority in pressurising companies not to break safety laws. Laws will be flouted, workers will be put in danger and tragedies will occur. The House needs to know why the number of inspections is declining in an industry that is growing. Is it due to the cuts to the HSE’s budget, which must be affecting front-line services, is it because of the Government’s pressure to cut so-called red tape, or is it because the leadership of the HSE does not believe that such inspections are necessary?

I hope that my contribution today underlines just how vital it is that the HSE is given the resources, powers and confidence to do its job effectively. That means making sure that workplaces are safe for workers; that if laws are broken, action is taken quickly to resolve problems; that if a workplace tragedy should occur and if there is guilt, those responsible are punished and their penalties properly publicised; and that the quest for justice does not drag on indefinitely. Only by achieving these aims can the HSE properly play its role in keeping workers safe. I hope the Minister will agree and confirm that action will be taken to ensure that the problems I and others have addressed this evening are resolved.

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) on securing it and welcome the opportunity to respond to his concerns. I know he is very active in this area, having received several parliamentary questions on it in recent weeks, and that his interest is long standing.

The hon. Gentleman made a powerful speech. He rightly wishes to hold to account duty holders who fail to manage serious risks to their workers in the construction industry—failures that can give rise to indescribable suffering for loved ones. That is a desire we all share on both sides of the House. My thoughts go out to all the families of those tragically killed when working in the construction industry, particularly those recently affected by the catastrophic building collapse at the Didcot power station.

The House will be interested to hear that recovery operations on the debris pile of the collapsed structure at Didcot resumed at the weekend, with the aim of recovering the missing men as quickly as possible while ensuring that no harm comes to the recovery workers. HSE’s main role at Didcot is to investigate jointly with Thames Valley police the circumstances of the incident to find out what went so tragically wrong with the demolition process.

I tribute to the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who have been very active throughout recent weeks making representations on behalf of their constituents. I formally put on record my thanks to all the professionals who have been working tirelessly to try to resolve this as quickly as possible, particularly for the families still waiting for conclusions about their loved ones.

The investigation of workplace fatalities is HSE’s top operational priority. Fatal incidents are investigated by HSE to determine the underlying causes; to learn lessons and prevent recurrence; to establish whether there have been breaches of health and safety law; and, if so, to hold those responsible to account though the criminal courts. HSE’s enforcement policy statement makes it clear that where a failure to comply with the law has caused death, the expectation is that a prosecution will result.

It is clearly in everyone’s interests—especially those of the bereaved—that fatal incident investigations and decisions about any prosecution proceed as quickly as possible; the hon. Member for Jarrow made that point very powerfully in his speech. However, some investigations can be complex, involving painstaking forensic analysis, interviewing large numbers of witnesses and examining the roles and interactions between a number of parties, including workers, contractors, suppliers, architects, designers and clients, some of whom may be based overseas.

We had an event in the last Parliament that HSE and the industry attended. An issue about equipment being up to the British standard was brought to our attention. Are checks regularly performed on safety equipment such as helmets to ensure it matches the British standard, as we believe it should?

I shall come on to the point about proactive inspections, which the hon. Gentleman raised in an earlier intervention. I shall cover this issue. Checking against standards is an important point to highlight.

Several factors can affect the pace at which fatal accidents are investigated before any prosecution can be brought to court. The police normally assume primacy for the investigation to identify whether serious offences, such as corporate manslaughter, are involved. This can take many months, or in some cases years, during which HSE is unable to initiate proceedings. The police and Crown Prosecution Service might be in charge of the case right through to any court cases.

In the majority of cases, once HSE has primacy, a prosecution cannot start until after the coroner’s inquest. This does not always happen quickly and sometimes further evidence emerges at an inquest and HSE has to make further inquiries. Once a defendant has been charged, it can take several months before the case comes to trial, especially if it is defended in the Crown court.

The hon. Member for Jarrow has publicly raised concerns that, on average, it takes nearly three and a half years from the death of a worker to the point at which those responsible are convicted. I questioned that when I became the Minister and had my first briefings. We all agree that we want this period to be as short as possible, and HSE works closely with its partner agencies, the Courts Service and its counterparts in Scotland, to minimise any delays.

HSE has a performance standard for completing investigations of fatal incidents within 12 months of receiving primacy. Currently, more than 80% of prosecution decisions for construction incidents meet this standard, and most take considerably less time. Indeed, half of HSE’s decisions to prosecute are made within two years of the date of a fatal construction incident, which includes any time during which the police had primacy and a coroner’s inquest decision was awaited.

HSE has signed the work-related deaths protocol with fellow regulators to ensure that investigations are completed and that any decision to prosecute is made as quickly as possible, taking into account the nature of the case. There is now a new practical guide for investigators, which should ensure that all parties work effectively together and that any prosecution is brought as soon as possible. Other than in exceptional circumstances, it should be no later than three years after the date of the death. To be very clear, HSE recognises the need to maintain pace in all these investigations.

I appreciate how the hon. Member for Jarrow has raised through parliamentary questions the important issues in this area. We need to make it clear, however, that there has been no fall in HSE conviction rates in recent years; conviction rates for those prosecuted for breaking health and safety laws in construction have actually risen in recent years from 92% to 94%. The number of HSE prosecutions being approved following fatal construction accidents is not falling over time and there has been no increase in the time taken to make a decision on prosecution. The average number of days between fatal incidents and prosecution approval over the last five years has reached a relatively settled position. Average figures can be heavily influenced by the fact that a small number of complex investigations take several years to conclude, but the HSE expects the average time for inspection between its taking primacy and a prosecution decision to continue to fall in future years.

In connection with the debate, I have asked the HSE to look again at the way in which such figures are presented, and to consider whether it would be possible to produce median figures so that we could see how long a typical investigation would take. However, we must remember that we would do a real disservice to those who have lost loved ones if we introduced an artificial pressure to speed up investigations at the cost of quality, increasing the risk of prosecution failure through inadequate evidence collection and failing to learn lessons.

The HSE fully recognises the important role that investigation, inspection and enforcement play in securing improvements. However, sustained improvement requires an integrated strategic approach. That includes ensuring that the legal framework and guidance are flexible and easier for small businesses to understand. I have received positive feedback on that, suggesting that there is much more engagement on their part. It also includes encouraging all players in the industry to play their part, working with industry and others to develop practical solutions, and encouraging industry supply chains to provide help and support for small businesses. That approach has contributed to a very significant reduction in the number of fatal construction incidents over the last 15 years, which is currently less than a third of the rate in 2000-01. I am sure we all welcome the fact that the number of fatal injuries fell from 5.9 per 100,000 workers in 2000-01 to 1.62 per 100,000 in 2014-15.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out that the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland makes surprise visits. That happens here as well, and rightly so, because it is vital to keep people on their toes.

Members have given various figures for the number of inspectors in the HSE’s construction division, so let me give the House the actual figures. In 2011-12, there were 196. In 2012-13, there were 193. In 2013-14, there were 184. In 2014-15, there were 180. In 2015-16, there were 187, and the HSE is in the process of recruiting more. The position is clearly relatively settled, and numbers are currently growing.

Construction work is, all too often, an unnecessarily high-risk activity. We know that the risks can be properly managed—I do not need to remind the House of the exemplary record that was achieved during the construction of the 2012 Olympic Park—but some duty holders still fail miserably. The HSE will continue to prioritise its investigation work in order to hold the right people to account for those who are harmed by construction work, and to do so as quickly as possible.

If the hon. Member for Jarrow wishes to know more about the HSE’s work, I—or HSE officials—would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further with him, along with representatives of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. I thank him for raising this important issue this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.