Large UK companies starting to feel the heat of bigger fines for breaches of health and safety law
OVER the last fortnight, prosecutions of two major UK companies have demonstrated the significance of the recent changes in sentencing guidelines that will be applied by courts in England and Wales for health and safety offences.
For the past two years, the British Safety Council has argued that the planned changes to the sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences would result in significantly greater fines, and according to policy and standards director Neal Stone, the conviction of Travis Perkins at Aylesbury Crown Court, following the death of Mark Pointer in November 2012, together with the conviction of Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions Ltd at Preston Crown Court, following the death of James Sim in April 2010, provide clear evidence that the courts are getting tough with organizations who are found guilty of serious breaches of health and safety law.
‘The possibility of significantly larger fines is now a reality, and rightly so,’ said Mr Stone. Travis Perkins were fined £2 million and Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions Ltd were fined £2.6 million following convictions for breaches of health and safety law.’
According to Mr Stone, the warning signs from the courts have been there for some time, with senior judges, including the Lord Chief Justice, having argued that changes in sentencing practice were much needed.
Mr Stone continued: ‘The British Safety Council, having consulted its members, publicly supported the changes to the sentencing guidelines. We strongly believe that the Sentencing Council has adopted the right approach, with the courts now being required to assess the culpability of the defendant, the degree of actual or potential harm caused, and the financial turnover of the organization.
‘As the guidelines make clear, there will be occasions when the fines imposed will be so large that they will lead to closing down the offending business. The British Safety Council trusts the courts to apply the sanctions wisely. Larger fines by themselves, whilst justified, will not bring back to life Mark Pointer and James Sim. We must continue our work to prevent tragic and needless deaths and injuries in our workplaces.’
The British Safety Council is also concerned about the length of time these two cases took to come to court – four years in the case of Travis Perkins and six years in the case of Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions.
‘Commitments were given by the Health and Safety Executive and the Government in response to the concerns raised by Professor Löfstedt in his review of our health and safety framework about the inordinate length of time it was taking to bring cases to court,’ said Mr Stone. ‘These two cases demonstrate the continuing problem. Justice is not served by such delays.’
Mr Stone concluded: ‘Large fines will not be effective if they do not contribute to greater compliance. It will be some time before we see the extent to which large fines influence the behaviour of those with health and safety responsibilities. In the meantime, we will undoubtedly be seeing more fines of this magnitude imposed by the courts.’