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July 12, 2009

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MPs demand explanation for drop in prosecutions

A group of MPs has called on the HSE to explain why there has been such

a significant fall in the number of prosecutions it has taken over the

last four years and how it will reverse this trend.

The issue of prosecutions and enforcement emerged as one of the key areas of contention between the HSE and the Work and Pensions Select Committee during the latter’s recent inquiry into workplace health and safety.

Publishing its full report on 12 July, the committee quizzed HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger on the number of prosecutions taken by the regulator — which has reduced by 40 per cent in four years, from 1720 in 2003/04 to 1028 in 2007/08.

Podger’s view that the fall in prosecutions has been marginal and does not represent an overall downward trend was rejected by the MPs, who have asked the Executive for further explanation. The committee also expressed disappointment that the sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter convictions are still not available and called for their publication before the end of this parliamentary session.

However, the appointment of 24 fixed-term inspectors to the HSE’s construction division received the backing of the committee, which described the move as a “useful response to the disproportionate numbers of fatalities in this sector”.

The HSE’s plans to pilot approaches to improving worker involvement attracted much commendation from the committee, which urged the Executive, if the pilots were successful, to invest in a permanent worker-engagement scheme. Also praised was the work of the Olympic Delivery Authority to encourage worker participation, such as the operation of a private hotline for workers who raise health and safety issues.

The MPs gave their full support to Rita Donaghy’s report on how to reduce the number of workplace fatalities in construction, which was published on 8 July. In particular, they welcomed her conclusion that building controls could provide a mechanism for improving site safety and supported her recommendation that the Government incorporates safety requirements into building regulations.

Committee chair Terry Rooney MP said: “Amending building-control regulations to include safety requirements will help to ensure that safety is at the forefront of planning on building sites, and this should reduce the number of avoidable accidents. 

“Construction fatalities are not restricted to large commercial sites. Too many deaths occur in small-scale, often domestic sites — building regulations could be the best way to improve standards in this sector.”

Commenting on the report, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “This is a strong endorsement of the recent report into construction deaths, by Rita Donaghy. At this time of recession we need both strong regulation and a strong regulator.

“The Government must ensure that funding for both the HSE and for local authority health and safety enforcement is increased to make sure that employers do not risk the health or lives of their workforce.”

The inquiry was launched to find out how the HSE is responding to the recession and monitor changes at the Executive since the committee’s more extensive investigation of health and safety regulation conducted last year.

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