17 January 2014
Changes introduced to the Health and Safety Offences Act mean that lawbreakers will face more jail terms, higher fines and a rise in cases tried in lower courts when they undermine the welfare of their staff or the public – but tougher penalties can be of no effect if enforcers are too poorly funded to put them to use.
The Department for Work and Pensions said today (17 January 2014) that the minimum fine that could be imposed by a lower court of £5,000 has been significantly lifted to £20,000.
Minister of State for Health and Safety Mike Penning said:
“By handing greater sentencing powers to Magistrates and Sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison.
“At the same time it has removed the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious of cases through the Crown Courts, which is generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at the lower courts.”
As positive as this may sound however, as noted by Martin Temple, author of last week’s Triennial Review of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government has lowered funding to the HSE by 33% from £239 million in 2009 to £161 million in 2013.
Chair of Prospect’s HSE Branch Simon gave evidence at a IER event on what the effects of the cuts were to those working at the HSE.
He explained that hundreds of jobs have been lost and that there are as a direct result fewer inspectors. This means that there are fewer people to carry out the jobs that need be done and inspections have dropped by 33%. As a result, employers who are undermining their workers ‘health and safety are not being punished as no one is aware of the problems prior to an injury or death at the workplace – something that should be completely avoided.
Also, the HSE’s helpline has had to be closed down, so employers are unable to communicate with the body in order to discuss providing a safe work environment, and due to the cuts, there are insufficient funds to campaign on safety hazards.
Although tougher penalties being installed is a positive move, the fact that there are too few inspections to ensure that the measures are being respected is unacceptable, as this increases the risk that workers will be employed in an unsafe environment.