Employers could face the double threat of jail sentences and bigger fines for relatively minor health and safety offences under new legislation.
The Health and Safety (Offences) Bill, introduced by Labour MP Keith Hill, is progressing through Parliament and has a good chance of becoming law.
The Bill would raise the ceiling on fines in magistrates courts from £5,000 to £20,000 for breaching safety rules such as the failure to conduct a risk assessment and the inspection of work equipment. It would also make imprisonment a possible sentence for this sort of offence.
The Bill has gained government support, bolstering the message sent by the new corporate manslaughter legislation that employer health and safety failures are being treated seriously.
In 2006-07, the number of offences prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive increased to 1,141, up from 1,056 the previous year. The number of convictions rose marginally to 848.
Ed Hodson, senior health and safety adviser at law firm Andrew Jackson, said the Bill meant a double whammy for employers.
“Firms will get higher fines without cases being sent to the Crown Court. Employers might also decide to fight decisions now the fines have been increased, meaning cases will drag on and extra costs will be incurred,” he said.
However, Steffan Groch, partner at law firm DWF, said by hearing more cases in the Magistrates’ Court would actually keep costs down for firms and lead to a swifter resolution.
“When a case goes to Crown Court, costs increase as a barrister must generally be instructed and the proceedings will take longer,” he said.