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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 May 2007

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Fatal Accidents (Construction Industry)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Claire Ward.]

9.30 am

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, which lists me as a member of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. I also chair the UCATT group of MPs in Parliament. I am grateful to be granted this Adjournment debate, because it covers an extremely important issue—the number of corporate convictions in the construction industry following fatal injuries. I have three points to make. First, I want to highlight the trend, shown in the report of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, of a fall during the period of the study on the number of corporate convictions following fatalities in the construction industry. Secondly, I want to draw attention to the unacceptable rate of fatal industries in the construction industry, and thirdly, and more importantly, I want to suggest how we might work together to ensure a cohesive health and safety culture in the construction industry.

The study by the CCA is entitled “Levels of Conviction and Sentencing Following Prosecutions Arising from Deaths of Workers and Members of the Public in the Construction Sector” and it examined the figures for 1998 to 2004. I do not want to go into methodology, or the rationale of the statistics. The authors studied the number of deaths in that six-year period and the number of corporate convictions. I emphasise that I am talking about corporate, not individual, convictions. The main finding of the report, which has been questioned in some areas, was that in 1998 convictions followed 42 per cent. of fatal injury cases, whereas by 2004 the rate had dropped to 11 per cent. That is quite a change and has caused great concern among trade unions in the construction industry.

There are no statistics relating to the study for the years after 2004. That is because it generally takes about three years to complete the legal process. Another major finding of the report, and one that I think is a cause for concern, is the great disparity in fines between UK regions. The study includes Scotland and Wales.

Not only the deaths of workers, but the deaths of members of the public on building sites, were included in the study. I understand that that is because the statistics on the Health and Safety Executive website include those for both workers and members of the public. Any death causes distress to the family, and that is all the greater when, following a fatal accident, the legal process does not provide redress. That is a major point. Families who believe that there has been no
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proper legal redress feel that their loved one is not valued in the eyes of society as other people are. That can lead to people becoming alienated from the democratic process.

Because of the way in which working practices are arranged in the construction industry—it is a complex pattern—some companies, usually subcontracting companies, have been known to go into liquidation to avoid prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive and to avoid paying compensation. I draw the attention of the House to the recent case of Michael Parr. It involved a company that went into liquidation to avoid a fine from the HSE and to avoid paying the widow compensation. In August 2004 Michael Parr, aged 54, was fatally injured in an accident on the Land Rover site at Coventry. He was working for a company called Haydens which was doing subcontract work for the main contractor on the site. Following an investigation the HSE made it known that it intended to prosecute the company. To avoid prosecution, and presumably to avoid paying compensation to the widow, the company went into liquidation. The case was then brought against the main contractor, but because that contractor disputed liability it was finally dropped.

That case exposes the vulnerability of individual workers and their families in the face of the widespread subcontracting arrangements in the industry. I believe that it also illustrates the need for a proper employment framework in the construction sector. That is all the more important with the increase of migrant labour on construction sites. I shall return to that point because there is a feeling among the unions on construction sites that greater casualisation of work on building sites is under way.

There has been some disagreement about the statistics in the CCA report. However, the data came from the HSE’s database, which was accessed by the CCA in January 2007. To me, the important thing is the drift that can be detected in the statistics. That is worrying, and it is the basis for this morning’s debate. In a previous statement, the HSE estimated that management failure played a significant part in 70 per cent. of deaths at work. Given that according to the statistics the number of corporate convictions following a fatal injury has fallen to 11 per cent., the CCA can be forgiven for drawing attention to the matter as it has. The issue needed to have attention drawn to it.

I am told that, in the recent years that are not covered by the report, corporate convictions have started to rise again. Moreover, the HSE is aware of the complex working arrangements in the construction industry, and knows that there is a need to ensure that prosecutions for breaches of health and safety are kept up, if we are to deter employers in that complex matrix of working relationships from taking short cuts that have tragic consequences.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is talking about prosecutions and convictions for accidents and fatal accidents. Does he agree that much more needs to be done in the industry to ensure that there is on-the-job training for apprentices and people who come into the sector? There should be more emphasis on such training in order to reduce the number of such accidents.

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Mr. Clapham: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. It is important to do something positive in the construction industry to drive a health and safety culture through the sector, and training is a main plank of that. In 2000, the Deputy Prime Minister set up a summit with the aim of providing better training opportunities and driving the health and safety culture forward. Seven years later, there have been some improvements, but they have not been driven through the whole industry. We therefore need a summit to pick up where the last one left off and to revitalise the health and safety initiative.

I realise that not all cases will require prosecution, but the fall in the number of corporate convictions is of great concern. The CCA recently wanted to validate some work that it was doing. Having heard that the HSE had carried out an internal audit, it made a freedom of information request to obtain details of that audit. I am told that the audit showed that the HSE recognised that there was a serious gap in its enforcement procedures. The audit also estimated that the HSE should be prosecuting almost three times as many corporate cases. UCATT tells me that if the HSE had been doing that, convictions would have been secured in as many as 60 per cent. of construction industry cases in the relevant period—1998 to 2004—instead of the actual figure of 20 per cent.

It is clear that convictions are related to the health and safety culture. The HSE takes the view that we need to ensure that there are prosecutions if we are to have a robust health and safety culture. That is why we need to address the regional disparities between fines upon conviction. If a company is fined £50,000 in one part of the country after a fatal accident in which there was a breach of health and safety rules, but a company is fined just £18,000 in another part of the country, that is a great concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) recently promoted a private Member’s Bill to raise the standard of fines, but it was opposed by the Conservative Opposition. Sadly, that opportunity to raise fines for breaches of health and safety was, therefore, missed. We must now ensure that the Government pick up that issue; I hope that the Minister will take it forward to the relevant Department. We need a Bill to increase the fines for breaches of health and safety, particularly when there has been a fatal accident.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am interested in his comments about companies that go into liquidation to avoid their responsibilities. One of my constituents, Mrs. Karen Stupart, tragically lost her husband in a building site accident in the mid-1990s. The employer was subsequently charged and convicted of offences under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, but when Mrs. Stupart and her two children were awarded £250,000 in compensation, the company immediately went into liquidation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the way forward might be to legislate to introduce a scheme, not unlike the Pension Protection Fund, to ensure that employers pay into a central fund so that even if an employer goes into liquidation, people who are awarded compensation will receive it? Mrs. Stupart has yet to receive a penny of that £250,000.

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Mr. Clapham: I am grateful for that contribution. I agree that something positive needs to be done. Companies should all have to contribute to a fund, so that even if they later try to escape liability by going into liquidation, the fund will make good and pay compensation to people who have been injured, particularly in cases involving fatalities as a result of health and safety breaches. We need to consider that idea seriously.

My next point is about the appalling level of accidents in the industry, particularly fatal ones. The construction industry is large, employing 2.2 million workers and contributing more than 9 per cent. to the UK’s gross domestic product. It is a modern industry in which technology is applied, yet we have an appalling record on accidents.

UCATT recently expressed concern about the ongoing casualisation of the industry. It estimates that up to a third of the workers who are employed in the industry could be described as being bogusly self-employed. If a third of 2.2 million people are bogusly self-employed, that is a great loss to the Treasury. About four or five years ago, UCATT commissioned a study on bogus self-employment, which was drawn up by a university lecturer. The study suggested that the loss to the Treasury could be more than £2.5 billion. The Treasury has since responded, and a new scheme to tackle bogus self-employment is being rolled out in the construction industry, but UCATT thinks that the scheme will be less effective.

We need UCATT and Treasury officials to sit down together and to consider how we might make the scheme much more effective, because it has terrific implications both for Treasury revenue and for health and safety culture in the industry. It has been suggested that, if we could tackle bogus self-employment, it would bring in enough additional revenue to the Treasury to pay for all the Olympic stadiums—that is the size of the problem.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): On that point, one of the biggest building projects will be for the 2012 London Olympics. Has my hon. Friend seen comparisons between the approach in Australia, where they used a more direct employment model, and that in Greece, where they used subcontractors and obscure contracting arrangements much more? There were far more construction deaths in Greece than in Sydney. Should that not inform the model that we adopt for building the Olympic stadiums in London?

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I, too, have seen the statistics. They show that more deaths occurred while building the stadiums in Greece than while building those in Australia, because the Australians applied an orderly employment framework. I could suggest to him an example closer to home: the building of terminal 5. It is being built within a negotiated employment framework, delivered on time and there has been just one fatality during the entire construction period. The kind of procedures that are in operation at terminal 5 must be replicated when we build the stadiums for the 2012 Olympics.

Bogus self-employment is a difficult issue to deal with, and it undermines the health and safety culture. Between 1998 and 2004, which is the period of the
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study that is the basis of this debate, there were 504 construction fatalities. I am told that last year’s fatality figure for the construction industry will be 78, which compares with 59 deaths the year before. In other words, we are talking about a 32 per cent. increase last year. That is just not good enough and we must take positive action to ensure that we drive through the health and safety culture.

In dealing with my third point, I shall suggest to the Minister that we might do a number of things to improve the health and safety culture in the construction sector. First, as I mentioned, we need to ensure that the summit on the construction industry that the Deputy Prime Minister arranged is picked up and taken forward. In so doing, by bringing together all sectors in the industry—the insurance companies, the trade unions, the employers and the solicitors—we could emphasise the need to ensure that we focus on health and safety training in the industry. I hope that the Minister will suggest to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who I know has been interested in some of the construction issues, that the Department ought to put on another summit on health and safety in the construction industry. That would be a way of revitalising the health and safety initiative, which seems to have fallen since 2002.

Secondly, I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will refer to the regional statistics on sentencing, which show that we need to do something positive to ensure that the fines for breaches of health and safety are increased. I hope that the Minister will make the Solicitor-General aware of the concerns and of the need for legislation to increase the fines for health and safety breaches, particularly those following a fatal accident, be it in construction or in industry generally.

Thirdly, there is a need to arrest the fall in the Health and Safety Executive’s budget. By 2008, the HSE will have lost 17 per cent. of the staff that it had in 2002, when comparing like with like. The pressure is set to get worse in this autumn’s comprehensive spending review if the Department for Work and Pensions passes on the 5 per cent. year-on-year cut. Again, the Minister may wish to ensure that that is brought to the attention of the Secretary of State and to investigate what may be done in the Department to ensure that those cuts do not occur.

My fourth suggestion deals with the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, which is about to be made law. I hope that it is, because I support it and believe that it will make it easier to prosecute large and medium-sized companies for manslaughter following a death. There is evidence to suggest that the Bill could be made even more effective, for example, by giving company directors duties under it. I hope that the Minister will draw the appropriate Department’s attention to the fact that we need a change in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to put duties on directors. Such duties would strengthen the Bill and would help to drive through a health and safety culture, particularly in the construction industry.

Fifthly, in the face of the increasing casualisation and fragmentation of the industry, we need to ensure greater protection for workers, particularly the migrant workers who are coming on to construction sites. In that context, will the Minister consider extending the Gangmasters
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(Licensing) Act 2004 to the construction industry? I recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) promoted the private Member’s Bill that later became that Act. It is an important piece of legislation, which is now in need of being extended to the construction industry.

Finally, I should draw the House’s attention to the fact that over the past decade, 20 young people between the ages of 16 and 19 have been killed on construction sites. In the face of that, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and the HSE got together to produce a hazard awareness course for year 10 pupils. Will the Minister take that up again with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and ask whether we could make the course mandatory and a part of every curriculum?

In conclusion, I am aware that the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, which were again opposed in the first instance by the Conservative Opposition, focus on effective planning and risk-management. Given that one worker is killed and 70 are seriously injured every week in the construction industry, it is clear that more needs to be done. The CCA report has uncovered a worrying trend, and the concerns of UCATT, which is the main union in the construction industry, deserve to be addressed in a way that will ensure that positive proposals are put forward to drive through the construction industry a health and safety culture that will protect workers.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): I advise hon. Members that I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am.

9.58 am

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing this crucial debate. He has a proud track record of campaigning on issues such as this, and I am sure that the House would like to recognise his efforts in this regard, as many in the trade union movement do.

It is worrying that despite the legislative measures passed by this Government and this Parliament to bolster health and safety in the workplace, the number of fatalities in the construction industry remains so high. The dangers for those in the industry are greater than for those in any other industry: they are seven times more likely to die at work than workers in any other industry and one in three of all work-related deaths occur in the construction industry. No disrespect to our armed forces or emergency services, but if the same number of fatalities was to occur in those professions, there would rightly be a public outcry. Parliamentarians would be asked to solve the problem and we would be looking for solutions. Unfortunately, when someone dies in the construction industry—it sometimes happens daily—it is unheard of and even the press and media no longer report those untimely deaths.

Working in the construction industry is dangerous. No one can ever be 100 per cent. safe all the time, but it is not unreasonable for those in that line of work to
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expect and to have the right to be protected from unnecessary danger caused by negligence or cost-saving. As with all elements of a construction project, the safety of workers and the public must be managed. Inclusion of safety issues at the start of a project is essential to allow for safety to be considered at the design stage and throughout the construction and operational phases. Unfortunately, that does not always seem to be a priority for those at the top of the construction industry, and for that reason bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive exist to monitor safety practices on site and to take appropriate coercive or legal action when necessary.

Reference has been made to the 2012 Olympics, which is a great opportunity for the construction industry and its skills. However, I hope that the Government will not construct the site on the deaths of people working there. When companies tender for contracts, I hope that their health and safety record and that of their subcontractors is taken into account.

We are here today because of concern among the public, trade unions and politicians about inadequate safety. The increasing number of accidents and fatalities is alarming, and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians published a report in April this year which highlights the fact that only 21 per cent. of the 504 deaths in the construction industry between 1998 and 2004 were successfully prosecuted. Coupled with a drop of 75 per cent. in the number of prosecutions following deaths in the industry, it is clear that the Health and Safety Executive has not provided the necessary monitoring and enforcement action to safeguard construction workers, who continue daily to face danger and death on British building sites. It is already clear that too few workplace injuries are investigated and too few companies are ever visited by the Health and Safety Executive. That situation can only worsen when, this time next year, the Health and Safety Executive sheds almost 400 inspectors.

Furthermore, the UCATT report also refers to an internal audit carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, which uncovered the lack of a coherent application of the Health and Safety Executive's criteria for pursuing prosecutions against companies that had placed their employees’ lives in jeopardy. Aside from the obvious concern that violations of health and safety regulations are going unpunished, evidence has emerged of widespread variations in both convictions and sentencing throughout the United Kingdom. That has allowed companies to flout health and safety regulations with impunity, cut costs and endanger people's lives. What is needed is a cohesive approach in all areas of the Health and Safety Executive's operation from inspection to the issuing of improvement and prohibition notices, and particularly the prosecution of those guilty of putting workers’ lives at risk.

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