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During my time in Parliament, I have supported efforts to make companies and particularly individuals responsible for the safety of their employees. It is clear that despite the Governments best efforts, the current punishment whereby companies are fined for violating health and safety regulations is not a sufficient
deterrent. If the directors of those companies were hit where it hurtsin the walletand/or faced jail terms, they would take greater care and consideration of employees' wellbeing in the workplace.
The Health and Safety Executive has estimated that management failure contributed to or was directly responsible for 70 per cent. of deaths in the construction industry, and I am sure that my colleagues will agree that that is unacceptable and outrageous.
Mr. Clapham: My hon. Friend did a great deal of research when he presented his private Members Bill. Has he given any thought to how that Bill might be applied to the construction industry? The unions are witnessing migrant labour coming and working in similar conditions as those in agriculture where they work under a gangmaster. Could the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 bring greater protection in construction?
Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. The gangmaster legislation covers only those working in the agriculture industry. There is clear evidence that gangmasters are now moving from agriculture to the construction industry and that is a major issue. It is time we reflected on and reviewed how effective the legislation is, and whether we could extend it to the construction industry.
Things seem to be going from bad to worse. In the past year, there has been an increase of 32 per cent. in the number of construction workers killed over the previous year. That is a worrying trend, and I think it can be traced to the expansion of the European Union which has led to an influx of migrant workers from eastern Europe. I stress that I neither believe nor suggest that the increase in accidents results from foreign workers negligence or inability to do the job, but some of them may not have a firm grasp of English and are being put to work on sites without a full understanding of the health and safety practices needed to ensure their own safety and that of their fellow workers and the public. Health and safety must be factored in at every stage of any construction project, and in the global age that should include a multilingual work force.
There is some validity in ensuring that companies hiring staff from outside the UK require all their staff to undertake a skills audit to assess performance, from both a task and process management perspective. Adopting such a practice would ensure that only workers who are appropriately trained and accredited to perform the job they are employed for and who are fully versed in all aspects of site health and safety are working on Britains construction sites.
As a trade unionist, I have fought all my adult life to make workplaces safer, and as an MP I work with my parliamentary colleagues to continue that fight. If the construction industry cannot bring itself to protect workers, Parliament must step in and make it happen.
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab):
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for securing this debate. As we all know, in stature he may not be the largest person
in the world, but in Parliament he is a giant in health and safety matters, and a credit to us all. It is typical that he managed to secure this debate.
I praise my trade union, UCATT, and I must declare an interest. I have been a member of UCATT for more than 25 years, and was branch president for more than 12 years, so I know the work that can be done to secure health and safety in the workplace. Its report, horrendous as it is, would be a lot worse but for its work in the workplace. It is self-evident and we all know that the building and construction industry is dangerous. My hon. Friend referred to that fact. One can look at the military situation weekly, and people are in uproar, the press are furious and there is outrage in Parliament when there is a death in Iraq. Large sections of the press, of Parliament and of the community say that we should withdraw from Iraq to save the lives of soldiers. However, what do we also see weekly? Building workers are killed through the negligence of their employers, and the only furore comes from the families and friends of those workersno one else.
One would have thought that in light of those facts and figures, especially those that the report highlights, we would want to do something about the industry, making health and safety central to its ethos. Sadly, however, the industry does not want to do so. Once again, building industry employers put profits before people.
The report sets out in graphic detail how society, the Government and the industry are letting workers down. In the past six years, there have been more than 500504deaths. What is moreand what makes the situation worsethe perpetrators of those deaths are walking away almost scot-free, sometimes with paltry fines of as little as £1,000; that is, if they are convicted.
Mr. Russell Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a disgrace that the official Opposition recently blocked a private Members Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), which would have increased the penalties for breaches of health and safety legislation?
Mr. Hepburn: Anything that Parliament can do to help the cause of health and safety in the workplace should be supported by all parties, because we are talking about deaths. We would not stand for deaths anywhere else in society, so we should not stand for them in the workplace. I agree with my hon. Friend; he makes a very valid point.
The report highlights three areas. First, it highlights the lack of justice and the fact that the investigation and conviction period can be long drawn out. The dead persons family has to go through murder and pain during the investigation, and at the end of the day, little if anything is done. The report highlighted the fact that in the past year, only one in 10 cases brought about a conviction.
Secondly, the report highlights the level of disparity between regions. Is it not a nonsense that if a worker in the north-east of England is killed at work on a construction site owing to the negligence of his employer, the employer will be fined £15,000 on average, but if the same thing happens in the south-west of England, the records show that the
employer will be fined £60,000 on average? That is a nonsense, and something must be done about it. It is a nonsense that a worker can be more valuable in one part of the country than in another.
Thirdly, the report highlights the need for a change of law. In 2005, I introduced a private Members Bill on directors duties. Unfortunately it was not successful, but my view remains the same: until directors are given direct responsibility for health and safety in the workplace, such deaths will continue. The issue will remain out of mind and out of sight, and people will say, If it is not my responsibility, I have nothing to do with it. Changes must be made.
The construction industry is massive: it comprises about 10 per cent. of the economy, it makes billions of pounds of profit every year for employers and it employs millions of workers. The industry is very important, but one fact that comes out of the report is that we are letting those workers down. There is no doubt that a change of law is required to make directors directly responsible for health and safety in their workplace.
It is an excellent report, and all credit must go to UCATT. The report shows that it is time to ensure safety in the workplace, to bring about justice through investigations and the courts, and to place responsibility in the boardroom where it should be and where it should have always been. The Government should act now.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): First, I apologise to you, Dr. McCrea, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who presented the debate, for missing the first 10 minutes. I was actually late due to train delays, and as frustrating as they are, it is better that the trains are driven safely than that we have an accident. The same should apply to all industries, including the construction industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. It is an important subject, and the UCATT report that motivated the debate is splendid and informative. He drew attention to that fact, and he has an outstanding record on health and safety campaigning in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) called him a giant, and I echo those words.
I sit on the parliamentary panel of the building trade union, UCATT, but there is no personal financial gain in that situation, and my concern for better health and safety long predates my membership of the panel. A number of hon. Members have a common interest in those situations.
Levels of conviction and sentencing following prosecutions arising from deaths of workers and members of the public in the construction sector.
The report, which was published last month, showed that from 1998 to 2004 there were 504 construction deaths, only 21 per cent. of which resulted in a conviction. In that six-year period, prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive following construction deaths fell by 75 per cent. That is an appalling set of figures and an
appalling trend. In 2006-07, construction deaths rose by 25 per cent. In the current year, which started in April, there have already been 11 deaths, one of which was the death of a 15-year-old child. We are only in May, and those are serious matters for concern, but the HSE is prepared to shed 300 inspection posts, which seems to run counter to the trend of the problem.
The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, which I welcome and support, is before the House, and I hope that it will soon be an Act of Parliament. I sat on the scrutiny Committee, and I voted in favour of company directors being directly accountable for health and safety matters. However, it looks as though that provision will be squeezed out of the Bill, so the reliance will be back on fines. I shall address the level of fines in a moment, because the UCATT document mentions them and they are relevant.
It is perverse that company directors can go to jail if they are found guilty of financial irregularities, but that if their direct actions or their neglect leads to the death of a worker, there cannot be a prosecution and they will not be sent to jail. It is wrong. I come from east London, and in my area one of the current stories is about a fine of £5.5 million that has been imposedadmittedly by the Football Associationon West Ham football club for a couple of player transfers. The club has been fined £5.5 million, when employers are invariably fined just a couple of hundred pounds for the death of a worker, which seems perverse.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone made the point that one of the reasons why deaths on construction sites are so high is our culture of subcontracting and self-employment, which he called bogus self-employment. Alan Ritchie, the general secretary of UCATT, gave a good explanation why that ricochets into deaths in Tribune on 27 April:
Despite the strong health and safety rules in place, the casualised nature of the British construction industry makes it an unnecessarily dangerous place in which to work.
If Britains employment practices were in line with the rest of northern Europe, then only 5 to 10 per cent. of our construction workers would be self-employed. But in this country the figure is around 50 per cent. These are not people who have specialist skills, tools or equipment. The vast majority of self-employed construction workers work in much the same way as normal workers.
sites relying on bogus self-employment are less safe and suffer a higher number of casualties than sites which have direct employment.
Mr. McGovern: My hon. Friend has mentioned the fact that trade union-organised sites are generally safer than non-organised sites. I can attest to that, as a member of the GMB and a former safety rep. Many construction companies employ just five, 10 or 12 people and are therefore exempt from the legislation covering trade union recognition. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a loophole that should be closed?
Harry Cohen: I do, actually. Health and safety is so important that there should be the right to trade union representation in those small firms, and certainly on health and safety matters. Even more than that, I would favour trade union representatives playing a role in inspections. They should also have the strength of the law on construction sites or any other site, to back them up if they withdraw their labour, for example, because something is not safe. Personally, that is what I would favour.
However good the intentions of the contractor on issues of safety, these get weakened or lost as they pass down the chain of command to a plethora of companies which may only be on site for a relatively short period of time. In such circumstances, it is unsurprising that more accidents happen.
Finally, if a contractor does not have their own workforce and does not know the people working for them, the safety imperative is inevitably reduced.
That reinforces the point that subcontracting, bogus self-employment and the plethora of companies involved mean more deaths and less safety on sites. We need to move in the direction of more direct employment.
I want to use the last few minutes that I have in this debate to refer to the UCATT report directly, and in particular to its comments about London. Before I do so, however, I note the trend, identified right at the start of the report, on page 3, in the number and percentage of construction sector deaths that resulted in a conviction by year. To focus on just three of those years, in 1998-99 there were 69 deaths and 29 convictions, which meant a rate of convictions per death of 42 per cent; in 2000-01, the number of deaths increased to 113, while there were 27 convictions, resulting in a decrease in the rate to 25 per cent.; and in 2003-04 there were 75 deaths and eight convictions, which meant a rate of just 11 per cent. That trend is incredibly alarming, and it shows that the rate of convictions is going right down.
In the six-year period from 1998 to 2004, there were 75 deaths in London and 19 convictions, with a conviction rate per death of just 25 per cent., which is again very poor. Over that six-year period in London, the total fines imposed on defendants following a death came to £935,500 and the number of defendants convicted following a death was 25, which worked out at £37,000 per defendant found guilty of an offence. That is low, although in certain parts of the country, such as the north-east, which my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow mentioned, the rate is half that.
The report gives details on some of the cases. In 2000, in a case involving Galliford Try Partnerships, a child died from a fall while playing on scaffold during the refurbishment of occupied housing association flats, because the principal contractor had
failed to identify and fence foreseeable access route from public walkway over parapet onto the adjacent scaffold.
Death took place when large slab of masonry from base of foundation fell on workers who were digging underpin excavation. Lack of support precautions. Foundations known to contain matrix of rotting wood. Lack of proper risk assessment and method statement.
A tower crane driver, fell whilst climbing the access ladder to his cab. The ladder up to the crane had a number of defects.
Deceased fell from a platform due to an insufficiently secured, extended ladder.
Fatal fall of self-employed heating engineer, assisting in lifting of boiler unit.
One scaffolder...killed in fall, another...broke his leg when a...scaffold collapsed whilst it was being dismantled. Major...risk to public. Immediate cause was the overbalancing of the rig during the lowering of counterweights.
following a fall of 2.4 m. The fall occurred whilst he was attempting to access a scaffold using an inappropriate ladder, no appropriate ladder access had been provided.
Peter Coldspring, a sub-contract painter and decorator was electrocuted whilst carrying out refurbishment work in a flat. Failure to ensure electricity was isolated during works.
Those fines are pathetically low. Not included in the report are the profits that those companies make, not only overall, but on those individual jobs and contracts. Their profits far exceed the fines, which are little more than a pinprick. Those fines must go up significantly if they are to have any deterrent value for health and safety. It is disappointing that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill has not pinned that liability directly on directors.
My last point is about migrant workers, who are particularly vulnerable. There is bogus self-employment, and because of their language problems, migrant workers are often given the worst jobs in the industry. There is a strong case for the Health and Safety Executive to record employment status, nationality and the name of the client who procured the work. Some of that work might have been procured by the public sectorby the Government or local authorities. If so, we should know that so that there is an opportunity to put pressure on the public authorities to take action.
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