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16 May 2007 : Column 259WH—continued

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 Government’s best efforts, the current punishment whereby companies are fined for violating health and safety regulations is not a sufficient
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deterrent. If the directors of those companies were hit where it hurts—in the wallet—and/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 Member’s 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 Britain’s 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.

10.8 am

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
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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 workers—no 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 500—504—deaths. What is more—and what makes the situation worse—the 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 Member’s 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 person’s 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
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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 Member’s 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.

10.14 am

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.

The UCATT report, which has been referred to, considered:

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
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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 imposed—admittedly by the Football Association—on 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:

He said that such workers are indeed bogus, because they do jobs and take orders, and are not in any way specialist. He also said that

Part of the reason for that is that such workers have no representation for health and safety, but the trade union does a good job in demanding health and safety on site.

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?

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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.

Mr. Ritchie continued:

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

The fine, for the death of a child, was just £40,000. In 2001, in an accident involving Dave O’Keefe and Co., the report said:

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The fine for that category of neglect was just £25,000. Also in 2001:

The fine for that was £5,000. Another example said:

The fine for that was £8,000. The fine for another accident—exactly the same sort of accident, actually—was even worse at just £5,000.

Another example said:

The fine in that case was £52,000, but that is very low—carrying boilers was that worker’s job, so one would have thought that health and safety would have been in place. Another example said:

The fine for that disaster was just £30,000. In London, Mr. Edward Smith died

The fine for that was £7,500. My last example from the report said:

The company to which he had been contracted was fined £30,000 in that case.

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 sector—by 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.

Those are my comments; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and UCATT on raising an important matter.

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