Monday, 23 April 2012

MPs asked to act to stop firms who kill avoiding fines

MPs are being asked to back a bill that would freeze the assets of companies that go into administration following the death of an employee.

Freezing orders, which already operate in fraud and drugs cases, would prevent phoenix firms with slightly different names, but the same directors, equipment and premises from restarting trading and evading fines imposed under the Health and Safety at Work Act. (HASAWA)

Last year 171 workers were fatally injured at work, with 68 members of the public also killed in accidents connected to work. A further 8,000 people die annually as a result of occupational cancer, of which half is due to past exposure to asbestos.

Firms found guilty of breaching the HASAWA can be prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive and last year 774 were convicted with an average fine of £24,005 per breach. They included Bryn Thomas Crane Hire Ltd who were fined just £4,500 following the death of supervisor Mark Thornton, killed when a six-tonne steel column hit him in 2007 on a building site located in the Liverpool Wavertree constituency of Luciana Berger, MP.

In court Judge Nigel Gilmour, QC, said the father of two’s death was “wholly avoidable” and expressed frustration at being unable to impose an appropriate fine of £300,000 because the company had gone into administration with large debts after bosses Dylan, Janus and father Bryn Thomas had paid themselves £994,000 in salary and dividends in the three years that followed Thornton’s death.

This was around 40% of the total that they subsequently paid to buy up the assets of the old firm and establish Bryn Thomas Cranes Ltd, who have issued a statement saying ‘the administration was legitimate and unavoidable and that it was not used as a means of avoiding punishment.’ The company said that they wanted to correct any ‘inaccuracies as they could endanger more than 40 jobs at the business which generates more than £2.5 million for the local economy each year.’

Berger has cited Thornton’s death - and that of satellite installer Noel Corbin in which his employer Brentwood firm Foxtel Ltd, after going into administration, were fined just £1 before later re-emerging as – as the reason why she would like to see MPs adopt a bill that would amend the HASAWA.

Speaking to her bill at the first reading she said: “A worrying number of companies are not only ignoring the laws designed to protect their employees, but they are then exploiting legal loopholes to avoid proper punishment following deaths at work, resulting from their malpractice.”

The Bill, which is backed by construction union, UCATT, is due to receive its Second Reading on 27th April 2012, but will need Government support if it is to become law.

Asked if Berger was likely to get it, and whether it would demonstrate a callous disregard for the lives of workers if she didn’t, a HSE spokesperson for employment minister Chris Grayling said: “We are in the process of considering this and have no further comment to make at this time.”

Yet with the prime minister David Cameron telling UK businesses his government was “waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses” then pressure group Families Against Corporate Killers spokesperson Hilda Palmer “is fairly sure this coalition won’t back a Bill that holds business accountable for its lawlessness, as this is going against the flood of its legislative programme. Sadly we know that the majority of MPs know almost nothing about the real world of work, and care little or nothing for workers' safety and health.”

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