Tougher penalties are being handed out to employers who breach health and safety laws following a change in approach to prosecutions, according to a report released on 16 January.
The report, published by the Department for Work and Pensions, shows that the changes introduced under the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 have led to more cases being tried in the lower courts, convicted offenders being given higher fines, and more custodial sentences for bosses who pay scant regard to the welfare of their staff or the public.
Minister of State for Health and Safety, Mike Penning said: "By handling greater sentencing powers to Magistrates and Sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison."
He said that the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious cases through the Crown Courts has been removed, adding that the process of going through the Crown Court was generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at lower courts.
Head of policy and public affairs at IOSH, Richard Jones, said: "We welcome the Government's review of the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 and the Minister's message that rogue employers who gamble with workers' health and safety will face stiff penalties."
Key findings of the report include:
- 86 per cent of cases were heard in the lower courts after the Act came into force – compared to 70 per cent in the period leading up to its introduction;
- the average fine imposed by the courts involving breaches of health and safety regulations alone increased by 60 per cent, from £4,577 to £7,310;
- for cases involving breaches of both health and safety regulations and the HSWA 1974, the average increase was 25 per cent from £13,334 to £16,730;
- 346 cases attracted fines of more than £5,000 – prior to the Act, the maximum fine that could be imposed was capped at £5,000.
The purpose of the Act was to increase the maximum penalties for workplace health and safety offences that could be heard in both the lower and higher courts. It was believed that if the penalties were increased it would provide a greater deterrent to would-be offenders.
The maximum fine that could be imposed by the lower courts increased four-fold from £5,000 to £20,000.
Magistrates and Sheriffs were also given greater powers to send an offender to prison. In the past, custodial sentences were reserved for special cases, but now someone can be sent to prison for the majority of offences.
Additionally, certain offences that in the past could only be tried in the lower courts, such as the failure to comply with an improvement order, were made triable in either court, meaning the offender could face a much tougher sentence if their case was referred to the Crown Court.