STEPHEN HEPBURN: Safety must come first for workers

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One of the jobs I had before I became a Labour MP was a building labourer so I’m all too aware of the importance of health and safety in the construction industry.

There can be nothing worse for a family than waving off to work a father, husband, brother or son – or sometimes these days on building sites a mother, wife, sister or daughter – only to receive a call that they’ll never come home.

And as a proud member of the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians for 33 years, I appreciate the sector’s importance.

It’s one of Britain’s biggest industries, employing thousands of people from our area alone and nationally producing profits counted in billions, not millions of pounds.

Depressingly, it also remains one of the most dangerous with 35 deaths last year and many, many more injuries creating a bloodstained toll we must never tolerate.

Most decent businesses understand the importance of safety at work but unfortunately a rotten minority don’t care with fatal consequences.

The good news is the rate of fatal accidents is decreasing but that progress will be reversed if the Tories starve the Health and Safety Executive of funds needed to enforce paper laws, serving as an effective enforcer of high standards.

Only the genuine threat of a site visit and potential penalties will force companies recklessly gambling with lives to respect the law.

Which is why you’ll be as worried as me at the Government’s answers to a series of Parliamentary questions I recently tabled in the House of Commons.

Just 35% of deaths in 2012-13 resulted in a conviction compared with 51% in 2007-8 which itself wasn’t anything worth shouting about when it means nobody is held to account for lost lives.

The figure is way below the Health and Safety Executive’s own target of prosecuting 60% of deaths, which again is low when its own internal research finds 70% management failings are a factor in 70% of fatalities.

Nor is this a case of the courts producing numerous not guilty verdicts when the HSE is successful in up to 95% of prosecutions. The truth is most deaths don’t even end up in court. And the delays are appalling.

Justice delayed is nearly as bad as justice denied when over the last ten years the average delay between the death of a construction worker and the beginning of a prosecution – a conviction takes even longer – was 751 days or more than two years.

The delays are worsening and in 2014-15 the average was 879 days or nearly two and half years. In 30% the prosecution didn’t begin for three to four years.

Some delays are, quite frankly, indefensible. Take the deeply upsetting death of electrician John Walker, killed on a South London building site in 2007. It took longer than eight years before two companies were convicted.

There must be something terribly wrong in how we are dealing with workplace accidents inflicting awful human misery.

Workers in construction deserve to know why prosecutions are so low and take so long. The Government puts others at risk by turning a blind eye to these horrendous failures.

Big companies and employers no longer fear the law. This cannot be allowed to go on.