THE CONSTRUCTION industry this week united behind a call for Home Secretary Jack Straw to instigate a Europe-wide convention to enforce fines levied on foreign companies found guilty of health & safety breaches in the UK.
The Institution of Civil Engineers, the Association of Consulting Engineers, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association and the Transport & General Workers Union all backed last week's call by Labour Member of the European Parliament for South East England Mark Watts for an agreement between European Union member states.
Watts' plea came after it emerged that Austrian tunnelling consultant Geoconsult had not paid any of the £500,000 fine handed down last year for its part in the 1994 Heathrow Express tunnel collapse.
This followed news that the £1M fine against two Swedish companies found guilty of causing the death of eight people in the 1994 Ramsgate walkway collapse had been written off by the courts (News last week).
Watts described the current situation where British and foreign companies working alongside each other were subject to different rules as 'unstable' and called for Straw to instigate a convention between EU countries to harmonise legislation.
At present, criminal fines cannot be pursued outside the country in which they are handed down. A European convention can only be agreed by the most senior home affairs ministers from each EU state.
ICE chief executive Mike Casebourne supported Watts' plea: 'There is no doubt there should be a convention between EU countries. We must have a single standard that everyone in the UK works to. In the light of the discovery that foreign contractors and consultants appear to be able to avoid the health & safety regulations, then clients should not employ them.'
CECA chairman Simon Frain agreed: 'CECA entirely supports that effort. It is the most important issue that affects our industry and there certainly should be some way of making sure (foreign companies') assets are available.'
He added: 'It is pointless having health & safety regulations if anyone can walk away and not pay a fine.'
TGWU national secretary for construction Bob Blackman said it was shocking that companies could evade health & safety fines. 'We very much support the call for a Convention. There is no deterrent if health & safety fines are written off. You are letting them get away with murder,' he added.
The ACE also backed the call. Director of legal and professional affairs Clare Bristow said: 'Because the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations emanated from the EU we feel an EU-wide enforcement regime may be worthwhile. Therefore, in principle, we support the proposal for the Council of Ministers to implement some form of enforcement convention.'
Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine told a safety conference in December that enforcement of health & safety fines was crucial to secure a safe working environment.
However, leading health & safety barrister and MP for Beaconsfield, Dominic Grieve, warned that international agreement on criminal penalties was a two way street and could present difficulties.
'It is a loophole that needs to be plugged if those fines are to be effective,' he said. 'But there are implications. If we have to enforce another country's fine on a British company we have to be satisfied that country's penal system is similar to our own'
(See analysis page 6)