CONSTRUCTION SAFETY experts this week urged the Government to scrap plans to put the Health & Safety Executive in charge of corporate manslaughter investigations following site deaths.
They warned that the HSE has neither the resources nor the investigation track record to take over these cases from the police and said that attempts to prosecute individual company directors would be substantially weakened.
The Centre for Corporate Accountability highlighted the HSE's lack of experience in investigating serious incidents.
CCA director David Bergman listed statistics which he said showed the HSE's 'very poor investigative record'.
'Between 1996 and 1998 the HSE investigated 500 deaths and 42,000 serious injuries and did not prosecute one company director, ' he said.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott this week underlined the Government's commitment to the plan during a speech to the Labour Party conference: 'We will take decisive action to strengthen our safety law, ' he said.
The proposals were outlined in a Home Office consultation document last May. The document details the Government's plan to create a new offence of corporate killing and also suggests that the police should be stripped of powers to investigate site deaths, with the HSE put in charge instead.
At present police officers attend fatal accidents on site before deciding whether the facts justify a manslaughter charge. The HSE helps with the investigation and if the police decide not to pursue an investigation the HSE can take over.
The proposed changes have caused concern in the industry.
The Construction Confederation joined other health and safety experts this week in condemning the plans and argued that the HSE could not provide 'a consistency of prosecution' due to a lack of funding.
There is also concern that the HSE's operational philosophy is at odds with the new regime as it is not as geared to prosecution as it is to serving safety improvement notices. Posford Duvivier health and safety manager Kevin Fear warned that if the proposals went through there would have to be a 'culture change from the highest level. Prosecution is not in the culture, ' he said.
Health & Safety Commission chairman Bill Callaghan told this month's Trade Union Congress conference that he would need more money and resources if the organisation was to take on these new responsibilties.
An HSE spokesman also confirmed this week that significant changes would have to be made to the way it operates. However, he stressed the organisation was prepared to take on the new role and that past involvement with manslaughter cases had given it a good insight into how investigations were conducted.