SIX PEOPLE died when a Swedish designed and built ship to shore walkway collapsed at Ramsgate in 1994. The same year only luck prevented tragedy at Heathrow Airport when three Austrian designed tunnels collapsed during the construction of the Heathrow Express rail link.
Foreign firms were found guilty of breaching health & safety laws both times. Sweden's Fartygsentrepenader AB and Fartygskonstrukioner AB were fined a total of £1M and ordered to pay £251,500 in costs following the Ramsgate disaster. Austrian consultant Geoconsult was fined £500,000 and £100,000 costs for its part in the Heathrow collapse.
None has paid a penny.
Last week NCE reported that the Lord Chancellor's office had allowed a Kent magistrates' court to write off the outstanding fine against the Swedes as unrecoverable. At the same time it emerged that Geoconsult is to appear at Uxbridge Magistrates' Court to explain why it has yet to start paying its fine.
The British legal system is powerless to act against foreign firms which fail to pay fines for health & safety breaches, especially if they have no base in the UK and no assets on British soil.
Geoconsult and the Swedish firms are both based in the European Union, whose health & safety legislation has been transposed into member states' domestic laws.
But member states have no power to enforce their domestic health & safety laws in other EU countries unless they negotiate specially agreed multilateral conventions. There is one in place for ensuring that motorists banned from driving do not take to the road anywhere across the EU. Given that much health & safety legislation originates from EU directives it is ironic that it is one area not covered by such a convention.
Labour's European Parliament member for South East England Mark Watts believes the construction industry should lobby Home Secretary Jack Straw to instigate an EU health & safety convention.
'It is frightening that two rules apply on the construction site. One against the British contractor and another against the foreign contractor who knows it has full immunity. If foreign companies are providing infrastructure equipment upon which lives depend and they know they will not be liable then health and safety will not be a concern.
'It is a Pandora's Box. We are seeing an increase in major capital projects in the UK with more competition from outside the UK. We thought Ramsgate was a one off but there could be many, many more.'
New Labour has given safety a high priority. After the Ladbroke Grove rail crash John Prescott said nothing would come above safety. In December the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, underlined the importance of effective enforcement of fines.
'A substantial fine which brings home the message that the law and criminal prosecutions are intended to secure a safe environment for workers and the public is not simply to impose a debt but a serious punishment. A financial penalty, however, must be enforced if the message is to be driven home. We are therefore taking action to improve the enforcement of fines, compensation and other sums ordered by the criminal courts.'
It seems logical this should apply to foreign contractors as much as to their UK competitors.
(See story page 5)