Gas, solid fuel and oil-fired heating engineers face jail sentences of up to two years if they are found to be in breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA).
The new sentencing arrangement are made possible under the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill, set out to amend the current framework for maximum penalties as outlined in Section 33 of the HSWA.
The new bill is designed to ensure that sentences for Health and Safety (H&S) offences “can be easily set at a level to respond proportionately to the nature of the breach and to deter those who flout the law”, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) spokesperson said.
If the Bill – which passed its second reading in the House of Commons earlier this month - becomes law, it will raise the maximum fine which may be imposed by a magistrate’s court to £20,000 for most H&S offences. Fines imposed by crown courts will remain unlimited.
The Bill also proposes to make certain offences, which are currently heard in magistrate’s courts, tried in either magistrates or crown courts. The aim is to give the courts more scope to respond to the potential seriousness of the offence, the spokesperson explained.
More importantly, the bill makes imprisonment an option for most H&S offences, in both the lower and the higher courts.
Responding to the new bill, Bob Towse, HVCA head of technical and safety, said: “We’ve been monitoring the progress of this Bill for sometime. Some would say this will hurt a lot of installers.
“We don’t believe it will hurt our members, only those who are not doing their jobs properly and who are negligent in their practise. There’s no defence for people who break the law and put the lives of others at risk.”
Tony Brunton, chairman of the Association of Registered Gas Installers, agreed. “We’ve been saying for a long time that if we want to stop cowboys from operating within our industry we have to provide a range or incentives or disincentives to encourage them to change their behaviour,” he said.
“For the average rogue installer, incentives have not worked. Many illegals would rather be fined, many have and yet they continue to operate as before. If a rogue is going to be deprived of his liberty, and his ability to trade is severely inhibited, then that person is likely to [consider] becoming registered and ways of improving his practice.”
However, HoHHMr Brunton said there were issues with the Bill. “If you are a self-employed installer and you are found to be in breach of the HSWA it is easy to accept a court ruling; all issues of negligence are down to you.
“But if you work as part team within an organisation and something you do is considered negligent because you are following company procedure, should you be held responsible? Where’s the employer responsibility?
“What you’ll find is that installers will start backing away. If you start identifying responsibility so that the end result is a custodial sentence, then we’ve got to make sure that the people we’re making responsible for the negligence are the right people. It’s not enough to make the installer the scapegoat.
The HVCA’s Mr Towse said: “Where there are issues like this, the HVCA would want to support its members and would be active in bringing about some sanity to the issue.”