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HSE left red-faced over Freedom of Information Act email

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been forced on the back foot after an email, obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, shows that it was unwise to dispute the findings in a recently-published report. Levels of Convictions and Sentencing Following Prosecution Arising from Deaths of Workers and Members of the Public in the Construction Sector was published to coincide with Workers Memorial Day (April 28). The report was undertaken by the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) on behalf of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT). It revealed that between 1998 and 2004 the numbers of construction-related deaths leading to a prosecution by the HSE fell by nearly three quarters, from 42 to just 11 per cent. CCA researchers found that over the last year the numbers of construction-related deaths rose by 25 per cent. The report’s findings are based on an analysis of data from two HSE web-based prosecution databases, which have since been removed. Alan Ritchie, UCATT general secretary, accused the HSE of neglecting its remit. “The failing of the HSE to prosecute companies who kill their workers is profoundly shocking,” he said. “The HSE is clearly failing to follow its own rules and guidelines on prosecutions.” Geoffrey Podger, HSE chief executive disputed the findings. In a statement issued on the same day of the report’s release, he said: “After a period of much progress, there is a possible 10-15 per cent rise in fatal accidents this year. We haven’t had the opportunity to consider the report in detail, but it does seem that some of the statistics are inaccurate. For example, in 2002/03 the report says there were 12 convictions. We are aware of around 30 such convictions for that year. This issue is in danger of becoming a distraction from the real issue, which is that construction deaths are creeping up again.” Later that day, the HSE capitulated, admitting that the increase in construction deaths is 20-25 per cent, rather than the 10-15 per cent previously stated. Moreover, in an email sent to staff nine months earlier, Mr Podger admitted that the HSEÕs prosecution levels should be higher. ”There is evidence from a number of sources, including the recent Regulatory Decision Making audit, that there is significant scope for improvement in our enforcement decision making. The audit, which involved experienced inspectors, reviewed the decisions taken in over 100 cases,” he wrote. ”In the majority of cases, the panel agreed that the principles of the Commission’s Enforcement Policy Statement had not always been followed in making decision. If they had, then the number of prosecutions would have been considerably greater than was actually the case. The implications of this need to concern us all.” A UCATT spokesperson said: “We find the HSE’s attitude and its questioning of the report’s figures highly disappointing. The research was taken from its own figures. The methodology of the report is quite clear and it is inappropriate to attempt to use smoke and mirrors to obscure the report’s findings.” The email was obtained by the CCA under the FOI. The HSE refused to comment.