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MP slams 'pathetic' response to safety

The chairman of a cross-party committee that called on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to dramatically increase site inspections has branded the Government's response as 'pathetic'.

The Work and Pensions Committee issued a heavily critical report in April calling for the HSE to rethink its approach to site inspections and pursue more prosecutions for health and safety breaches.

Labour MP Terry Rooney, the committee's chairman, said members were shocked by the Government's response, which was finally released on Tuesday morning.

He said: 'It is pathetic. They have conceded nothing at all. The Government is being extremely defensive and complacent.

'We have already informed officials at the Department of Work and Pensions that we are deeply disappointed by their response and we are awaiting any further word.'

The committee could demand a debate on the Government's response, but Mr Rooney said the earliest point this could happen is the autumn. He added that he could see 'no evidence at all' that the HSE was changing its approach since the committee report was released.

The committee had argued the HSE's construction inspectorate was not adequately resourced to undertake enough site inspections and this had worryingly coincided with fatalities increasing by 28 per cent last year.

But an extract from the Government's response said: 'The Government does not believe that a correlation can be drawn from one year's fatal accident figures and resources. It is committed to maintaining the capacity of HSE's construction division, in line with its wider commitment to maintaining frontline capacity.

'The committee highlights a difference of 28 per cent in fatal injuries between 2006/2007 and 2005/06. However, the Government notes that 2006/07 represented a peak in recent experience and is not representative of the general long-term downward trend.'

The Government also said it was satisfied with the number of prosecutions undertaken by the HSE, despite a sharp fall over the past 10 years.

A key issue for the committee was the need for a mandatory code of conduct for directors regarding their health and safety duties to ensure the effective protection of staff. The Government has said it will not consider any change until after a review which is not due to begin until the end of 2009.

Mr Rooney said: 'They have been looking at this issue for 12 years and they are just carrying on looking at it.'

Just under a third of all work-related fatalities are within the construction sector, with a large proportion of these in skilled trades. Refurbishment sites are also seen as a particular problem area. 

The latest provisional figures from the HSE released this week show the number of deaths in construction was 72 in 2007/2008, down from 79 in the previous year.

But construction union UCATT is unimpressed by the progress being made by the HSE and backs the committee's call for a statutory code for directors. A spokesman said: 'By talking about the importance of giving advice and guidance, ministers and HSE chiefs give the impression they think it is more important to stuff education material into envelopes than inspect sites.

'The Government has once again refused to provide more funding for the HSE. It is clear the HSE does not have sufficient resources to adequately perform its role.'