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Tougher Health & Safety Sentencing Guidelines Introduced

2nd February 2016

Tough new sentencing guidelines that could see much higher fines imposed for breaching health and safety law have come into force.

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The guidelines from the Sentencing Council introduce three key factors in determining fines: the degree of harm caused, the culpability of the offender and the turnover of the offending organisation. Courts will consider aggravating factors, such as cost-cutting at the expense of safety, as well as mitigating factors, such as a previously good health and safety record.

The Sentencing Council says that increased penalties for serious offending have been introduced because, in the past, some offenders did not receive fines that properly reflected the crimes committed.

Now, as well as the severity of the offence, the culpability and means of the employer will also be assessed before fines are handed down.

Turnover is used to identify the starting point for a fine, but the guidelines also require the court to review and adjust the fine if necessary, taking into account factors such as profit margin, impact on employees, or the impact on the organisation’s ability to improve conditions. This means sentences will always be tailored to the offender’s specific circumstances.

Neal Stone, policy and standards director at the British Safety Council, said the change is “long overdue”. “What is clear is that the courts have on occasions failed to properly take into account the seriousness of the offence in weighing up the appropriate penalty. “To date, the largest fine imposed in Great Britain for a health and safety offence – £15m – was on Transco in 2005. That unenviable record may soon change.

The new guidelines, which will in some cases result in far greater fines than courts are currently imposing, reflects a shift in not only public opinion but concerns among certain members of the judiciary, including Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice. As he has made clear in recent appeal court decisions, the purpose of fines is to reduce criminal offences, reform and rehabilitate the offender and protect the public.

If the changes in sentencing practice do not help achieve these objectives – particularly ensuring compliance and discouraging law-breaking – then they count for nothing. What we will need to see is clear evidence that the new guidelines have played their part in improving health and safety. Extra money through increased fines going into Treasury coffers should not be the name of the game. The objective must be to reduce the deficit of fatal and major injuries and occupational ill health.”