Loophole lets foreign firms dodge safety fines

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Hundreds of companies and individuals were "named and shamed" yesterday after being convicted of health and safety crimes in a move described by watchdogs as a new and tough chapter in enforcement.

Hundreds of companies and individuals were "named and shamed" yesterday after being convicted of health and safety crimes in a move described by watchdogs as a new and tough chapter in enforcement.

But the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) admitted a loophole in safety laws under which multi-national firms based abroad and involved in some of the worst accidents in Britain have got away with refusing to pay the massive fines imposed on them.

Two Swedish companies involved in the walkway collapse at port in Ramsgate, Kent, in which six people died and seven were injured, have yet to fork out a penny of the £1.25m in fines and costs. Two British companies, Port Ramsgate Ltd and Lloyd's Register of Shipping who were also convicted, had to pay their penalties of £1.7m.

The Swedish firms, Fartysentreprenader AB and Fartygskonstruktinor, both members of the Mattson Group, did not attend the court.

And an Austrian company, Geoconsultants, convicted of the tunnel collapse at Heathrow, west of London, in October 1994 has not paid penalties of around £500,000 in fines and costs despite losing its appeal against conviction, while Balfour Beatty - in the news again over the Hatfield train crash - paid its fine of £1.2m.

The Government is negotiating with other European Union states to make payment of criminal fines enforceable for companies wherever they trade. The HSE acknowledges that even if this is achieved, British health and safety laws would still have difficulties with multi-national corporations based abroad. But, despite the large fines in high-profile cases, penalties imposed by courts were often lenient, the watchdogs said.

The HSE's director general, Timothy Walker, said: "The average fine is actually under £7,000. Society has a right to expect that, when a business or individual is found guilty, the penalty handed down by the courts reflects the seriousness of the offence. This is simply not happening enough. We need tougher new penalties and more widely available prison sentences. I am also hopeful that the Government will proceed quickly to introduce the proposed manslaughter legislation and create a new one of corporate killing."

The report showed that in 1999, the HSE prosecuted 1,133 cases involving 2,253 charges, an increase of 9 per cent and 28 per cent respectively on the previous year. The cost to the economy of health and safety accidents and work-related illnesses is estimated at £18bn a year. Every year, about 400 people are killed in work accidents and 25 million working days are lost because of accidents and ill health. Work-related deaths fell from 253 to 218 in the past year, but construction industry fatalities were up 18 per cent.

More than 25,000 people are forced to stop work every year as a result of accidents or sickness and two million people suffer from ill health caused by work. Half a million people a year are suffering stress.

Among the companies named and shamed by the Health and Safety Executive is Railtrack, which faced severe criticism after last week's crash at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, which killed four people. The firm was fined £150,000 in March for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act. Balfour Beatty, employed by Railtrack to maintain the track at Hatfield, was also named in the report after being fined almost £20,000 for failing to meet safety standards.

Companies subcontracted to work on the railways were also penalised for breaching the Act, as was London Underground, which was fined almost £20,000 in July.

Others included Finchplan Limited, fined a total of £15,000 after it breached regulations on "safety critical work"; the Giffen Group, fined £25,000 for breaching construction safety rules; GT Railway Maintenance, fined £18,000; Herson Engineering, fined £6,000; Jarvis Fastline, fined £7,000; and RJ McLeod, fined £4,000.

The big names in the report include British Steel, which was fined more than £400,000 for breaching a number of crucial regulations. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority had to pay more than £110,000 for a series of breaches, some of which involving radioactive material.

Even the University of Cambridge did not escape the inspectors' attentions. However, it escaped with a conditional discharge for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act and the "ionising radiations regulations".