Prescott unveils tougher penalties for safety lapses

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Company directors who fail to ensure the safety of their employees will be subject to multi-million pound fines and possibly jail under a tough new Health and Safety at Work Act, John Prescott revealed yesterday.

Company directors who fail to ensure the safety of their employees will be subject to multi-million pound fines and possibly jail under a tough new Health and Safety at Work Act, John Prescott revealed yesterday.

The Deputy Prime Minister used his keynote speech to the conference to announce plans for a Bill to improve safety in the workplace and create fresh safeguards on the public transport network.

Mr Prescott unveiled the proposals in a barnstorming address won him a standing ovation. His speech highlighted Labour's record on transport, the countryside and local government since it came to office.

The safety Bill, the first major piece of safety legislation in more than 25 years, would lift the current ceiling on fines and introduce a fresh penalties regime that would link the fine to a company's turnover.

Mr Prescott believes that current fines, even the maximum amounts where employees are killed at work through safety breaches, have little effect on the bigger companies.

The measure may also create a law of corporate manslaughter, which would enable company directors to be subject to criminal proceedings if they are found to have caused deaths through negligence.

The Bill would set up a new Safety Commission, which would be given powers to prosecute offenders and force companies to give directors direct responsibility for health and safety. It would also remove crown immunity from prosecution, which currently applies to some public bodies such as the House of Commons.

"A life lost in a factory accident is just as important as a life lost in a traffic accident. Labour's Health and Safety at Work Act has helped to reduce accidents dramatically since the 1970s," he said.

"We'll take decisive action to strengthen our safety law, in transport and in the workplace. For the first time in 25 years we will bring forward a new wide-ranging Act of Parliament to make Britain a safer place to travel and a safer place to work in."

Mr Prescott said the Bill would incorporate the recommendations of the Cullen inquiry into rail safety. "I have given my word that I stand ready to implement whatever is required as a result of Lord Cullen's proposals and I will stand by that," he said.

From next April, the Government will introduce half-price concessionary bus fares for all pensioners. Some councils currently charge £40 for the bus passes, but from next year they will be free for all.

He said his 10-year plan for transport would invest £180bn in public transport, and that investment would rise from £5bn to a record £9bn a year in the next three years alone.

With the Prime Minister sitting alongside, Mr Prescott praised Mr Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for providing the circumstances for a major improvement in public services. "Too often, politicians have dodged long-term responsibility for the sake of short-term expediency," he said.

* The Government suffered a defeat over its environment policy, with delegates backing a tougher line on pollution. They voted for heavier fines for pollution by companies, and financial incentives for vehicles that use cleaner fuel.

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