The definitive guidelines for Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences took effect on Monday 1 February 2016. They apply to all companies and individuals who are sentenced on or after 1 February 2016, regardless of the date the offence was committed. See Practice note, Corporate sentencing for health and safety breaches.
There has been a long lead in time for the definitive guideline, having been published at the beginning of November 2015. The courts might appear to have been imposing steadily increasing fines on companies who commit health and safety breaches since then.
In December, National Grid Gas (plc) was fined £2 million following conviction for a tragic health and safety breach in which a schoolboy died in April 2014. This level of fine has previously imposed in circumstances where many people have been killed or injured. See Legal update, National Grid Gas (plc) fined £2 million following conviction for tragic health and safety breach (Crown Court).
National Grid Gas (Plc) was again fined £1 million a month later, after pleading guilty to a breach of section 3 Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at Sheffield Crown Court on 25 January 2016. In that case a worker had been trapped and broken his leg in a health and safety breach in June 2014. See Legal update, National Grid Gas (Plc) fined following conviction for health and safety breach (Crown Court).
C.RO Ports London Limited was fined £1.8 million following conviction for health and safety breach at Basildon Crown Court on 21 January 2016. This breach resulted in serious injury caused to a worker at the port in June 2104. See Legal update, C.RO Ports London Limited fined £1.8 million following conviction for health and safety breach (Crown Court).
Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Limited was fined £1 million on 25 January 2016 at Canterbury Crown Court. It pleaded guilty to breaching Sections 2(1) & 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. This breach had caused the death of a worker on 1 October 2012. See Legal update, Balfour Beatty fined £1 million following conviction for tragic health and safety breach (Crown Court).
UK Power Networks was fined £1 million at Chelmsford Crown Court on 27 January 2016. It pleaded guilty to a breach of Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 that had cause the death of a man who was out running in 2012. See Legal update, UK Power Networks (Operations) Ltd fined £1 million following conviction for tragic health and safety breach (Crown Court).
Previous sentencing guidelines issued in 2010 by the Sentencing Council’s predecessor body only covered health and safety offences that caused fatalities. Beyond this, there was very little guidance on other types of offence. The courts had imposed large fines in respect of corporate offenders where health and safety breaches had resulted in extensive loss of life:
- Transco, Larkhall gas explosion: £15m
- Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services, Hatfield train crash: £7.5m
- Network Rail, Ladbroke Grove train crash: £4m
- Network Rail, Grayrigg derailment: £4m
- Network Rail, Hatfield train crash: £3.5m
- Network Rail, Potters Bar rail crash: £3m
- Thames Trains, Ladbroke Grove train crash: £2m
- First Great Western Trains, Southall rail crash: £1.5m
- Total UK, Buncefield explosion and fire: £3m
- Corus, Port Talbot steelworks blast furnace explosion: £1.3m
Health and safety offences are concerned with failures to manage risks to health and safety and do not require proof that the offence caused any actual harm. The offence is in creating a risk of harm. The greater the number of people exposed to a risk, the greater the risk of harm. The definitive guideline sets out sentencing ranges that reflect the very different levels of culpability and of risk of harm or actual harm that can result from a health and safety breach.
Although it would appear that sentences are increasing for these offences, it was not the aim of the new guideline that there would be higher fines but to achieve a level of proportionality in sentencing and some uniformity across England and Wales. However Michael Caplan QC, a member of the Sentencing Council commented:
“large organisations that have been convicted of the most serious offences, where they have flagrantly breached the law and created a very high risk of serious harm, or where serious harm has actually been caused, can expect to receive a fine proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and to their financial means.”