The Court of Appeal is expected to issue new guidelines this week on the level of fines metered out for breaches of the RRO. The appeal is mounted by New Look against its record-breaking fine of £400,000 plus a hefty £136,000 in legal costs arising from a serious fire that eventually led to the demolition if its Oxford Street store.
Hillary Ross of law firm Bond Pearce giving details at a presentation to a conference of Safety & Health Practitioners this month, maintained that there is a huge problem of consistency in sentencing across England and Wales and a lack of guidance for fire and rescue authorities in pursuing prosecutions.
She echoes my sentiments when stating “When the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 came into play [in October 2006], it was hoisted not just on industry but also on fire officers”, who were given no additional training, no additional guidance, and no support for the changes the law brought in.
The basis of the New Look appeal is that the punishment is disproportionate and bears no relation to fines imposed in other areas of Health and Safety.
I have long argued that the RRO gives the fire services an open season on prosecuting otherwise law abiding businesses. The figures also suggest that the fines imposed reflect ability to pay rather than the seriousness of the actual offence. This dare I say raises the prospect of fire services “actively” seeking prosecution to raise easy revenue. This is borne out by Ms Ross who also criticised fire authorities for handing out prohibition notices “like sweeties”. Under H&S rules, prohibition notices should only be used if the risk to life is so serious that operations cannot continue. A poorly conducted fire risk assessment hardly qualifies.
I think Ms Moss has a point when you look at some of the fines imposed for serious breaches of Health & Safety legislation. At New Look the offences amounted to having conducted an inadequate fire risk assessment and insufficient staff training, which led to a delayed evacuation of the premises – this judgment despite the fact that no lives were lost or injuries sustained.
Compare New Looks £536000 punishment with that dispensed earlier this year to a marble and granite manufacturing company who were fined £100,000 with £46,500 costs after a worker died and two others were injured when six tonnes of stone slabs fell on them whilst unloading an unstable and poorly restrained load. Similarly scrap metal company Sims Group UK Ltd, who pleaded guilty to a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act that caused the death of a driver, crushed when a one and a half tonne metal bale rolled off a scrap pile. They were fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £57,500 costs. The figures just don’t add up under comparison.
Let’s hope the Court of Appeal will bring clarity and fairness to stop the current RRO free for all.
Finally a welcome to Bob Neil sitting Conservative MP for Bromley & Chislehurst on his elevation to Minister for Fire. It is encouraging to note he is a former leader of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority so at least has experience of the department he oversees. How refreshing this new politics is!!