At Southampton Crown Court on the 26th April the Co-operative Group was fined a whopping £210,000 after pleading guilty to half a dozen breaches of the new RRO fire safety legislation.
Clearly the CO-OP have been slow to learn the lessons of a similar case brought against the UK’s largest mutual retailer in 2007 that saw them fined what was then a record £250,000 for no less than 13 similar misdemeanors under the old fire safety regulations.
The case came hot on the heels of a Court ruling against the behemoth of retailing Tesco a week earlier which resulted in a fine of £95,000 plus over £24,000 in costs for five breaches of the RRO (Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005). That’s £24,000 per infringement. Other high profile cases last year included Shell International being fined £300,000 and the clothes store New Look paying more than £500,000.
Apparently the Tesco fine arose when the London Fire Brigade were called to a fire at Tesco’s Colney Hatch store in Barnet in October 2007. There had been a fire in the staff kitchen but by the time the Brigade arrived it had been put out by staff using fire extinguishers and a fire blanket. Now you might think the action of the staff commendable and showed a working knowledge of how to use fire safety equipment effectively but the fire service thought otherwise and returned unannounced the next day to fully inspect the premises.
Now the London Fire Brigade has previous when it comes to RRO enforcement and not without some fanfare recently announced that the London courts ordered individuals, small businesses and large companies to pay more than £1 million in fines and costs in 2009 for breaches of the RRO.
So what’s my point? Well firstly by any stretch the RRO is not a simple piece of legislation. It runs close to 150 pages and over 30000 words. If retail giants who have the resources to employ professional fire and health and safety management can get it so wrong what chance the small businessman or woman who as the responsible person has the same accountability under law irrespective of their experience in fire safety issues. Not understanding the detail of the law is no defence. Within the RRO legislation there is the potential for hundreds of breaches. If someone looked hard enough you would be lucky to pass muster.
And secondly given the Tesco experience small businesses, without the same financial clout may think twice about calling the Fire Services if they fear a punitive inspection with potentially disastrous consequences.
Of course fire safety is paramount to protect life and property and I would not argue otherwise but personally I do not believe sufficient is being invested by the law makers on educating businesses and raising awareness of the RRO. This comes through strongly when talking to business owners and managers who make up our customer base and no doubt accounts for the increase in sales of our fire safety training programmes. All the cash raised through RRO prosecutions could surely be put to good use here rather than lining the Treasury pockets.