While welcoming yesterday’s announcement of plans for a draft bill on corporate manslaughter, the union questioned the mixed message that this was sending out at a time when the government has slashed HSE’s budget.
Plans to reduce spending over the next year by 5% across all HSE departments has left the executive unable to carry out prosecutions for health and safety offences according to best practice.
Following the 2002 Spending Review, HSE's budget allocation for 2003-2006 was insufficient even to keep up with rising costs, let alone fund the improvements needed to tackle the unacceptable toll of death, injury and ill health caused by criminal employers.
Inspectors have warned that this will result in more cases being lost on procedural grounds and negligent employers escaping justice. These numbers will rise as HSE pulls back from investigating accidents due to cuts to inspector numbers.
HSE set up a Prosecutions Review in December 2000 to bring its procedures into line with best practice and guidance from the Attorney General, including making the roles of investigator and prosecutor more distinct. Prior to that the practice had been for inspectors to investigate and for their managers to confirm the decision to prosecute.
A pilot prosecution branch was set up to trial new ways of dealing with prosecutions to provide independent legal oversight by a legally qualified individual who is not identified with the investigative process to improve competence, efficiency and consistency.
"The pilot was working well but was stopped in its tracks because HSE couldn't afford to roll out new ways of working across the country," explained Stephen Kay, chair of Prospect’s HSE branch.
"Instead, HSE proposes a piecemeal approach - they hope to identify those cases which pose the most serious risk to HSE and provide independent legal oversight for a few cases only, based on affordability. This sticking plaster approach is unacceptable.
"We see enforcing the law on health and safety as being the core purpose of HSE. It is vital that it remains an effective prosecution body working to 21st century principles. But we are concerned at the message that HSE and the government are sending out by the failure to resource prosecution work - that HSE is not serious about prosecution and that it doesn't matter if negligent employers get away with it."
The union believes improvements are needed to the way HSE handles prosecutions, particularly if the stakes are raised by health and safety law being treated more seriously by the courts.
These latest cuts come only a year after Prospect launched a campaign highlighting how years of insufficient funding for the executive mean many workplaces escape inspection for years on end.
In its campaign, Prospects for Safety, the union called for an additional £35m a year to double the number of safety inspectors and ensure workplaces are inspected at least every five years. Currently, employers can expect to be visited once every 10-15 years, if at all.