MICHAEL MEACHER: (He has been asked about the small penalties employers get as a result of industrial accidents). I absolutely agree that nobody is sent on a potentially dangerous assignment without adequate and proper training. And if that was the case here, I would expect that to be a significant part of the HSE report.
RADIO 5: It also seems that companies like Euromin and others seem to be able to just flout the health and safety regulations at the moment and get away with it.
MM: Well, they certainly don't get away with it.
R5: But only 15% of serious injuries and fatalities are actually investigated.
MM: Well, they are, wherever we are, within the number of inspectors that we have and I have to say - and I don't want to make a political point out of it - but under the last government resources for health and safety were substantially cut back. We are trying to restore those cuts, we have provided HSE with an extra £4.5 million for the current financial year.
R5: Is that enough? I mean are they really resourced enough? Because it seems at the moment that they're not.
MM: No, I don't think it is enough. We will shortly be announcing a further significant increase in funding for HSE over the next three years as part of the government's comprehensive spending review. We are already with the £4.5m providing an extra 58 HSE inspectors who've been recruited this year and the extra money is being targeted on inspection and enforcement. I would be the first to say I think even these significant increases are not enough. It is the case that whilst deaths are always investigated, some serious injuries because of the pressure on resources do not in my view get the depth of investigation that is necessary.
R5: It seems that even when prosecutions are brought, the penalties that are exacted are derisory and they're not going to be enough to put any company off and make them a bit more serious.
MM: I entirely agree with that. I am absolutely outraged that penalties that perhaps are as little as two-and-a-half to three thousand pounds, which I certainly believe are derisory and insulting, are sometimes awarded in the case of death or serious injury. That is absolutely inappropriate. It does not send out the message that deaths at work are something that employers need to have very high on their agenda as something to be avoided at all costs, and I strongly support the principles underlying the Law Commission's recommendations on voluntary manslaughter, including the proposed new corporate killing offence.
R5: So you support that?
MM: I do.
R5: It's been suggested that there should be custodial sentences for employers and that named managing directors should face imprisonment. You agree with that?
MM: Er ... what I'm saying is that I think the Law Commission's recommendations do have to be looked at very seriously, we are looking at them within government, obviously it's not just a matter for the Department of Employment, Transport and the Regions, it is also for the Lord Chancellor and the Home Office. We are looking at opportunities to put this into legislation.
R5: Any idea when it might be on the statute books?
MM: I certainly believe that we do need to have some such penalty in appropriate cases on the statute book. i don't believe otherwise that senior management or the board will take health and safety issues sufficiently seriously. Short of murder, which is deliberate because of course killing a worker is not deliberate, but gross negligence comes a very close second.
R5: Going off the point slightly, in the case that we talked about, the girlfriend of Simon Jones said quite categorically that the only reason he took this job was to get the dole off his back and that in her experience there were many young people who were taking jobs that they weren't qualified for because they were scared that if they didn't take this kind of job they would lose their benefits.
MM: Well, the government takes the view and I certainly believe that this is probably strongly supported that people should work or should take training which skills them for appropriate work where that is appropriate to their qualifications.
R5: It seems the employment agencies ... the people themselves are being encouraged to take jobs that they aren't trained for ... these manual jobs, the situation that Simon Jones found himself in, because if he hadn't taken that, even though he wasn't skilled, he would have had his benefit cut.
MM: Well, as I've already said, the issue is not whether one should take work or acquire training but that the work which you are required to do should be work which you can safely undertake and for which you are properly trained and prepared, that's the issue. This may not have happened in this tragic case and this is why I think this is a central issue. The regulations do need to ensure that people are properly protected from taking jobs which could cause them serious injury or even death to themselves.
R5: With everything that you're promising here, do you think that we will stop cases like Simon Jones's from happening again?
MM: Well, we have to. We have to. We cannot allow an appalling tragedy like this, a young student sent to work on dangerous premises without the adequate preparation, with consideration of all the factors on that occupational site which could have caused him injury, I mean this is. completely unacceptable, this will be part of the HSE investigation and I certainly think we have to await that and whatever action HSE believes is appropriate.
R5: Of the two companies involved in the Simon Jones case, Euromin Ltd. refused our request for an interview and nor would they give us a statement, but I do have a statement from Personnel Selection, the employment agency. They don't wish to comment on this case because it's under investigation, but they do say that when they place workers with a client they match their relevant skills and experience to each individual vacancy and that the employer undertakes to supervise the workers and provide direction and control and that Personnel Selection would not normally expect that a worker would be required to undertake duties they are not qualified or trained to do.
One thing I'd like to add very quickly is that this figure of around 200 fatalities a year could be seriously underestimated because many cases aren't included in the figures. For instance, accidents arising out of the supply or use of flammable gas aren't included; accidents that involve sea-fishing, sea transport, they're not included. And Professor Steve Tombs at Liverpool University has re-estimated the figures, including all these different categories, and found that the real number of deaths is more like 167 a week. That's the equivalent of a Piper Alpha disaster every week.