Shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna told the annual conference of construction union Ucatt in Scarborough yesterday: “When workers are injured or killed at work, employers must be held accountable. They should not be able to get out of an investigation by claiming bankruptcy.”
He added: “The next Labour government will legislate to prevent this abuse. It puts the lives of workers at risk. It is irresponsible. It is wrong. We will stop it.”
Liverpool Wavertree MP Lucian Berger introduced a parliamentary bill to address this issue earlier this year but failed to get it passed. Mr Ummuna said that her proposed legislation was now Labour party policy.
The announcement was welcomed by Ucatt, which is campaigning to prevent so-called phoenix firms escaping punishment when one of their employees is killed at work.
The union wants the Health & Safety Executive to be able to freeze a company’s assets as soon as a worker is killed and until investigations into the death are concluded. Similar powers exist in cases involving fraud and drug crimes.
Among recent cases highlighted by the union is that of Bryn Thomas Crane Hire of Flint, North Wales. Crane driver Mark Thornton, 46, from Liverpool, was killed in 2007 when his crane collapsed on a site in Wavertree. Bryn Thomas Crane Hire was fined £4,500 when the case went to court in December 2010. The judge said he was unable to impose the appropriate fine of £300,000 because the company had recently gone into administration – though directors had been paid massive dividends in the intervening years. The directors now operate a company called Bryn Thomas Cranes.
Bryn Thomas Cranes has denied that the failure of the previous company was any kind of scam. It insists that the failure was solely the result of economic circumstances.
Another example highlighted by Ucatt is the case of Foxtel. Employee Noel Corbin, 29, a TV dish installer from Addington, Surrey, died in 2008 when he fell from a roof in London’s Belsize Park. Employer Foxtel Ltd ceased trading a few weeks before the case went to court in August 2011. As a result, the court imposed a fine of just £1 – though the employer has resumed activities as a sole trader while still using the Foxtel name.
Ucatt general secretary Steve Murphy said the law had to be changed. “Bereaved families also deserve justice. It is bad enough for them to lose a loved one, but for the law to allow those responsible to escape justice is a grievous insult,” he said.
Chuka Ummuna told the Ucatt conference: “Business has responsibilities, but government does too. It is wrong that this government is prepared to stand by while rogue businesses exploit loopholes in the law to evade justice when their malpractice leads to deaths at work. My parliamentary colleague and proud Ucatt member Luciana Berger introduced a bill to parliament earlier this year to stop this. When workers are injured or killed at work, employers must be held accountable. They should not be able to get out of an investigation by claiming bankruptcy. The bill would have stopped this but it didn’t pass. So I give this commitment today: the next Labour government will legislate to prevent this abuse. It puts the lives of workers at risk. It is irresponsible. It is wrong. We will stop it.”