Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn, leading a parliamentary debate on the issue, said that if the HSE was failing to prosecute, it could lead to “an ever greater number of companies [flouting] safety laws”.
He continued: “In 2007/08 the HSE was successful in prosecuting 51 per cent of construction fatal accidents. By 2012/13 that figure had dropped to a mere, and disgraceful, 35 per cent.”
As of last year, the HSE was successful in achieving a guilty verdict in more than 90 per cent of all prosecution cases. But writing for Construction News earlier this month, Mr Hepburn said that progress in the industry would not continue “unless the Health and Safety Executive is an effective policeman for construction safety”.
According to figures from the HSE, presented by Mr Hepburn, in 2006/07 the average time between a fatal accident in construction and a conviction was 985 days. But by 2014/15 this had increased to 1,267 days – nearly three-and-a-half years.
In 15 per cent of cases, prosecution does not begin for three to four years.
In response, parliamentary under-secretary of state for disabled people Justin Tomlinson said “several factors” can affect the pace at which fatal accidents are investigated.
“The police normally assume primacy for the investigation to identify whether serious offences, such as corporate manslaughter, are involved,” he said.
“This can take many months, or in some cases years, during which HSE is unable to initiate proceedings. The police and Crown Prosecution Service might be in charge of the case right through to any court cases.”
He added that more than 80 per cent of HSE investigations into fatal incidents were completed within 12 months of receiving primacy, while most “take considerably less time”.
According to Mr Tomlinson, half of HSE’s decisions to prosecute are made within two years of the date of a fatal construction incident.
Mr Hepburn raised the case of Falcon Crane Hire, which was fined £750,000 following a crane collapse in Battersea in 2006 that caused the deaths of the crane operator and a member of the public. The case was settled last week, nearly 10 years after the incident occurred.
He added that the HSE needed to address the “excruciating” delays between incident, prosecution and conviction.
“The HSE says the delays are due to other bodies and agencies, such as the police, the coroners’ courts and even the justice system itself, especially if the matter is referred to the Crown Court,” he said. “In other words, the HSE is saying it is not its fault.”
MP for Stirling Steven Paterson cited research from Stirling University, which said the HSE “looks and sounds like a toothless tiger – a lot of noise and increasingly little action”.
He cited figures from trade union Ucatt which suggested unannounced inspections of construction sites by the HSE in Scotland had dropped by 55 per cent since 2012/13.
“If companies think they will not be inspected and that there will never be a surprise knock at the door, the HSE loses all its authority in pressurising companies not to break safety laws,” Mr Hepburn said.
Mr Tomlinson said new guidelines are being put in place to ensure any decisions to prosecute were made “as quickly as possible”.
“There is now a new practical guide for investigators, which should ensure all parties work effectively together and that any prosecution is brought as soon as possible,” he said.
“Other than in exceptional circumstances, it should be no later than three years after the date of the death.”