Would a tougher HSE convicting more firms for corporate manslaughter deter bad practice? Yesterday, MPs debated this issue and others surrounding falling corporate convication rates

Almost a week after the CDM regulations were debated at Westminster, the industry filed back into the Houses of Parliament to hear MPs take on the Ucatt figures that showed corporate convictions had dropped alarmingly.

As we entered Westminster Hall, a screen warned that the ‘Threat level remains at severe’. It seems being an MP is a dangerous job though not, we learned, as dangerous as being a construction worker. Five hundred and four deaths occurred on building sites in the last five years, and there were thousands of serious accidents. And yet companies are walking away with almost no consequence.

One fatal accident, we were told, saw a crane operator fall to his death from a faulty access ladder. The fine? £5000. In some parts of London, you can be fined more for parking your car in the wrong place. When, as Labour MP Harry Cohen pointed out, West Ham can be fined £5.5m for a couple of player transfers, why are companies being fined under 0.1% of that for allowing people to die on the job?

A more important issue, said Labour MP Michael Clapham, is that some negligent companies don’t even make it into court. According to Ucatt’s figures, fewer than one in four construction deaths result in corporate convictions. This debate was marked by a flurry of such figures, each more alarming than the last. Corporate conviction rates plummet. Construction deaths skyrocket. Who is responsible?

Conservative MP Andrew Selous seemed to have the answer. The HSE is reducing inspections, cutting jobs and slashing budgets, he said. Even the Executive admits it should be making more convictions, so why aren’t they happening? One of the Labour comrades begged to intercede, but to no avail. He should have known that no-one interrupts Zealous Selous when he is in full flow. The HSE have some serious questions to answer, he said. So do we all.

From the perspective of the sidelines, it seems there’s no easy answer to why people die on construction sites. Some would like to blame negligent directors for every fatality – and no doubt, in many cases, they are responsible – but surely in a physical industry, a percentage of accidents is unavoidable no matter how many safeguards and training routines are enforced. At the risk of sounding philosophical, is it too much to say that when dealing with a human industry you have to allow for a degree of human error?

Whether or not you accept that argument, it cannot be used as an excuse for corporate negligence. If it is proven that a company’s practices are responsible for a man’s death, then that company should pay an appropriate penalty large enough to act as a deterrent. But finding someone to blame every time a worker dies is impossible, because sometimes – and these are the hardest times to accept – sometimes accidents just happen.