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Huge fines may cripple colleges

Breaking new health and safety law may lead to penalties of up to 10 per cent of budgets

Lawyers are lobbying ministers to protect colleges from new legislation which threatens catastrophic fines if students or staff die in their care, FE Focus can reveal.

It is proposed that a fine of up to 10 per cent of a college's budget could be imposed if it is convicted under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, which comes into force in April.

Law firm Eversheds, which represents most English colleges, says the recommendation for a fine in the range of 2.5 to 10 per cent, which applies to all organisations, should be withdrawn.

Fines rarely exceeded pound;1 million under previous common law prosecutions, but the new regime could mean many millions being sliced from a college's budget, causing serious financial difficulty.

Principals and governing bodies also face the prospect of a police investigation taking several years.

Paul Verrico, a criminal defence solicitor with Eversheds, said police have advised him that their investigations, carried out with the Health and Safety Executive, would treat a death as a potential offence under the new act as a starting point in their inquiries.

Colleges can only be convicted under the act if there is a gross breach of health and safety procedures, but Mr Verrico said: "We have sent in our views to the effect that this kind of fine would be ridiculous."

Eversheds stressed it regards the likelihood of responsible colleges being prosecuted as slim. Mr Verrico added: "The new act is very much like the police car in the rear view mirror. It acts as a warning for those organisations that flout safety laws.

"In reality, only the worst offenders are going to be pulled over, but the aim of the legislation is to make working life safer and improve compliance with existing laws."

While the new law punishes the corporation and not individuals, staff and managers could still be liable with the possibility of prison under the Health and Safety at Work Act, which remains in place.

There have only been seven common law corporate manslaughter convictions in 20 years, but the Ministry of Justice anticipates 44 convictions a year under the new legislation.

Tim Robbins, head of health and safety at Cornwall College in St Austell, said it has a good record on health and safety. He added: "Ten per cent of our budget would be more than pound;6 million. I just can't imagine how we would deal with such a huge fine."

Courts will also have the power to impose "publicity orders" on colleges - forcing them to reveal their conviction on websites and in publicity literature.

Rob Wye, strategy and communications director at the Learning and Skills Council, said: "FE institutions are independent statutory corporations and, as such, are responsible for meeting any fine imposed as a result of any breach of the law by the corporation."

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