Health & Safety and the PCC

An incident on 3rd March 2010 in which a self-employed joiner fell from a balcony and sustained serious and permanent injury, resulted in the Parish Church Council (PCC) of St Paul’s, Onslow Square being fined in Westminster Magistrates’ Court in April this year.  The incident occurred during construction work to install an adjustable floor and hand rail so the area could be used in a stepped church seating style or a flat raised position for seminar use.  Although a high barrier had been in place to guard against falls, this had been taken down following claims that it interfered with the movement of materials during the work.  This has been replaced by a lower rail which was over 1m high when the floor was in a stepped position, but was reduced to only 20cm with the floor in the raised position.  A planned new handrail had not been installed.  The PCC was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive, (HSE), and admitted breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.  Following strong mitigation by defence counsel, it was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,457.60.

In another incident in Kent, the PCC of St Botolph’s, Northfleet was fined £3,000 with £685 costs after a volunteer injured his spine in a fall from the bell tower.  In an investigation by Gravesham BC, it was discovered that a structural survey had revealed that the floor in the bell tower had been suffering from beetle attack and it is reported that the recommended further surveys and remedial works had not been undertaken.  At Dartford Magistrates’ Court in July 2010, the PCC pleaded guilty to failing to maintain the structure of the building in a safe condition and failing to safeguard the health of people not in their employment.

There is also an on-going issue at St Botolph’s concerning the carbon monoxide poisoning of four of its bellringers in November 2011 from a recently-serviced gas boiler.

Comment

These cases demonstrate the application of the law, rather than its development.  No new legislation is involved, and as they were tried before magistrates, neither case is binding.  One might comment on the levels of the fines and costs imposed in relation to the relative culpability of the respective parties, but these too were within the limits set down by the legislation.  In the ‘religion’ context of this web log, the important aspect of these cases is that: health and safety legislation is applied no differently in relation to the activities of a faith group than elsewhere; within the Church of England, the body with general responsible for ensuring that the health and safety policy is implemented is the Parochial Church Council, (PCC); both self-employed workers and volunteers are covered by the 1974 Act through sections 3 and 4 respectively.  This can be problematic since: few PCC members are health and safety professionals; they do not have day-to-day contact with the church; and places of worship can pose specific risks by virtue of their design, construction or age.

Comprehensive H&S advice specific to churches is available from the insurers Ecclesiastical, here and here, and from the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service (CLAS), in relation to the running of occasional events, here.  However, as a result of the ‘jobsworth’ implementation of the legislation by local officials and its depiction in the media, health and safety has a poor image, despite the initiatives of the HSE and of its chairman, Judith Hackitt.  Furthermore there is a public perception that any measures that are introduced to reduce risk are going ‘over the top’ or are ‘health and safety gone mad’. However, Health and Safety incidents within churches are few and far between, and whilst most activities within a church are ‘done right’, the associated documentation lags behind the practice, and different aspects of health and safety are often treated as a ‘one off’ with little overall policy or strategy.

Following the recent statutory Annual Parish Meetings (which must be held before 30th April), all newly-elected PCCs will be sorting out their agendas for 2012-2013.  This is perhaps timely occasion on which to review their Health and Safety arrangements.

7 thoughts on “Health & Safety and the PCC

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  3. Things have moved on considerably since 2013. Health & Safety Law is statute, both Criminal Law and Civil Law.
    You have shown that the ‘Corporate Body’ is liable for breaches of Health & safety Law, but is it not the case that under the Law individuals from within the Corporate Body can also be liable for breaches and as such, prosecuted with fines or imprisonment?

    • Health and safety law is not a particular speciality of either Frank or myself, but it is our understanding that HASAWA 1974 includes provisions relating to employers, employees, and corporate liability for “any director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate or a person who was purporting to act in any such capacity”.

      The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 made it possible for the first time to prosecute corporate bodies such as limited companies and partnerships.

      • Thank you so much for your very quick reply.

        With regard to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, the point I’m trying to clarify is: Parochial Church Councils are Trusts and by default, Corporate Bodies.
        You say that Corporate Bodies can now be prosecuted, but is it true that individuals in a Parochial Church Council can no longer hide behind the phrase ‘we acted as a corporate body’ or ‘it was a corporate decision?’
        My PCC colleagues do not accept that they are liable under Health & safety Law for their individual acts and omissions.

        Kind regards,
        Roger Etheridge

        • As I indicated, neither Frank nor I has specific expertise in health and safety law, and our comments on this and other issues do not purport to be legal advice.

          The Church of England web pages on Legal Opinions and Other Guidance include links to guidance on certain issues; alternatively your diocesan registrar will be in a better position to give more authoritative advice.

          The CofE document PCC: legal position of members provides an overview, although much of the content is directed towards charity legislation; there is also information on Enforcement of chancel repair liability by PCCs.

          However, in relation to the issue of Parish churches and fire safety, the document states that in relation to this specific aspect of health and safety:

          “8. A broad construction is given to the word ‘undertaking’ in the field of health and safety legislation (R v. Mara [1987] 1 WLR 87). The powers, duties and liabilities of the PCC under the 1956 Measure collectively amount to an undertaking which will bring it within the article 3(b)(i) definition of “a person who has control of the premises (as occupier or otherwise) in connection with the carrying on by him of [an] undertaking (for profit or not) …”

          Thus the PCC in its corporate capacity is to be viewed in law as the responsible person.

          9. If the PCC delegates the control of fire safety matters to a particular individual, for instance to a churchwarden, such a person is likely to become directly liable to comply with Part 2 of the Order, in addition to the PCC, by reason of article 5(3). Non-compliance with Part 2 of the Order is a criminal offence; see Part 4. It may be thought undesirable to make any arrangement which has the effect of exposing a PCC member or other parishioner to personal legal liability.”

          The question of individual liability is therefore not straightforward and is one where professional advice would be advisable.

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