Proposed sentencing guidelines have been published today which will assist sentencers dealing with corporate manslaughter, health and safety and food safety and hygiene offences.

The draft guidelines, now subject to public consultation, cover offences that embrace a wide range of circumstances. The type of offenders that may commit these offences varies greatly and, with the exception of corporate manslaughter, there is a broad spectrum of seriousness encompassed within each offence.

Offenders that are organisations in these cases may range from a small family business to a multinational company, from statutory bodies to charities. An individual may commit a health and safety or food offence in their capacity as a Director of a company or an employee; or they may be an individual putting others at risk.

The guidelines are being introduced due to a lack of comprehensive guidance for sentencers in relation to these offences. While there is a guideline covering corporate manslaughter and fatal health and safety offences, there is no specific guidance on sentencing food safety offences or non-fatal health and safety offences. Furthermore, existing guidance only covers offences committed by organisations rather than individuals. This marks the first time that guidelines will cover all the most commonly sentenced health and safety offences and food safety offences.

In addition, these offences are not sentenced as frequently as other criminal offences, so the Council found that sentencers were not always familiar with how to deal with them.

Consequences of health and safety offences can hugely vary; they may pose the risk of minor harm or lead to multiple fatalities caused by deliberate breach of the law. Food offences are also wide-ranging. They could involve very poor hygiene standards in kitchens, or failure to manage processes involving the preparation of food properly.

The Council therefore concluded there was a need for expanded guidance on dealing with difficult issues that arise in these cases, such as those relating to the risk of harm, identifying appropriate fine levels for organisations, or fining offenders that are charitable or public bodies.

The review of guidelines is also taking place in part due to concerns that some sentences imposed for these offences have been too low, particularly in relation to large organisations convicted of the most serious health and safety and food safety offences.

Following an analysis of current sentencing practice, the Council is therefore proposing to increase sentence levels in such situations. This will ensure sentences that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offence while, as required by law, taking account of the financial circumstances of the offender. It is proposed that an offending organisation’s means will initially be based on its turnover as this is a clear indicator that can be easily assessed and is less susceptible to manipulation than other accounting methods. However, the guideline also requires the court to consider the organisation’s wider financial circumstances to ensure that fines can be properly and fairly assessed.

The Council’s aim is to help ensure sentences that not only punish the offender, but deter them and others from committing these crimes while removing any financial benefit they may have had from offending. These offences can result in organisations that maintain proper standards being undercut by offending businesses who are often motivated by saving money at the expense of safety. Fines should therefore be big enough to have a real economic impact which will bring home to the offending organisation the importance of achieving a safe environment for those affected by its activities.

Sentencing levels in relation to lower level offences are unlikely to change. This is because they are seen as already proportionate, and because fines must be based on the financial circumstances of the offender.

The Council is seeking views on its proposals through a consultation and is very interested in feedback from people working in industry, the criminal justice system or regulatory enforcement. In particular it is interested in feedback on the approach to sentencing, what factors should make these offences more serious or less serious, the principles of sentencing in this area and sentencing levels.

Sentencing Council member Michael Caplan QC said:

“We want to ensure that these crimes don’t pay. They can have extremely serious consequences and businesses that put people at risk by flouting their responsibilities are undercutting those that maintain proper standards and do their best to keep people safe.

“Our proposals will help ensure a consistent approach to sentencing, allowing fair and proportionate sentences across the board, with some of the most serious offenders facing tougher penalties.

“This is a consultation: we are interested in hearing feedback on our proposals so we can develop sentences which people understand and have confidence in.”