Three councils have taken discount retailer and serial safety offender Poundstretcher to court for a total of 24 breaches at three stores, resulting in a £1m penalty.
Poundstretcher pleaded guilty to the offences, and appeared at Portsmouth Crown Court for sentencing on 12 December.
This was made up of a £200,000 fine for five offences in Newhaven Sussex, prosecuted by Lewes District Council, and fines of £100,000 and £133,333 relating to two of three breaches at a store in Newbury, Berkshire, prosecuted by West Berkshire Council.
The third case, brought by Swindon Borough Council, resulted in the largest fine: £200,000 for one breach and two fines of £133,333.
The breaches at Swindon were discovered after an unannounced visit to the store in St Margaret’s Park on 17 November 2014, following a complaint made by a member of staff.
The officer found the warehouse at the rear of the store in a “grossly overstocked and chaotic condition”. Improvement notices were served but, soon afterwards, another complaint was received regarding the safety of young seasonal staff working over the Christmas period.
The conditions found were once again considered wholly unacceptable by the council.
The retailer was charged with 16 offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act, including failure to keep aisles and walkways clear of obstruction, blocking fire exits and placing young persons at risk of harm without the necessary training.
|“To blame the local management is not only deeply unattractive, coming from a major employer employing some 6,000 people, but, in my judgment, on the evidence I heard, quite unfair.”|
According to West Berkshire Council, the three breaches at Newbury related to the way the company operated its stocking procedures and a failure to properly train its staff.
The council’s environmental health officers visited the store at the Newbury Retail Park in December 2014.
During the visit, officers found that emergency exits were blocked, and excessive stock was stored in a dangerous manner. Enquiries then revealed that the company did not follow its own safety procedures.
At the Newhaven branch of Poundstretcher, officers from Lewes District Council conducted inspections that resulted in Poundstretcher being charged with five offences.
These related to more serious overstocking and poor management practices, including a dangerously overstocked storeroom and blocked gangways.
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Delivering the sentence at Portsmouth Crown Court, Judge Hetherington said: “To blame the local management is not only deeply unattractive, coming from a major employer employing some 6000 people, but, in my judgment, on the evidence I heard, quite unfair.
“And it is, in any event, a circular argument – it is part of higher management’s function to see to it that local management is in place and performing to a proper standard.”
“This complacent attitude was highlighted by the way in which senior management, often at director/company secretary level, dealt with requests for interview by enforcing authorities,” he added. “Whilst, as a matter of strict law, the company may have been entitled not to co-operate, their consistent failure properly to engage with and answer questions spoke volumes as to the company’s attitude towards the role of the enforcing authorities.”
Applying the formulas in the Sentencing Guideline to calculate the fine, the judge considered that the offences broadly fell into two categories: overstocking, and inadequate training and protection for individuals, including young workers.
The judge concluded that the overall sentence should reflect these main faults, and also take into account that this represented “multiple offending” over a sustained period.
According to a report in the London Bulletin: “He considered the way to do this was to arrive at appropriate respective sentences for those two types of offending and then apply a further sum to reflect the multiple offending and then distributing the resultant overall total broadly between the three separate stores.”
Ed Hele, functional lead for quality environment at Lewes District Council, said: “When businesses operate in a manner that places staff and the public at risk, we have to act. We work hard to give businesses in the Lewes District the information they need to comply with health and safety requirements, but when the advice and direction is ignored we have to take action.”
Louise Doughty, service manager for health compliance at Swindon Borough Council, told Health and Safety at Work: “Poundstretcher has shown a consistent lack of care for its employees and the public through its poor management of health and safety in its stores. The continued reoccurrence of prohibition notices and improvement notices for the same issues indicated that there was a serious risk of harm or serious injury to those working in the company’s premises.
“We hope this prosecution and the fines handed out will send a clear message to other companies of the importance of keeping well managed health and safety procedures,” she added.
The Poundstretcher Group also had to pay the three councils’ legal costs. It is owned by Crown Crest Group, which is run by brothers Rashid and Aziz Tayub.
The company has 400 stores and 6000 staff nationwide, and has made regular appearances in the courts over its health and safety failings.
A £50,000 fine for fire offences at outlets in Yorkshire in 2010 was the third such offence.