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Nick Gooch, centre, managing director of AgChem Access, with Charlotte Halls, purchasing manager, and Adie Busby, ops director, who are to sue the inspector and the HSE after a series of blunders and wrong rulings. Picture: Denise Bradley
Shaun Lowthorpe, Business editor
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Bosses at a Norfolk firm are set for a £2m legal showdown with the Health and Safety Executive amid claims that it was brought to the brink of bankruptcy following a series of enforcement actions barring it from moving its goods.
Norwich-based AgChem Access, which supplies the farming industry with plant protection products is suing the HSE after a row over enforcement action taken against the firm in July.
The legal wrangle centres on an HSE decision to issue enforcement action on July 10 ordering the firm not to move any of its UK stock because inspectors believed there was a breach of safety regulations linked to the packaging of a shipment of the herbicide glyphosate which had arrived at Felixstowe.
The ban was eventually lifted on August 29 after the firm sought a judicial review in the High Court and the HSE agreed to drop the notices.
However Nicholas Gooch, managing director at AgChem Access accused the agency of being too heavy-handed by imposing a blanket ban on the movement of all its products stored in two warehouses in Besthorpe, near Attleborough, and Snetterton instead of focusing solely on the shipment issue.
He said as well as the legal challenge, which had already cost the firm £200,000 in legal fees, which will now be met by the taxpayer, the company, which employs about 65 staff, was suing for damages for around £2m in lost business.
And he had also written to business secretary Vince Cable and Norwich South MP Simon Wright to complain about the treatment the firm received and alert them to the HSE’s “heavy-handedness”.
Last night the HSE said it could not comment on the legal action because its investigations were still ongoing.
But Mr Gooch, who started the £20m a year business in 2004, said the issue had almost brought the firm to its knees.
“They were told that a small amount of this product had leaked,” Mr Gooch said. “They didn’t stop and ask any questions - they just ploughed on. Because of what was happening we couldn’t move anything and we had to dramatically reduce the workforce with 10 people losing their jobs.
“This has been absolutely disastrous for us,” he added. “We have got products left in store which we can’t sell for another year and if it had gone on another two or three weeks, we would have gone out of business.
“Not only have we had to shed 10 jobs, but our UK and international reputation has suffered,” he added. “We have long-standing customers who have gone elsewhere because we could not deliver to them. Potential new contracts have also been lost. Thanks to our outstanding legal team, headed by Darren Bowen a Partner in Leathes Prior’s Dispute Resolution and Agricultural Teams we can now start trading again.”
Ironically the row comes as business secretary Vince Cable announced measures to cut a raft of health and safety inspections amid fears the costs were too prohibitive for firms.
Mr Wright said he would look into the matter and raise it both with the HSE and Dr Cable.
“If there has been an isolated incident for which the business cannot be blamed, then it would seem unreasonable for the entire existence of that business to be threatened and I will explore the details of the case with the relevant authorities,” Mr Wright said.
Mr Bowen said: “We were surprised by the actions of the HSE inspector in this matter and we were extremely pleased to be able to assist AgChemAccess Limited in successfully challenging the decisions taken. The HSE has an important role to play in protecting the public interest but, as demonstrated in this case, this needs to be balanced against the rights of a business to undertake its legitimate trade. I believe it is fair to say that, on this occasion, the HSE got it very wrong.”
A spokesman for the HSE said: “There is an ongoing investigation underway and it would be inappropriate for the HSE to comment any further until that investigation is concluded.”