YORK College has been fined £175,000 for health and safety breaches over the death of a three-year-old girl who died after getting her neck caught in a rope on a slide on her first day at nursery.
The college was found guilty of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act earlier this month after a jury heard how Lydia Bishop died following an accident on an outdoor play area at the on-site nursery.
The same jury cleared nursery worker Sophee Redhead, 25, of Lydia’s manslaughter and safety breaches.
At Leeds Crown Court, the judge, Mr Justice Coulson, fined the college and ordered it to pay more than £45,000 in costs, the Judiciary confirmed.
He said: “Nothing that I say in the remainder of these sentencing remarks can provide comfort or recompense for Lydia’s death; a child is priceless, so the loss of a child is an irredeemable loss.
“I have read the victim impact of Rebecca Dick, Lydia’s mother, and it speaks eloquently of her loss and the breach of trust for which she blames the college.
“The fixing of an appropriate fine in a case like this is not concerned at all with putting a value on Lydia’s life.”
The jury heard during the trial that Lydia was blue and not breathing when Miss Redhead found her in the play area on September 17 2012.
All efforts to revive her by nursery staff, paramedics and doctors at York Hospital failed. The little girl was declared dead an hour after she was found, the court heard.
Prosecutors said she had been “left entirely to her own devices for what was to be a prolonged period” and 20 minutes passed before staff went to find out where she was and what she was doing.
CCTV images from the nursery showed Lydia walking alone towards the slide and climbing the steps before she vanished from view.
Around 20 minutes later, Miss Redhead was shown running towards the area and then, shortly afterwards, rushing back with the child in her arms.
Earlier in the day, Lydia and other children were caught on camera playing unsupervised on the slide.
Lydia’s mother had just enrolled on a course at the college and had been for introductory sessions with her.
The day she died was her first full day at the nursery, the jury was told, and her mother was assured that children were not left alone outside to play on the apparatus.
Despite a risk assessment identifying ropes to be a potential hazard to children, they were not put away every night, and had been left tied to the slide for weeks or months before she died, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors accused the nursery of having a “tick-box mentality” towards health and safety, which meant legislation was followed on paper but not in practice.
In Lydia’s age group, there were 17 children in the nursery during that day and three staff, the court heard.
The judge said there were two areas of failings by the college. He said one was a failure to provide an adequate barrier to stop unsupervised children accessing the slide, which was difficult to see.
He said the second, “systemic” failure related to the 52ft 6in (16m) length of rope, which was used by children to pull themselves on to the mound where the slide was located.
The judge said staff were aware that the rope needed to be stored away but this did not always happen.
The judge said: “Accordingly, I take the view that Lydia’s death was the result of one specific failure, and one systemic failure.
“The specific failure was the failure to appreciate that a proper barrier was required to prevent children from getting to the slide area when there were insufficient numbers of staff properly to supervise that remote part of the playground, and by instead relying on the so-called visual sign provided by the bench and trolley which was a wholly ineffective barrier.
“The systemic failure was the failure to enforce control measures generally and, specifically, the failure to enforce the control measure that required that the rope to be put away after use.”
He added: “Lydia Bishop died because the barrier to the slide was ineffective and because the ropes had not been put away after use. Therefore the harm arising from the two failings that I have identified could not have been more serious.”
But the judge said he believed the college did take health and safety matters seriously and criticised a senior police officer who, after the end of the trial, referred to health and safety being “more than just a tick-box exercise”.
He said this comment was a “cheap and easy jibe”.
The judge said: “But in reality, in the workplace, or in the hospital or the school, having a system whereby something is inspected and then noted as satisfactory, with the result recorded on a form as a box ticked, can often be the best way of ensuring that a health and safety regime set out on paper is actually being complied with in practice.”
The judge said he took into account when setting the level of the fine that the college was funded largely from public money, adding: “I have considered the consequences of a fine fixed at £175,000.
“It seems to me that a fine at that level can be paid; it will have no significantly detrimental effect on the college’s future plans, and it is capable of being paid without risking job losses or a reduction in the services provided by the college.”