Corporate manslaughter law lets companies off the hook

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2005 - 10:28

By Paul Hampton

Four people died and more than 100 were injured in the rail crash at Hatfield in 17 October 2000. This year Railtrack, the company responsible for the network and Balfour Beatty, responsible for track maintenance and their top executives - have been up in court for corporate manslaughter and other safety breaches. Last month they got off the manslaughter charges.

After a trial lasting more than six months, the court witnessed a disgusting farce - enough to make anyone vomit. First the judge threw out manslaughter charges against Balfour Beatty and five rail bosses. Then a week later the company pleaded guilty to breaching safety standards - after nearly five years of maintaining its innocence. At most the company will now get a large fine, which will barely dent its profits.

The cause of the crash is not in doubt - the train was derailed by a cracked section of rail. It did not snap in one place - 35 metres of rail disintegrated beneath the train.

Nor is there any doubt that the crash could have been prevented if safety standards had been followed. The faulty rail was identified 21 months before the derailment but left unrepaired. After another part of the track near to the crash site had been found and repaired in 1999, Railtrack sent out a letter proposing safety measures. The letter was ignored.

In April, the Balfour Beatty route section manager responsible for making sure regular patrols of the track were made, admitted in court that he "had no time" for proper track inspections before the crash. He also admitted that his last check before the crash was useless in assessing overall track safety.

The Hatfield trial only underlines what previous trials and enquiries after the Zeebrugge, Paddington, Potters Bar and countless other disasters have shown - we need laws that hold companies and their top bosses to account when workers and members of the public are killed or injured in work-related incidents.

At present, to prosecute a company for manslaughter hinges on finding an individual at the top of a company, the "controlling mind", guilty of manslaughter. As this is difficult, most corporate manslaughter court cases, like Hatfield have collapsed.

The government is currently proposing a corporate manslaughter bill that will make it easier to prosecute companies. However the proposals are a mere shadow of what unions, campaigners and victims families want.

The bill does not consider the criminal liability of company directors. It will not lead to directors or senior managers going to jail, even when their failures lead to deaths.

Because corporate manslaughter is an offence committed by organisations rather than individuals, the penalty will at most be an unlimited fine. The bill does not consider other measures - such as shutting the firm down or disqualifying their directors.

The new offence will apply to most employers - including Crown bodies such as government departments - but not to voluntary organisations, the prison service and the armed forces. It will not apply to the operations of UK-registered companies if a death occurs abroad.

The bill is a long time in coming. Labour first promised to introduce it in 1996 while in opposition. It is about to go under "parliamentary scrutiny", meaning it may get bogged down in procedure for years and watered down even further by business lobbying.

In other words, it's a distant, tiny improvement that will at best name and shame a few more firms but still let corporate criminals off lightly. And so they will carry on killing workers and members of the public with impunity - unless the labour movement can succeed in campaigning for something better.

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