In the Media

Corporate manslaughter laws don't fo far enough

PUBLISHED August 4, 2006

 After nearly a decade of planning, new legislation has been published that will ensure companies are prosecuted if their negligence leads to the death of employees or the public.

The corporate manslaughter bill creates a new offence of corporate manslaughter, and should provide a more effective sanction for holding companies and other organisations accountable when management failure has proved fatal.

Courts will now be able to take account of a wider range of management conduct and ?any other matters relevant to? the breach?. Up until now the number of prosecutions brought to the HSE has been far too low. One suspects this is a result of evidential difficulties in trying to prove who is responsible. The new bill should end these problems.

However, perhaps the most glaring missed opportunity is the failure to perceive causing serious injury (as a result of gross negligence by the management) as an offence. The bill is limited to breaches leading to fatalities. This omission is beyond comprehension, given that from 2003 to 2004 over 160,000 people were injured at work compared to 235 fatalities over the same period. The bill sends out completely the wrong message to companies and directors.

The Home Office goes as far as saying ?this (bill) will not introduce new standards, organisations taking their current health and safety obligations will have nothing to fear?. I am sure that this will provide little comfort to those injured at work.

One area the bill has opened up is the liability of government departments and other Crown bodies who in the past have been immune from prosecution. However, the bill will apply to these departments and bodies, but only when they are engaged in similar activities to private sector companies and industries. The bill will not apply to certain core public functions or decisions relating to matters of public policy, as it is said that they are subject to existing lines of public accountability. In practice, this means the bill will apply to the Armed Forces but not to their activities in relation to planning, preparing or supporting combat operations. It will, however, apply to NHS trusts. I can foresee increased numbers of prosecutions brought against trusts in circumstances where the treating doctor is not properly supervised or has insufficient training.

While I am encouraged by the attempts to deal with the question of corporate manslaughter, I am disappointed that a decade?s worth of planning has yielded legislation that fails to tackle the increasing numbers of accidents in the workplace.