Death on the docks: the short life and violent end of Simon Jones

A student on the dole was sent to a job that killed him. Who will take the blame?
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In many ways, Simon Jones was an infuriating young man. Unpunctual, often unable to rise before noon, he seemed incapable of sticking to any activity which might give him a conventional career. He went to study government at Essex University, but stayed for just a term. Then, after a couple of years working in London, he opted to go to Sussex University to begin a degree in social anthropology. After three years, he decided on the first morning of his final exams that he couldn't go through with it.

By all accounts, however, Simon was far brighter than the average university student. He was also a committed environmentalist, an implacable opponent of racism and a charming, gentle and caring young man; a free spirit. One of the issues that concerned him most deeply was safety at work. (Simon was a member of the Brighton-based direct-action group Justice?, which campaigned on behalf of the Liverpool dockers who went on strike against the "casualisation" of the industry.)

Almost a year after leaving university - having made a commitment to go back and complete his degree - Simon was sent by an employment agency to work at Shoreham Docks. He was claiming the Jobseekers' Allowance and the Employment Service insisted that he take any work offered to him. Some two hours after arriving at the docks on 24 April, he was dead, his head partly severed. He had been working in the hold of a ship and a crane grab had crushed him.

The work Simon undertook for Euromin, a Dutch-owned firm, was hazardous to say the least. His job was to attach bags of cobblestones to hooks which had been welded to the inside of the open grab. He received just a few minutes' training. The conventional method would have been to attach a hook to the crane. Employees at Euromin, however, contend that the company was reluctant to change the crane from grab to hook and back again because it cost time and money.

When the accident happened, the police and ambulance service were called, but the fire brigade also went to the scene so that Simon could be brought out of the hold. The crane driver and Euromin's general manager, James Martell, were arrested, but both were released without charge.

Emma Aynsley, Simon's girlfriend at the time, has since been part of a campaign to bring those responsible for his death to book. "I'm astonished that there weren't better safety precautions and that an inexperienced person could be employed to undertake a job that was clearly dangerous."

It is difficult to think of anyone less suited to the job that Simon was asked to do. Although he was a robust young man, he was also given to self-absorption. His time-keeping - or the lack of it - was legendary.

His intellectual achievements as a young boy were remarkable. While still at primary school, he read historical novels and at 13 years of age read Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, which gave him strong views about our penal system. At 14, he identified very much with the Communist Party and by the age of 15, his teacher said he had read more than most people do in a lifetime. He became involved with causes such as the anti-apartheid and anti-poll tax campaigns.

His mother Chris says that when beggars asked him for money, he invariably gave it to them, even though he had little himself. But his seriousness about politics never obscured his "wacky" sense of humour. "He was exceptionally well-loved," says his mother.

For the last 10 months, Emma and his other friends, together with his mother and father, have waged a campaign to ensure that charges are preferred against those responsible. They insist that Personnel Selection, the agency which sent him to the docks, had a legal responsibility to ensure that the work was both suitable and safe. The company has pointed out that the Department of Industry has investigated its methods and resolved to take no further action.

Campaigners have put pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service to take action against Euromin, and against Mr Martell. The CPS initially decided that there was insufficient evidence for a charge of manslaughter, but has been persuaded to reconsider the case. In an impassioned speech in the Commons on 3 March this year, George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, made clear where he thought responsibility lay. He told MPs that Mr Martell had not sent a word of condolence to the family and had "laughed out loud" when he was told that he could face prosecution.

"Martell's contempt for the laws of health and safety in this country, his greed and hunger for profit and his negligence and carelessness slaughtered a young man just as clearly as if he had pushed him off the dock with his own hands," said Mr Galloway.

Simon's family is now awaiting the further deliberations of the CPS. They could consider taking out a private prosecution, but that could prove both expensive and difficult, according to Louise Christian, the solicitor acting for the Jones family. The family is hoping for an inquest verdict of unlawful killing which, if necessary, could put pressure on government prosecutors to reopen the case for a third time.

The HSE has already registered its intention to take proceedings under health and safety legislation. That could result in fines, but at a "pitifully low level" according to the Jones family. A conviction for corporate manslaughter could result in Mr Martell and other Euromin executives serving jail sentences. As Mrs Jones says, the authorities are notoriously reluctant to accuse executives of manslaughter. There have only been five such charges in the last 30 years.

Gary Slapper, law director of the Open University, believes that official figures for deaths at work understate the real situation and that 20 per cent of fatalities involve managerial behaviour which give "good prima facie" grounds for manslaughter charges. Researchers at the Health and Safety Executive found that 70 per cent of the 739 deaths on building and civil engineering sites could have been avoided by "positive management action".

Emma, who was at Sussex University with Simon, says that the CPS is simply "reluctant to prosecute people in suits". She believes the executive's reluctance might well have been fuelled by Simon's unconventional approach to life. If he had been a "suit", perhaps the political pressure would have been irresistible. Simon lived in an unused building in Brighton with his friends. However, the local council regarded them as "benign" squatters and even offered them the key to another building when their "home" was due to be taken over.

While Ms Christian has been attempting to put pressure on government prosecutors, Simon's friends have taken to the streets. On 1 September last year, which would have been Simon's 25th birthday, protesters invaded Euromin's Shoreham Dock and unfurled banners from two 80 foot towers reading "Simon Jones RIP" and "Casualisation kills". Two days later they occupied the Brighton office of Personnel Selection. Earlier this month (March), after lobbying parliament, some of them forced their way past security guards at the Department of Trade and Industry in London, setting off a fire alarm. The building was evacuated and the demonstrators ejected. Simon, they believe, would have approved.

There is little doubt that young people are particularly vulnerable in potentially hazardous circumstances. Paul Convery, a director of the Unemployment Unit, says that employers often underestimate the degree to which experienced workers are able to avoid danger. New recruits are much more vulnerable.

He also believes that despite new instructions issued by the Government, the Employment Service is always keen to meet its target for getting people into jobs. "Some officials may be overkeen and send young people to unsuitable jobs," he says.

Simon's mother and father, both teachers, intend to fight on. Anne Jones argues that there was a "serious and obvious risk" to Simon because of the working conditions at the dock and that therefore there is sufficient evidence to bring a charge of manslaughter. She believes that most of the so-called "accidents" at work are anything but accidental: more often than not they are simply because management has failed to take the steps necessary to remove the risks. "Simon had a lot going for him," she says. "He had so much to live for. I know I can't bring him back, but if I can stop it happening to someone else, I will feel I've achieved something."