Business View: Accountability is one thing, blaming bosses for everything quite another

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The Independent Online

Last week I took the train to Southampton. The carriages were those old slam- door models that the Strategic Rail Authority is desperate to get rid of because they are a danger to passengers. This was not the main concern for me and most of the other people on the journey. We were wondering whether the one available toilet (the others had been locked) would overflow, so adding to the days-old detritus that South West Trains had chosen not to remove from the carriages before we boarded.

Thankfully, South West Trains' controlling shareholder, Stagecoach, said on Friday that it would spend some £645m on brand new trains (with electronic doors) as a thank-you for being given three more years to operate the rail franchise. So in whatever time it takes to make, deliver, test and get these trains running (and your guess is as good as mine on that), we will see travellers on this franchise getting where they want to go in relative safety and comfort - if maybe not always on time.

The directors of South West Trains and Stagecoach, I am sure, are very concerned about the safety of the people who travel on the trains. And this concern will have been heightened after the news, last week, that two companies and six employees are being charged with manslaughter over the Hatfield rail crash in October 2001, which killed four people. Six more executives, including Gerald Corbett and Chris Leah, respectively the chief executive and head of safety at Railtrack at the time, have been charged with offences under the Health and Safety Act.

Clearly, it is not wise to prejudge this case. Hatfield was a watershed in the brief history of privatised rail in the UK, leading directly to Railtrack being forced into administration and succeeded by the "not for profit" Network Rail. And this prosecution is also a watershed, showing the determination of the Government to make companies, and their senior executives, criminally responsible for death and injury caused by negligence.

Now as a traveller on trains, a consumer of food that might be contaminated if there isn't proper cleanliness at a factory, a user of electrical equipment that might cause me a possibly fatal shock if not made properly etc etc, I am only too aware that companies, and their directors, have to be alive to their health and safety responsibilities. And if there is a fatal accident, I would agree that those who are responsible should be brought to book. But we have to be careful we do not frighten talented people away from doing jobs which are essential for the efficient working of the UK economy but which would expose people doing that job to prosecution if things go wrong.

It is a tricky balance. But many senior executives who I have spoken to feel genuinely worried about the manslaughter prosecutions over Hatfield. They say this adds an extra risk to their job, a risk that in some cases they might not want to take.

I want clean, safe trains. I want efficient hospitals, safe food, kettles that don't blow up. And I want good British managers who can deliver that for me. Will the Hatfield prosecutions make this more likely? I don't think so.

No bedfellow for the B&B

As someone who was born in Bradford and brought up in Bingley, I have always followed the ups and downs of the building society rather closely.

Since becoming a bank a couple of years ago, it has been behaving rather curiously. Its chief executive, Chris Rodrigues, is a man of vision, but the focus of this vision is not always clear. Thinking that being a "sub-scale lender", in the inimitable words of Barclays boss Matt Barrett, was not going to make the B&B great, he decided he would make it the UK's largest independent financial adviser. Meanwhile, he would keep on with the regular business of being a mortgage bank.

This, of course, is a strategy with both inherent conflicts and a rather limited scope. So you have to assume that the ultimate goal was to make the B&B attractive to a buyer. Barclays sniffed around it last year and HSBC this year. But neither took the bait.

Time may now be ticking away as the B&B's strategy starts to run out of steam. I am told that Mr Rodrigues is desperate to find a suitor. But not everyone finds a large network of IFAs attractive. And if you want a mortgage book, Northern Rock or Alliance & Leicester might be a more cost-effective option.

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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