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Dozens of firms `escape corporate killings charges'

UP TO 55 cases of corporate manslaughter a year should be brought against companies and directors where employees have been killed in the workplace, according to new research.

Gary Slapper, director of the law programme at the Open University, said the law needed to be changed and a tougher approach taken to fatal safety lapses in the workplace.

"Corporate killing is a considerable problem. Yet it is almost never processed and labelled as the crime that it is, so people think it is a rare event," he said.

Only five cases of corporate manslaughter have ever been brought, and only two of these resulted in convictions.

In the first British study of its kind, Dr Slapper researched cases of commercially related death in 20 towns and cities in Britain. He made a detailed study of 40 random cases involving death at work, examining every aspect of the legal and social responses to these deaths. He interviewed the attending and recording officials, police officers, HSE inspectors, coroners and lawyers.

He found that in 20 per cent of these cases there was presented prima facie evidence of corporate manslaughter. That would mean about 55 prosecutions - more than one a week - out of the roughly 275 deaths at work a year, if the 20 per cent figure was representative.

"When a reckless company kills, the legal system usually just yawns and turns away. There is virtually no deterrent," he said.

The Health and Safety Executive is under mounting attack following the Paddington rail disaster over its reluctance to prosecute over safety lapses. The HSE's director general, Jenny Bacon, was questioned last week by the Commons Environment Select Committee.

The HSE does not have the resources to tackle the job, Dr Slapper said. "As a consequence of extraordinarily low resourcing and confused laws and legal policy, enforcement is erratic, investigations of potentially serious crimes alarmingly poor, and prosecution rates infinitesimally low."

The Law Commission advised the Government three years ago that the corporate manslaughter law needed reform to be effective. At the moment it is necessary to identify at least one director who was personally grossly negligent. The Government has taken no action to change this.

Since 1965, 25,000 people have been killed at work or in major commercial disasters. Health and Safety Executive reports suggest that 70 per cent of these deaths resulted from a management failure. Dr Slapper's research also shows that 60 per cent of deaths were attributable to economic factors, cutting corners to save money as opposed to simple ignorance about safety.

"Recently we have watched a parade of company directors earnestly assuring us that they put considerations of safety above the quest for profit. Often the evidence shows that is patently untrue," he said.

The HSE tends to use a range of lesser charges that it can lay against companies and individuals where it believes negligence has taken place. However HSE prosecutions of any kind followed in only 33 per cent of all death-at-work cases.

Prosecutions are even rarer in cases where workers are injured. Figures compiled by the Centre for Corporate Accountability show that the HSE investigates only 11.2 per cent of major injuries in the workplace and while it has to investigate all deaths it only prosecutes in 18.8 per cent of such cases.

Dr Slapper said there are "double standards" in criminal justice system. "A level of lethal risk-taking that, if anyone is hurt or killed, puts the culprit in jail in ordinary life will probably result in no serious outcome if the `criminal' risk-taker is a company."

Dr Slapper also said that corporate manslaughter prosecutions would rise further if death-at-work road traffic cases were included. "Oddly, although 1.8 million people are `at work' on the roads each day, the HSE does not count these deaths,"he said. "Many people are killed here because of cheap or insufficient maintenance of vehicles by fleet operators, and over-stressful driving routines."

'`Blood in the Bank' by Gary Slapper will be published by Ashgate.

Dismal record of corporate manslaughter cases

`Herald of Free Enterprise' sinking, 1987

193 deaths Case failed

A corporate manslaughter case was brought against P&O, but was thrown out.

King's Cross fire, 1987

31 deaths Case not brought

Despite considerable evidence of negligence by London Underground, charges were never placed.

`Marchioness' sinking, 1989

51 deaths

Case not brought

Two juries failed to reach a verdict about the captain of the Bowbelle, which hit the pleasure boat on the Thames. The Bowbelle's owners were not charged despite clear evidence of corporate negligence.

Lyme Bay disaster, 1993

4 deaths

Director jailed

Corporate manslaughter charges were brought against the canoe trip organiser OLL Ltd. It was a small company and negligence was easily demonstrated. Peter Kite, a director of the company, was jailed for three years.

Southall train disaster, 1997

7 deaths

Case failed

Great Western Trains was charged but the case was thrown out by the judge. The company was subsequently prosecuted under Health and Safety laws and fined pounds 1.5m.