Six disasters; 368 people dead; no successful prosecutions. Now the Government acts

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A new offence of corporate killing is being planned by the Government to prosecute directors of companies where people died as a result of failures at the top. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the Home Secretary is certain to introduce legislation.

The litany of disasters seemed endless - names such as Herald of Free Enterprise, Bradford, the Marchioness became known nationally and internationally as symbols of death, pain and disfigurement.

After each tragedy the inevitable questions: how could it happen, who was to blame? Inquiries followed and while blame was apportioned in some cases to individuals, the law was unable fully to consider the role of large companies involved and those who run them.

But now company directors could be charged with "corporate killing" and face unlimited fines under a new offence being planned by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to punish safety failures which lead to disasters. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has given his strong backing to the measure, and ministerial sources said the Southall rail crash in which seven passengers died last month has increased the pressure within the Government for action.

The Labour Party conference in Brighton yesterday passed an emergency resolution on the Southall rail crash calling for the introduction of measures which would enable charges of corporate manslaughter to be brought if directors could be shown to have failed to deal with a foreseeable danger.

"The Home Secretary is giving it active consideration. He is sure to come forward with proposals, but it is a question of parliamentary timing," said a source. The Deputy Prime Minister's backing is certain to ensure the Home Secretary will be given time for a Bill before the general election, but the sources said it was unlikely the measure could be included in the law-and-order Bill being introduced in November.

A new offence of "corporate killing" was called for in a Royal Commission report in March last year, and Mr Straw told a Bar conference last weekend that he would be implementing its findings. The commission recommended that the company directors should be liable to unlimited fines and forced to remedy the failures which led to the cause of death.

Disasters such as the King's Cross fire in which 31 died, the Clapham rail crash in which 35 were killed, and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge with the loss of 188 lives brought calls for prosecutions, but no corporate prosecution was possible - although it was felt that safety measures were wanting. The main reason for the failure to bring corporate manslaughter charges was that they could only be brought where a corporation had acted through the "controlling mind" of one of its agents.

One of the few company bosses to be convicted of manslaughter was Peter Kite, the owner of OLL Limited, who was jailed for three years and his company fined pounds 60,000 following the 1994 Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy in which four teenagers died. He was found guilty because he was directly in charge of the activity centre where the children were staying.

The weakness of the law in tackling corporate responsibility for manslaughter was criticised by the judge when charges were brought against some of the seamen on the Herald of Free Enterprise, but no successful prosecution was brought against P&O, the owners. The Zeebrugge disaster led to the Law Commission review which is now expected to end in legislation.

The British Rail Board admitted liability after the 1988 Clapham rail crash, which resulted from careless work by signal engineers. BR was responsible under the "vicarious liability" principle and paid compensation reaching pounds 1m in some cases, but no one was prosecuted for manslaughter. The privatisation of the railways under the Tories heightened calls for more stringent penalties imposed on companies for failing to implement safety recommendations made in the Clapham disaster inquiry.

The Independent has learnt that John Monks, the leader of the Trades Union Congress, approached the Home Secretary before the Southall crash to press for action. Mr Prescott, who campaigned while in opposition for tougher rail safety procedures, ordered the Southall rail crash inquiry should be held in public.

The inquiry is expected to investigate whether the rail franchise operators or Railtrack, which runs the lines, were at fault for not operating safety devices recommended after the Clapham rail tragedy. Ministerial sources said the police were already looking at the possibility of a corporate manslaughter charge.

The driver of the train was defended at the Labour conference, and there were claims that he was being made a scapegoat in the press. Lew Adams, leader of Aslef, called on the conference to back his union's motion for a new charge of corporate manslaughter to be introduced. The emergency motion tabled by Aslef, said: "Nine years after the Clapham crash, the inquiry's recommendation that automatic train protection be installed has still not happened and has been abandoned by Railtrack on the grounds of cost." Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT transport workers' union, which backed the motion, last night welcomed the move. "I think the law should be changed as quickly as possible because you have a disaster like the Herald of Free Enterprise where a prosecution failed and the judge expressed regret that he could not continue the case against the company."

Conference reports, pages 8, 9