Corporate killers will face fines and life in jail

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The Independent Online

More than three million businesses, charities and public bodies will be liable for prosecution under a new offence of corporate killing, proposed yesterday by the Government.

More than three million businesses, charities and public bodies will be liable for prosecution under a new offence of corporate killing, proposed yesterday by the Government.

In a response to public concern over the lack of prosecutions in a succession of disasters such as the sinking of the Marchioness pleasure boat, the Piper Alpha fire and the Clapham and Southall rail crashes, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has announced a shake-up of the law on involuntary manslaughter.

Organisations convicted of the new offence will face unlimited fines and their directors may be disqualified. But to the anger of some victims' families, bosses of convicted organisations are unlikely to face prison unless they can be shown to be personally responsible and prosecuted separately under proposed individual offences.

The most serious of these, reckless killing, will carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if a person can be shown to have been aware that their conduct would cause death or serious injury. A lesser offence of killing by gross carelessness, where there is a risk of death or serious injury and the person's conduct falls far below what could be expected, will be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

A third offence, killing when the intention was to cause only minor injury, will apply when death was caused by an unforeseen event and will carry a maximum sentence of between five and ten years.

Announcing the package of proposals, Mr Straw said he had been "scandalised" by the lack of prosecutions in the wake of a series of recent disasters.

He published a consultation document which cited the Zeebrugge ferry disaster in 1987, the King's Cross fire of 1987 and the Clapham and Southall rail crashes of 1988 and 1997, as examples of where "the failures to successfully prosecute have led to an apparent perception among the public that the law dealing with corporate manslaughter is inadequate".

He said: "I have been scandalised like everybody else by the fact that corporations or their directors had very little penalty for some very reckless and negligent things that have occurred."

The Government wants corporate killing to cover all employing organisations, including schools, hospital trusts, charities and sole-trader businesses, such as self-employed gas fitters. The Law Commission, which examined the law on involuntary manslaughter in 1996, suggested that a corporate killing offence should only apply to corporations.

But the Government's consultation paper suggested that crown immunity should apply to the corporate killing offence, meaning that the Ministry of Defence, the Prison Service and the emergency services would all be exempt fromprosecution.

The Labour MP Andrew Dismore, whose own Bill proposing the creation of a charge of corporate homicide has already made one appearance before the Commons, welcomed the proposals as a "very good start". Mr Dismore, who worked as a lawyer on the aftermath of the King's Cross fire disaster, wants chief executives and chairmen to face criminal prosecution for their companies' failings. He said: "My response to the document is that we may need to be tougher on company directors but it is a very important step forward. Directors should not face charges in every case but in the worst cases it would be appropriate and it is an argument I will be putting forward."

Ruth Lea, the head of policy at the Institute of Directors, said there was an acceptance that the law needed to be tightened. She said: "It is not in business's interest to be seen to behave recklessly, and to be getting away with it."