Directors will face jail for corporate killing

Ministers are to make it easier to jail company directors after fatal accidents by tightening health and safety laws so that individual executives can be held personally responsible.

The sweeping changes to be unveiled next month aim to end the appalling record of only two company directors ever serving prison sentences for manslaughter. The Government promises to increase prosecutions by strengthening corporate man-slaughter and health and safety legislation.

The changes will make senior executives directly accountable in law for health and safety so that prosecuting authorities can identify them and bring them to court to answer manslaughter charges. Under existing law, it has been almost impossible to find a company director guilty of a "grossly negligent error" because no one person can be identified as the "controlling mind".

Courts are to get new powers to disqualify directors and freeze their companies' assets after fatal accidents. The Government also proposes to bring in a new offence of "corporate killing" which will make companies liable for unlimited fines. Under this offence, the Crown Prosecution Service will have to prove only a "failure of management systems".

In the past, big companies have wriggled out of prosecutions by showing that a number of senior directors have all played a different role in an accident. Ministers are frustrated that under the present law it has not been possible to prosecute any directors for the deaths resulting from the Marchioness and Herald of Free Enterprise disasters or the Southall and Paddington train crashes.

On Wednesday, Lord Cullen opens the Paddington inquiry into the death of 31 passengers in the collision between a Thames Train locomotive and a London-bound Great Western express last October. The Government will again face calls for action against senior directors.

But the changes, to be outlined in a consultation documents by the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will not be retroactive. Nevertheless, the proposals go further than those in a draft bill published by the Law Commission, which failed to address the issue of jail sentences for individual directors.

A Government source said: "When doctors commit negligence they are struck off and in the worst cases are sent to prison, so why shouldn't the same happen to directors?" He added that fines had proved to be no deterrent to individual directors who could write them off under tax loopholes.

The proposals also include new "remedial measures" so that companies which have not corrected their health and safety systems will be committing a criminal offence. "This would, for example, force rail companies to put signals right when these had caused a train crash, and, by disqualifying individual directors, we will stop senior executives waltzing off to manage other companies," he said.

David Bergman, of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, welcomed the proposals but sounded a note of caution. "Corporate killing and manslaughter are serious offences. They must be prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Heath and Safety Executive, which has an appalling record in this area."

Louise Christian, the solicitor representing some of the families whose relatives died in the Paddington crash, said the existing law was adequate to prosecute directors for man-slaughter. "It is the Crown Prosecution Service which has been grossly negligent in carrying out its duty."

A new corporate killing Bill is expected to be ready by the end of the summer.