'Corporate killers' face prison, says Straw

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Jack Straw is to propose a new criminal offence of "corporate manslaughter" with heavy fines or jail to punish senior managers for disasters such as the Paddington crash. The Home Secretary will publish a consultation document next month proposing the new penalty, which could be included in legislation after the Queen's Speech.

Jack Straw is to propose a new criminal offence of "corporate manslaughter" with heavy fines or jail to punish senior managers for disasters such as the Paddington crash. The Home Secretary will publish a consultation document next month proposing the new penalty, which could be included in legislation after the Queen's Speech.

The rail industry also yesterday announced seven measures to avoid disasters like the Paddington crash in which 30 people were killed and Southall two years ago where seven people lost their lives.

After a "rail summit" called by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, train operating companies agreed to establish a confidential "whistle-blowing" system so employees can reveal their concerns without fear of victimisation. Train companies also agreed to establish a national training system for drivers to unify standards through the industry.

The summit - which included representatives of Railtrack, the train companies' safety inspector and rail unions - accepted installation of the Train Protection Warning System should be accelerated. It had been scheduled for introduction by 2003. The device is halfway between the traditional Automatic Warning System and the fail-safe Automatic Train Protection, which would be brought in 'as soon as possible'.

Asked who would pay for these new systems, Mr Prescott said: "We all have obligations." He indicated that the Government, the industry and the fare-paying public would have to shoulder the burden.

The summit also agreed to a unified procedure for investigating all incidents where signals are passed danger, the cause of the Paddington and Southall disasters, and most other fatalities in the industry. Twenty-two recommendations by the Health and Safety Executive's rail inspectorate would also be examined.

One option in the planned legislation could mean company directors being named as legally responsible for safety, and potentially culpable in cases of avoidable accidents. Even when no deaths are involved, ministers are said to believe jail is justified for the worst cases.

Under the Health and Safety Act , offenders can be sent to jail only for a limited number of offences including dealing with asbestos without a licence or deliberately ignoring an official "enforcement notice".

Senior executives at Great Western Trains escaped manslaughter charges after the Southall crash because it was impossible to identify a "controlling mind". The company was fined a record £1.5m.

Lawyers for the families of victims in the Paddington disaster have been deterred from bringing manslaughter charges because such litigation is complicated, and delayed the inquiry for two years.

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