A law to aid the prosecution of companies responsible for fatal accidents is expected to be enacted before the next general election.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has won approval from the Cabinet to publish a draft Bill on corporate manslaughter during the new parliamentary session, which begins on November 26. He hopes that Parliament will approve a final Bill next year.
The Government will hail the move as a breakthrough because prosecutions for corporate killing have been notoriously difficult. Only eight company directors and five firms have been convicted in England and Wales.
In 1989, a case brought by the Crown Prosecution Service against P&O European Ferries and seven individuals collapsed. They had been charged over the death of 193 people after the Herald of Free Enterprise car ferry capsized in 1987. The courts ruled that the employees had to be guilty of manslaughter for the company to be convicted.
Mr Blunkett's move may not go far enough for campaigners demanding a new law. Home Office proposals are likely to involve unlimited fines for companies rather than penalties such as jail sentences for individual directors.
Downing Street is nervous of making directors a target after being lobbied furiously by business groups. They warned that such a move would result in "scapegoats" and lead to a "blame culture" that would encourage cover-ups after accidents and prevent lessons being learnt. Business leaders have also pressed the Department of Trade and Industry on the issue.
Ministerial sources say Mr Blunkett has fought hard for the proposal during cabinet discussions on the programme for the next parliamentary session. One said yesterday: "This looked like a dead duck, but a deal has now been done and it will go ahead."
Another example of the problems with the current law has emerged since the Hatfield rail disaster in 2000, in which four people died. Railtrack, the former operating company, and Balfour Beatty, which was responsible for maintaining the track, as well as six executives are being prosecuted for unlawful killing. But the trial is expected to last a year and will not begin until 2005.
One stumbling block is that under current law, firms can be found guilty of manslaughter only if at least one person named as the "guiding mind" is also convicted. Critics say this prevents the prosecution of companies even where there is a gross and systemic management failure.
Labour has repeatedly promised to act but has struggled to produce workable legislation. The Confederation of British Industry is worried that the hurdles for prosecution will be set too low. It wants the law to distinguish between grossly negligent companies and responsible ones so that firms will not be swamped by legal action.
Over the past 10 years, about 3,000 workers and 1,000 members of the public have died in work-related incidents. During the same period, only 11 companies have been prosecuted for manslaughter and just four firms - all of them small - have been convicted. Only two directors have ever been jailed for such offences.
Companies in the dock
Teglgaard Hardwood (UK) Ltd was fined £25,000 in February this year after it and director John Horner pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Labourer Christopher Longrigg, 18, died in April 2000 when timber fell on him at a shipyard in Hessle, near Hull. Mr Horner was given a five-month prison sentence, suspended for two years.
Dennis Clothier and Sons and one of its directors, Julian Clothier, were found guilty in October last year of the manslaughter of Stephen Hayfield. He died in November 2000, when he was hit by a trailer owned by the company. The firm was fined £4,000 and Mr Clothier was given 240 hours' community service.
English Brothers Ltd, a construction company, pleaded guilty in August 2001 to the manslaughter of a gang foreman, Bill Larkman, who died in 1999 when he fell through a roof. The company was fined £25,000.
Jackson Transport (Ossett) Ltd and Alan Jackson, its managing director, were convicted in September 1996 of the manslaughter of James Hodgson. Mr Hodgson died in May 1994, when he cleaned a tanker valve that was blocked with toxic chemicals. The firm was fined £15,000 and Mr Jackson was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
OLL Ltd, an outdoor activity company, and Peter Kite, its managing director, were convicted in November 1994 of the manslaughter of four students from Southway Comprehensive, Plymouth. They were swept to sea on a canoeing trip. The firm was fined £60,000 and Mr Kite received three years in jail, reduced to two on appeal.Reuse content