Labour reneges on 10-year pledge to introduce corporate killing law

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A long-promised law to make it easier to prosecute companies responsible for fatal accidents is likely to be delayed until after the next general election.

A long-promised law to make it easier to prosecute companies responsible for fatal accidents is likely to be delayed until after the next general election.

For 10 years, senior Labour politicians have pledged to bring in legislation on corporate manslaughter and the party's manifesto at the last election included a firm promise to act. Although a draft Bill is due to be published before the end of this year, the measure is not expected to be pushed through Parliament before the election pencilled in for next May.

Pressure on ministers to act increased after manslaughter and health and safety charges against Railtrack and three of its former executives over the Hatfield rail disaster in 2000 collapsed on Wednesday. Campaigners said this illustrated the need for a new law on corporate killing. Some ministers want the Government to move immediately to legislation without publishing it in draft form, which could enable Labour to honour its manifesto commitment. But Downing Street, which is anxious not to alienate the business community, is likely to insist on a draft Bill for discussion to enable industry to put its case.

Government sources insist the technical problems that have bedevilled attempts to draw up a workable law have now been resolved. "The political will is there," one said.

John Prescott said after the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster that British courts had confirmed that companies were not responsible for their actions on safety. In 2000, Jack Straw said the law in this area needed to be "clear and effective in order to secure public confidence".

A draft Bill was promised by David Blunkett in May last year but the timing has been repeatedly put back. Yesterday the Home Office said: "There are complex questions still that still needed to be resolved. We had expected to settle our position and produce proposals by now, but some matters have taken longer than expected."

Ministers face public criticism during a debate on health and safety at the TUC conference in two weeks' time. Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said: "The Government made a manifesto commitment to introduce a criminal offence of corporate man-slaughter and the fact that the number of deaths at work actually rose last year shows that some form of sanction must be available against those employers whose actions, or inactions, lead to death of workers or the public.

"There are no excuses for further prevarication. We need the Government to publish their proposals before the beginning of the next session of parliament to show that they are serious about delivering on this crucial issue."

Pamela Dix of Disaster Action, a group set up after Zeebrugge, said: "Time and time again, 'insufficient evidence' is trotted out as the reason for dropping charges. If we allow the current position to carry on, people will go on dying."

Under the current law, firms can only be found guilty of manslaughter if at least one person, named as the "guiding mind", is also convicted. Critics say this prevents prosecutions even if there is systemic management failure.

Gerald Corbett, one of the Railtrack bosses cleared of health and safety charges, said yesterday that he felt "very lucky" but "vindicated" and insisted he was not "personally culpable" for the Hatfield accident. He said: "Being the boss in itself is not a crime - bosses are guilty if they do something wrong. A terrible accident did happen on my watch and I did take responsibility and immediately tendered my resignation. But that does not necessarily mean that it was my personal fault."

'BLAME-FREE' DISASTERS

Campaigners for a new law on corporate killing say that about 3,000 workers and 1,000 members of the public have died in work-related incidents in the past 10 years. But only 11 companies have been prosecuted and just four of them, all small businesses, were convicted. Only two directors have ever been jailed for such offences. A series of major disasters has failed so far to result in a manslaughter conviction. They include:

Zeebrugge

Some 150 passengers and 38 crew died when the Herald of Free Enterprise car ferry capsized off the Belgian port in 1987.

King's Cross

Thirty-one people died when a fire broke out in an escalator shaft and spread to a ticket hall in the London Underground station in 1987.

Hillsborough

Ninety-six fans were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, Sheffield, in 1989.

Marchioness

Fifty-one people died after the 90-ton pleasure craft collided with the 1,475-ton dredger Bowbelle on the Thames in 1989.

Hatfield

Four people died in 2000 when a GNER train derailed near Hatfield station in Hertfordshire.

Other rail disasters

The Clapham Junction crash in 1988 which killed 35 people; the Southall crash in 1997 which left seven dead; and the crash just outside Paddington station in 1999, which claimed the lives of 31 people.

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