We care more for animals than workers

Nobody knows why Glasgow happened. But even if owners fiddle safety rules, they are rarely held responsible
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The Independent Online

At last - Britain's workplace carnage has been noticed. Four people were killed and 30 injured this week when a plastics factory was blasted to rubble in downtown Glasgow. The victims will - in spirit - enter an industrial graveyard filled with the bodies of more than 400 people who suffered fatal injuries in the workplace in this country last year, many of them in highly dubious circumstances.

At last - Britain's workplace carnage has been noticed. Four people were killed and 30 injured this week when a plastics factory was blasted to rubble in downtown Glasgow. The victims will - in spirit - enter an industrial graveyard filled with the bodies of more than 400 people who suffered fatal injuries in the workplace in this country last year, many of them in highly dubious circumstances.

Nobody knows why the Glasgow explosion happened. There is absolutely no accusation of impropriety on the part of the owners. But it is startling to realise that even in the cases when owners do fiddle health and safety regulations, they are almost never held criminally responsible.

You might imagine that all these deaths - greater than the slaughter of the Madrid train bombings - would be a huge political issue. You might expect to hear about the victims of negligent bosses in particular. Simon Jones was a student decapitated on a building site after being given a few minutes' "training" for his holiday job. But is he a figure as iconic as Holly and Jessica?

The Simon Joneses are victims of low-wage, flexible labour-market Britain, where if you kill somebody on a grim estate, you get a life sentence, but if you kill one of your workers by refusing to put in place safety regulations from a swish boardroom, you walk free. Animal safety is a far bigger issue in Britain. Fifty seven people were sent to prison last year for cruelty to animals. Just one person was jailed for culpable killing in the workplace - and his sentence was overturned on appeal and replaced with a £1 fine. As one trade unionist explains: "The factory cat is more likely to get justice than the factory worker."

After seven years of a Labour government, incredibly, it's getting worse. The number of health and safety inspectors has fallen by 41 per cent since 1999, when the level had already been whittled down through the long years of Tory dystopia. Workplace deaths have risen by 23 per cent in the under-inspected five years since - hardly a coincidence - and, today, 80 per cent of injuries to workers are not even inspected. And don't say it can't get worse - there are more budget cuts to the health and safety inspectors on the way. Even the fines that courts hand out to the very worst bosses (average: £2,656) are falling - while deaths rise.

British law, as it stands, grants near-immunity to large companies who kill. Even when there is a very strong case that a company has been responsible for deaths, it is almost impossible to successfully prosecute them. For example, three days before Christmas in 1999, a family of four in Larkhall, Scotland, was incinerated in a gas explosion. The family had repeatedly reported smelling gas to Transco, their local provider. Their local gas main had 19 leaks, it was discovered - but even the year after the family's death, Transco underspent on its desperately needed maintenance programme by £358m so they could pass on more profit to their shareholders.

A prosecution bid for corporate homicide - the first in Scottish legal history - had to be thrown out by the courts. Alan Dick, a former engineering operations manager for Lanarkshire, says: "I am despondent, because I am absolutely certain that what happened in Larkhall will happen again. It is just a matter of time." There were widespread accusations that Transco "got away with killing" - and the countdown to the next explosion is rolling.

Nor are they the only gas company that has got away with corpses on their conscience. The Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 killed 167 people - far more than any IRA attack ever claimed. A public inquiry found that Occidental Petroleum, the company responsible, "adopted a superficial attitude to assessing risk and [there were] significant flaws in the management of safety". A private prosecution by the families of the victims collapsed.

Transco and Occidental Petroleum could not be successfully prosecuted because of the current structure of British law. David Bergman, Director of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, explains: "Company directors can be charged with manslaughter, but only if the courts can identify a specific individual within the company who was clearly negligent. In legal terms it's called a 'controlling mind'. You have to find a person; you can't charge the corporation as a whole. Obviously, within complex companies with many layers of management, it's usually impossible to find out where the buck stopped, so prosecution is ruled out." Some small businesses have been brought to justice, but no big company has ever been successfully prosecuted.

So should we change the law? In 1996, the law lords recommended the introduction of a new prohibition against "corporate killing". They wanted to make it possible for a corporation to be held collectively responsible for killing, even where a specific individual could not be identified.

The introduction of corporate killing laws was promised in both the 1997 and 2001 Labour manifestos, but the Government has so far only rolled out more consultations. There have now been three consultations in under a decade. David Blunkett was spinning a few years ago that legislation was imminent, but nothing has emerged.

The Government seems uncomfortable in this territory. It's partly that factories sound, to modernising ears, terribly Old Labour. "Hattersley talks factories, we talk silicon and the new economy", you can hear them mutter. But the discomfort is also partly because these deaths expose a hole in the Blairite world view. At heart, New Labourites have accepted the Thatcherite belief that business is essentially benign. Stroke business, encourage it, tickle its stomach with corporate tax cuts, and we'll all be better off, they believe. A benign circle is created - or, as Delboy Trotter would put it, "Everyone's a winner."

Blairites have allowed their appreciation for the good (indeed, essential) side of business - its ability to generate wealth - to blind them to its weaknesses. Companies act to maximise wealth, period. In the pursuit of wealth, they will do some terrible things - including skimping on safety regulations - unless government stops them. No amount of coaxing - or appeals to their human decency - will make businesses disregard their bottom line: profits. Only cold, hard regulation can make them do that. That's why we need a vigorous market economy and tough regulation. This is basic social democratic philosophy, yet the Government seems, at times, to have forgotten it.

When it comes to bloodstained companies - as on so many issues - the British public is more social democratic than its own Labour government. A recent Mori poll found that two-thirds of us want a corporate killing law, and 65 per cent are social democratic enough to realise that workplace safety will only improve if directors can be prosecuted. Despite the Thatcherite propaganda they have been bombarded with for decades, British people stubbornly maintain the belief that business is not inherently decent; it needs hard legal incentives to behave decently. Regulating the excesses of big business - "the unacceptable face of capitalism", as even a Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, once dubbed it - isn't only moral. It's good, popular politics.

So what's holding the Government up? Are they really more inclined to take notice of empty corporate promises than the trade unions, their own party, a fat majority of the British public and an expanding graveyard of Simon Joneses?