Common sense and corporate manslaughter

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To the families of those who were killed in the Hatfield rail crash four years ago, the postponement of the Government's plans to toughen up legislation on corporate killing must feel like a kick in the teeth. Earlier this week, their case against former executives of Railtrack, including the chief executive, Gerald Corbett, was thrown out of court. This new legislation, which Labour has been promising to introduce for more than a decade, would not affect their specific case, but would represent an official vindication of their cause. Now it is a distant prospect.

To the families of those who were killed in the Hatfield rail crash four years ago, the postponement of the Government's plans to toughen up legislation on corporate killing must feel like a kick in the teeth. Earlier this week, their case against former executives of Railtrack, including the chief executive, Gerald Corbett, was thrown out of court. This new legislation, which Labour has been promising to introduce for more than a decade, would not affect their specific case, but would represent an official vindication of their cause. Now it is a distant prospect.

But that is no bad thing. Indeed, the Government would be wise to drop its plans to change the law in this area altogether. Of course, if a chief executive or company chairman has endangered lives through negligence or greed, he ought to be prosecuted. But the present corporate manslaughter law allows for that. The case against Mr Corbett and other Railtrack executives was dropped because there was insufficient evidence that the accident at Hatfield occurred because profit had been put before safety. Indeed, the case was so weak that the Crown Prosecution Service had given up on the corporate manslaughter charge and tried to prosecute under health and safety legislation. Yet even this failed.

This is not to say that managers should not accept responsibility or lose their job - as Corbett did by his resignation - when disasters occur on their watch. But this is very different from making them, and the company, directly culpable, which would be the effect of a new law allowing prosecutions for systemic failures to maintain health and safety standards.

The effects on business of such a law must be considered. Rather than make managers more responsible, it would paralyse initiatives and inflate costs. The consumer would ultimately be the loser. If managers are found knowingly to have compromised safety, they ought to be prosecuted. But it is unrealistic and unfair to introduce legislation that would enshrine the presumption that someone must be to blame if an accident occurs. Such a knee-jerk response to tragedy serves no one's interests.

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