The threat of jail would focus the corporate mind

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The Independent Online

There is a danger that whenever anyone dies in an avoidable accident, the cry goes up to find someone responsible and punish them. More specifically, the danger is that the Government will be pressed into making bad law that could put company directors in jail for the omissions or oversights for which they bear only the most tenuous responsibility.

There is a danger that whenever anyone dies in an avoidable accident, the cry goes up to find someone responsible and punish them. More specifically, the danger is that the Government will be pressed into making bad law that could put company directors in jail for the omissions or oversights for which they bear only the most tenuous responsibility.

The Government's proposals to tighten the law on corporate manslaughter need to be assessed against this test. The proposals have arisen from public anger following the Herald of Free Enterprise, Marchioness and Southall tragedies, when it proved impossible to convict any of the directors of the companies that appeared to be in some sense "responsible". Nor will it be possible to prosecute anyone for the Paddington rail crash, subject of the public inquiry that opens this week.

It is always going to be difficult to establish and apportion blame for serious accidents. Some aspects of a public outcry are unhelpful, such as the immediate demand for a public inquiry, which can often prejudice the court cases that are potentially the real engine of improvement. Indeed, changing the law to make it easier to identify and punish corporate responsibility for accidents could be the most effective protection for the future.

As ever, changing the law has proved more difficult than demanding that "something must be done". However, it seems as though the Government is - belatedly - getting closer to the right balance. The draft Bill published by the Law Commission did not go far enough. It proposed unlimited fines on the American model, which certainly act as an incentive to safety-consciousness in the United States, except that the culture of litigation there means that priorities are confused, with the risks of being scalded by a cup of coffee too easily equated with those of losing a life.

The trouble is that the impact of financial penalties is too diffuse to ensure that individuals feel a sharp and personal sense of responsibility. It is right, therefore, that the law should provide for jail sentences for the directors of companies found guilty of corporate killing. It might be argued that this would divert energies into the identification of scapegoats rather than the improvement of safety systems. But it is only by sharpening the threat felt by directors that they will have the incentive to ensure that they know what the safety systems are, and that they will assign responsibility more clearly.

It is too late to achieve justice for the victims of the Paddington crash, but a change in the law could make it easier to establish responsibility, which would force companies to take safety more seriously in future.

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