Letter: Why companies rarely take the rap

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The Independent Online
From Dr Gary Slapper

Sir: Your suggestion ("Death on a building site", 3 August) that there is a lack of "political will" to use the full force of the law against criminally culpable employers is attested to by the results of national research I have conducted for the past four years. That there is merit in custodial sentences in cases of extreme negligence, as you suggest, is, however, highly contestable.

Only about 30 per cent of deaths at work are followed by a prosecution of any sort and, although annually about 20 per cent of cases show a level of negligence warranting investigation for corporate manslaughter, there have been only three prosecutions for this crime in English legal history.

Following a death, neither police officers nor HSE inspectors generally take statements from senior company officers, and, in more than 70 per cent of work fatalities, coroners do not call such directors as witnesses. Thus, from the outset, the frame of blameworthiness excludes evidence that might incriminate a company.

The highest fine imposed on a company for an offence related to deaths was pounds 750,000 (three workers were killed on an oil refinery) but, judged against that company's profits for the year in question, it was the equivalent of a pounds 7 fine for an individual earning pounds 15,000 p.a.

The trouble, though, with promoting custodial sentences for corporate killing is that such punishment could be used to personalise fault and scapegoat in circumstances where the real wrong was corporate, collective and related to policy.

Yours faithfully,

Gary Slapper

Director

Institute of Industrial and

Commercial Law

Staffordshire University

Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

8 August

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