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(en) Freedom 6323 Nov 30 2002 - Getting away with murder

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 14 Dec 2002 07:03:47 -0500 (EST)


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As many expected, there was no announcement in the
Queen's Speech that the government was intending to
change the law on 'corporate manslaughter' during the
next parliament. Instead, the emphasis was on the
government's Criminal Justice Bill, low-level crime and
anti-social disorder. It's five years since then Home
Secretary Jack Straw followed a Law Commission
recommendation and announced that the government was
intending to reform the law of manslaughter. It would, he
said, introduce a new offence of 'corporate killing'.
Amid concerns about the lack of corporate accountability
following the disasters of the 1980s, such as the
Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the Clapham rail crash and the
King's Cross fire, Straw announced that those who caused
the deaths of innocent people by criminal negligence
shouldn't escape punishment. Since then, there have been
over 1,500 work-related deaths, as well as rail crashes at
Southall, Paddington, Hatfield, Selby and Potters Bar.
Some critics have suggested that Britain's bosses appear to
be getting away with murder.
Earlier this year, Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors, told
the Observer, "for business to look as if it's getting away
with murder is extraordinary. It's common justice that if
someone is killed through gross negligence then someone
should be held responsible." Indeed, in the last fifty years
only three companies have ever been convicted of
corporate manslaughter.
Under the existing law, a company can only be convicted
if a senior manager - a 'controlling mind' in the company -
is first found guilty as an individual. Even where a
company has acted in a dangerous manner, the case will
end in acquittal unless a senior manager is convicted first.
This is precisely what occurred in the case against James
Martell and Euromin in November last year. While the
company was found not guilty of two lesser charges of
contravening the health and safety regulations and fined
£50,000, they were cleared of the manslaughter of Simon
Jones by a majority verdict from an Old Bailey jury.
Simon Jones was 24 years old when he was decapitated by
a crane grab as he worked as a casual labourer at
Shoreham dockyard, West Sussex, in April 1998. Facing
the loss of his unemployment benefit, he was instructed by
the benefits office to register with Personnel Selection, a
local employment agency. Untrained, and without
experience of dock work, he was sent into the hold of a
cargo ship to unload stones.
He died within two hours of starting, when the lever that
operated the grab became entangled in the clothing of the
crane operator. This caused its jaws to close around his
head. A subsequent investigation revealed that the crane
operator couldn't see inside the ship, while the person
giving instructions to him was a Polish seaman who
couldn't speak English. It was also revealed that it had
been unnecessary to use the grab, but ten weeks before
Simon's death James Martell had given instructions to
weld hooks inside it, in order to save time in changing the
attachment.
In giving his judgement at the end of the trial, Justice
Stokes said, "I regard the excuses put forward by Euromin
as lamentable. The fact is that this company between
February 1997 and April 1998 failed to carry out any of the
most important parts of its duty. The failure to do that was
absolutely deplorable in my view. If it had been done, the
death of this young man might have been avoided."
Needless to say the government deny that the delay in
reforming the law on manslaughter is because they're
bowing to pressure from the business lobby. Nevertheless,
it's known that employers organisation the Confederation
of British Industry has consistently objected to proposals to
change the law, and the government has now been
consulting since May 2000.
Moreover, while the government's proposals would enable
prosecutions to be brought against organisations without
the need to identify a 'controlling mind', there are
concerns that these proposals pay scant regard to the link
between dangerous working practices and the conduct of
company directors and senior managers. A recent Home
Office letter, which has been sent to private sector
employers ('Involuntary Manslaughter: Impact
Assessment'), gives an indication of the government's
current thinking on the proposed reforms.
This letter says, "it is certainly worth emphasising that the
government accepts that fatalities will occur at work, due
to the dangerous nature of certain occupations. It wishes
only to capture instances where management standards
fell far below what could reasonably be expected by an
undertaking in the circumstances and led to a death. Thus
failures would be measured against industry standards -
rather than the inherently dangerous nature of work." The
letter also adds that Crown bodies will continue to have
immunity, and that company managers and directors
won't be able to be prosecuted for 'significantly
contributing' to the new offence.
Given that the government appears to accept that being
killed at work can be an occupational hazard, and wishes
to measure an employer's failures against the benchmark
of 'industry standards' (however inadequate these may be),
it's not surprising critics feel that, even with a change in
the law, many employers will continue to escape
responsibility for the deaths of their employees. Many
suspect that when legislation is introduced it will be riddled
with so many loopholes that employers will continue to
evade responsibility.
Louise Christian, a solicitor who's been involved in a
number of high-profile corporate manslaughter cases,
from the death of Simon Jones to the Paddington rail
crash, says "until employers know that they face the
possibility of prison, we aren't going to get a proper
deterrent". In the meantime, while the Labour government
dallies over the issue of corporate manslaughter, Britain's
bosses will continue to get away with murder.
Derek Pattison
For information visit www.simonjones.org.uk or contact
the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign, PO Box 2600,
Brighton BN2 2DX
To find out about the Solidarity Federation's
anti-casualisation campaign, visit www.solfed.org.uk


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