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(en) UK, Direct Action #28 - Wage Slavery - Corporate Killing - the proposals

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 5 Oct 2003 09:35:51 +0200 (CEST)

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After years of broken promises, in May, David Blunkett
announced the government’s proposals on Corporate Killing.
The targets of the new proposals are companies “where a
death has occurred due to gross negligence by the organisation as
a whole”. Individual directors are not to be held liable, contrary
to what practically everyone (except the bosses themselves) has
been arguing for. Even the government itself said, in the Home
Office consultation document (2000) that, attached to this
Corporate Killing offence, would be ‘secondary offences’
that would allow a director to be prosecuted for
‘contributing’, or ‘significantly contributing’, to
the offence committed by the company. Predictably, the bosses
squealed and the government back-tracked.

So, the new offence of ‘Corporate Killing’ will simply
allow a company to be prosecuted. In fact, the offence of
‘corporate manslaughter’ already exists, but there are few
convictions, not least because the legal test depends on sufficient
evidence to prosecute a director or senior manager (the
‘controlling mind’ of the company) for manslaughter
(which requires evidence of ‘gross negligence’). Hence, a
corporate manslaughter conviction depends on lots of evidence
pointing at the top individual. Large companies delegate safety
decision to managers low down the hierarchy, and so escape
prosecution even though there may well be serious management
failures that caused the death.

As a result, there have been only nine successful prosecutions,
amongst which £25,000 was the greatest fine, and only two
proprietors have been jailed. The managing director of the activity
centre responsible for the deaths of four schoolchildren in a
canoeing disaster in Lyme Bay, Dorset got three years in 1994;
and the managing director of Jackson Transport (Ossett) Ltd got
a year in 1996, following the death of an employee who inhaled
chemicals. Among many high-profile prosecution failures are the
1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster, in which 187 people died, and the
1997 Southall rail disaster, in which seven died. The HSE decided
not to bother prosecuting over the Kings Cross underground fire,
in which 31 people died, and the Clapham rail crash, in which 35
people were killed and almost 500 injured. Recently, they also
decided not to bother for the Paddington train crash in 1999, in
which 31 people died. The only high profile case they have gone
ahead with presently is charging Network Rail and Balfour Beatty
over the Hatfield rail crash of October 2000.

So, a Corporate Killing law should make it easier to prosecute a
company for homicide, since any management failure causing
death should be permissible in evidence, including organisational
weaknesses and omissions. However, there are two principal
reasons why it will not work.

The first reason is that most cases will not see the light of day.
The HSE will be the main prosecutors, and they are both
short-staffed and invariably sympathetic to employers. Hence,
they only ever take on high-profile cases after a blaze of bad
publicity. Unfortunately, by definition, many more people are killed
by negligence in low-profile than in high-profile cases. Some 350
people a year are killed in work-related accidents, according to the
Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and, last year,
more than 600 people were killed in Britain, according to Labour
MP Tony Lloyd.

The second reason is that the government’s failure to include
individual director liability clauses gives a green light to
companies to carry on as ‘normal’.
Big companies are not worried by fines, but directors would have
been worried about being sued/imprisoned personally. Hence, the
failure to target individual directors or others responsible for
running companies will be a fatal weakness in the new law.
As widely reported in previous issues of DA, Simon Jones was
killed working at Shoreham docks on his first day of a casual
contract in 1998. His classic ‘low-profile’ killing was only
eventually treated seriously by the HSE after years of dogged
direct action by his family and supporters. His mother, Anne
Jones, sums up the government’s shenanigans over the new
law, describing it as “the biggest cop-out on earth”.
Not surprisingly, 65% of the British public support the introduction
of a new law of ‘corporate killing’ with directors being
made personally responsible for breaking health and safety laws,
according to recent MORI research. Also, not surprisingly, the
government have decided to ignore us yet again, and instead plum
for the half-baked, boss-friendly option.

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