IS NEW Labour retreating from an election pledge it made to introduce laws to stop bosses getting away with murder? Valerie Keating is the Home Office official in charge of the proposed legislation.
She told a conference that fierce criticism from companies had now 'resulted in the need for us to revisit a number of proposals'. Bosses are furious at a proposal which could see company directors jailed for 'corporate killing' after fatal accidents. Any retreat by the government over this would be a breach of a clear manifesto pledge.
It would allow the scandal of corporate killing to continue with bosses knowing they would never be sent down. Calls for a change in the law date back almost 40 years to the death of Glanville Evans. He was killed when the bridge he was working on collapsed and he fell into the River Wye.
The company that employed him had been reckless, but an attempt to convict for manslaughter failed. That was in February 1965. Since then over 31,000 people have been killed at work or through commercially related disasters such as train crashes. Safety reports show management failures are responsible in most cases.
Since the death of Glanville Evans only 12 prosecutions have been brought for corporate manslaughter. Only three prosecutions have resulted in any conviction. The Herald of Free Enterprise, King's Cross, Paddington, Southall and the Marchioness river boat disaster are just some of the most notorious cases where no one has been jailed for deaths.
The government was forced to promise change by growing public anger and determined campaigns by relatives of victims. Jack Straw as home secretary proposed a new offence of corporate killing in May 2000. The pledge was included in New Labour's election manifesto last year. The need for change is obvious.
The sinking of the P&O ferry Herald of Free Enterprise in March 1987 travelling from Zeebrugge to Dover killed over 200 people. A jury at the inquest returned verdicts of unlawful killing in 187 cases. No successful prosecution has ever been brought against the company, any manager or director.
A legal loophole means big companies are the most likely to get away with murder. Before a company can be convicted of manslaughter an individual 'identified as the embodiment of the company itself' must be shown to be individually guilty of manslaughter. In any company there can be great difficulty identifying an individual in this way.
The problem is even greater with large companies. They often have complex structures and layers of management and directors. The only three successful prosecutions over corporate killing involved small companies, while the big killers walked away scot free.
In the Southall rail crash of 1997 seven people died and 151 were injured. The company pleaded guilty to safety breaches -no one was prosecuted. Even where charges have been brought, legal difficulties and loopholes have seen directors get off. Simon Jones, an anthropology student, arrived at 8am for the first day of a holiday job at Shoreham Docks on 24 April 1998.
By 10.15am his head had been crushed in the excavator. The company, Euromin, was found guilty by a jury of two breaches of health and safety regulations. Euromin and its general manager, Richard Martell, were cleared of manslaughter. After the verdict Simon's parents, Chris and Anne Jones, wrote:
'If Euan Blair [the prime minister's son] had been decapitated by a crane grab does anyone imagine that (a) the people responsible wouldn't be rotting in jail or (b) tougher laws on corporate killing wouldn't have been through parliament within a month.'
New Labour now looks as if it may backtrack on parts of the new law on corporate killing in the face of pressure from the bosses. While the government dithers, the awful record of deaths at work gets worse. The Health and Safety Commission says fatal accidents at work rose a third in 2000 compared to the previous year.
Nearly 330 workers were killed compared to 220 in 1999-2000. Out of 295 deaths, 106 were construction workers and 46 agricultural workers. The unions should tell the government the scandal of corporate killing must be stopped, and there should be no retreat in the face of the bosses' campaign to water down the laws.