The introduction of the corporate manslaughter law edged a great deal closer this week. Although it has been dividing the industry over its merits and worth – and will no doubt continue to do so – on balance we should be welcoming rather than fearing it.
The idea behind the new bill is that large companies will be made more accountable for lapses in health and safety. Though this is theoretically possible under current legislation, it is unclear in its definitions and requires a “directing mind” – someone who embodies the company and its actions – to be found guilty of manslaughter before a company can be convicted. This has proved difficult, especially in big companies where it’s hard to single out an individual, and to date all prosecutions of large firms have failed. The final report on the Hatfield rail disaster, published this week, underscores this very point (page 15). Although it issued a damning verdict on contractor Balfour Beatty, in legal terms the company walked away free of manslaughter charges.
Under the new bill, a corporation can be held liable for the aggregate failings of senior managers – even if no one individual is found responsible – making it easier for litigation to stick. As a result, the Home Office is predicting that if the bill is passed, prosecutions will go up five-fold.
Many firms will rightly be concerned by the rise in insurance premiums they could face as a result of this new legislation. Others will not be happy until legislation is brought in that makes individual directors responsible, and argue that the term “senior managers” needs clarification. And some will simply point out that, for all the legislation in the world, unless those on site learn to take more responsibility for safety, death rates will remain unacceptably high.
But for all the criticisms that can be levelled against it, this proposed law has the potential to be a powerful new weapon in fighting poor health and safety practice. Though it won’t send individuals to jail, hefty fines and a corporate manslaughter charge would ruin a company’s reputation sufficiently to ensure that they start to focus on health and safety. The removal of crown immunity should provide a much-needed stick to galvanise the public sector into taking the issue more seriously. And finally, for all those companies that have invested heavily in health and safety only to see work snatched away by unscrupulous competitors because they can charge less – well, these firms might, just might, now find themselves operating on that much-hoped-for level playing field.
Denise Chevin, editor