The government-proposed legislation, the corporate manslaughter bill, also known as the corporate killing law, brings together the shared interest of the employee and the general public in staying alive. Its effects will be triggered by a death. It will not matter much whose death, as long as it is deemed to have been caused by bad management at some point in the chain of command of the company concerned.
In the past few years, such a situation has occurred in a small company run by a single person. This made blame easy to establish, and the manager was sentenced to a term in jail. Large companies with multiple directors, subsidiaries with other directors and so forth, have been impossible to pin down.
This law changes all that, although quite what the status is of a company with a criminal record in the society of the 21st century eludes me. I can easily understand a company penalised with a draconian fine, but the notion of a criminal company I find quite strange.
Are other companies that once employed the services of this criminal company to avoid it, as if it had contracted the plague? If this is so, the law will be demonstrably unfair on the employees of such a company, most of whom will have played no part in the accident. Blaming directors of that company, I can understand, even if, increasingly these days, blame can be attached to directors of companies to the point where one of life's most hazardous jobs is to be a company director.
What we need is a bill that encourages better management rather than threatening dire retribution
Soon the practice once employed by newspapers in France will become the norm among British public companies. In France, the libel laws were so draconian that if a newspaper lost a libel case it was likely to find its editor in jail. The French, ever inventive when faced with necessity, found a way around this by employing "jail editors" whose job it was to take the blame in such circumstances and to serve the prison sentence imposed on the real editor. Former convicts may well find that slopping out and living on starch-based diets have become highly marketable skills.
Accidents on building sites have, over the years, declined. Deaths on building sites are something of a lottery: I knew a scaffolder who fell from the chimney of a power station and lived. I also knew a painter who fell from a trestle and died. There is already a compelling reason why builders wish to avoid accidents: accidents waste time and cut back production. The will is already there to make the workplace a place of safety.
Safety can, as we ought to know by now, be achieved far more effectively if the designers of buildings take safety during construction into account when they design them. This is the norm with people who design tools, cars and even equipment used in the kitchen – a place, incidentally, where the vast majority of accidents occur.
In the wider world, away from construction, this bill will allow the blame for accidents as disparate as a train crash and a gas explosion to be placed on individuals.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.