The government itself has held two safety summits this year. The first, in February, was a high-profile event with massive publicity. John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, issued a clear warning that if the industry did not sort itself out, there would be construction-specific safety rules imposed on it by law. Last month's summit mark two was low-key, with the media barely involved, and the prospect of special construction legislation seemed to have receded.
The reason for this is that other general legislation is planned. There is to be a corporate killing law, and the industry must take it seriously. The main speaker at the British Safety Council conference was the home office minister Keith Bradley. He made it clear that the government intends to introduce a corporate killing law, although it would not be in the current session of parliament. It emerged in the subsequent discussion session – where the minister's place was taken by a senior civil servant with responsibility for drafting the legislation – that many details remain to be sorted out. The earliest date for such a law is 2003, but I am sure that it will happen before the general election in 2005/6.
The basis of the new law would be the two policy planks that former home secretary Jack Straw outlined in a British Safety Council publication earlier this year. The first was that companies would become accountable in criminal law when they fell far below the standards that could reasonably be expected in the circumstances. The second related to the personal liability of individuals where they had shown recklessness or gross carelessness. This included the possibility of action against individual company officers if they had contributed to management failure that had been the cause of death. Straw also wrote that there must be a balance between protecting employees and the public and making conscientious firms so averse to risk that they decide not to continue in business.
A corporate killing law must not be vengeful, legalised retribution when something goes wrong in a company whose general record of care is good
There are some hopeful signs that the industry is beginning to address its unsatisfactory safety record. There have been some slight improvements in 2001, but there are absolutely no grounds for complacency or self-congratulation. The main pressure for action has come from the government but the Confederation of Construction Clients has also played an important part. Industry organisations such as the Major Contractors Group with its safety charter, and the joint safety courses launched by the Electrical Contractors Association and the AEEU, have also demonstrated a serious industry response. So has the increasing use of the CSCS card system and the related "skill cards" of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association, the Joint Industry Board's electrotechnical certification scheme and other initiatives of that kind. There is still far to go.
The only acceptable number of work-related accidents is zero.
I favour a fair and balanced corporate killing law in principle. It must not be vengeful, legalised retribution when something goes tragically wrong in a company whose general record and level of care is good. It should catch those who try to get away with the minimum and knowingly take risks that they have not tried to control. Safety is a culture. Those who believe in it will take it seriously. Those who do not will fall foul of the corporate killing law and I will have no sympathy with them.