Government announces bill that could result in prison for directors – but not in this session of parliament

The government this week unveiled its plans for a corporate manslaughter bill that may threaten company directors with imprisonment or fines on their personal wealth.

The draft bill, which was announced in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, would target serious failings in a company’s strategic management that led to a death.

At the moment, liability hinges on the conduct of an individual at the top of the company hierarchy. The corporate manslaughter bill would change this to accommodate wider management failings by focusing on group rather than individual liability. In cases in which one person was clearly to blame, prosecution on an individual basis would remain possible under current legislation.

Unions reacted with disdain to the draft bill, which is out to consultation and will not go through parliament until the next session. Alan Ritchie, UCATT general secretary, said he was disappointed not to see it in this session.

He said: “A corporate manslaughter law should be a deterrent to the construction industry and should be used to help the push towards improved health and safety. So we are disappointed in that sense from what has emerged.”

Derek Simpson, Amicus’ general secretary, said the fact it was only a draft bill meant there would be a delay and he had expected a bill in this session of parliament or at least before the election.

Simpson said: “We are also concerned about speculation that senior directors’ accountability will only extend to fines.” He said that the threat of prosecution and imprisonment is the main incentive for companies to improve their health and safety standards.

The detail of the bill could pave the way for possible prison sentences for directors of smaller construction firms. Directors of many small and medium-sized contractors could be more likely to be held to individual account under the proposed legislation, and therefore be more likely to go to jail than major contractors, which are more likely to be fined as companies because of their more complex management structure.

A manslaughter law should be a deterrent

Alan Ritchie, UCATT

Leading industry figures argue that this situation would be unfair on smaller firms because it would be easier to demonstrate individual responsibility for workers’ safety.

A spokesperson for the Construction Confederation said the industry appreciated the need for stiffer penalties, but pointed out that, under the existing Health and Safety at Work Act, courts can impose unlimited fines on companies and individuals where management failures cause death or serious injury. The spokesperson said: “The problem is, they rarely do.”

The spokesperson added that a systemic failure is often at fault for accidents and this needed to be targeted:

“Any move to hold individual directors accountable would cut across the collective responsibility for the management of health and safety that should exist within companies.”

The Queen’s speech also gave the green light for plans to build the London Crossrail scheme, but it did not say how it would be funded.

A railways bill will scrap the Strategic Rail Authority, bring safety, performance and cost under a single public regulator and allow for more local decision-making.

Queen's speech at a glance

  • Hefty fines or jail for management responsible for deaths at work

  • Bill will not go through this session

  • Crossrail gets go-ahead – no funding details given as yet

  • Railways bill to scrap Strategic Rail Authority and create single regulator