The idea, originally mooted in 1997, still divides employers and trade unions, but its inclusion in the government’s official ‘to do’ list for the next parliament should bring a definite conclusion to the saga.
The draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill stops short of introducing custodial sentences for individual company directors, but it will enable organisations to be prosecuted if senior management fails to take reasonable care of workers’ safety.
Under current laws, a single individual at the top of a company must be proved to be negligent before any prosecution can take place, but the new rules will apply when overall management failings lead to a worker’s death.
The proposals, which would introdce unlimited fines, rather than jail sentence,s for health and safety breaches, would remove the need to find a ‘controlling mind’ behind any negligence and allow the courts look at organisational or management failures.
The draft has done little to appease those on either side of the argument, with employers’ groups worried that the changes could unfairly target directors and the trade unions disappointed at a perceived lack of bite.
CBI deputy director-general, John Cridland, expressed concern that employers might be prosecuted, despite taking measures to safeguard against accidents.
“If the government is going to press ahead on corporate manslaughter it must ensure the legislation is fair. The grossly negligent must be separated from genuinely responsible employers who do everything possible to ensure safety,” he said.
David Leckie, a partner at law firm Maclay Murray & Spens, warned that individual managers could be made scapegoats for an entire organisation’s failure.
“The Bill links culpability with the actions of senior management, rather than the entire management chain. This is wrong in principle and could lead to some ‘creative’ management structures and decision-making processes,” he explained.
Wragge & Co partner Andrew Litchfield said the definitions in the new Bill were unclear and could cause even more confusion for employers.
“Relative terms like ‘senior managers’ are no use to companies looking for clarity. It won’t benefit victims’ families if poorly defined terms lead to judicial debate rather than convictions,” he said.
Mary Sutton, the head of employment at Davies Lavery Solicitors, said the Bill emphasised the way employers develop and record safety procedures and will provide more scope for prosecution than the current laws.
“I think the rules will make a real legal difference because employers will have to ensure policies are far more robust, and that procedures are followed.
“Although large fines and health and safety prosecutions don’t have the same bite as individual jail terms I think the adverse publicity associated with a conviction under the proposed laws will have a huge influence,” she said.
The UK has been on the brink of similar laws several times before, most notably in 2000. Most experts agree that consultation on the current draft will almost certainly result in some changes.
A spate of disasters in the transport sector has increased pressure on the government to make employers more accountable for workplace safety, and the Home Office is taking feedback on the draft until 17 June.
“You can never be sure, but there is huge pressure for this legislation to happen and I think this draft stands a much better chance than the previous efforts,” Sutton said.
For a copy of the draft Bill go to: