Changes to the law to make it easier to prosecute companies for deaths caused by their negligence came a step closer last week, as the Home Secretary issued a consultation document.
The proposed new offence of corporate killing will make it easier to prosecute companies for disasters such as the Paddington train crash and the Herald of Free Enterprise.
It will also apply to deaths in factories and on building sites, such as the recent crane collapse in London’s Canary Wharf that killed three people.
There will be major implications for HR which will be forced to check that its policies are watertight.
The changes follow the Government’s acceptance that current corporate manslaughter laws are ineffective. Only three companies have been successfully prosecuted, all of them small.
Under the proposals, companies will be guilty of corporate killing where “management failure” has resulted in death and the company’s conduct is judged to have fallen far below expectations.
Businesses will face unlimited fines and a court order to put right the failings that caused the accident.
Directors could be disqualified from holding management positions. They could also be prosecuted under two new individual offences of reckless killing and killing by gross carelessness, that will carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The law changes will give HR an added impetus to check people’s working hours and enforce policies such as drug-testing to ensure people are fit to work.
It will be more important to check references and qualifications and effective health and safety training will be crucial.
Keith Aldis, director of training at the Construction Confederation, said it will drive responsibility for health and safety downwards making each person responsible for their area or work.
This will affect employment relations. “There will be a lot of resistance because it means added responsibility. People won’t want to do the job, especially if they could end up going to prison,” he said.
He added that someone will have to bear the cost of the additional training.
• Corporate killing will apply where the company’s conduct in causing death fell far below expectations
• The risk of death does not need to have been obvious and the company might not have appreciated the risk
• Deaths will be judged to be caused by a company if they are a result of “management failure”
• The company will be responsible even if the immediate cause was the action of an individual
• Fines will be unlimited and companies will be forced to correct the cause of the accident. Directors could be disqualified
• Individuals could also be prosecuted for “reckless killing” and “killing by gross carelessness”
• Reckless killing will apply where someone takes a risk they know could have fatal consequences. The maximum penalty will be life
• Killing by gross carelessness will carry a maximum of 10 years and apply if someone’s performance falls far below expectations in a situation they know to be risky