Major health and safety breaches could land organisations with unlimited fines under new corporate manslaughter laws, but individual directors will still not face custodial sentences.
Home secretary Charles Clarke has outlined plans to introduce a new criminal offence of corporate manslaughter which will focus on the working practices of an organisation, rather than individual culpability.
The draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill will update the existing rules on corporate killing by simplifying the law so that organisations can be prosecuted when 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 prosecution can take place, but the new rules will apply when overall management failings lead to a worker's death.
The proposals will apply to public and private bodies as well as government departments, but, crucially, the penalty will be unlimited fines rather than custodial sentences.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said he was pleased with the spirit of the draft but "disappointed that the draft bill does not threaten individual directors with the ultimate sanction of a jail sentence".
The proposed bill, which will be open to consultation until 12 June, will enable the courts to look at a broader range of management issues, widening the scope beyond the negligence or misconduct of individuals.
Clarke believes the plans will give the public more confidence in workplace safety law.
"The draft bill aims to ensure the law is effective in bringing organisations to account when they have shown a clear disregard for the law, with fatal consequences for members of their workforce or others," he explained.
Health and Safety Commission chairman Bill Callaghan backed the move and said it would increase the deterrent for unscrupulous employers that disregard safety rules.