Report into corporate manslaughter law given cautious welcome

Employers representatives and unions alike have given a reserved welcome to a new report into the government’s proposed corporate manslaughter legislation.

The Home Affairs Committee called for proposed corporate manslaughter offences to be strengthened, warning that existing government plans may help some large companies to avoid prosecution.

A draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill was published after the General Election in May, in response to a number of high-profile rail crashes, including at Potters Bar and Hatfield. In the first instance, no manslaughter charges were brought, and in the latter, corporate manslaughter charges against Balfour Beatty were dropped.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) welcomed a call for unincorporated bodies to brought within the scope of the proposed new law as well as the removal of Crown immunity for public bodies.

However, the IoD said it had has serious concern that the issue of individual director liability has been raised again.

Patricia Peter, head of corporate governance at the IoD, said: “It has taken many years to reach this point and it would be regrettable, to say the least, if the reopening of this debate were to lead to continued failed prosecutions and failures in the criminal justice system.

A key clause in the government’s proposal, which makes employers liable for worker deaths caused by “senior management”, could lead to a “perverse incentive” for top bosses to delegate key health and safety decisions to more junior staff, the report warned.

It also warned that the law focused on senior management failings rather than individual liability, which would allow top directors to avoid prosecution.

To eliminate such a risk, a new offence of  “secondary liability for corporate manslaughter” should also be introduced, the committee said.

The IoD said the idea of secondary liability might mean directors facing individual liability, which would “fly in the face of encouraging appropriate corporate culture”.

The GMB welcomed the proposal for juries to consider the corporate culture throughout an organisation when looking at serious breaches, claiming the examples shown by directors and employers can have a profound influence on how an organisation conducts itself. 

The union said secondary liability for corporate manslaughter would lead to organisations and their managers taking their responsibilities more seriously. 

The GMB added that the “senior management” test would be too ill-defined.

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