By Thomas, Mark
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4640
There are few certainties around which we can compass our brief lives, but this much I do know: the sky is blue, reality TV has little to do with reality and David Blunkett is a bastard. Every time he starts to make a policy announcement, you know things are about to get worse. He opens his mouth and you wonder if trial by jury is about to be replaced by an assessment of guilt involving warts, birthmarks and the possession of cats. For anyone who's left of Michael Howard, the sight of Blunkett's face at the Despatch Box is about as welcome as Robin Cook at a bukkake party.
Blunkett relishes his role as a liberal baiter: he sees those who oppose him as middle-class Hampstead luvvies, and himself as exemplifying working-class values. In truth, Blunkett is new Labour to the core, and nowhere is its pro-business agenda quite so visibly at odds with his working-class image than on the issue of corporate killing.
About 250 people are killed at work each year in the UK (one for every working day). Most of these deaths, as the government itself states, are predictable and preventable, caused by negligent health and safety management.
Yet how many company directors have been convicted of manslaughter? Eight. From the Herald of Free Enterprise through Clapham Junction, Southall, Paddington, Potters Bar and Hatfield to the yearly 250 dead, only eight company directors have ever been convicted of manslaughter.
New Labour acknowledged that the law of corporate manslaughter is inadequate when, in 1997, it made a manifesto pledge to reform it. The inadequacies of the current law and the organisational structures of large companies in effect insulate directors from a charge.
Under the proposed legal change, a charge of corporate killing can be brought against the company if its management has failed to be responsible and that failure has resulted in a fatality. This will make it easier to bring a prosecution and thus, it is hoped, safety will improve.
Although this is broadly seen as a step in the right direction, the new law still falls short for many campaigners. If a company is found guilty of corporate killing, there is no requirement or mechanism to prosecute individual company directors and put them in the dock; the company will merely be fined.
And what will happen if a large company receives a fine for killing? Will there be a concerted effort to improve health and safety? …