Industry matters: Corporate manslaughter

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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“Neither the Health and Safety Executive nor the police have the necessary experience to investigate a new offence of corporate manslaughter.” These are the words of lawyer Sarah Taylor, who works for a construction law firm.

So what chance is there that the Draft Bill on corporate manslaughter, first proposed in 1996, will ever see the light of day and actually become law?

Over the past 30 years there have been in excess of 3,500 fatalities on construction sites in the UK. Last year saw the death of 72 workers, more than one a week. Since the first safety summit in February 2001, which proclaimed that there should be a reduction of deaths in construction by 2010 of 66 percent, there have been more than 300 site deaths. There were as many workers killed last year as were killed in 1998, the year the safety summit took as its starting point for reduction of deaths.

Recent research has revealed that 23 company directors were convicted for breaches of safety regulations between April 2001 and March 2004. All 23 were fined; the average fine was £6,463. Of 11 directors who were convicted of manslaughter following a work-related death, five were sentenced to imprisonment, the most recent being sentenced to 16 months, five were given suspended sentences and one was sentenced to community service.

Given the evidence, this left the government with serious problems in terms of its commitments to ending site deaths and introducing a new offence of corporate manslaughter. So, in December 2004, the government decided to publish the Draft Bill to reform the law on corporate manslaughter. However, just as it decided this, David Blunkett resigned and his successor Charles Clarke decided to stop the publication until May/June of 2005, ie, until after the general election. At the last minute ,this was moved again so that the Bill was actually published in March 2005 with a consultation period extended to 18 June, during which the trade unions were invited to put forward their proposals.

At the same time, in February 2005, there was another safety summit in London. A meeting of the ‘great and the good’ took place, the outcome of which was a decision by the unions to back a private member’s bill that would see “company directors held to account for negligent health and safety practices that cause injuries or death”. Stephen Hepburn MP proposed this private member’s bill for Jarrow. The Bill (Health and Safety Director Duties) would have imposed duties on directors to take all reasonable steps to ensure compliance with the law. As discussed in a previous issue of Proletarian (No 4), this was no real improvement on the current situation, since, to secure a conviction for manslaughter, “negligence by an individual” would have to be proved. Nevertheless, the Bill was put before Parliament and it fell, the reason being that not enough MPs turned up to the debate. What an indictment on bourgeois parliamentary democracy, if one were needed, that the elected MPs did not wish to assist in this matter. The utter contempt that these well-heeled parasites show toward working people is despicable. So, at least until 18 June, employers are free to continue putting workers’ lives at risk in the interest of maximising profit.

However, corporate manslaughter law could be extended to allow companies working overseas to be charged in the UK for deaths of foreign nationals. Speaking to Construction News, barrister Gerald Forlin said: “In my view there is no doubt that within two or three years’ time you will see a change in law to create extra territoriality.” Adding: “Where a British Company kills a foreign national anywhere in the world they will be able to be prosecuted over here.” The reality at present, though, is that this is not part of the draft proposals and the government has restricted the application of the law to Britain.

It is clear that there is a real reluctance on the part of this government to effectively take on the issue of death in the workplace. Whether or not an offence of corporate killing is introduced, the status quo prevails. This means that workers, not only in Britain but the world over, are sacrificed at the altar of imperialism in order to maximise profit.

We encourage our readers to continue to fight for a corporate manslaughter bill and to use every available opportunity to expose to workers the bloodthirsty nature of capitalism, whereby the pursuit of profit is of greater importance than the preservation of workers’ lives.