Industry matters: Government backs down on corporate manslaughter law

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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In the summer of 2004, government and trade unions met at a Labour policy forum meeting to discuss proposals to alter employment legislation. These discussions have now become known as the Warwick Agreement (WA).

The purpose of the WA was to make a deal whereby the unions would promise to support Labour at the next election in exchange for a few concessions for British workers, such as more holiday entitlement, better public services, increased pension rights and ‘fairness’ at work – all this of course flying in the face not only of government policy but also of reality. In addition to the above, the government also indicated that it was prepared to endorse its long-standing pledge and introduce a law against corporate manslaughter.

In other words, for the first time company directors would be held responsible in law for management failings that lead to fatalities at work. The present law only permits that those who have been found guilty of gross negligence can be charged, and then they must be found guilty of homicide to be convicted. Despite 976 fatalities in the construction industry since 1992, no negligent director has been found guilty, so the hope was that a new law would make it easier to get a conviction.

Just as the ink was drying on the WA, however, the government announced that it was not going to introduce the offence of corporate manslaughter after all. Instead, there was to be a Draft Bill discussed in the commons whose proposals would mean that individuals would not after all be held accountable for death in the workplace. Instead, the Bill would focus on “system failure”. The Construction Confederation (employers’ representatives) had been lobbying the government on this issue on the grounds that to hold an individual accountable would “undermine decision making”. Quite a paradox really since it is this “decision making” that leads to the deaths of so many workers each year.

Within weeks of this obvious climb down by government, Stephen Hepburn, MP for Jarrow, published and submitted The Health and Safety (Directors’ Duties) Bill. This Bill proposes that there is a general duty on all company directors to appoint a director at board level who will be responsible for health and safety; it also introduces the prospect of custodial sentences where negligence has lead to death.

The Draft Bill differs very little from existing law (after all, it’s still about proving negligence), but most certainly the proposals would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas! In all likelihood, the government hopes that just discussing the Draft Bill will buy some time and keep the unions quiet until after the election.

Safety Summit

One may ask: how did the construction Industry and the government end up having to legislate in such a way? One may also ask to what degree is this legislation needed? To explain briefly we have to go back to 2001 and the first Safety Summit. Six hundred delegates from the government, the construction industry, trade unions and bereaved families met in order to try and cut the number of deaths of workers each year. The ‘summit’ agreed that the target for the whole of industry in Britain should be a 5 percent reduction in deaths by 2004/5 and a 10 percent reduction by 2009/10. The construction industry went further. It agreed to reduce deaths by 40 percent by 2004/5 and by 66 percent by 2009/10.

Whilst there are no official figures for 2003/4 as yet (it is safe to say the unofficial figures are near 80 deaths), let’s look at the figures for 2002/3, remembering that the 1998/9 death toll of 68 was our starting point for death reduction.

In 2002/03 there were 76 deaths on construction sites. Based on the above information there is now a 12 percent increase in fatalities at work, up to the end of 2003. The bottom line in all this is that, despite attempts to reduce death at work, the carnage continues. There is no sign that targets will be met by the industry and certainly no sign that government will make anyone accountable for deaths at work.

There is another safety summit on 24 February in London. We urge all workers to attend and to support trade unions whose initiatives are at least trying to address the situation. We urge all workers to support campaigns, such as the Construction Safety Campaign, that work to secure a modicum of justice and dignity for bereaved families.

Above all, we urge workers not to forget that the real enemy is the very system itself. The capitalist system will not allow any amount of legislation to deprive it of profit. It is driven to extract maximum profit, to squeeze the very last drop out of all its wage slaves. In the final analysis it accepts the death of workers in certain numbers as collateral damage in its quest for survival. Our task is therefore to enlighten the ordinary worker to this; our salvation is in the defeat of the capitalist system, not in the trade off between our exploiters.