Joe Hendren

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Do corporates get away with murder?

In the UK unionists and victims of the Hatfield rail disaster are dismayed the culpability of engineering firm Balfour Beatty (BB) has been limited to a £10m pound fine. On October 17 2000 a King's Cross to Leeds train came off the tracks at 115mph after a rail disintegrated, killing four people and injuring 102.

While Trade Union Council general secretary Brendan Barber welcomed the severity of the fine, he joined others in calling for tougher corporate manslaughter laws.

"The families of those killed will still feel cheated that no senior executives are to face punishment as a result of their safety crimes. The government urgently needs to address [the fact] that all the courts can do is to fine a company. What is necessary is both a new offence of corporate killing, with a wider range of penalties available, and new legal duties that make directors directly responsible for the health and safety of their staff and customers."

The Old Bailey judge put Balfour Beatty's failure at the "top of the scale", saying he regarded "Balfour Beatty as one of the worse examples of industrial negligence in a high-risk industry I have seen". While Justice MacKay was highly critical of the company, he cast out corporate manslaughter charges bought against Balfour Beatty, most likely due to the difficulty in securing convictions under present legislation.

Perhaps it says a lot about the company that BB did not admit breaching health and safety rules until the corporate manslaughter charges were dropped.

I would be interested to look into whether New Zealand has a 'corporate manslaughter' charge on its statute books and if so, what kind of burden of proof is required. New Zealand could come up with its own shady looking lineup of irresponsible corporates. As a couple of examples, the former Tranzrail and forestry company Juken Nissho have long records of heath and safety convictions - including incidents leading to deaths on the job.

Back to the BB case, the judge also voiced his own criticisms of the way the UK railways were privatised.
"The elimination of one of the indefensible features of the 1996 privatisation is now gone - the separation of the track from its maintenance - is now gone. Perhaps that is one good thing resulting from this disastrous affair."

In 2002 Tranzrail contracted out track maintenance to Transfield, who by most accounts maintained a better relationship with unions and did a better job than the privately owned Tranzrail ever did (that would not be hard). Following the renationalisation of the rail track in September 2004, the Government set up a new Crown agency to oversee the ownership and maintenance of the rail infrastructure on its behalf - OnTrack.

Given the clear warning the Balfour Beatty case represents, it is probably a good thing OnTrack decided to bring the maintenance work back in house, following a tendering process it is obliged to carry out under the agreement it made with Toll Holdings. Best of all, OnTrack purchased part of the present contractor, allowing staff who maintain the rails to transfer to OnTrack while maintaining their present terms and conditions of employment.

The Guardian - Hatfield victims and unions call for new corporate killing law
The Independent - Balfour Beatty fined £10m for Hatfield disaster

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