New penalties for companies

COMPANIES could in future be charged with "corporate killing" if new government ideas become law.Operators of Felixstowe port were this week fined £250,000 after breaching safety rules when trainee portworker Dennis Burman was crushed and plunged to his death from a quayside crane.

COMPANIES could in future be charged with "corporate killing" if new government ideas become law.

Operators of Felixstowe port were this week fined £250,000 after breaching safety rules when trainee portworker Dennis Burman was crushed and plunged to his death from a quayside crane.

But no charge of manslaughter was brought because experts say at the present time such an offence alleged against a company is too difficult to prove.

As the law stands, for firms to be found guilty of manslaughter the person directly responsible for a failure in safety systems or procedures must be found and convicted.

However, large companies and organisations are complex and lines of responsibility or persons responsible for policy are often difficult to identify.

More than 3,000 workers have died in industrial accidents in Britain in the past decade and there is concern that if a company had a second almost identical tragedy, all it would face would be a bigger fine, another dent in its profits.

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Government ministers are deeply concerned about the situation and are now committed to making it easier to bring a charge of manslaughter.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has announced that a draft Bill on corporate manslaughter will be published soon. A timetable for legislation and further details will be announced this autumn.

"There is great public concern at the criminal law's lack of success in convicting companies of manslaughter where a death has occurred due to gross negligence by the organisation as a whole," said Mr Blunkett.

"The law needs to be clear and effective in order to secure public confidence and must bite properly on large corporations whose failure to set or maintain standards causes a death. It is not targeted at conscientious companies that take their health and safety responsibilities seriously."

The government has been looking carefully at this complex area of law and consulting with companies, business leaders and trade unions for four years.

It says the legislation will be targeted at companies themselves, which is the area of weakness in the current law.

However, plans to make individuals potentially liable under a corporate manslaughter law have already been dropped.

Instead the new offence is likely to concentrate on threatening big firms with the stigma of being convicted of a criminal offence.

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive said under the current law its inspectors could only prosecute for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act and any decision on a manslaughter charge would be for the police.

A police spokeswoman said a detective was sent to the accident at Felixstowe port in June last year to make initial investigations and several interviews were carried out which established that there was no criminal matter involved.

Officers liaised with the HSE which took over the investigation and prosecution.

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HEALTH and safety inspectors will not carry out ongoing monitoring to assess the impact of changes to cranes at Felixstowe port following the tragedy.

But officers will make unannounced visits to check that the company is complying with the law.

Following the death of father-of-two Dennis Burman, changes have been made to both the cranes to make them safer and also procedures for men using them.

As Mr Burman, 51, of The Poplars, Brantham, attempted to leave the crane, the driver, whose view was obscured by a blind spot, moved his cab and the trainee was crushed against a railing and plunged nearly 120 feet to his death.

A Health and Safety Executive spokesman said: "The HSE has been in consultation with the company and is satisfied with the improvements carried out.

"The company, the port industry and the HSE continue to work together to improve health and safety at ports.

"The HSE does not carry out ongoing monitoring but inspectors do make regular and unannounced visits to check duty holders are complying with Health and Safety legislation."

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