The Hatfield verdict illustrates the difficulty of pinning the blame for accidents on particular individuals within a company and highlights the pitfalls for the government in trying to create an offence of corporate manslaughter.
There is no doubt that the Hatfield accident was caused by incompetence on a grand scale. The trouble is that there were many people who made mistakes, some of them too low down in the hierarchy to put in the dock, such as the man who misread the ultra sound readings which showed that the track was in a dodgy condition or his colleagues who failed to spot the deteriorating condition of the rail on their regular patrols.
Others like Railtrack’s then chief executive Gerald Corbett and his regional director, Nick Pollard, were too high up the food chain to be blamed for what were very local mistakes and thus charges against them had to be dropped before the trial even started.
There was a whole catalogue of errors and bad luck that led to the rail shattering under the train travelling at 115 MPH. A fault had been found in the rail nearly two years before the accident and several attempts had been made to replace it but failed because of difficulties of getting access to the track. In the meantime, a speed limit should have been imposed but no one at the right level realised quite what a parlous condition the rail was in. So four people died needlessly.
Under the current legislation, companies can only be found guilty of corporate manslaughter if one of their directors can be shown to have been also culpable and was proved to be the ‘guiding mind’ behind the decisions that led to death of employees or passengers.
The Labour government has sought to change this to enable a company to be prosecuted directly rather than through its directors. The broad idea is to create an offence under which companies whose whole corporate culture has led to unsafe practices could be prosecuted. A commitment to a new offence of corporate manslaughter has therefore been included in each of Labour’s last three manifestos but nothing has so far reached the statute book
There is a good reason for that. Labour is caught between its desire not to create extra red tape for companies and its aim of pleasing the unions by bringing in tougher legislation on safety for employees. Creating the legislation with the right balance has proved almost impossible and currently the proposal is stuck in the consultative process.
While we would all be happy at seeing companies that wilfully neglect the safety of their employees being targeted, such an offence could create a climate of risk aversion in many properly run concerns. To some extent this has already happened in the rail industry, causing delays and frustration to passengers. I often hear railway staff say – ‘why should I take the slightest risk if I might end up in the dock for manslaughter’.
Fortunately, the structure of the rail industry has changed and maintenance is now carried out by Netowrk Rail, rather than contracted out, a far safer system.
Hatfield was a disgrace. But its roots lie far deeper than the flawed company culture of Railtrack and Balfour Beatty. The real culprits of Hatfield were Tory politicians who, aided and abetted by civil servants, broke up a functioning railway and split it up into 100 parts, jeopardising not only the safety – which fortunately has largely been remedied – but its financial viability. However, you can be sure that politicians will never draw up a law that would put them in the dock.