The majority of respondents (60 per cent) in research conducted by City firm Norton Rose interpreted the Government’s enthusiasm to legislate “as political maneuvering to satisfy public interest”. There are strong signs that a draft Bill will be published by Easter this year.
The report revealed deep resistance on the part of business to any new legislation. Two thirds of respondents predicted that the proposals would have a negative impact on business. Specifically, they pointed to concerns about increased costs and bureaucracy. A similar proportion believed that any legislation would promote ‘a blame culture’ (64 per cent) and make business risk averse (66per cent). More than 100 health and safety directors and in-house lawyers, mainly in the transport, construction and energy sectors, were interviewed for the study. Almost two-thirds (59 per cent) of the companies interviewed remained unconvinced that the new legislation would improve safety.
When the Government came into power it was committed to introducing new legislation to close the perceived ‘loophole’ in the current corporate manslaughter laws which allows big corporations to avoid prosecution for gross negligence that caused fatalities. In July last year two companies, Railtrack and Balfour Beatty, and six individuals were charged with corporate manslaughter for the Hatfield rail disaster. Although corporate manslaughter had been possible since 1965 only three cases had been successful. The bill was conspicuously absent from the Queen’s Speech in November last year.
“There is a huge amount of scepticism out there that it’s a politically-driven initiative rather than anything else,” said Peter Rees, head of Norton Rose’s litigation department and senior partner in the firm’s construction group. “A surprising number of people who responded thought that there should be an independent board with overall responsibility and safety. But where the difficulty is going to be with the new legislation is seeking to make one individual responsibility if there is a problem.” For “very obvious reasons” there would be “a shortage of volunteers for the job”, he added.
According to Rees: “The legislation needs to focus more on corporate responsibility and less so on the side of individual responsibility. It needs to rely on shareholder pressure and reputational issues push to corporates to make them take the right approach.”