08:50 – 29 September 2006
Angry trade union delegates inflicted a third major defeat on Labour leaders yesterday, insisting company bosses must face jail if found personally responsible for deaths at work.
Oil company executives would have been in danger of being liable to imprisonment over the Piper Alpha disaster 18 years ago or the deaths of two workers on Brent Bravo in 2003 if the proposed law had been in force then.
A rebel union motion, opposed by the ruling National Executive Committee, was backed to cheers in a show of hands at the party conference.
MPs will be faced with decisions on the Government’s corporate killing bill, which proposes unlimited fines for companies rather than personal jail sentences for executives the day after the Commons resumes next month.
Moving the successful motion, Tony Woodley, T &G general secretary, said: “The bill completely and deliberately excludes from its scope the prosecution of negligent directors, guilty directors who will be handed a get out of jail free card.”
The Government was “plain wrong” he angrily told delegates. “They are pandering to the pressure from the CBI and the bosses.
“Organisations don’t kill people. Incompetent, negligent, greedy bosses do. And they are quite literally getting away with murder,” he added to applause.
Mr Woodley continued: “Where individuals are shown to be culpable, they should face prosecution for manslaughter.
“If death by dangerous driving deserves 14 years in jail, then the loss of a worker’s life through the bosses’ mismanagement deserves no less.”
The NEC said in a statement that directors would still be liable for manslaughter on an individual basis if they had been grossly negligent.
Aberdeen North Labour MP Frank Doran, who was involved in helping Piper Alpha families, said later he was not surprised by the overwhelming defeat of the platform position that the new law should make it easier to prosecute employers but as companies rather than individuals.
He said: “The legislation is about management culture and many of us, including me, believe we would only change the way management behave when the managers themselves are held personally liable for their own negligence.”
Graham Tran, northern organiser for the trade union Amicus, said: “I would have been wholly disappointed if there had been continued watering down of legislation on corporate manslaughter so I welcome this defeat.
“The message to the Government is that the trade union movement has no intention of relaxing its attitude and approach to this matter.”
But Aberdeen South MP Anne Begg said: “I can understand the unions’ and workers’ anger because they want someone to be taken to court and found guilty when there has been a clear failure of management in ensuring worker safety but it is also a Government responsibility to get a workable law.
“The danger of making chief executives personally culpable is that there is no way of proving a link between their actions and the death of an individual.
“The last thing I want to see is prosecutions failing because we did not draw a law tightly enough to ensure successful prosecutions.”
The other two defeats concerned Labour policy in England demanding government funding for new council housing and opposing a further privatisation drive in the NHS.
Miss Begg insisted that the conference week had been “a lot more positive than I was expecting”.
Mr Doran said that apart from Cherie Blair’s “liar” jibe at Mr Brown, it “has been a good week” focusing on policy.
He added: “Gordon came out of the week stronger.”
Ochil and South Perthshire MP Gordon Banks said the defeat on corporate killing issue would have little effect because the Government had to decide practical matters.