By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online
The dropping of charges against former Railtrack bosses over the Hatfield rail disaster has reignited the debate about whether the UK needs a new corporate killing law.
There has been anger over the role of Railtrack
Campaigners are angry that despite promising a new corporate manslaughter law in their 1997 manifesto, the Labour government has still not produced the legislation.
The Home Office says a draft bill will be published by the end of the current session of Parliament, but those who support the measure fear it will be in a diluted form, acceptable to worried business leaders.
Louise Christian, who represents one of the Hatfield victims and has campaigned for a corporate killing law, explained what had to be done to punish a company under the current system.
"At the moment the law means an individual human being has to be found guilty of manslaughter and has to be a controlling mind of the company, such as a senior manager or director, whose actions might be seen to embody those of the company."
Activists calling for a change in the law want it to be possible to charge firms with manslaughter even where no single director can be blamed, and also for it to be easier to punish directors for failings they should have anticipated.
Ms Christian said an overhaul of the law would allow individuals to be punished for lesser offences such as "putting profit before safety".
"There are all too many deaths at work and disasters caused by a failure to deal with known risks by senior management, " she said.
"Directors aren't held accountable at all. All that happens is the companies are fined and often quite small sums.
"They are the people who made the decisions. There is a lack of accountability.
"There has been prolonged lobbying from the CBI and from individual companies. There hasn't been the political will to bring it forwards."
Prison sentences should be reserved for extreme cases, Ms Christian said, with penalties such as large fines and disbarment from directorships an option.
The Institute of Directors said it believed companies should be held accountable, but says it cannot support the singling out of individual executives for punishment for mistakes they may have known nothing about.
A spokesman said: "There needs to be some sort of sanction on a company itself... but we don't think an individual, perhaps through no fault of their own, should be singled out for punishment when perhaps the incident was beyond their control."
But the CBI said it believed a raft of health and safety legislation already covered the issue.
"We are unconvinced that there is a need for new legislation because we think it is adequately covered by the current health and safety legislation," a spokesman said.
"It is for the government to make the case."
The rail accidents at Hatfield, Potter's Bar and Ladbroke Grove are prominent cases, but the debate about corporate manslaughter comes up over many incidents every year.
The T&G union has been campaigning for a change in the law over employer negligence since 1993, pointing to more than 4,500 workplace deaths since the Zeebrugge disaster in 1987.
In 1996, the Law Commission called for legislation to bring in the offence of corporate killing.
State of knowledge
Chris Ball, national officer for trade union Amicus, said the current set-up allowed larger companies to escape justice, while smaller companies, with clearer chains of command were punished.
"The bigger the company the more difficult it is to pin a charge of manslaughter on a senior individual. You have to have the guilty action but also a state of knowledge and awareness of the problem.
The official cited the Lyme Bay tragedy, when four children lost their lives on a canoeing trip.
In that case, the managing director had been warned that low safety standards might lead to deaths. The management structure was simple, enabling the firm to be convicted of corporate manslaughter and the managing director jailed for three years.
There have been very few successful prosecutions
But campaigners say that at big firms, an atmosphere of cost-cutting and corner-cutting imposed from board level can mean that concerns about safety passed up from ground level get lost among timid middle managers.
They want a culture of safety over cost-cutting to be imposed by those at senior levels, or directors made to pay the price.