Plans for a new offence of corporate manslaughter will target companies and not the criminal liability of individual directors, the government has insisted.
The Paddington crash prompted further calls for a change in the law
Home Secretary David Blunkett gave details of a draft bill on corporate killing on Tuesday, with a timetable for legislation and further details to be announced this autumn.
The measure is his response to Labour backbencher Andrew Dismore's
attempt to have corporate manslaughter included in the Criminal Justice Bill.
The offer came ahead of a rebellion by 33 Labour MPs on Monday night against plans in the bill to limit the right to
trial by jury.
Some 350 people a year are killed in work-related accidents, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
Rail crash victims, in particular, have pressed the government to fulfil its 1997 commitment to introduce a corporate manslaughter offence.
Mr Blunkett said: "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.
"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."
But Mr Blunkett says the new legislation will be targeted at companies themselves, which is the area of weakness in the current law.
"The criminal liability of individual directors will not be targeted by the proposals."
Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems home affairs spokesman, said: "It is surely the government's duty to send a strong
message to companies which endanger lives, that such behaviour will lead to very
substantial fines and loss of reputation."
Mr Dismore, who has been campaigning for this legislation since he was a lawyer representing victims of the Kings Cross Fire, argued: "If you can prosecute individual directors, which you can, for breaches of company law by a company or for cooking the books or whatever, I fail to see why you can't prosecute them if they kill somebody," he said.
Award-winning author Nina Bawden, whose husband Austen Kark, 75, was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash in May 2002, says the measure is "a step in the right direction".
Herself badly injured in the crash, Ms Bawden, 77, said: "The present law does not work. Until individual directors are in the line
of fire, you are not going to get safety put ahead of profit."
Maureen Kavanagh, whose son Peter died in the 1997 Southall rail crash, said: "We are disappointed that a new law is not
being brought in straight away."
Mrs Kavanagh, chairman of Safe Trains Action Group, added: "But I would say
to Mr Blunkett that we are going to fight to get this law changed. I will not
rest until it's changed."
Anne Jones, whose son Simon, was killed working at Shoreham docks on his first day of a casual contract in 1998, says any change has been a long time coming.
She says she is sick of hearing that there is insufficient Parliamentary time to enact the law of corporate killing, describing it as "the biggest cop-out on earth".
But Kim Sunley, of the GMB union, said the law "will not go far enough".
"Failure to target individual directors or others responsible for running companies will constitute a weakness in the legislation," he said.
Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, also welcomed the measure, but stressed "the book should be thrown" at directors whose recklessness has led to death.
Andy Sneddon, Construction Confederation health and safety director, opposes any move to target individual directors because that would "cut across the collective responsibility that should exist in organisations to manage safety".
The Paddington train crash in 1999, in which 31 people died, was among the tragedies prompting further calls for this new legislation.
Relatives of people who have died at work presented a petition to Downing Street last month asking for a law change.
But the concern goes much wider than such well-publicised cases with many deaths.