pasted from the guardian | 22.10.2004 16:58
Patrick Wintour, chief political correspondent
Friday October 22, 2004
The Guardian has obtained details of a letter sent by Mr Straw 10 days ago to John Prescott, deputy prime minister and chair of the domestic affairs cabinet committee. In it, the foreign secretary casts doubt on the need to create a new crime of corporate manslaughter.
In his letter, written on October 11, he calls for a proper and "collective discussion of this difficult issue before final decisions are taken. This is one of those issues when first considered appears unanswerable, but pose serious problems under further examination."
He adds: "There is a strong case for maintaining the current position".
The unexpected intervention into a domestic controversy will infuriate trades unions which have been campaigning for the reform for many years. The commitment for a draft bill was a cornerstone of the agreement between the government and unions reached at this summer's crucial Warwick forum.
The prime minister in his conference speech also promised that a draft corporate manslaughter bill would be published before the Queen's speech next month.
Mr Straw's letter will also perturb the home secretary, David Blunkett, who has been pushing for the reform inside Whitehall.
The foreign secretary, despite the remorseless pressures of his overseas work, has the energy to take a very close interest in domestic issues. He remains especially interested in those areas that he used to oversee in his previous post as Mr Blunkett's predecessor.
Some government members see Mr Straw's intervention as being supported from behind the scenes by the chancellor, Gordon Brown. Mr Straw has been thought to have been working closely with the chancellor on issues such as identity cards and the European constitution, but there is no independent evidence that Mr Straw has been leant on by the chancellor.
The idea of making company directors personally responsible for deaths due to management failings has gripped legal debate since the Zeebrugge and Hillsborough tragedies in the 1980s. It was subsequently reignited by successive rail tragedies, including the Hatfield disaster in 2000. The attempted prosecutions of rail chiefs over the Hatfield rail crash, in which four people died, collapsed last month.
Charges against Railtrack's former chief executive, Gerald Corbett, and two other managers were dropped before the main trial after a high court judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that the accident occurred because profit had been put before safety.
Advocates of a new law argue it is also necessary to curb deaths among construction workers. More than 1,000 workers have died on construction jobs since 1992.
Labour pledged in its 1997 election manifesto that it would legislate to introduce corporate manslaughter laws. But the legal profession, along with company directors and the families of the Hatfield victims, are still awaiting the draft bill.
Due to the inadequacies of current legislation, there have been only three successful prosecutions to date for corporate manslaughter, even though numerous cases have been brought to court.
With the Queen's speech expected on November 23, Mr Straw's intervention puts the commitment to a draft bill in serious jeopardy. It has also surprised cabinet members that he is seeking a first principles discussion after nearly a year of internal discussion by civil servants right across Whitehall.
Trades unions claim they were given firm private assurances on the legislation from both the Labour chairman, Ian McCartney, and the leader of the Commons, Peter Hain, the minister responsible for organising government business.
Many senior civil servants have been trying to protect themselves from liability from prosecution under the law. But in his letter, Mr Straw acknowledges that solutions have been suggested for the long standing problems of crown immunity.
One solution is to seek to draw a distinction between factual and policy advice. The aim would be for civil servants to face the risk of prosecution only if they had been negligent in their factual advice.
Probably the biggest stumbling block to effective legislation is whether individuals at a company could be prosecuted, and, if so, how to decide who is personally responsible.
It is acknowledged that whatever happens about publication of the draft bill, there is no chance of the legislation reaching the statute book before a general election next spring.
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