Select Committee on Home Affairs and Work and Pensions First Report


Why is the law being changed?

6. The last twenty years have seen thousands of people in the UK lose their lives in work-related or public disasters.[2] Some of these cases have been the subject of public inquiries which have been highly critical of the companies involved.[3] However, not one large company has yet been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter.

7. As the Home Office states in its introduction to the draft Bill, the failure to successfully prosecute a large company for manslaughter has resulted in "public concern that the law is not delivering justice".[4] It has particularly caused great frustration, distress and anger to those bereaved by these incidents. A mother who lost her daughter in the Marchioness riverboat tragedy[5] told us that the search for justice was "a horrendous path - something I would not bestow…on my worst enemy".[6]

8. We have taken the view throughout this report that the key issue to consider when examining the proposals is whether they satisfy those who have previously felt so let down by the law.


9. Under the current common law, a company can in theory be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter. However, in practice it is almost impossible successfully to prosecute a large company for the offence.

10. The main difficulty with the common law offence arises from the "identification principle". This means that a company can only be convicted of manslaughter if a person, who can be identified as the "directing mind" of the company, is individually guilty of the gross negligence which resulted in the death in question. A "directing mind" is an individual in the company who is sufficiently senior to be "identified as the embodiment of the company itself".[7] Unless it can be shown that this very senior director or manager is guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, the prosecution of the company will fail.

11. It has proved very difficult to identify a "directing mind" in all but the smallest of companies. Complex management structures and the delegation of responsibilities in larger companies make it less likely that an individual can be identified as embodying a company in his or her actions or decisions. Of the 34 work-related manslaughter prosecutions brought since 1992, only seven have succeeded. All seven were against small companies or sole traders.


12. The Government's draft Bill aims to "enable more prosecutions to proceed by tackling …the difficulties created by the identification principle". The new proposals change the basis of liability from the requirement of identifying a "directing mind" of a company that is guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, to a test that considers the adequacy of the way in which an organisation's activities are managed or organised by its senior managers.[8]

13. The majority of our witnesses, including victims' groups, unions and industry, welcomed the Government's decision to change the basis of liability for corporate manslaughter.[9] For example, the Trades Union Congress submitted:

    "The TUC has, for many years been aware of the failings within the existing law and believes that this change is necessary if corporate responsibility on health and safety is to be improved, and the relatives of those killed as a result of corporate failings are to see justice done".[10]

The Federation of Master Builders believed it would help to:

    "even the playing field in relation to the clearly uneven way in which justice is currently applied to those who operate with scant regard for human life".[11]

14. However, some of those who submitted evidence to the inquiry did not believe that a new statutory offence was necessary. A small number believed that the combination of the common law offence and health and safety offences was a sufficient deterrent[12] and that a statutory offence would create a blame culture where lessons could not be learned.[13] Others argued that courts simply needed to make full use of the sanctions already available under existing health and safety legislation (see "Sanctions" Chapter 12).[14] Professor G R Sullivan, Professor in the Department of Law at Durham University, suggested that creating an aggravated version of health and safety offences with increased penalties, whenever a failure on the part of the company or organisation to provide a reasonably practicable safe system of work constituted a cause of death, might be a preferable alternative.[15]

15. Notwithstanding these views, we believe that there is public demand for an offence that lies outside the health and safety regulatory scheme. The evidence we received appeared to show that those bereaved placed a high value on a successful prosecution for a serious criminal offence. For example, the mother of a young person killed in the workplace told the Sub-committees:

    "a successful prosecution brings into the public domain all the failings that led to a preventable death and, very importantly, it shows that this country values all human life and is prepared to punish those who are negligent or indifferent to the lives of workers. It would make people with the real power in an organisation accept responsibility for what they have done. Most importantly, it allows lessons to be learned from mistakes and acts as a spur to other employers to rectify similar problems. Also, it gives the only consolation available to the bereaved family, that their son, daughter, husband or wife has not died in vain but that by their loss the annual carnage involved in work-related incidents in Britain will cease".[16]

16. We welcome the Government's proposal to introduce a statutory offence of corporate manslaughter.

History of the current proposals


17. The Government's proposals in the draft Bill have had a long gestation. The first step towards changing the existing law was taken in 1994, when the Law Commission published a consultation paper setting out its provisional proposals for reforming the law on involuntary manslaughter.[17] In light of responses to its consultation, the Commission presented a report in 1996 which made a number of recommendations.[18] These included:

  • abolishing the offence of involuntary manslaughter;
  • replacing it by two new offences: "reckless killing" and "killing by gross carelessness"; and
  • creating a special offence of "corporate killing".[19]

18. The Commission recommended that for the new corporate offence a death should be regarded as having been caused by the conduct of an organisation "if it is caused by a failure in the way in which the corporation's activities are managed or organised to ensure the health and safety of persons employed in or affected by those activities". Corporate killing was broadly to correspond to the suggested individual offence of killing by gross carelessness. The Commission recommended that the corporate offence, like the suggested new individual offence, should be committed only when the organisation's conduct in causing the death fell far below what could reasonably be expected of the organisation in the circumstances.[20]

19. The Commission also recommended that the offence should be capable of commission by any corporation, however and wherever incorporated (so including abroad), other than a corporation sole, but that it should not be capable of commission by unincorporated bodies or by an individual, even as a second party. Other recommendations included that there should be liability for the corporate offence only if the injury that resulted in death occurred in a place over which the English courts would have had jurisdiction if the offence had been committed by a non-British subject; that there should be no requirement of consent for the bringing of private prosecutions for the corporate offence; and that on conviction the court should have power to give remedial orders.[21]

20. Between 1997 and 2000, the Government gave a series of commitments to look into the Law Commission's proposals (see 'Delays and timing' paras 37 to 49).

21. In February 2000, the Court of Appeal gave an opinion on the identification principle. This followed the ruling in June 1999 that Great Western Trains could only be convicted for corporate manslaughter in the Southall rail crash[22] via the guilt of a human being with whom it might be identified. The Court of Appeal's opinion ruled that in the present state of the common law, the identification principle remained the only basis for corporate liability for gross negligent manslaughter. The opinion referred to the Law Commission's recommendations, but did not think it appropriate for the Court to push the law in this direction, arguing that this was "a matter for Parliament, not the courts".[23]

22. In April 2000, Mr Andrew Dismore MP introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill to create a new criminal offence of corporate killing.[24] However, the Bill was not supported by the Government and was unable to proceed.


23. In May 2000, the Government published a consultation document based on the Law Commission's recommendations.[25] The document went further than the proposals in some respects. It suggested that:

  • all forms of undertaking, including partnerships, schools, unincorporated charities and small businesses, should be liable for the offence;[26]
  • any individual who could be shown to have had some influence on, or responsibility for, the circumstances in which a management failure falling far below what could reasonably be expected was a cause of a person's death should be subject to a disqualification from acting in a management role in any undertaking carrying on a business or activity in Great Britain;[27]
  • the health and safety enforcing authorities and possibly other enforcement agencies should investigate and prosecute the new offences, in addition to the police and Crown Prosecution Service; [28] and that
  • it should also be possible to take action against parent or other group companies if it could be shown that their own management failures were a cause of the death concerned.[29]

24. The Government also invited views on whether it would be right in principle that officers of undertakings who contributed to the management failure resulting in death, should be liable to a penalty of imprisonment in separate criminal proceedings;[30] on the application of Crown immunity to the offence of corporate killing;[31] and on whether it would ever be appropriate to permit the prosecuting authority to institute proceedings to freeze company assets before criminal proceedings started in order to prevent assets being transferred to evade fines or compensation orders.[32]

25. There were over 150 responses to the Home Office consultation from unions, industry, the public sector and members of the public. These displayed strong support for reform of the existing law; support for wide application of the offence to cover all undertakings, including the removal of Crown immunity; divided views on individual liability and very mixed opinions on the issue of investigation and prosecution. A number of witnesses questioned the construction of the proposed offence and suggested other ways of addressing the shortcomings in current law, including more vigorous enforcement of health and safety legislation.[33]


26. The Government's draft Bill was finally published on 23 March 2005. The proposals in the draft Bill differ from the proposals in the Government's 2000 consultation document and the Law Commission's recommendations in certain respects (including changing the title of the offence from "corporate killing" to "corporate manslaughter").

27. The proposals in the draft Bill use the Law Commission's suggestion that the new offence should be based on failures in the way an organisation's activities were managed or organised. However, they add a further requirement which did not appear in either the Law Commission proposals or the Government's previous consultation document. This requirement is that management failings are by an organisation's senior managers.

28. The Law Commission proposed that a new offence be based on a failure to ensure the health and safety of employees or members of the public. However, it did not define the relationship between this and duties imposed by health and safety legislation and duties imposed under the common law to take reasonable care for the safety of others.[34]

29. The Government's draft Bill defines a relevant duty of care as that owed under the law of negligence by an organisation:

  • as employer or occupier of land, or
  • when supplying goods or services or when engaged in other commercial activities (for example, in mining or fishing)

other than when carrying out exclusively public functions - that is activities performed by the Government under the prerogative or those that are a type of activity (whether carried out by a private or public sector body) that requires a statutory or prerogative basis. The Bill also exempts decisions involving matters of public policy.

30. The draft Bill adopts the Law Commission's proposal to define gross failure in terms of conduct that falls far below what can reasonably be expected in the circumstances. However, it also provides a range of factors for juries to consider when assessing an organisation's culpability, including failure to comply with health and safety legislation and guidance, and whether or not its senior managers were aware, or ought to have been aware, of the breach and whether they had any intention to profit from the breach.

31. The draft Bill applies the new offence to corporations but not to unincorporated bodies. It also removes Crown immunity although it includes a number of exemptions. Under the Bill, a parent company (as well as any subsidiary) would be liable to prosecution where it owed a duty of care to the victim in respect of any of the activities covered by the offence and a gross management failure by its senior managers caused death.

32. The draft Bill does not propose to create new sanctions for individuals. It also explicitly excludes the possibility of convicting individuals for being a secondary party to the offence.[35]

33. Unlike the Law Commission's draft Bill, the Home Office's proposed draft Bill does not include a separate provision to deal with the issue of establishing that a management failure can cause death even when an intervening act may appear to have broken the chain of causation.[36]

34. The draft Bill proposes that the current responsibilities of the police to investigate and the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute corporate manslaughter will not change.

35. Unlike the Government's 2000 consultation paper, the draft Bill requires the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before private proceedings in respect of the new offence can be instituted.

36. A table comparing and contrasting the proposals suggested by the Law Commission, the proposals in the Government's 2000 Consultation Paper and those in the draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill can be found at Annex 1.

Delays and timing

37. Many witnesses expressed frustration that the publication of the draft Bill had been far later than they expected.[37] The GMB, for example, felt it had taken "an inexcusably long time to emerge".[38] Since we are now hearing media reports that the Cabinet has decided to shelve the Corporate Manslaughter Bill,[39] we feel it is important to remind the Government of its repeated commitments over the last eight years to act on this issue.

38. In October 1997, a month after the Southall rail crash, the then Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, told the Labour party conference: "Many countries have laws which provide for the conviction of company directors where it's claimed that dreadful negligence by the company as a whole has meant people have died". He added that there was a "strong argument for considering in detail" the introduction of such laws in the UK.[40]

39. The Home Office's consultation paper did not appear until May 2000.

40. On 6 December 2000, the Government gave a loosely worded commitment in the Queen's Speech promising that a bill would be drafted that would "provide for safer travel on the railways, in the air, at sea and on the roads, and will take forward proposals for revitalising health and safety at work".[41]

41. In 2001 the Labour Party manifesto stated that "law reform is necessary to make provisions against corporate manslaughter".[42]

42. On 14 March 2002 the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Dr Alan Whitehead MP, confirmed that a bill on corporate killing would be introduced when time permitted.[43] In September 2002, the Government again raised hopes that the draft Bill would be published shortly by distributing an impact assessment questionnaire to the private sector, including industries with a high injury rate over the last five years, with a deadline of 1 November 2002 for responses.[44] However, the Government failed to publish the draft Bill in the parliamentary session 2002-03.

43. On 21 May 2003 the Home Office issued a press release promising that "a timetable for legislation and further details would be announced in the autumn", thus further postponing any real action.[45]

44. The next twelve months saw another series of commitments that draft legislation would soon be published. On 2 December 2003, the then Home Secretary, Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, promised to publish a draft bill "very shortly".[46] On 29 April 2004, the Minister for the Criminal Justice System and Offender Management, Baroness Patricia Scotland QC, in a speech at the Centre for Corporate Accountability's conference on corporate killing, promised that a draft Bill would be published before the end of the parliamentary session 2003-04.[47]

45. On 23 July 2004, in a report into the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive, the Work and Pensions Committee, expressed concern "at the length of time it is taking the Government to resolve any outstanding issues concerning reforms of the law on corporate killing" and recommended that the Government publish its draft Bill by 1 December 2004.[48] In its response to that report, the Government said it still intended to publish a draft Bill that autumn.[49]

46. The Prime Minister reiterated this commitment at a speech to the Trades Union Congress conference on 13 September 2004.[50] Shortly afterwards, on 29 September 2004, the then Home Secretary, Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, told the Labour Party conference that he was "confirming this afternoon that we will publish this autumn the draft bill on corporate killing that has been awaited for so long".[51]

47. Autumn, and parliamentary session 2003-04 came and went. In the Queen's Speech on 23 November 2004, the Government again promised that a draft bill would be published.

48. The draft Bill was finally published on 23 March 2005. The Queen's Speech following the General Election on 17 May 2005 restated the Government's intention to introduce an offence of corporate manslaughter. In oral evidence, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, Fiona Mactaggart MP, told us that the Government would introduce the actual Bill " as soon as Parliamentary time allows".[52]

49. We are concerned at the length of time it has taken the Government to introduce a draft Bill since it first promised legislation on corporate manslaughter. We believe there should be no further unnecessary delay. We urge the Government to introduce the Bill, including our recommended changes, by the end of the present parliamentary session, making provision for carry-over if necessary.

2   Between 1992 and 2005, 3425 workers were killed. Last year alone, 220 workers and 361 members of the public were killed. Health and Safety Commission and National Statistics, Health and safety statistics 2004/05, p 5-6 Back

3   After the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster, in which 150 passengers and 38 crew lost their lives, Lord Justice Sheen published a report which found that from "top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness". (Mr Justice Sheen, `1987 mv Herald of Free Enterprise' (formal investigation). London: HMSO, Report of Court No 8074) In an inquiry into the 1988 Piper Alpha fire, in which 167 workers lost their lives, Lord Cullen found that there were "significant flaws in Occidental's management of safety". (The Hon Lord Cullen. `The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alfa Disaster' London: HMSO, 1990) Back

4   Home Office, Corporate Manslaughter: The Government's Draft Bill for Reform, Cm 6497, March 2005, p 8 Back

5   On 20 August 1989, a dredger crashed into the Marchioness pleasure cruiser which was filled with people at a party. Over 50 people lost their lives. Back

6   Volume III, Q 298 [Mrs Dallaglio] Back

7   R v HM Coroner for East Kent, ex p Spooner (1989) 88 CR App R 10, 16 per Bingham LJ Back

8   Home Office, Corporate Manslaughter: The Government's Draft Bill for Reform, Cm 6497, March 2005, p 8-9 Back

9   Volume II, Ev 1, 3, 12, 16, 18, 30, 38, 43, 44, 54, 58, 59, 65, 69, 79, 85, 87, 110, 112, 132, 135, 148, 152, 192 (Health and Safety Commission), 192 (Communication Workers" Union), 202, 205, 209 (Association of British Insurers), 209 (Institute of Electrical Engineers), 211, 214, 226, 227, 228, 231, 232, 237, 238, 270, 275, 278, 282, 283, 296, 297, 298, 299, 301,305, 309, 316 and 317 Back

10   Volume II, Ev 16 Back

11   Volume II, Ev 1 Back

12   Volume II, Ev 150 and 277 Back

13   Volume II, Ev 69, 130, 150 and 303 Back

14   Volume II, Ev 222  Back

15   Volume II, Ev 33 Back

16   Volume III, Q 3 [Anne Jones] Back

17   Law Commission, Criminal Law: Involuntary Manslaughter Consultation Paper No 135, 1994 Back

18   Law Commission, Legislating the Criminal code: Involuntary Manslaughter: Item 11 of the Sixth Programme of Law Reform: Criminal Law: Report No 237, HC (1995-96) 171 Back

19   Law Commission, HC (1995-96) 171, pp 127-131 Back

20   Law Commission, HC (1995-96) 171, pp 128-129 Back

21   Law Commission, HC (1995-96) 171, pp 129-130 Back

22   In September 1997, a high speed train from Swansea collided into a freight train at Southall. Seven people were killed and over 150 injured. Back

23   Attorney-General's Reference 2/99,15 February 2000, Lord Justice Rose Back

24   Corporate Homicide Bill [Bill 114 (1999/2000)] Back

25   Home Office, Reforming the Law on Involuntary Manslaughter: The Government's Proposals, May 2000 Back

26   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.5.1 Back

27   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.4.9 Back

28   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.3.5 Back

29   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.4.6 Back

30   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.4.13 Back

31   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.2.8 Back

32   Home Office, May 2000, para 3.4.16 Back

33   Home Office, Corporate Manslaughter: A Summary of Responses to the Home Office's Consultation in 2000 Back

34   Law Commission, Legislating the Criminal code: Involuntary Manslaughter: Item 11 of the Sixth Programme of Law Reform: Criminal Law: Report No 237, HC (1995-96) 171, Back

35   Home Office, Corporate Manslaughter: The Government's Draft Bill for Reform, Cm 6497, March 2005, para 47 Back

36   Draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill, paras 50-51 Back

37   Volume II, Ev 6, 18, 54, 108, 110, 193, 215-216, 253, 306, and 316 Back

38   Volume II, Ev 59 Back

39   "The unions are also likely to be angered by a cabinet decision last week to shelve a proposed corporate manslaughter bill." The Sunday Times, 27 November 2005, p1 Back

40   The Financial Times, 3 October 1997 Back

41   HC Deb, 6 Dec 2000, col 4 Back

42   Labour Party, Ambitions for Britain: Labour's manifesto 2001, p 32 Back

43   HC Deb, 14 March 2002, col 358WH Back

44   Home Office, Corporate Manslaughter: A Regulatory Impact Assessment of the Government's Draft Bill, para 12 Back

45   "Government to tighten laws on corporate killing", Home Office press release 142/2003, 21 May 2003 Back

46   HC Deb, 2 December 2003, col 385 Back

47 Back

48   Work and Pensions Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2003-04, The Work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive, HC 456-I, para 53 Back

49   Work and Pensions Committee, Third Special Report of Session 2003-04, Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report into the Work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive, HC 1137, p 4 Back

50   Full text of speech available at . Back

51   Full text of speech available at . Back

52   Volume III, Q 600 Back

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