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Killing Bill raises safety fears

Corporate Manslaughter Bill alert over excessive penalties n Lawyers warn of difficulty in identifying who is responsible

A LEADING barrister is warning that plans to punish firms under the draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill could weaken the safety culture at companies.

Prashant Popat, who was involved in the Hatfield, Southall and Ladbroke Grove train crash inquiries, believes proposals in the Bill for 'remedial actions'- imposed on a company by a judge once it is convicted - could be excessive and counterproductive in the immediate aftermath of a prosecution.

Mr Popat also attacked the growing culture of 'naming and shaming' firms which the Health and Safety Executive has adopted partly because of public pressure to bring companies to account.

The Corporate Manslaughter Bill is designed to make it easier to bring large firms to book in the wake of high profile failed prosecutions like the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster in 1987 and the Southall rail crash in 1997.

The draft specifies that a company found to have caused the death of a worker through negligence would face an unlimited fine and possibly a court order to revamp its management structure.

Mr Popat said: 'There are benefits and disadvantages in the desire to stop a practice which led to a person's death, but draconian penalties could be counterproductive in achieving safety improvements.'

In March this year the Government published a long-awaited draft Bill on the offence. Its consultation period will finish at the end of May.

As it stands in the draft, a company must be guilty of a 'gross breach'of its duty of care to the deceased - defined as conduct falling far below what can reasonably be expected of it.A single person no longer needs to be identified as a 'controlling mind' of a company and personally guilty of negligence; responsibility will lie with the 'senior management' Mr Popat raised concerns over the identification of senior management within large firms and said a precedent would have to be set on the definition of who is in charge.

Pressure groups including the Centre for Corporate Accountability are concerned that organisations could delegate their responsibilities to more junior managers in a move to escape prosecution.