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Ucatt furious after Hatfield manslaughter case dropped

Ucatt general secretary Alan Ritchie has hit out at the decision to drop manslaughter charges against five rail bosses from Railtrack and Balfour Beatty over the Hatfield train crash in 2000.
The construction union boss said: 'Here is yet another example of a failure to hold directors and companies to account for the deaths of innocent people. How many more times must this happen?

He called for tougher sentencing and the threat of jail for directors in the Government's plans for corporate manslaughter legislation.

Mr Ritchie added: In the past 30 years only five directors have served a custodial sentence for manslaughter following a work related death and the three large companies that have been prosecuted for manslaughter have all been acquitted before the jury has been allowed to come to a verdict.'

The charges were thrown out by a judge at the Old Bailey in London today. The five rail bosses were accused of killing the four people who died in the Hatfield train disaster.

Five months into their Old Bailey trial, Mr Justice Mackay ordered the jury to find the executives not guilty.

A corporate manslaughter charge against engineering giant Balfour Beatty was also dismissed.

The judge made his decision after listening to submissions, reviewing evidence and considering issues which had arisen. He did not give reasons.

Mr Justice Mackay told jurors: 'It is not open to you to convict any of the six defendants on charges of manslaughter. The trial will proceed on the health and safety charges faced by all the defendants.

'I am not permitted to give reasons for the decision. I must ask you to accept my ruling, which does not affect one way or the other the important decisions you will have to make when considering verdicts on the health and safety counts.'

Balfour Beatty and the five men - together with Railtrack, which became Network Rail - still face charges brought under the Health and Safety Act.

Four people were killed and 102 injured in the 115mph Hatfield crash on October 17 2000.

They were Robert Alcorn, 37, from New Zealand, Steve Arthur, 46, of Pease Pottage, West Sussex, Leslie Gray, 43, of Tuxford, Nottingham, and Peter Monkhouse, 50, of Headingley, Leeds.

The five executives - three from Railtrack and two from the engineering company Balfour Beatty - had denied manslaughter.

They are: Balfour Beatty Rail Maintenance Ltd's regional director Anthony Walker, 46, and civil engineer Nicholas Jeffries, 53, Railtrack London North East zone asset managers Alistair Cook, 50, and Sean Fugill, 50, and Railtrack LNE track engineer Keith Lea, 53. They also deny Health and Safety Act charges.

Balfour Beatty faced a corporate manslaughter charge and both the company and Network Rail faces health and safety charges, which are all denied.

Prosecutors have alleged the crash was a disaster waiting to happen - but should have been avoided. Rail executives had thrown out the rule book when dealing with a large backlog of defects which built up on the line, prosecutor Richard Lissack QC told the jury when opening the case.

He alleged the derailment occurred because:

  • A faulty rail at the crash site was identified 21 months before the crash but left unrepaired - although a replacement rail had been delivered and left alongside it for six months;
  • Speed restrictions were not imposed in the area of that faulty rail;
  • A backlog of essential work had been allowed to accumulate which could have closed down King's Cross station if the rule book had been followed;
  • The clock which counted the time for carrying out all of the out-of-date repairs was turned back to zero on the backlog of 200 defects in the first 43 miles of the track from King's Cross.
  • Mr Lissack said that 'this cavalier approach to the safety of those in trains' was finally realised on October 17 2000 - when four people died in coach G as their train left the track travelling at 115 mph.

    He alleged Balfour Beatty had been getting 'seriouslybehind in remedying defects on the line'.

    Balfour Beatty rejected allegations that they had not paid enough attention to safety, their counsel Ronald Thwaites QC told the court at the start of the trial;

    'At the heart of the prosecution allegation is the suggestion that it did not pay enough attention to safety. It is a charge that we reject and one that we will vigorously rebut.

    'There is, in our submission, no proper basis for alleging that the company we represent was indifferent to safety matters or that it seriously neglected to do its job.

    'We will be suggesting that ultimately this tragic accident occurred because of an unusual combination of circumstances that were beyond the control of individual people or companies.'

    Mr Thwaites said there was an unfortunate tendency towards prosecuting individuals and companies for the most serious possible offence that they could be charged on.

    This was done 'on the grounds that someone must be to blame when terrible things happen and that the only way of satisfying what is seen as the public's thirst for vengeance is to go in hard against people high and low'.

    Jonathan Goldberg QC, on behalf of Jeffries, said it would be unfair to make the men scapegoats and assume any of them could be blamed for the crash.

    'They were all honourable men doing their duty,' he told the jury at the trial opening.

    'These five men worked in an under-funded, under-invested railway industry, which had been neglected by governments of all parties for over 40 years and which had recently undergone a botched and unworkable privatisation.

    'They inherited this awful system and they tried to make it work for the benefit of the travelling public but they did not invent it.

    'It is a sad reflection on political correctness and the blame culture of modern-day Britain that five men at modest job levels are blamed for Hatfield whilst the concerned and grieving relatives and the press and public are fed the line that the buck stops with them.'