The laws, published in draft form for consultation last month, are primarily designed to tackle companies responsible for major disasters in the future, similar to recent train crashes and past ferry tragedies, but they will have an effect on fleet operators.
Put simply, there has been growing public concern that current laws relating to corporate manslaughter are failing to provide an effective sanction.
Officials say the Government believes that the law fails to operate in a sufficiently flexible way to reflect the reality of decision-making in large organisations and therefore fails to provide proper accountability or justice for victims.
It is committed to reforming this area of the law and the draft Bill will tackle this by making it easier to prosecute companies which fail in their duty of care.
But what is duty of care? Put simply, the draft Bill would introduce a new offence for holding organisations to account for gross failings by their senior management which have had fatal consequences. This would complement, not replace, other forms of accountability such as prosecutions under health and safety legislation. It would be clearly linked to the standards required under those laws.
The aim of the proposals is to enable prosecutions against companies and other organisations to be more effective and it does not affect the individual liability of directors or others.
The proposals will apply to Crown bodies, such as Government departments, as well as the wider public sector and industry. They create a level playing field between public and private sectors and apply when both are carrying out similar activities.
Activities would include ensuring safe working practices for employees (for example, that staff are properly trained and equipment, including vehicles, is in a safe condition); and maintaining the safety of their premises (e.g. ensuring that lifts are properly maintained).
It will be several months before there is a chance of the Bill becoming a law and it could still fall foul of a general election and fail to get on to the statute book. But that doesn’t mean companies don’t have to take action, as basic steps related to good fleet management can tackle many issues.
Firstly, read the Driving at Work document published by the Health and Safety Executive and Department for Transport.
Then use this and its set of guidelines for running an effective fleet to ensure that your company knows what risks drivers face, what accidents are happening and that it is taking action to keep them under control.
David Wallace, director of AA Business Services, which has been keeping a close watch on the developing legislation, said: ‘The draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill tightens the regulations and ensures that managers responsible for fleets pay more attention to risk on the road.
‘This is because the proposed legislation actually lowers the responsibility level.
‘Under current law it is the ‘controlling mind’ of the company who would be held responsible, such as the most senior director, but this legislation means it would be the most senior person who has responsibility for fleet who would be accountable.
If they were found to have failed in their duty of care responsibilities, the company itself could be prosecuted.’
Many fleets will turn to their leasing provider or a risk management company for help and they are also watching closely.
Anthony Dowdall, who heads up Interleasing’s risk management service ProAct, added: ‘It is important to remember that this proposed legislation is not aimed at catching companies who have made proper efforts to comply with health and safety legislation.
‘Businesses who should be concerned about the impending regulations are those who are failing to protect the safety of their employees and others on the road.
‘We are concerned about those companies which aren’t carrying out essential safety checks on people who use their own cars for business.
‘Our own recent research showed that 88% of people using their own cars for business have had no company checks, such as MoT or service record, and 36% hadn’t even had their driving licences checked.
‘This could be seen as a failure to comply with relevant health and safety guidance.’
‘Tests will look more widely at failings within organisations’
HOME Secretary Charles Clarke MP explains the thinking behind the new law: ‘This Government is committed to delivering safe and secure communities, at home and in the workplace, and to a criminal justice system which commands the confidence of the public. A fundamental part of this is providing offence descriptions which are clear and effective. The current laws on corporate manslaughter are neither, as a number of unsuccessful prosecutions over the years stand testament.
‘These proposals need to strike a careful balance. Companies and other organisations must be held properly to account for gross failings by their senior management which have fatal consequences. On the other hand, as an offence of homicide, corporate manslaughter charges must be reserved for the very worst cases of management failure. This offence must complement, not replace, other forms of redress such as prosecutions under health and safety legislation.
‘Our proposals tackle the key difficulty with the current law – the need to find a ‘directing mind’ of a company personally guilty of gross negligence. We propose a new test which looks more widely at failings within the senior management of an organisation. But this is not about new standards.
‘It is not my intention to propose legislation which would increase regulatory burdens, stifle entrepreneurial activity or create a risk averse culture, and I am satisfied that these proposals do not. Organisations who already take their obligations under health and safety law seriously have nothing to fear.
‘It is important that we get this legislation right: that people are free to go about their work safely and that those organisations which pay scant regard for the health and safety of their workers and members of the public are held to account.
‘I want us to test and refine these proposals with industry, unions and other interested groups before legislation is introduced into Parliament, and I welcome the process of consultation that will now follow. The draft Bill is also being published for Parliamentary pre-legislative scrutiny, and I look forward to receiving the report that results.’