Mark Thomas on death in the workplace
The government is determined to fight crime by introducing ID cards. Yet it shrugs off deaths at wor
David Blunkett's political image of the gruff, northern, working-class lad has been carefully honed. However, it has become so stereotypical that few would bat an eyelid if he made his policy announcements wearing a flat cap, having swapped his current dog for a guide whippet, and with a colliery brass band playing the Hovis tune gently in the background. Coupling that with an approach of "tough on liberals, tough on the causes of liberals", he has fitted in perfectly with the trend of every new home secretary acting more ridiculously right-wing than the last. If it continues, it is only a matter of time before we see the courts forced to accept ownership of a tertiary nipple as proof of guilt. The number of nipples we possess will, of course, be registered on our new ID cards, alongside details of other criminal traits such as being left-handed and having ginger hair.
Blunkett's problem is that there is a thin line between being seen as "no-nonsense" and being seen as just plain thick. And he crossed it a little while ago. To do a U-turn on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act 2002 because of public opposition is one thing, but to start touting the idea of ID cards a few weeks later shows a combination of stubborn ignorance, arrogance and a depleted bag of political tricks. The Home Office will no doubt say that they are not ID cards, but "enhanced citizenship" cards, or some such crap. Blunkett can call them whatever he likes; for all I care, he can call them reward cards and offer the public a chance to collect points to set against their sentence, should they commit a crime in future. The fact is, we don't want ID cards.
Peter Lilley roundly condemned the idea of ID cards in the Observer, arguing that identifying criminals wasn't a problem for the police - catching them was. Surely to God, Blunkett must realise that making a Tory like Lilley look reasonable is political madness.
What we see, in new Labour's Terrorism Act, the RIP Bill and proposed ID cards, is more people being criminalised, rather than more real criminals being caught. Nowhere is this shown more graphically than in new Labour's laissez-faire attitude towards industrial accidents and deaths at work. Since new Labour came to power, there have been more than 1,500 deaths and killings at work in Britain; less than a third of these have resulted in prosecutions being brought under health and safety law. Out of the total 1,500, fewer than ten cases have resulted in a prosecution for corporate manslaughter. The UK prosecutes more people for acts of bestiality: chief executive officers and managing directors stand more chance of going to jail for shagging goats than killing workers.
Mick Holder of London Hazards, an independent advice centre for worker and community health and safety issues, says: "On average, about 300 people are killed at work every year."
These deaths cover practically every horrific possibility - from 17-year-old Mark Thorne, who was electrocuted in the kitchen of the fast-food restaurant Fatty Arbuckle's, where he worked part-time, to Simon Jones, who was put to work in the hold of a ship at Shoreham docks by Euromin, without any health and safety training, and was killed by a crane grab within hours of starting work.
In 1997, new Labour said that it was going to introduce a law of corporate killing which would make it easier to prosecute companies. It still has not arrived; neither has a law of "directors' duties", which would make CEOs and company directors liable to time in jail for failing to introduce adequate health and safety measures, resulting in the killing of employees. Frankly, until company directors start to be treated like the criminals that many of them are, nothing will halt the numbers being killed at work. Until the government changes the law, new Labour will be guilty of means-testing killing and allowing the rich to get away with it.
Mike Welton, CEO of Balfour Beatty, said earlier this year that introducing a law of directors' duties and sending company heads to jail for deaths at work would be bad for justice, because people would want directors jailed out of spite.
However, whereas Welton's position is to be expected - because such duties would potentially affect him - new Labour has no excuse. Rather than reform the law, Blunkett now wants to categorise corporate killings as "non-crimes".
Last March, he announced that the Justice and Victims Unit at the Home Office would unveil a new Bill of Rights to support victims of crime. The bill will not apply to those killed or injured as a result of health and safety offences, although breaching the health and safety law is a criminal offence. The families of those who are unlawfully killed at work are not seen as victims of crime.
So tell me, Mr Blunkett: as Mark Thorne's body burned and Simon Jones's head was crushed, just how would an ID card have helped them?
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