Mark Thomas on deaths in the workplace

Company directors whose employees die on the job because of their negligence should be jailed: the p

There are few certainties around which we can compass our brief lives, but this much I do know: the sky is blue, reality TV has little to do with reality and David Blunkett is a bastard. Every time he starts to make a policy announcement, you know things are about to get worse. He opens his mouth and you wonder if trial by jury is about to be replaced by an assessment of guilt involving warts, birthmarks and the possession of cats. For anyone who's left of Michael Howard, the sight of Blunkett's face at the Despatch Box is about as welcome as Robin Cook at a bukkake party.

Blunkett relishes his role as a liberal baiter: he sees those who oppose him as middle-class Hampstead luvvies, and himself as exemplifying working-class values. In truth, Blunkett is new Labour to the core, and nowhere is its pro-business agenda quite so visibly at odds with his working-class image than on the issue of corporate killing.

About 250 people are killed at work each year in the UK (one for every working day). Most of these deaths, as the government itself states, are predictable and preventable, caused by negligent health and safety management.

Yet how many company directors have been convicted of manslaughter? Eight. From the Herald of Free Enterprise through Clapham Junction, Southall, Paddington, Potters Bar and Hatfield to the yearly 250 dead, only eight company directors have ever been convicted of manslaughter.

New Labour acknowledged that the law of corporate manslaughter is inadequate when, in 1997, it made a manifesto pledge to reform it. The inadequacies of the current law and the organisational structures of large companies in effect insulate directors from a charge.

Under the proposed legal change, a charge of corporate killing can be brought against the company if its management has failed to be responsible and that failure has resulted in a fatality. This will make it easier to bring a prosecution and thus, it is hoped, safety will improve.

Although this is broadly seen as a step in the right direction, the new law still falls short for many campaigners. If a company is found guilty of corporate killing, there is no requirement or mechanism to prosecute individual company directors and put them in the dock; the company will merely be fined.

And what will happen if a large company receives a fine for killing? Will there be a concerted effort to improve health and safety? Frankly, it could be fined the year's profits and the board would still receive a pay bonus.

Until company directors actually face jail for deaths at work, health and safety will remain a secondary consideration to profits. True, white-collar criminals won't face as much brutality in prison as those at the lower end of the income scale, but the threat of sharing a cell with Jeffrey Archer should be enough of an deterrent for them.

I don't want to put company directors in jail just because they are company directors with chauffeur-driven cars, fat-cat salaries and a knighthood in the back pocket. (Though, to be honest, that does have a certain attraction.) No, I want company directors in jail for homicide offences because I see no reason why this crime should be treated differently from non-corporate killing. If people are killed while merely trying to earn a living, why let those who could and should have prevented it get away with murder?

In a recent debate on the issue of corporate killing, a grand total of four MPs turned up. Perhaps their minds would be more focused if they faced the same perils at work as the people they represent. If, while sitting in the chamber, MPs faced a literal threat from terminal boredom, or if there were a sudden increase in the number of fatal paper cuts from the day's order papers, then they might appear more concerned.

Over a period of six weeks in April and May this year, 14 people died on construction sites in the UK. If 14 people had died from contaminated rice pudding over six weeks , the press would have gone into meltdown. Front pages would roar for action. Instead, the Guardian ran a front-page article on Blunkett's legal reforms, a rehashed old election pledge with no timetable for change, worth nothing. The 14 dead workers were not mentioned.

When MPs hear Gordon Brown talking about flexible workforces (shorthand for casualised, non-union labour) and a competitive economy (shorthand for cutting costs and with them safety), they might reflect on new Labour's love affair with free trade and the real cost this represents in people's lives.

Until then, unless the law puts company directors in the dock for deaths at work, Labour will have means-tested murder and exempted the rich.

For more information, see www.corporateaccountability.org