A death to care about

<em>In memoriam, the Queen Mother</em> - MPs can do nothing about the death of a 101-year-old, but t

Despite all the grave faces and dark suits, the recalling of parliament to pay tribute to the Queen's dead mother had all the dignity and relevance of Peter Stringfellow's underwear.

It wasn't just the obsequious grovelling that appeared so nauseous and vacuous. Though when it comes to sucking up to royalty, no one does it quite so eagerly as MPs, whose dribbling, corgi-like eulogies make the Daily Mail look calm by comparison. Nor was it solely that any notion of common sense goes out the window at the merest glimpse of regal mourning black.

Were anyone other than a member of the aristocracy to adopt her lifestyle, they would not be deified for living a "life well lived"; they would be pilloried for being work-shy, drunken gamblers.

Nor was the spectacle defined solely by the frenzy to appear statesman-like on the telly. Had the Queen's dead mother made a Lazarus-like recovery, risen from the dead and stood in the way of MPs charging back to parliament, they would have knocked her to the ground and trampled her back to death in their rush to express the nation's gratitude for her life.

No, the real stench came from the politicians' priorities: to laud one person's life at the expense of ignoring so many. The attempt by Tony Blair and George W Bush, for example, to form the smallest coalition in the world and bomb Iraq (which is already somewhere in the Middle Ages) back to pre-Christian times, was deemed off-limits for discussion. Nor was Ariel Sharon's murderous ethnic cleansing considered as important as bowing and scraping at the memory of yet another royal racist.

As the MPs' trails of slime inched their way forward to knighthoods, I was standing outside parliament with Chris and Anne Jones.

Their son Simon was forced by Labour's New Deal to work at the Euromin docks in Shoreham, West Sussex, in 1998. He was sent to work as a stevedore, in the hull of a ship, without being given any proper health and safety training.

In less than two hours, Simon was dead. His head was crushed and practically severed by a grab crane. He was just 24 years old. It took more than two years of campaigning by the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign to get Euromin into court.

The company was eventually found guilty on two counts of breaching health and safety regulations.

It was not surprising that the company and its general manager, Richard James Martell, were cleared of manslaughter. It is not surprising that, from the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge to the Paddington train crash, not one company director has ended up in jail for the hundreds of lives lost in preventable accidents.

Nor has the law brought much comfort to the families and friends of the more than 300 people killed at work each year, because corporate manslaughter law is virtually useless. If the law of corporate manslaughter were a politician, it would be John Prescott: that is how useless it is. Only six prosecutions have ever been brought under current corporate manslaughter law, three of which were successful.

In September 1997, the Labour government said that it would change the law so that a company could be convicted of "corporate killing", which would be easier to prove.

This proposal was included in the Queen's Speech in 2000. It was central to the government's 2000 white paper "Revitalising Health and Safety", and it was included in new Labour's 2001 election manifesto.

The new law was obviously popular with trade unionists, and so got the support of some of Labour's "big hitters". Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Stephen Byers and John Prescott have all given keen support.

Which, given their principled track record of U-turns and broken pledges, explains why nothing has been done. From privatised prisons to Automatic Train Protection, they have made decisions that would be beyond other spineless creatures.

The most important part of the new law would be the inclusion of "directors' duties". This would require a company to appoint a specific director at board level who would take responsibility for health and safety, and report to the board.

If the directors failed to take appropriate steps to prevent fatalities or serious injury, they would be liable to go to jail.

Most company directors accept that the law will change, and they are resigned to a law of corporate killing. "Directors' duties", on the other hand, is something many do not want to see introduced.

I can understand that many company directors would not wish to go to prison - not least because of the prospect of sharing a shower with Jeffrey Archer. But if they really want to be sure of avoiding jail, they should think about trying to comply with the new law, rather than obstructing it from coming into force.

Unfortunately, it seems the company directors are winning this fight. On the increasingly rare occasions when the government does mention changing the law, "directors' duties" seems strangely to have disappeared.

The law, we are told, will change "when parliamentary time allows". As Anne Jones said: "Not one thing they say in parliament will prevent the death of any 101-year-old ladies, but they can prevent the suffering of thousands of people each year, and the deaths of hundreds of people cut off in the prime of their working lives, by introducing corporate killing."

Four and a half years after new Labour's first pledge, the wait goes on.

This article first appeared in the 15 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Who does he think he is?