Naked Politics Blogger
A month ago, a tower block in West London went up in flames. Fire hoses weren’t long enough to reach the top, so Grenfell Tower burned to its shell, accelerated by a highly flammable cladding. Residents had been trying for years to share with management just how lacking fire safety procedures were, but the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) simply did not listen. We have yet to see an accurate death toll.
There’s been a term – corporate manslaughter – thrown around in the aftermath. Labour MP David Lammy called for the charge in a televised interview, and it has popped up on placards in ensuing protests. It could be mistaken for just a punchy phrase, but it’s a legal term with its very own parliamentary act.
As we mourn this tragedy, we must ask what can be done to hold those responsible to account, and how we can make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. Is a charge of corporate manslaughter, whereby companies can be liable for gross breaches of duty of care, appropriate?
The Corporate Manslaughter Act was introduced in 2007, and immediately academics agreed that it fell short: its scope is limited, the range of potential defendants controlled, and the focus ends up falling on individual fault, rather than systemic fault. Criminal law, with its goal of precisely identifying guilt, is difficult to apply to the amorphous entity of a corporation, and the law surrounding this endeavor has largely been regressive, imposing strict conditions for liability and failing to place a burden upon large companies to actively refrain from breaching their duty of care.
Since 2007, there have been 24 convictions for corporate manslaughter, with an unprecedented 2 convictions just this May. These cases mostly involve small- to mid-size contracting or building companies, which are convicted of corporate manslaughter and an accompanying health and safety offense for the on-the-job death of a worker. The companies are fined a large amount and a director is sentenced to a year or so imprisonment.
Figures show that corporate manslaughter cases represent only a tiny number of cases opened by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) each year. What is promising for human rights in this Act is that it allows a police force or government body to be liable. However, in practice, the charges are mostly in the realm of construction.
There are many serious failures in Grenfell. There’s the failure of the Tories: the never-materialized fire safety regulations review in 2010 under MP Gavin Barwell, the 72 Conservative MPs who voted against making dwellings “fit for human habitation,” and the cuts in funding that means there are 7,000 fewer firefighters on the job, longer response times, and a rise in fire-related deaths. And there’s the failure of KCTMO: Blog posts by the Grenfell Action Group warned of the “ineptitude and incompetence of KCTMO…dangerous living conditions…neglect of health and safety legislation” and a “sordid collusion with RBKC Council.” All of these point towards gross negligence.
The problem with criminal prosecution here, as it was with Hillsborough, is that the sheer quantity of tragedy makes it difficult to apportion blame in a legal sense. A charge of corporate manslaughter is appealing because it attacks broadly, and with a sense of moral right. However, public policy is simultaneously at the crux of the issue, and that is specifically exempted from the scope of the Corporate Manslaughter Act.
To address this, the court of public opinion is best: a public inquiry and inquest (the two are not mutually exclusive), and speedily. Time is of the essence, since the CPS makes its prosecution decisions based on the outcome and recommendations of inquiries and inquests. The CPS has the ability to prosecute extensively and forcefully: not only a charge of corporate manslaughter against KCTMO, but also manslaughter charges against individuals – and it should.