As social care practitioners and their managers know all too
well, we live in an increasingly risk-averse society in which
easily made errors of professional judgement can have the harshest
consequences, not just for the client but for the worker too.
Sometimes this has led to excessive caution in care services, a
tendency to play safe so that clients are denied the independence
they might have had because the risks are thought too great.
Surely, though, a level of risk ought to be acceptable if the
service user’s quality of life improves as a result.
The point is that the risk must be managed. It must be clear why
the risk is worth taking and that the cost-benefit analysis works
out in its favour. The flip side is that, where individuals and the
organisations which employ them take risks willy-nilly, they should
be held to account. Which is why, at the extreme end of the
spectrum, the new draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill deserves close
attention. Under the existing law, senior managers are only guilty
if individual gross negligence can be shown. A mere five
prosecutions have ever succeeded; the latest high-profile case to
fail was that against former Railtrack boss Gerald Corbett
following the Hatfield train crash four years ago. Under the much
tougher draft legislation, investigators will look harder at the
working practices of an organisation as set by senior managers.
There are some significant exemptions, however, that are hard to
explain. The public sector, including social care services, is
covered by the bill, but young offender institutions will not be.
Prison service chief Phil Wheatley recently admitted that the
police had considered bringing corporate manslaughter charges after
the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham YOI. The new law
would prevent such a case ever getting off the ground. Yet it is
not at all clear why the negligence and lax organisational
practices which led up to Mubarek’s death should be any less
subject to this legislation than those elsewhere in the public
sector. The government has already refused to guarantee a public
inquiry after every death of a young person in custody, even though
28 have died since 1990. If ever there was a case for tighter
scrutiny, this was it, and prison reform groups are right to be
angry at this omission.
Nothing much will happen to it before the election but, if
Labour gets back into government, the Corporate Manslaughter Bill
should be given a head of steam, minus the exemption.