Pike River hearing told corporate manslaughter charge needed

Last updated 11:06 03/04/2012
Ross Wilson
CHANGE CALL: Union lawyer Ross Wilson says New Zealand needs tougher laws to protect workers in dangerous jobs.

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A new criminal offence of corporate manslaughter needs to be introduced, the inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster has heard.

Today is the second last day of the royal commission's public hearings into the deaths of 29 men in the November 2010 explosion at the underground coal mine on the West Coast.

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions lawyer Ross Wilson told the inquiry, sitting at the Greymouth District Court, that the United Kingdom had introduced a corporate manslaughter offence in 2006 and New Zealand needed to follow suit.

''Here, here'', some family members called out from the public gallery.

Wilson stressed that did not imply Pike River's guilt.

''However, some of the issues canvassed in the evidence once again raise feeling among the public that the law should be able to fix criminal responsibility on the corporate person itself.''

He said the union wanted a review of the health and safety levy on employers, which had not increased since 1999.

The Labour Department had sited a lack of resourcing as an issue for the mines inspectorate and increasing funding would make workers more safe.

The union also recommended a new Crown entity be established to cover health and safety for high hazard industries.

Commission chairman Justice Graham Panckhurst said evidence previously heard had highlighted it was ''the beginning of the end'' of a specialist mines inspectorate when it was merged into the Labour Department in the 1990s.

Wilson said the narrow scope of the department's high hazards unit on mining and petroleum/geothermal industries should be broadened to include 38 high hazard industries.

The Crown Minerals Act required a fair financial return for the Crown for coal extraction and the Resource Management Act required resource consents to protect the environment.

It was bitterly ironic there was no similar process in the Health and Safety in Employment Act (HSE) to protect workers. he said.

The union believed operators, such as Pike River Coal, should have to prove they have adequate financial capacity and expertise to protect workers' health and safety.

He criticised the lack of codes of practice for mining, which were urgently needed.

Yesterday,  it was revealed none of 20 codes of practice for mining had been approved.

The union's written submission noted: ''The Pike River tragedy and evidence which has been presented to this inquiry have shaken the already low level of confidence in the Department of Labour as the agency responsible for the HSE Act by workers throughout New Zealand.''

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New Zealand Amalgamated Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union lawyer Nigel Hampton, QC, started his submission this morning.

Pike River Coal had ''failed abysmally to protect its workers underground'' and the Labour Department's failures resulted in the catastrophic disaster that lead to the deaths of the 29 men, he said.

Hampton called for check inspectors to be employed in coalmines, which had been recommended in 2008 but never introduced.

''The union regrets that you have been the persons who have suffered as a consequence,'' he said, addressing the victims' family in the public gallery.

He said mine safety had lagged behind for 20 years since mining laws were changed.

- The Press

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