MPs 'appalled' by dropped Pike River charges

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 15:54 12/12/2013

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Opposition MPs have condemned the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's decision to drop charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall.

They say a decision in the case should have been decided in court not be left up to some "back-room deal between lawyers" to decide whether someone was guilty or not.

Twelve health and safety charges laid against Whittall were today dropped in Christchurch District Court, where it was also announced there would be a $3.41 million payment to the families of the 29 men who died, and the two survivors.

The Minister of Labour Simon Bridges has refused to comment.

Whittall's lawyer Stacey Shortall said said any suggestion the payment offer from the Pike directors was in return for the charges being dropped was "absolutely wrong".

In court, Judge Jane Farish stressed to media there had been no back-room deal.

But Opposition MPs and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) argue otherwise and criticised the minister's refusal to comment.

Labour Party justice and labour spokesman Andrew Little said Bridges' failure to front was "disappointing".

"Given how big an issue the whole Pike River case has been - one of the biggest industrial accidents we've had in decades and the aftermath is that no one is held to account for it," he said.

"The first thing you'd expect is the Minister of Labour to have an interest in what has happened today, so I think it's hugely disappointing.

"I think the public is entitled to hear more from the minister about how this arrangement has come about and why, if it is the case, the Department of Labour thinks their case is so weak they don't want to go ahead with it."

He said the decision exposed the inadequacies of the law around corporate liability.

"It should be the courts that decide whether a person has broken the law, not some back-room deal between lawyers," Little said.

"It beggars belief that 29 men are lying dead in a coal mine, which the royal commission found was the subject of some of this country's worst health and safety failures, and not a single person has been called to account."

West-Coast Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said the settlement looked like a "stitch-up".

"While Labour is pleased the families will receive their $3.4 million compensation after Mr Whittall and other Pike River directors and officers offered to make a voluntary payment, it was never about the money," he said.

"The families have said they want justice more than money and this tragedy will have no end until justice is seen to be done.

"This looks like a closed-door deal which again denies the grieving families justice and it is understandable they are furious with what looks like a stitch-up."

Green MP Kevin Hague, who lives on the West Coast, said he was "appalled" at the decision to drop charges.
"There was a mountain of evidence that was heard by the commission of inquiry and by the Department of Labour's investigation," Hague said.

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He said there was a "heavy whiff" of a back-room deal having been done.

"I noticed that coincidentally with the news that the charges are being dropped, we also have the announcement of funds that Mr Whittall is now going to pay."

Hague said Whittall had an obligation to pay compensation regardless of whether he was facing charges.

"There is certainly the whiff of something absolutely wrong here - about the idea that justice might be for sale."

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the decision to drop charges against Whittall was "wrong on so many levels".

"The department, in this court case, represents the men killed in that mine," she said.

"They hold sole discretion to press charges and ensure these men get some form of justice - the decision today adds to the failure of this department in their duty to the 29 people killed at Pike."

She said it was "insufficient" to say the charges could not be successfully proven.

"The royal commission of inquiry extensively documents the areas where Mr Whittall, in his CEO role, did not take all practicable steps to keep the men safe, and if it is correct that the charges could not have been proven there must have been errors in the range of charges laid."

- Fairfax Media

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