Who pays for the deaths?

Published: Monday, 22 June 2009

In his column, David Hymers, recounts the NbW story that British Waterways is facing a massive fine regarding the death of a diver on the Severn and asks 'Who pays?' If history repeats itself then taxpayers and boaters will.

This is the third death that has resulted in BW being fined, writes Allan Richards.

In December 2004, Mark Wells, 41, and his son Luke,19, were found dead in a submerged tractor in the Kennet & Avon Canal near Pewsey. British Waterways admitted it had breached safety regulations which cost the two men their lives and were fined £100,000 in March 2007. In a statement, the company said:

"BW accepts that it failed on this occasion to conduct its operations in a way to ensure, so far as reasonably practical, the prevention of an accident".

And now the accident in which diver, David Moore, lost his life.

The financial extent to which directors felt themselves responsible for these three deaths can be found in minutes of BW's remuneration committee dated 26th May 2005. The minutes read:

'Re (Robin Evans) referred to his overall assessment of performance against the fundamental hurdles of safety and customer satisfaction and explained that given the disappointing levels of performance he was recommending that Corporate Performance bonus payments for directors should be reduced by 50%. This reduction would result in the award of 8.75% (10% for the Chief Executive) rather than the maximum of 17.5% (20% for Chief Executive)'.

Unfortunately, what proportion this 8.75% was attributable to the loss of three mens lives and what proportion to customer satisfaction the minutes do not reveal.

The minutes go on to record that directors were awarded bonus payments ranging from a low of £16,750 (John Lancaster) to £41,580 (Robin Evans). In the same meeting they were also awarded salary increases of between 3.2% and 16% which would have offset some or all the loss in bonus. Indeed, the chief executive had his 10% bonus loss (due to safety and customer service performance) reversed by a 10% uplift in salary!

Many will feel that the remuneration committee did not properly exercise its duty at the time regarding these three tragic deaths. However, it must be said that, in May 2005, they did not know to what extent British Waterways was responsible—they do now!

In the case of Mark and Luke Wells, they died because a proper risk assessment had not been conducted and a crucial safety bulletin had not been released to staff detailing that machinery should not be operated within 1.3 metres of the canal edge. David Moore lost his life because of the catastrophic failure of a dam which was was 'patently not suitable'.

Will British Waterways directors accept responsibility for these deaths and take the appropriate action?

Perhaps the last word should go to Kim Cary, mother of Luke Wells and former partner of Mark Wells:

"....I was very disappointed and saddened that we received no written words of condolence from British Waterways after the untimely death of Luke and his dad, Mark—just a mention from their solicitor."