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LEGIONNAIRES' DISEASE TRIAL: FULL REACTION

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The council architect at the centre of accusations of causing an outbreak of legionnaires' disease has spoken about...
The council architect at the centre of accusations of causing an outbreak of legionnaires' disease has spoken about being found not guilty of seven charges of manslaughter.

By Jo-anne Halpin

JUDGE'S REACTION

The judge would have fined Barrow BC more than£1m if it had been a commercial organisation.

Mr Justice Stanley Burnton told the council he would have liked to impose a far greater fine if taxpayers did not have to foot the bill.

The council was fined£125,000 for its part in Britain's worst outbreak of legionnaires' disease.

He said he was aware that Barrow is 'one of the most deprived communities in the country' and the people who would suffer would be those in need of council services.

Addressing defendant Gillian Beckingham, head of the design services group at the council, he said: 'Your failings were repeated and serious, which led to multiple deaths and very serious suffering.

'If you were a lady of wealth I should not hesitate but to impose a greater penalty than I propose to do.'

She was fined£15,000 after failing to ensure the air conditioning unit at Forum 28 was properly maintained.

But the judge said she wasn't the only one who failed and heavily criticised Barrow BC.

He said: 'If Barrow had been a commercial organisation with a multi-million pound turnover I should not have hesitated to impose a fine exceeding£1m.

'That's how serious the court views this.'

He said her failings should be viewed in the context of Barrow BC's general disregard to health and safety.

He also said he found it 'regrettable' that Beckingham did not admit her failings, even if that meant facing other charges.

In imposing the fines Mr Justice Burnton said the powers of the court were limited to a financial penalty.

'There is no perfect punishment as far as Barrow is concerned,' he said.

He was conscious that any hefty fine imposed would have to be met either by the council taxpayer, or through a reduction in the services the council provides.

Barrow BC became the first public body to be charged with a corporate manslaughter offence after the outbreak, but was cleared at the first trial last year.

The judge's decision to find the council not guilty emphasised how difficult it is to successfully prosecute a corporation for manslaughter for health and safety breaches.

The current law does not allow corporations to be tried for corporate manslaughter unless a person high enough in the managerial chain can be identified as the perpetrator of the transgression.

This law is currently under review and if the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill does become law there will inevitably be more prosecutions and large fines.

The only people worthy of praise throughout the disaster are the medical staff who emerged 'the only heroes of this outbreak', said Mr Justice Burnton.

'We pay a public tribute to their skill and dedication,' he said.

BECKINGHAM'S REACTION

There were tears in the courtroom yesterday, both from the defendant and from the families of the seven people who contracted legionnaires' disease, as the jury returned its verdict.

In a rare show of emotion, Gillian Beckingham, 48, from Grange, silently wiped away her tears as she sat in the dock, which was briefly locked yesterday for the first time throughout the trial.

Behind her, family members sobbed and comforted each other as the not guilty manslaughter verdicts were announced.

Throughout the trial the prosecution has maintained the fatal outbreak of legionnaires' disease came as a direct result of Beckingham's failure to ensure Forum 28's air conditioning unit was properly maintained.

The mother of one told the court her job as senior architect mainly concerned the design of housing schemes and that she had received no health and safety training.

She was convicted of one charge of breaching health and safety law by a majority of 11 to one.

Given her annual income of£30,000, the judge, Mr Justice Stanley Burnton said: 'It does not leave room for a substantial penalty that might otherwise be appropriate.'

Beckingham, who has appeared confident throughout the seven-week trial, seemed more withdrawn yesterday but relieved the trial was finally over.

She issued a statement, read out by her solicitor Kathryn Gilbertson, which said: 'This has been a four-year ordeal for Ms Beckingham which is finally at an end.

'She has always maintained her innocence to the very serious allegations of manslaughter which have hung over her head, through the course of two trials, and which have placed her and her family under the most enormous strain.

'Whilst she has been convicted in relation to one count on the indictment, it needs to be remembered that this allegation was very much less serious than the main thrust of the prosecution case.

'It is to be regretted that neither her employer nor her union felt able to offer her financial support and assistance with the preparation of her defence at trial during this time.

'Perhaps other employees ought to consider their position very carefully as to whether their employer or union would leave them alone and adrift in circumstances where they face serious criminal charges arising from their workplace responsibilities.'

POLICE RESPONSE

The senior investigating officer in the Legionnaires' Disease trial says the way the relatives of the victims and members of the public have reacted following the outbreak speaks volumes about the Barrovian spirit.

Detective inspector Geoff Huddleston said he has great empathy with the next of kin and everybody affected by the outbreak, and is pleased council taxpayers have not been punished through the fines imposed.

Mr Huddleston said: 'I've met many people who lost people or who are suffering still.

'This has far reaching consequences and it will continue to do so.

'The disease and suffering I've witnessed that they've been through is one that should not have happened.

'They've had the full support of everybody, the police and health staff, but it doesn't bring back their loved ones and it doesn't ease their suffering.'

Reacting to the verdict, Mr Huddleston said: 'With any verdict from court you've got to respect the decision of the jury, whether that's guilty or not guilty, and that's a binding decision and the jury make their own minds up and you've got to respect that.

'The judge couldn't impose a custodial sentence so he had to impose a financial penalty.

'It was a very difficult decision for him.

'You can't put a premium on one human life, never mind several, as well as the suffering to the others.

'So it was never going to represent compensation, but a punishment for the overriding public interest needed to be imposed.

'The judge took into consideration the level of deprivation in Barrow, which I'm constantly aware of, and the last thing I wanted was the ratepayer to be punished for the failings of its local authority.

'I'm pleased the financial burden hasn't fallen on the tax payer.'

Explaining why the council's chief executive Tom Campbell did not appear in the dock during the retrial, DI Huddleston said: 'Last time, of course, the borough council was indicted of manslaughter and health and safety charges.

'You can't imprison a borough council.

'When we brought the summons we wrote to the council and said who do you want as the appointed person to accept the charges and to act as a representative at court.

'Tom Campbell nominated himself and attended the police station as the representative of the borough council.

'This time only Gillian Beckingham was on trial.

'The borough council had pleaded guilty and there was no other legal requirement for him to be in court.'

FAMILIES' REACTION

The council chief at the centre of the deadly legionnaires' disease outbreak should resign, say distraught relatives of the seven victims.

The Evening Mail today champions their calls for chief executive Tom Campbell's resignation after Barrow BC was fined£125,000 for breaching health and safety laws prior to the outbreak which killed seven people and infected 172 in the sum mer of 2002.

Council architect Gillian Beckingham, 48, from Grange, was fined £15,000 for her role in the disaster.

She was cleared of the seven manslaughter charges after a seven- week retrial at Preston Crown Court.

The prosecution claimed Beckingham's negligence caused the seven deaths * deaths the court heard, which were unnecessary and avoidable.

The jury, however, disagreed finding her not guilty of the manslaughter charges.

Barrow Borough Council pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act at an earlier trial.

Throughout the trial the prosecution main tained that the fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease came as a direct result of Beckingham's failure to ensure the air conditioning unit at For um 28 was properly main tained.

In July and August 2002 it sprayed deadly bacteria into the air causing 179 people to contract the disease.

Beckingham told the court she had never received any health and safety training from her employer, Barrow Bor ough Council.

However it was the council's fine that most aggrieved the relatives yesterday.

Barrow Council, which admitted breaching the health and safety laws at an earlier hearing, came in for stern criticism from the judge Mr Justice Stanley Burnton who said that its failings were 'grave in the extreme'.

Andrew Macaulay, whose granddad Richard died four years ago to morrow, said:

'I would just like to say, on behalf of all the families, how disgusted we are with the decision today.

'The failings of Barrow Borough Council were monumental to say the least.

'We feel, as a group of people, it is time for Barrow Borough Council to take on senior members of the council who did not take action.

'All the warning signs were there and they re fused to do anything about the problem.

'It's been a long time getting to this point and unfortunately we only got half the result we had hoped for but it's important for Barrow Council now and its elected members to take action on senior members of the council who did not take action.'

Bill Merewood, 64, whose wife Christine died in the outbreak, called for the elected members of Barrow Borough Council to act.

He said they should publish the results of any internal enquiries and that council staff found to be negligent in any part of their duties should be named and reprimanded.

'I would be interested to see what the elected councillors are propos ing to demand from the chief executive,' he said.

'I'm surprised that four years later, after so many deaths and so many people suffered illnesses, that he hasn't resigned already.

'I can only reiterate that we are very disappointed Barrow Borough Council have not been found guilty of man slaughter.

'They have not got the stigma of manslaughter against them which they deserve.

'We're very disappointed with the result that Gillian Beckingham hasn't got manslaughter.

'The fine seems really insignificant, however I'm told it's pretty general in these cases.

'However we just hope that the elected council lors, now that the case is closed, that they can take ac tion on all those mem bers including the chief executive, who were very negligent in their duties in causing this outbreak.

'We're very sad for that and wish that they take every effort to sack, reprimand, whatever, the very many people who were negligent.

'We're very surprised Tom Campbell is still the chief executive of Barrow.'

Sandra Harris, who lost her mother Harriet Low in the outbreak, said: 'I don't think a fine's good enough.

'I think the whole thing has been a farce.'

Mr Campbell countered their calls for his resignation by announcing outside Preston Crown Court: 'If I had any reason to resign I would have resigned four years ago.'

The families have been waiting four years for an official apology and today they received one.

Outside Preston Crown Court following the verdict Mr Campbell said:

'Firstly, on behalf of the council, I wish to offer our sympathies and sincere apologies to everyone affected by the Legionnaires' outbreak.

'We accept the judgement unreservedly and will consider its implications with its legal advisor and issue a fuller statement in due course.

'Gillian Beckingham has been through a long and arduous proceeding and will be given time to recover before she is formally contacted by the council.

'We anticipate the council we meet the fines and costs from its reserve funds.'

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