Directors of hospitals where patients have died from superbug infections because of failures by senior management will be prosecuted under new manslaughter laws, ministers have told NHS chiefs.
The warning follows a number of high-profile investigations into MRSA and other superbug deaths which have failed to lead to any charges.
Under tough new manslaughter laws which came into force in April, corporations face unlimited fines. The Sentencing Guidelines Council will publish rules this year which will make it clear whether an individual can be imprisoned where there has been a wilful failure to pay the fine. Individual directors whose gross negligence has caused death can be jailed under old corporate manslaughter legislation.
Maria Eagle, the Justice minister, told a meeting of more than 100 chairs and non-executive directors of NHS trusts that where managers ignore warnings of health risks, prosecutions may follow. She said: "Putting the offence into context, imagine that a patient has died in a hospital infected by MRSA and the issue of corporate manslaughter has been raised. Could the organisation be prosecuted and convicted? The answer is 'possibly'.
"There would need to be evidence the death was caused by a gross management failure and not by the activities of a junior member of staff who, despite the best efforts of managers, had failed to act upon training. In considering whether senior management played a substantial part in the breach that led to the death, the jury are likely to consider the extent they have heeded warnings about the risk of MRSA infection and preventive measures they put in place to mitigate risk."
In July relatives reacted angrily to a decision not to prosecute over failures at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in Kent, which followed a damning report from the Healthcare Commission in October 2007 about 90 deaths from the Clostridium difficile bug.