What companies do...

April 18, 2016 - Mary Milne, Campaigns Manager

You may have seen Traidcraft’s new campaign postcard. If not, here's a picture and you can order as many free copies as you need

We’ve taken as our inspiration a classic suffragette poster that was published over a hundred years ago. That highlighted the contrast between ‘What a Woman may be and yet not have the Vote’ and ‘What a Man may have been & yet not lose the Vote’.

It’s a definitive piece of campaigning history but we hope you agree that the idea works well for us. What we are contrasting is the way individuals and big companies are treated by the law. It may be something you’ve never thought about before but it’s at the heart of what we are calling for in the Justice campaign.

We’re inviting people to send the postcard to Rt Hon Jeremy Wright, the Attorney General, who is the most senior legal advisor to the government. We want him to look at the way companies are legally held to account.

The card highlights some recent cases where people have been threatened with prosecution for what, on the face of it, feel like relatively minor offences.

Now, we’re not commenting on any of these cases – we don’t know the details – and we’re certainly not saying that people shouldn’t get a TV licence! But it seems to us that collectively they show that this country is more than happy to use the law against individuals.

But in contrast big companies seem to be able to get away with quite a lot.

Recent cases involving phone hacking have filled newspaper columns in the last few years. Prosecutions were brought against individuals, but a decision was taken not to prosecute the company.

In their statement on this, the Crown Prosecution Service pointed to one of the reasons they could not take the prosecution forward:

The law on corporate liability in the United Kingdom makes it difficult to prove that a company is criminally liable if it benefits from the criminal activity of an employee, conducted during their employment. The company will only be liable if it can be proved that the individual involved is sufficiently senior, usually close to or at board level, to be the 'controlling mind and will' of the company.

Another high profile recent case is that of alleged rigging of foreign exchange rates in the banking system. Again, prosecutions were brought against individuals but not against any of the banks because it was impossible to establish the specific involvement of people at the very top.

The Director of the Serious Fraud Office commented on this problem: ‘Why should a company which has been complicit in criminality just throw a few people over the side and sail bravely on?’

Both these first examples relate to things which have happened in the UK. But many of today’s big companies are global in their operations, and often it is people in developing countries who suffer most from their actions.

In 2006, people living near Abidjan in the Ivory Coast started experiencing headaches and skin complaints. More than 100,000 people sought medical attention. It turned out that tonnes of toxic waste had been dumped at different sites around the city. Several legal cases followed.

Our friends Amnesty International who have followed the case closely gathered evidence that London-based staff of an international company may have intentionally orchestrated the dumping. Amnesty presented their evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Environment Agency but they declined to prosecute.

Finally, we have already reported the case of the UK-owned gold mine in Tanzania where security staff shot and killed local people who entered the mine site. No criminal prosecution has ever been brought.

In theory, companies can be prosecuted like anyone else. But in practice, gaps in the law means this hardly ever happens.

  • The ‘identification principle’ which means that prosecutors need to prove the involvement of those at the very top. In big complex companies, senior managers can deflect the blame onto more junior staff.
  • Lack of ‘extra-territorial liability’ which means that companies cannot be prosecuted for harm they cause in another country, even if they are profiting from it.

Traidcraft thinks it’s time for the government to look at updating the law to take account of these two issues. That’s why we’re asking the Attorney General to initiate a review.

So please send your postcard off as soon as you can.  You can order them at the Triadcraft shop.