Faced with allegations of corruption in five continents, the arms company BAE Systems have agreed with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to pay out £30 million and admit to criminal charges involving “accounting irregularities”. Perhaps BAE chair Dick Olver will appear on TV and say “I’m happy to sell weapons to dictators but I draw the line at sloppy data entry in Microsoft Excel”.
For years, BAE have been denying that they are guilty of anything. Now, in return for a feeble admission and a pay out, the SFO have agreed to drop all their investigations into BAE arms sales – with Tanzania, with South Africa, with the Czech Republic. For £30 million, BAE have bought an exemption from British justice. Given the amount that they rake in from weapons sales every year, this is roughly the equivalent of the Inland Revenue fining someone £100 for submitting a late tax return.
In the US, the situation is slightly better, though not good. BAE is paying out over £250 million and admitting to misleading the Department of Justice over various arms deals, including sales to Saudi Arabia.
But there is a positive point. This time, at least BAE have had to make a (very small) payout and a (ludicrous) admission. Last time, they didn’t even have to do that. In December 2006, when I was on the staff of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Tony Blair pressured the SFO into dropping inquiries into BAE’s deals with Saudi Arabia, the company’s best customer.
The decision outraged people in all walks of life. When CAAT and The Corner House took the matter to the High Court, the judges ruled that the government had behaved illegally. Although the law lords later overturned this judgment, the furore which the decision triggered made it virtually impossible for the government to behave in the same way again. BAE’s reputation sank even lower and more people became aware of the arms industry’s undemocratic influence within government.
Last time, the public backlash took BAE and their allies by surprise. Yet they seem to have learnt nothing. Once again, they are spitting in the face of democracy and treating the public with contempt. I hope people will make clear that they will not tolerate being treated like this. You can sign the statement on CAAT’s website (http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/bae/statement ), write to your MP, send a letter to your local paper, phone radio phone-ins and/or tell others about the issue. A strong level of visible public criticism will further expose BAE’s closeness to government and discourage the SFO from selling any more exemptions from justice.