Grenfell: unfolding dimensions of harm

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University


Exactly six months ago, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. Grenfell was and is many things: a tragedy, an outrage, a testimony to the violence of austerity, the biggest fire in Britain for generations, and perhaps a crime of corporate manslaughter. But it is also the site of a whole series of harms, generated both by the fire and its aftermath – albeit some are much more immediately apparent than others.

Physical Harms

The most manifest harms associated with the fire are, of course, the immediate deaths which it caused – some 71, so it is officially claimed, although intense controversy about the actual numbers has raged. Moreover, a week after the fire, the clinical director of the major trauma centre at King’s College Hospital, said that : “Many of the people who have survived will go on to make a good recovery, but how many will have life-changing injuries remains to be seen. It may take weeks and months for some patients to recover physically.”

There are other possible physical health effects of the fire which are perhaps less identifiable. It is not fully known what airborne toxins might have been emitted as a result of the fire, and what long-term effects exposures to these might be felt by residents and those in the living in the vicinity. However, we do know that asbestos was present in the building, while hydrogen cyanide was emitted from the burning insulation.

In addition to causing death, injury and illness, various aspects of the aftermath of the fire are likely to have caused detrimental health effects. First, it is likely that anyone with existing problems of alcohol and/or drug dependency at the time of the fire would have experienced heightened dependency as a result of the trauma of the fire. Second, many illnesses associated with deprivation – the residents of Grenfell were amongst the 10% most deprived in England – such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol  are likely exacerbated by their having to live in hotel or B&B accommodation where control over diet is more difficult to exercise.

Psychological and Emotional Harms

Surviving the fire in Grenfell Tower is most obviously likely to have produced a whole gamut of searing psychological and emotional problems with which victims will live  for years to come. These are likely to be associated with grief at the loss of loved ones, loss, too, of possessions which cannot be replaced, of pets, the recall of the horrors of exiting the building (and of seeing others unable to do so), guilt at survival, as well as horrors and guilt for bystanders and members of the emergency. These have all variously been reported in the aftermath of the fire. None are surprising. None are easily imaginable. None are, one suspects, easily remediable, not least given the parlous state of socially provided mental health services in the UK. In this context, within a month or so of the fire, reports began to circulate about suicide attempts and other manifestations of long term mental health problems, including PTSD, stress, depression and anxiety.


Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)

Financial and Economic Harms

There is no way of knowing what financial costs were, and continue to be, incurred by former residents of the Tower, as well as those living in the vicinity (but they would include extra travel costs to work or school, the costs of eating out, of time off to attend meetings, funerals, medical appointments, and so on).  Moreover these costs are dwarfed by those to local, regional and national economies which are likely to follow the fire. At the local level, the Council faces heavy financial costs following the fire. Costs to central Government will be significant.  The costs of the inquiry itself are likely to run into millions. None of this is to mention the fallout costs for other councils across the country. Numerous councils have tested cladding on high rise tower bloc and other public buildings, notably hospitals, and many are seeking central Government funding for major cladding-replacement programmes.

Thus, these economic effects of Grenfell Tower are not confined to residents, the local community or even the borough – there are ripple effects that are flowing and will continue to flow through communities across the UK. This in turn means that those who are most dependent upon central or local services and facilities – those with the least financial independence – will be hardest hit. The poor, the disabled and the sick, those on various forms of benefits, children in the mainstream school system, and, with no little irony, those in social housing or who lack access to adequate or any accommodation at all, all will be impacted upon. The least hardest-hit will be the most financially independent – the wealthiest.

Cultural and Relational Harms

A further, discrete category of harms I label here as cultural and relational. In terms of cultural harms, it is clear that in their physical relocation from the Tower and area – their  dispersal –  that many of both the routines and the networks which constitute social life – at school, the local shops, around the flats and so on – have been rent asunder.  They have lost their social networks and social supports when they need them most; dispersal does not just mean loss of community, it can mean isolation, desperation or, at best, a state of painful limbo.

More than this, there are relational harms that follow from mis-trust of central and local Government, each of which were absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and for which PM May apologised. In terms of central Government, the uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ (a harmful term in itself) was one such source of anxiety. Another was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. Exactly six months after the fire, four of out five of the households requiring accommodation have not been permanently rehoused. Also, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster”.

In many senses, there has been a contempt displayed towards the residents after the fire – one which entirely reproduced the attitudes displayed towards local residents prior to it. In fact, some recognised this contempt as a cause of the fire per se: as one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.” As the Inquiry opens this week, the demands that the voices of the residents must be heard and must count seem ever more pressing in the light of the unfolding, complexly interacting and layered harms which many of them continue to endure.


Banking Crimes without End

Steve Tombs

The Open University

In the last week of February 2016, two reports were published by the National Audit Office, on the same day. One calculated that ‘Claims management firms take quarter of PPI payouts’, the other warning that ‘Pensions overhaul could trigger raft of mis-selling’. Each was a telling reminder that the financial services sector is criminogenic, a series of markets and firms where crime is part of normal business practice and within which UK banks are “serial offenders”.

In recent years, the financial sector has been the site of an endless litany of ‘big crimes’. These include the fixing of the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate, an inter-bank lending rate), and the price of both gold and silver, to the mis-selling of loans to small businesses, as well as ‘organised and aggressive tax avoidance, tax fraud, money laundering, corruption and feeding misleading stock market research to investors to drum up business and higher fees – just to men­tion a few of their misdeeds’.

If apparently esoteric, and not widely understood, none of these are victimless crimes. For example, the effect of manipulat­ing the LIBOR was to increase the cost of personal, busi­ness and state borrowing across the board – thus placing a premium on everything from personal loans and mort­gages to the costs of building hospitals through the PFI. LIBOR is used to set the value of financial transactions worth an estimated $300 trillion. Fixing its rate affects individuals and families, employees and employers, lenders and borrowers, and central and local Government – that is, everyone.

None of which is yet to mention the biggest crimes of all, emerging during 2007 and culminating in the financial crisis. In the UK, the response to a crisis precipitated by long term and systematic fraud and theft was a rescue of private capital from the public purse, via a series of bailouts – the first tranche of which had amounted to the tune of £850bn before the end of 2009. The financial commitments made by Governments since September 2008 have included purchasing shares in banks to enable re-capitalization, indemnifying the Bank of England against losses incurred in providing liquidity support, underwriting borrowing by banks to strengthen liquidity, and providing insurance cover for assets. The Government “cash outlay” is said to have peaked “at £133 billion, equivalent to more than £2,000 for every person in the UK”. In stark contrast, the costs of the public purse rescuing private capital have been politically re-framed and the UK population has been schooled in the dogma of austerity, the crash having been an effect of public lassitude. So as the public sector is dismantled, capital is set ever-freer – since, with no little irony, it is only private capital which can now rescue the national economy. Regulation is to be avoided. And there have been virtually no regulatory reform nor criminal justice responses to the crisis in the UK of any significance.

the corporate criminal

Cover image from The Corporate Criminal

But away from headline-grabbing events are a series of systematic, mass crimes in which millions are victimised by the all of the major financial services companies. Particularly since the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the Financial Services Act (1986), consumers of financial services firms have been victims of three major waves of offences in the UK. These have involved many of the same (well-known) financial services companies.

First, the gradual withdrawal of the Conservative Government from pension provision, coupled with deregulation of the retail financial services sector in the UK in the latter half of the 1980s, created the conditions for a wave of pensions mis-selling. Companies launched into a hard sell, wrongly advising many clients to cash in existing pensions contributions and transfer them to a new, private scheme about which they received false information. Although breaches had been first uncovered in 1990, a KPMG survey of pensions advice given during 1991-1993 revealed that in “four out of five cases” pensions companies were still giving advice which fell short of the legally required minima. Early in 1998, the-then new regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority, estimated the final costs as around £11billion, almost three times the original estimate, with some 2.4 million victims.

At the end of the 1990s, evidence of widespread mis-selling of endowment mortgages also begun to emerge. Following the end of state house-building and Government encouragement of home ‘ownership’, millions of such policies had been sold through the 1980s and 1990s based on the claim that on maturity of the endowment policy, the sum returned to an investor would pay off the costs of their homes, a claim which often proved to be false. About five million people were victimised. The saga of mortgage fraud is uncannily similar to that of pensions mis-selling. First, the list of companies involved in each is virtually identical. Second, the endowment mortgage scandal was characterised by long term obduracy on the part of companies in the sector initially to admit any wrongdoing, then subsequently to compensate victims.

A virtually identical sequencing of events then unfolded with respect to Personal Payment Protection Insurance (PPPI). PPPI policies were widely marketed and sold at the start of this century, at the height of the credit boom. Financial services firms targeted customers with debts such as mortgages, credit cards or loans insurance against a future inability to meet repayments. But again, these products were often sold when they were unnecessary, or without customers’ knowledge, or indeed were to prove invalid in the event of customers claiming against them. In 2005, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) filed a “super-complaint” relating to PPPI mis-selling to the Office of Fair Trading.  Yet this did not stop companies continuing to engage in a business they knew to be illegal: some 16 million PPPI policies have been sold since 2005. Moreover, the companies embroiled in the mis-selling of PPPI  included many of the, by now, ‘usual suspects’: the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, HSBC, Santander, MBNA, NRAM (Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley), Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks, the Co-op bank, Nationwide, Capital One, Welcome Financial, Principality Building Society – and Tesco.

These will not be the last ‘scandals’ associated with the retail financial services sector and its direct targeting of individual consumers. The latest candidate, almost to take us back to the 1990s, is a further round of pensions mis-selling, predicted by many when Osborne further deregulated the market in April 2015 by allowing the cashing in of pensions, with the National Audit Office warning of widespread exploitation in February this year.

All of these involve more or less the same companies. They affect millions of people in ways that are diffuse. They generate a series of forms of victimisation and social harms.  And such crimes and harms look set to continue to proliferate as the state, certainly in the UK, creates its own condition of impotence, further empowering private capital, not least pre-eminent finance capital, to construct its own rules of engagement.


Volkswagen: a routine case of corporate-state harm production

Steve Tombs, Prof of Criminology, The Open University

On 18th September, the US EPA revealed that Volkswagen (VW) had been using software and practices to cheat emissions-testing on almost 600,000 cars in US – marketed and sold as part of a major ‘clean-car’ initiative. The effect is that these cars will, on the road, emit nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above legal limits. Dubbed the ‘emissions-testing scandal’, or the ‘diesel dupe’ – but, just to be very clear, not crime – the days and weeks since the revelation have seen a classic case study of corporate crime unfold. For students of corporate crime and harm, the processes will be familiar. They involve denial, lies, obfuscation, blame-shifting, and scapegoating, attempts to neutralise and reframe the offence at issue, while evidence is rapidly revealed which undermines virtually all of these tactics – which is not to say that they do not proceed without varying levels of success. State officials are, of course, quick to voice their public condemnation – notwithstanding a history of collusion,  and pro-industry, behind-the-scenes lobbying and a raft of state support and  subsidy, again all often unremarked upon characteristics of much corporate crime and harm production.

Thus, in the immediate wake of the allegations, senior management at VW denied all knowledge of the offence. Indeed, it continued to sell the affected products even after the ‘scandal’ broke in the US – cars with the “defeat devices” remained on sale in the UK, for example. Meanwhile, the scale of the fraud grows greater day-by-day: recalls soon spread to the UK, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada, Germany, Australia and China; by the first week of October, VW stated that 11 million of its diesel cars worldwide have such software and will need to be recalled.

All-to-predictably, VW senior management have denied and continue to deny all knowledge of the offending, rather suspending and investigating four engineers. That said, one slightly unusual aspect of this case was the quick decision of the company’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, to resign on 23rd September – if this is a rare example of the head of an offending corporation taking some personal responsibility, it is worth also noting that, having departed whilst still denying knowledge or complicity, he is reported to be in line for €3.2m severance pay-off as well as a €1m (£740,000) annual pension. However, evidence continues to emerge and circulate about senior level knowledge of a systematic fraud: reports have stated that VW technicians had warned about illegal emissions practices in 2011, and that the parts-supplier, Bosch, had written to VW  in 2007 about the possible illegal use of Bosch-supplied software technology.

Further, and again as is generally the case with such ‘scandals’, evidence continues to emerge that VW is not a rogue company – in fact there have long been claims that the systematic falsification of emission-tests is standard practice across the industry, on the basis of a series of widely-known techniques. Moreover, it is not the first time that VW has engaged in cheating emissions tests: “As far back as 1973, VW had been fitting defeat devices to cars. The company was pursued by the EPA and eventually settled out of court with a fine of $120,000 (£78,500).”

As I write, and no doubt for months and weeks to come, further revelations will emerge. But experience of recent corporate scandals should provide a guide to the future. VW is the second-largest car maker in the world, after Toyota, with almost 600,000 employees. It is part of a global  oligopoly in which five car manufacturers produce over half of the world’s cars. Given its dominance in an oligopolistic market, it is likely that damage to share price and sales will be relatively short-lived, with little or no long-term damage to VW reputation nor sales. That said, what damage there is to the company will not be borne by shareholders – their returns will recover, while limited liability insulates them from any legal or financial responsibilities in any criminal or civil cases. Similarly, most of the senior management will be protected – though one or two bad apples may be given up. By contrast, workers will pay the price as the company gathers funds to recover the costs of the recalls, compensation and any fines – early on, VW warned its workers that recovery from the scandal “won’t be painless”, which foreshadowed an announcement less than four weeks after the ‘scandal’ broke that the company planned to cut investment by €1bn a year. And of course there is the inestimable damage to peoples’ health already inflicted, that will never be causally linked to the 11m VW cars on the world’s roads, emitting life-shortening NOx and diesel particulates, under intentionally-false pretences


Volkswagen and Audi have returned 2009 and 2010 Green Car of the Year awards


And there’s the rub. The consequences of falsified emissions testing, dismissed in 2014 by the company as a “technical” issue, is a form of killing, via industrial-scale exposure to diesel pollution.  Here, we are in the classic corporate-crime realm of estimates, but the numbers are daunting:

Particulates are harmful to the lungs, particularly to those most vulnerable to breathing difficulties, such as people with asthma, the very old and the very young. Nitrogen oxides can generate ozone, which also intensifies breathing difficulties. It is estimated, by the European Environment Agency, that air pollution contributes to at least 400,000 premature deaths a year in the region.”

The WHO has recently called air pollution the “single biggest environmental health risk”, linking “indoor and outdoor air pollution to around 7 million deaths a year – more than double previous estimates”. Of course, not all, even the majority, of these are linked to diesel emissions; but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are, and VW has just added to these deaths whilst marketing its diesel cars as ‘green’ and contributing to environmental protection. Some chutzpah, to be sure, but hardly peculiar in the corporate world of greenwash.

Indignant governments have already, and will continue, to stand up to condemn and call VW to account, rhetorically at least. But therein lies another aspect of the corporate production of crime and harm – it generally proceeds with state collusion, even facilitation. Governments had championed the development of diesel cars, often via subsidies and tax breaks; then-Chancellor Gordon Brown unveiled such support in the UK back in in 2001. In the same spirit, the European Investment Bank has granted loans worth around 4.6bn euros (£3.4bn) to Volkswagen since 1990. More generally, many western Governments had offered significant financial support to car firms as part of their post-2008 drive towards economic recovery; for example, the US and UK provided various forms of assistance to the automobile industry, ‘including subsidies to firms and direct involvement in industry restructuring plans’, as well as varieties of car-scrapping schemes to increase sales. At the same time, albeit below the radar, European Governments – notably France, Germany and the UK – had long lobbied the European Union to retain loopholes in emissions-tests. At the same time, regulators of such tests are often closely tied to industry – in the UK, Vehicle Certification Agency receives the bulk of its funding from the motor vehicle industry, through a fully marketised testing regime. In short, VW is a typical case of corporate harm production. And as a typical case, it is necessary to look beyond the surface level of ritual condemnation, to discern the hand of the state at work to maintain and support the criminality of the ‘free’, autonomous corporation.


The Corporate Criminal



The Corporation as a Fact of Life

The dominant role that corporations play in our lives makes them appear to us as a fact of life. Corporations now profit from providing most of the food that we eat, the clothes we wear, the communications systems we use, the films we watch, the music we listen to and so on. What corporations do well or badly fundamentally affects our chances of a healthy life.  Corporations produce the chemicals that end up in the air we breathe and the water we drink, just as they produce the drugs that claim to keep us healthy and to prolong our lives.  Corporations are central to virtually all systems of child-, social or health-care, criminal justice, education, energy and transport. The presence of corporations in every aspect of our lives is so overbearing that it makes it seem as if this presence is both normal and natural.

At the political level, it has become received wisdom for most governments around the world – whatever their formal political leaning – that the corporation is the single best way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services in the contemporary world.  The corporation is  a motor of efficiency, innovation, economic progress, and ultimately social good. On this dominant view, corporations are essentially benevolent institutions.

Of course, it would be impossible to deny that corporations can, too, generate destructive side-effects.  But if corporations appear to act irresponsibly, or even illegally, it is argued widely in political circles that corporations and their senior managers must be empowered to reform themselves along more socially responsible lines.  Only where ‘corporate social responsibility’ fails should governments step in to regulate (or enforce) the law in order to bring recalcitrant corporations into compliance. The dominant, unifying, principle in contemporary mainstream politics is that it is possible for corporations themselves to balance effectively economic progress with social welfare.

Externalising Machines

None of these claims withstand scrutiny. The problematic consequences of corporate activity are not merelyside effects, marginal aberrations to be remedied  through self-regulation or even law enforcement. The problems caused by corporations – which seriously threaten our lives and our planet – are enduring and necessary elements of corporate activity. Corporations lie, cheat, steal, injure and poison as part of their everyday routine.  If this seems like a wild or even conspiratorial claim, it is not one that we make lightly.  Let us take three brief illustrations, all related to deaths, the tip of the iceberg of corporate harms.

First, deaths associated from air pollution. The UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP), looking at the effects of poor air quality effects at a population level, has estimated that 29,000 deaths every years are ‘brought forward’ by pollution, albeit this is thought to be a significant under-estimate. Other estimates are higher: the UK Parliament all-party Environmental Audit Committee concluded in 2010 that “[a]ir pollution probably causes more deaths than passive smoking, traffic accidents or obesity’, possibly “contributing to as many as 50,000 deaths per year”. Moreover those deaths are not equally distributed across communities, since in what the all-party Environmental Audit Committee calls “pollution hotspots”, some peoples’ lives are being cut short by as much as 9 years.  Although it is virtually impossible to estimate precisely how much pollution is caused by corporate activity, as opposed, notably, to private car or fuel use, there is ample evidence to conclude that that most pollution is produced by commercial activity that corporations profit directly from.

Second, what is most commonly referred to as “food poisoning” is a major source of death and illness in the UK. According to the most recent report from the Chief Scientist, “Our best estimate suggests that there are around a million cases of foodborne illness in the UK each year, resulting in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths”. Even these estimates of food related illness are likely to understate the scale of the problem.  More recently, Food Standards Agency sampling of chickens bought from large UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers between February 2014 and February 2015 found that 73% of chickens tested positive for the presence of campylobacter – that is, three-quarters contained a pathogen which is the major source of hospitalisation from food poisoning in the UK. Again, to be clear, these cases of food poisoning are directly linked to food businesses – mostly to large corporations in the retail sector.

Finally, there is now strong evidence that around 50,000 or so deaths per annum are related to working in Britain.  Most of those deaths are caused by diseases that may take many years of illness before their victims die.   While we know little about the vast majority of these deaths, we know for sure that they are overwhelmingly not the result of accidents, a term implying these were unforeseen, unpreventable, or usually both. Quite the contrary, they mostly are the effects of failures of employers to meet clear obligations in law to protect the health, safety and welfare of workers and members of the public.  Again, the vast majority of people who are killed by working, are killed in the employment of private profit-making corporations.

These three examples provide clear indications that corporations produce harms which kill thousands annually – while they also routinely injure and generate significant levels of ill-health.   Alongside the physical costs of corporate activity are significant economic costs, too – the bulk of which are borne by individuals (as losses of earnings to a family when someone is made ill by industrial activity) or are more widely socialised (for example as a burden on health or welfare services). Yet standard cost-accounting mechanisms reduces the value of death, injury, illness, immiseration and environmental degradation to mere externalities; that is, peripheral side effects of corporate activity, which remain absent from the balance sheets of costs and benefits of private economic activity.  Thus corporations are only generally financially liable for only a proportion of the harmful costs of their activities.  It is this principle that enables corporations to act, using Bakan’s term, as “externalising machines.”

State-Corporate Symbiosis

But if we can estimate the scale of some harms, and if we can link these directly to corporate activity, the extent to which these are crimes is much more difficult to assess. Some of these harms are effectively legalized.  Air pollution, for example, up to certain levels and for certain substances, is legal, notwithstanding the harms produced.  Yet in cases of air pollution where there is clear evidence of illegalities on the part of private corporations, just as with food poisoning or deaths at work, the law is rarely used to punish those responsible.  Corporate offending is effectively decriminalised.

On one hand, this is because regulators, at both national and local levels, are so under-resourced that they cannot do their job, while, in any case, they do not see themselves, nor have the mandate, to act as any kind of ‘police force’ for commerce.  Equally significantly, the law itself provides corporations with a shield from liability for its crimes and harms. Thus: law constructs a formal impunity for corporations and its senior officers and owners; law effectively legalises many corporate harms; and the ways in which the law is effected provides a de facto state of decriminalisation where bodies of law are in fact violated as a result of corporate activities.  Law, then, sits at the crux of the freedom and structural irresponsibility with which the corporation is endowed. These legal structures, created and under-pinned by states, constitute the main reason why corporate power can never be simply separated from state power; corporations are effectively empowered by law to commit crime.

Many social scientists have, over the past forty years with the emergence of both neo-liberalism and ‘globalisation’, erred in assuming that the rise of corporate power necessarily entails a diminution in state power. Typically, trends towards deregulation and privatisation in the developed world are cited as ‘proof’ of this ‘fact’.  And yet, to the extent that many have been persuaded by this zero-sum analysis, it is at least in periods of social and economic crises that the real nature of the relationship between corporations and states is revealed. The bank bailouts that followed the so-called ‘credit crunch’ represented one of those moments of exposure. For here was a moment in which national governments intervened to save ‘private’ banks from the ravage of market forces, an intervention that is disavowed when jobs are threatened by offshoring production, or when meaningful curbs on executive pay are suggested.  In the bank bail-out, the ‘invisible’ hand of the market began to look a little more like the very clearly visible hand of the state.  It was a moment at which the illusion of the formal separation of power between states and corporations was shattered as governments around the globe scrambled to save finance capital.

In the UK alone, the immediate value of the bailout for the banks was £550 billion across 2008 and 2009.  And this burden on all of us imposed by the banking bailouts is by no means limited to those sums initiated in the aftermath of the ‘crash’.  As the New Economics Foundation has noted, ‘too big to fail’ banking subsidies exceeded £30 billion in both 2011 and 2012.  Indeed, corporate subsidies are more common across all sectors of the economy than most of us realize. Numerous sectors such as the care sector, health and pharmaceuticals, private security, the arms industry, educational suppliers and publishers and so on would be tiny by comparison without government contracts and the role of the public sector in stimulating those markets.  The construction industry enjoys remarkably high levels of public subsidy. UK train operators are completely dependent upon government subsidies.  In virtually every area of criminal justice social policy, vast swathes of ‘service’ delivery has been handed over, usually in the name of greater efficiency, to private corporations operating in oligopolistic market sectors. Indeed, virtually all of the ‘private’ economy is subsidized in one way or another – adding up to massive, and increasing, levels of corporate welfare.

For us, then, it is the interdependence between states and corporations – in contrast to the dominant and prevalent claim that these entities exist in relations of antagonistic, external independence – that must be the starting point for understanding the production of corporate crime and harm. More specifically, the corporation is an essential part of the infrastructure of the modern capitalist state, albeit that its place and roles therein are constantly in flux. Rather than viewing power as somehow distributed in a zero-sum fashion between states or corporations, it is more accurate empirically and theoretically to understand the relationships between corporations and states as much more complex and often symbiotic.

Its relationship to the state – or, rather, the capitalist state – is also crucial for understanding that the corporation cannot effectively be held to account through criminal, administrative, regulatory nor company law. It needs to be replaced. Now, this is not to say law can achieve nothing.  Legal reforms can mitigate some of the worst excesses of corporate power.  For example, we would argue that in order to limit corporate welfare, the delivery of a range of services should be nationalised and taken out of the for-profit sector; and the governance of national and local government procurement should be changed to develop effective forms of contract compliance, excluding recidivist companies from tendering to undertake work.  Moreover, via radical reform of company law, the ability of companies to externalise their social costs might be mitigated.  Moreover, workers can be empowered by law to challenge corporate power: for example, firms with legally-protected, effective trade union safety reps and safety committees have half as many recorded injuries as those where these counter-vailing sources of power do not exist. Consumers and local communities might also be so empowered to challenge polluting corportions. And, in the realm of criminal law, we can still identify reforms which might radically undermine the legal protections which corporations currently enjoy – laws which pierce the corporate veil, for example, so that the relationships between the corporate entity and those who own and control it are exposed, and legal liability is not compartmentalised and minimised.

But these reforms are always going to be piecemeal and always precarious – so working for them must not  prevent us thinking more imaginatively about  demands for more lasting and fundamental social change.

Why Corporations must be Abolished

The corporation cannot be effectively reformed: not through corporate social responsibility, not through regulation, not through tinkering with structures, its functions or its functionaries. It is an essentially destructive, irresponsible phenomenon.  It is its fundamentally destructive and anti-social nature that means the goal of corporate opposition must be the abolition of the corporation. Just as Thomas Mathiesen, the Norwegian criminologist, made a powerful case for prison abolitionism through placing the Prison On Trial, our book The Corporate Criminal places the corporation on trial.

In The Corporate Criminal, we challenge both the idea and the reality of the corporation. A starting point is the recognition that, although the corporation appears as a ‘natural’ and ever present entity, it is in fact a relatively short-lived historical construction, one entirely dependent upon state activity, continuously created and recreated through law, politics and ideology. We must imagine and struggle towards a world without the corporation. The corporation is not merely a threat to our lives in the ways that we indicate here, but in the long term, placing the trust of the future of the planet’s climate, or the future of food production or water distribution in the hands of the corporation, as is the case, is, literally, suicidal.  And so, a challenge to the corporation is now more necessary than ever in order to save all human life. In making such a grand claim we do not dismiss more piecemeal reform strategies per se – via law, regulation, enforcement, political challenge – but such efforts need to be placed within and judged against the wider, demanding, yet compelling political goal of meaningfully challenging corporate power through dismantling the corporate form itself.

The Corporate Criminal: Why corporations must be abolished (Routdledge, 2015) by Steve Tombs and David Whyte.

Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at the Open University. He has a long-standing interest in the incidence, nature and regulation of corporate crime. He works closely with the Hazards movement in the UK, and is a Trustee and Board member of Inquest.

David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool where he teaches and does research on the relationship between law, politics and corporate power. He works closely with Corporate Watch and is a member of the executive committee of the Institute of Employment Rights.

Original article published in The Project


Austerity as Bureaucratized and Organized Violence

Vickie Cooper, Lecturer in Criminology

In July 2014, a member of the Disability News Service sent a Freedom of Information Inquiry to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), asking it to reveal mortality statistics on those who have died while in receipt of benefits and/or while serving a benefit sanction. Typically, Ian Duncan Smith, head of the DWP refused, claiming that the DWP does not review such cases. However, after mounting pressure, including an ongoing petition and pressure from within the House of Commons itself, it was subsequently revealed that the DWP carried out 49 – 60 reviews of people who died while claiming benefits. In a separate but recent review by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the government claims that it found “‘no particular case’ in which a ‘benefit sanction alone’ had directly led to the death of a benefit claimant”, but conceded that in 33 of those cases, the procedure could have been improved. This review makes recommendations that the DWP should conduct a system for formal death inquiries where an individual dies ‘whilst in receipt of that benefit’. This system, it is recommended, should be comparable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where death inquiries are made upon public request.

This particular Freedom of Information request is critical for thinking beyond the poverty implications of austerity, as it forces us to think more about the violent and harmful implications. A sharp rise in suicide mortality across those economies most impacted by austerity suggests that these post-crash economies are having particularly violent and harmful affects. Here in the UK, reports of ‘benefits-related suicides’ are being brought to our attention thick and fast. Perhaps the most familiar benefit-related suicide, one that raised much media attention, was the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihul, near Birmingham. Following a thirty-minute assessment, the housing authority concluded that Stephanie Bottrill would have to pay an additional weekly fee for her spare bedroom. In her suicide note, Stephanie Bottrill blamed the government for causing her such stress.

Accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, a death inquest led to various speculations as to why Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide. As such, Stephanie Bottrill’s history of mental health issues were called into question and were used to undermine the political significance of her death – as though the harms of austerity are any less significant or political when they impact upon those with mental health issues. A spokesperson in defence of the council responsible for making Stephanie Bottrill’s assessment claimed that she was in a ‘situation’, living in a house,  ‘that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy’. The coroner passed a verdict that Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide due to ‘stress and anxiety’ and no local authority or government official was reviewed and/or policy implementation revised. But the biggest twist in the tale is that Stephanie Bottrill may have been exempt from paying bedroom tax. According to the pre-1996 exemption rule, any adult or family member living in the property before 1996, are exempt from paying bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill had been living in her accommodation since 1995.


Esther McVey and Chris Hayes during Parliamentary Inquiry into benefit-related suicides. Photo: screengrab, BBC Democracy Live

We know from Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide, that economic crises are often followed by a rapid rise in numbers of suicide mortality. However, the rise in suicide mortality is not as a result of encroaching poverty levels, but the extent to which economic crises disturb the ‘collective order’. And nothing quite disturbs a sense of order like citizens being evicted from their homes and further displaced from those communities they once inhabited. The psychological and physical responses to welfare policies in this post-crash period is not the fact that individuals and communities now find themselves destitute and on the margins, but the means by which it is done and the disorder that ensues.

While increasing suicide mortality is one way for us to think about austerity as harmful and violent, perhaps it is not indicative enough of the violent and harmful impacts of austerity. Durkheim reminds us that:

“those who kill themselves through automobile accidents are almost never recorded as suicides; those who sustain serious injuries during an attempt to commit suicide and die weeks or months later of these injuries or of inter-current infections are never registered as suicides; a great many genuine suicides are concealed by families; and suicidal attempts, no matter how serious, never find their way into the tables of vital statistics.”

The problem with relating suicide mortality with social injury caused by economic crises, is that many of the harmful and violent outcomes are hidden and multifarious: the suicides that are recorded are only the tip of the iceberg.

Austerity as Organized Violence

Another way to think about the harm and violence of austerity is to pay more attention to those bureaucracies and organizations challenged with the task of enforcing it. Since 2010, the welfare reforms have encompassed a whole range of assessments for determining new thresholds of eligibility, with the aim of removing people from their benefits entitlement. Benefit claimants have been forced to make the transition from old benefit entitlements, to new ones; with new rules, new measures of entitlement, new guidance frameworks and more strict sanctions for those claimants who fail to adhere to these new rules. In this transition, claimants have had to undergo new benefits assessments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Spare-room Subsidy (bedroom tax) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

These new thresholds of entitlement and eligibility, and the volume of assessments they entail, should not be underestimated as we think about how austerity is violently enforced through bureaucracies and organizations. Putting these new measures of eligibility in motion, the government and local authorities have recruited a number of private companies to administer the new rules of eligibility. Companies such as Experian, A4e, ATOS, Maximus and Capita have all been recruited to assess and process millions of benefit claimants. Where authorities claim that these companies ‘improve the quality’ of their assessment process, individuals assessed by them would most likely claim the opposite. A government inquiry into the standard of assessments made by the company Atos, revealed that 41 per cent of face-to-face assessments ‘did not meet the required standards’. When A4e set unattainable targets to reduce the number of people claiming employment seeker’s allowance, staff members resorted to ‘numerous offences of fraud’ in order to remove people from their benefit entitlement. Such offences involved ‘tricking’ claimants into carrying out job-search activities that, as a result of learning difficulties, they could not complete and were subsequently sanctioned. Although privatisation plays a significant part in the violent enforcement of austerity, local authorities have also been reprimanded for conducting benefit assessments unlawfully.

So how we can we think of these bureaucratic practices as organized violence? Mainstream policy analyses frequently dismiss the political significance of administrators of eligibility and entitlement as technical systems that separate ‘the deserved’ poor from ‘the undeserved’. But history tells us a more compelling story about the role of bureaucracy and organizations for enforcing and legitimating a violent political order.

Systems of classification and eligibility have a long history in shaping society and political relations. At worst, repressive regimes have relied upon bureaucracies to enforce formal eligibility rules to disqualify and deny citizens access to fundamental rights  – often relegating them to ‘stateless’ and ‘non-human’ identities. The Apartheid regime in South Africa began with the classification and reclassification of race that enabled the state to organize the violent expulsion of certain racial and ethnic groups and deny citizens their most basic rights. Similarly, Hannah Arendt observed that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not atypical monsters, but mundane bureaucrats, as demonstrated in her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trials.

These violent histories raise two key points for thinking about austerity as bureaucratized and organized violence. First, they reveal the manner in which violent political orders are legitimated at the bureaucratic level and second, how bureaucracies are necessary for reconfiguring socio-economic relations through systems of ‘entitlement’. These relations often include: property relations, race relations, class relations, family relations, gender relations, geographical relations and state-citizen relations.

And austerity serves as something of a peculiar model in this process. Austerity and the bureaucratic means by which it comes to be enforced is about reconfiguring social relations. Here, gender-relations and new benefit rules are a good case in point. With Universal Credit (which amalgamates six benefit and tax credits) claims are made on households, not individuals. The Women’s Budget Group argues that the design of Universal Credit – with its system of joint assessment, joint ownership and joint income – reshapes gender relations as it reinforces the ‘single breadwinner model’, a model that has disadvantaged women throughout history. In reshaping gender relations, Universal Credit is positioning women in harmful positions as it allows for abusive male partners to centralise and control household finance. Financial abuse is a common source of power and violence that is exercised over women and Universal Credit simply gives the abuser more money and more opportunity to control.  This comes on top of overwhelming evidence from Women’s Aid showing that the provision of domestic violence specialist services and hostel accommodation available for women, is diminishing directly as a result of local authority cuts.

Clearly, the government is failing in its duty to promote gender equality and protect women from harm and violence.

In this post-crash period, the war on the poor has resulted in various social injuries including debt, child poverty, evictions, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. Hell-bent on the idea that removing people from their basic entitlements can restore economic order, the government is throwing people onto unknown margins in order reduce the budget deficit.  But justifying this level of harmful and violent economic policy – as a means to an end, to reduce deficit budget – does not wash. Austerity is not a means to an end, but a long-term strategy by which governments are violently and legitimately disrupting the rights of citizens. As Hannah Arendt put it, violence is rarely a means to an end, but a power structure and political order that ‘outlasts all aims’.

It is worth paying closer attention to the rising levels of psychological and physical harms affecting young people as the next round of welfare reforms will disproportionately affect young people. With the new welfare reform bill, the Conservative government looks set on excluding young people between 18-21 years old from housing benefit entitlement (who are also claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance). Despite homeless charities ferociously ringing alarm bells showing how these policies will result in homelessness, the government wants young people to ‘earn or learn’. And bureaucracies will play a key role in enforcing these new rules as it begins to assess and remove approximately 20,000 young people from this benefit entitlement.

This blog first appeared at Open Democracy on 10 August 2015, at


Tenants in danger: the rise of eviction watches

Vickie Cooper, The Open University

Kirsteen Paton, University of Leeds

Not since 1915 has private housing tenure been so dominant. The gradual rescinding of public housing over the 20th century sees us exposed to the raw edge of the market today. We are living in the darkest time of housing commodification as this project shifts from one of aspiration to coercion. With an unprecedented growth in evictions across the UK, tenants are increasingly being removed from their properties to release the value of the land.

This rise of evictions has resulted in a wave of resistance. Protection here, rather than statutory, comes in the form of “eviction watches” organised by community campaign groups and volunteers. Local campaign groups are mobilising to protect tenants facing eviction from bailiffs, gathering outside their homes to ward off any who might try. In this piece we are, firstly, casting light upon the prevalence of eviction watches today as housing privatisation and austerity take full grip. In so doing we are, secondly, raising critical questions about the state’s role and responsibility in evictions and the disparities in power between state-sponsored bailiffs and anti-eviction campaign groups who are providing short-term protection and intervention for tenants.

Eviction watches: then and now

100 years apart, the Rent Strike and New Era estate campaigns have discomfiting echoes and revealing differences which expose the degradation of housing regulation and increased privatisation over the course of the 20th century.

In 1915, housing, provided in a deregulated market, was a source of conflict between the state and tenants. Profiteering private landlords increased working-class household rents in the hope of capitalising on the influx of munitions workers as part of the war effort. With tenants unable to pay these rising rents, eviction notices were filed by private landlords, enforced by the Sheriff Officer with police back-up. In response, thousands of tenants mobilised and went on rent strike. The victory of these strikes resulted in the Rent Restrictions Act 1915, which froze rents at pre-war levels and paved the way for the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919 and later, council housing development which long since protected tenants from the vagaries of the market.

In current recessionary times, conflict between the state and tenants has been reignited and the might of the private rented sector, reinstated. In 2014, New Era housing tenants in London mobilised and campaigned against a large transnational corporate takeover by an $11bn asset management firm, Westbrook Partners. When New Era tenants received a letter from Westbrook’s solicitors informing them that their current stable rents would be raised to “market rates”, members of the community campaigned hard and fast to stop the takeover – and won. A key difference between the rent strikers’ and New Era’s victory is that the latter’s win relates only to the estate. As such, New Era are facing new challenges as the current owners of the estate – Dolphin Square Foundation – plan to means-test new tenants in order to determine rents.

What is also different is that, unlike the housing market of 1915, landlords are transnational; London is a goldmine for global property speculators and homeownership. Despite the role the housing boom played in the financial crash in 2008, property is a highly lucrative asset in austerity Britain. Private landlords, not rent strikers, are today’s unsung housing heroes, as claimed by former housing minister Grant Schapps. Bailiffs are also having a renaissance, gathering to celebrate their success at the £4,000 a head British Credit Awards in London recently. How is business? With 42,000 repossessions a day and 115 evictions a day, business is good, very good.

We are exposed to the coercive side of housing commodification and the market as authorities across the UK, with an absence of any statutory protection against evictions. Rarely do evictions take place without police presence, including riot police, serving to criminalise tenants and anti-eviction protestors. And increasingly coercive tactics of violence and intimidation are being deployed against those resisting and protecting tenants against eviction. The power mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered, resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. This, we argue, is an act of state violence on tenants and mortgaged homeowners as police forces and private security firms are utilised to facilitate evictions, shut down protesters and aid private developers and landlords.

As such, we highlight the rise of eviction watches across the UK, drawing from the frontline work of welfare campaign groups, ReClaim in Liverpool and E15 Focus Mothers, London. Like the function of food banks, eviction watches are local, voluntary support, providing a stopgap and temporary buffer for those facing a point of crisis.

ReClaims welfare advice poster

Poster at ReClaim’s welfare advice clinic in Liverpool.

They have become a critical aspect of welfare support group’s activities given the unprecedented increase in arrears. What follows is the authors’ account and observations of these two front-line campaign groups, documenting some of their experiences of working with tenants facing eviction. This sheds light on the state’s role in evictions and the disparity in power between the state-sponsored bailiffs and the anti-evictions groups.

Tenants in Danger: Mobilising Housing Action

We visited ReClaim’s Friday afternoon welfare rights clinic, 12 days before Christmas, in 2014. A couple come in for advice on their mortgage arrears. Their house is to be repossessed in 5 days time. They are £70,000 in debt and unless they can pay £17,000 upfront they will be evicted.

Juliet, one of the welfare rights volunteers, considers their options by process of elimination. She asks them why they couldn’t make the initial arrears repayment agreed by the bank and whether they can raise £17,000. The main breadwinner is a bricklayer, who is self-employed but struggles to get by being paid “by the brick”. His partner works part-time as a dinner lady on a zero hours contract. Faced with degraded and insecure job quality, repossessions disproportionately affect working-class mortgage borrowers.

Having exhausted their options with the bank’s repayment scheme, Juliet gives them two more options: one is to go down the homelessness route and live temporarily with friends and family until they find something else. The couple look disheartened; they want to be at home for Christmas. There is no statutory duty preventing repossessions which they can call upon. Although various “support for mortgage” schemes exist, people are often in denial about losing their home that many do not seek help until crisis point. The significance of this is echoed by Juliet who claims that, “quite often tenants don’t know why they’re facing eviction; they’re not informed by anybody, least of all by the social landlords. And it’s hard for anyone to come here and say ‘can you help me?’ because they’re ashamed of being of in debt and in needing help and support.”

Juliet offers the second option: “…we call round and get some ‘bodies’ in front of your house, stand in front of your house and get them off your backs until after Christmas…?” The couple look at one another tentatively. The woman puts her hand over her mouth in disbelief that ReClaim could help stall their eviction. At this point for the family, Christmas is plenty. And yet the local authorities failed to negotiate such a reprieve with the debt collectors. As promised, the advisors got to work, summoning networks, liaising across social media and mobilising a strong crowd of 40 to 60 volunteers to hold a vigil outside the couple’s home. This peaceful anti-eviction support resulted in the bailiffs, with police, being turned away. The couple were subsequently informed that the eviction notice served for that day, had been dismissed and the family had that much needed reprieve until January.

Juliet reports that they are busier than ever, due to rent arrear issues and changes in benefits. As a campaigning welfare rights collective and eviction watches form one of their many activities and caseloads are creaking. Of 50 “bedroom tax” appeals they have taken on, they have won 36 – a 72% success rate.  ReClaim are by no means alone in these activities. According to another campaigner in London, Jasmine Stone, from Focus E15 Mothers, mobilising anti-eviction support now plays a vital role in their day-to-day campaign activities.  She claims that, “we’ve never been so busy, we go to housing meetings with families who are being evicted and rally round at their houses to prevent them from being evicted – we just stand with our hands tied together so they can’t get through.”

In 2008, when the financial crisis unfolded, evictions amongst mortgage repossessions peaked at 142,741 in England and Wales. This followed an era of housing aspiration underpinned by Right to Buy and the availability of 100% mortgages. We are seeing similar peaks in evictions in the rented housing sector: 170,451 evictions (including private and social housing) in England and Wales in 2013, a 26% increase since 2010. In the 3rd quarter of 2014 (July-September), there were 11,100 landlord repossessions by county court bailiffs. According to the Ministry of Justice this is the highest quarterly figure since records began in 2000.

Vickie Cooper image 02

The labour power and might mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered and the resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. While previously, anti-social behaviour was the leading cause of eviction notices this has been superseded by rent arrears. Rather than working on behalf of their tenants who fall into arrears, statistics show that housing associations and local authorities – supported by housing legal experts – have resigned themselves to a very anti-social housing policy, regularly dispensing “notices seeking possession” to tenants. In 2012-2013, local authorities in England and Wales evicted 6,140 households, 81% of which were due to arrears. In 2013-2014, social landlords issued 239,381 notices seeking possession for rent arrears alone – a 22% increase from previous annual figures.

Authorities across the UK are deploying increasingly violent and intimidating tactics against those resisting eviction. In a bid to evict sitting tenants from Chartridge House on Aylesbury estate, Southwark Council called in the riot police to derail the anti-eviction protest, resulting in the arrest of six people. Jasmine Stone confirmed that authorities are escalating levels of violence and “getting really intimidating with us and there are kids present”. She recalls when campaign members attended a public meeting at the local council offices to support a woman, with child, who was scheduled to be rehoused in Liverpool (from London). Jasmine claims that “security were really aggressive, they punched one of the mums [a campaigner] in the face…”

And what is to become of the evicted? As the above suggests with moves from London to Liverpool, it’s a displacement merry go-round. Plus, those evicted as a result of arrears are, according to homeless and housing law, intentionally homeless and therefore disqualified from meaningful housing support. Those lucky enough to pass the homelessness test are no longer given priority access to social housing: since the Localism Act 2011 they are offloaded to the private rented sector. At best, this smacks not only of a withdrawal of state level responsibility to rehouse tenants in affordable housing, but a redistribution of wealth from the state to private landlords. At worst, local authorities breach the law and refuse to follow their legal duty in accordance with the Housing Act 1996.

Southwark Council – who recently deployed the riot police to evict tenants from Aylsebury estate and, in a separate event, were found guilty of “civil conspiracy” after unlawfully evicting a tenant, leaving them homeless – have been ordered by the High Court “to stop breaking the law by turning away homeless people who apply for housing in the borough”. But let’s be clear, this foul play is not uncommon. Homeless and housing practitioners have, for years, avoided the local authority route for rehousing homeless clients due to various unlawful tactics. What is uncommon, but wholly welcomed, is that Southwark Council has been named and shamed.

From Eviction Watches to National Action

In 2015, we should expect to see a rise in tenant evictions inflicted by banks, private registered landlords and the state and more grim effects of the onslaught of welfare reforms. As such the work of welfare campaigners and advocates and their eviction watch activities become an essential local resource. Public spending cuts have negatively impacted on local support services at the same time when necessity and demand for them increases. Similar to the discussions of food banks, eviction watches should not be normalised nor be separated out as a discreet strand of inequality. The main drivers of housing inequality are welfare cuts, coupled with short term and zero hour jobs (increasing at a faster rate than permanent positions in the UK) and state regulation that promotes property development.

Today, we would do well to invoke the spirit of 1915, when rent-striking tenants recognised their exploitation and acted collectively across cities to lobby for housing equality. 100 years later we are at a similar frontier where communities and cities also recognise the erosion of housing rights. Eviction watches are not enough to assuage the harms of this deregulated housing market but these campaigns do mark the beginning, we hope, of a collective housing response of similar historical and radical significance.

This article first appeared on 17 April 2015 at Open Democracy,


Corporate Killing With Impunity

Steve Tombs

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

This week saw sentence passed following the eleventh conviction under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, 2007 (CMCHAct). Pyranha Mouldings, a small kayak manufacturer, was fined £200,000 following the death of a worker in 2010. Allan Catterrall had been trapped and died in an industrial oven.

The Act, rolled out across the UK seven years ago to improve accountability for corporate killing, has so far failed dismally to undermine what is essentially corporate impunity for deaths at work. Part of this failure has its roots in the Act itself, namely the exemption guaranteed to senior managers and directors in section 18, titled “No Individual Liability”. Indeed, it was only after this exemption was inserted by the Government during the legislative process that widespread business opposition to the proposed law became muted.

In England and Wales and Northern Ireland, the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter still exists as a mechanism to hold individuals to account for their part in corporate killing, while in Scotland there is an equivalent common law offence of culpable homicide. However, there is some evidence that one effect of the CMCHAct is that in England and Wales (there have so far been no convictions in Scotland), individual liability has been sacrificed for pursuing corporate liability. In three of the first four convictions (see Table 1), decisions to proceed with corporate manslaughter prosecutions were accompanied by decisions not to proceed with charges against individual directors for the offence of gross negligence manslaughter.

Thus, some legal commentators have already referred to a nascent trend, with the threat of charges against individual directors being the ‘bait’ for a corporate manslaughter charge: ‘an offer from… the company to plead guilty in exchange for the prosecution dropping charges against individuals might look like an attractive one to a director facing a risk of prison’.

Moreover, further scrutiny of these convictions reveals two additional, key failings of the law.

First, all of the companies successfully prosecuted thus far have been small or medium sized enterprises which could have been successfully prosecuted under the common law of manslaughter (see Table 1). Thus, the large, complexly owned companies for which the new law was ostensibly designed, have so far evaded its reach. Perhaps relatedly, all of the convictions secured to date relate to offences involving a single fatality – while a key intention behind the law was to encompass multiple fatality incidents.

Second, the level of fines passed at sentencing has been relatively low. Following the passage of the CMCHAct, the Sentencing Guidelines Council had issued ‘definitive’ guidance on determining appropriate levels of penalties following successful prosecution under the Act. These guidelines marked ‘a very considerable backstep’ from a [2007] draft guideline, which had proposed that fines should be calculated within a percentage range of company turnover. The ‘definitive’ guidelines removed any link with turnover, with the key rationale for setting the level of fine being the ‘seriousness of the offence’ and factors contributing to this. Calculated in this way, fines should ‘be punitive and sufficient to have an impact on the defendant’, so that the ‘appropriate fine will seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds’. In fact, and as Table 1 indicates, only one fine has so far reached this putative minimum – although it should be noted that the fine of £500,000 was imposed upon a company which at the start of the trial was in fact in administration (Sterecycle [Rotherham] Ltd). Interestingly, a recognition of the poverty of current sentencing practice under the Act has prompted a new set of draft guidelines, currently under consideration, in which it is proposed that there be a more explicit link between fines and turnover – although the proposal is focused on larger sized companies, none of which have yet been convicted.

Each year in the UK, up to 50,000 workers die from fatal injuries and work-related illnesses, of which a significant but unknown proportion are likely to be the result of legal breaches by their employers. This annual total ranks highly in comparison with virtually all other recorded causes of premature death in the UK, and dwarfs the just-over 600 ‘conventional’ murders recorded in the most recent figures across the three jurisdictions of the UK. Such observations alone make the rate of convictions under the CMCHAct look like a spectacular failure on the part of police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service. The CMCHAct is beginning to look very much like another weak, and at best, symbolic attempt to hold to account companies which kill – one which barely dents the impunity which corporations continue to enjoy as they put profits before human lives.

Table 1. Convictions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, 2007

Table 1 Convictions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007