Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Not much of a Woolf at the BAE door

Can the arms trade ever be given an ethical face? It seems a contradiction in terms, yet that hasn't stopped BAE Systems, stung by allegations of corruption over the Al Yamamah arms contract with Saudi Arabia, from commissioning Lord Woolf, a former Lord Chief Justice, to examine its conduct and suggest areas for improvement.

His findings, published yesterday, are a predictable combination of the bleedin' obvious and largely vacuous which must leave Dick Olver, the chairman, wondering whether he's got value for money from his committee of eminent outsiders.

How about this for size? The 23 recommendations are apparently designed to "provide material reinforcement of the high-level commitment that already exists" and will "guide the work already under way, including the development and implementation of a global code of ethical business conduct".

You might have thought that the committee would have designed such a global code as part of its brief, but no, that's still a work in progress. Was it really necessary to pay £1.7m for this list of cosmetic platitudes?

Moving from the general to the particular, executive bonuses would be made partially dependent on high standards of ethical conduct and effective implementation of the ethical code. What does this mean – that senior executives will receive extra remuneration for losing a contract because they'd refused to pay a bribe? This is risible stuff of little obvious value to anyone.

The trouble with this report is that it doesn't begin to address the main point of contention, namely whether BAE Systems has behaved illegally in the past and whether current executives are implicated in this behaviour. The closest Lord Woolf comes to it is in reporting that in discussions, "the chairman and chief executive acknowledged that the company did not in the past pay sufficient attention to ethical standards and avoid activities that had potential to give rise to reputational damage".

In this round about way, Lord Woolf does at least put his finger on the nub of the problem, which is that arms trading never has been considered an ethical business and therefore hasn't historically been terribly concerned about the way it is perceived. Secretive, politically sensitive and, to many people's minds, reprehensible, there wasn't much of a reputation to lose in the first place. None the less, modern bribery laws require that defence contractors, along with everyone else, do not engage in corrupt practice.

In recent years, BAE has been accused of more of it than almost any similar Western company. As Lord Woolf points out, his brief was not to examine the veracity of these allegations, but to suggest a framework of accountability that would ensure BAE remains free of them in all its future dealings.

For some, the arms trade is never going to be a legitimate business, but this was not the point at issue for Lord Woolf. There is a worthwhile but entirely different debate to be had on whether Britain should be in these industries in the first place, and in particular whether it should be selling to despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

Rather, the purpose of Lord Woolf was to provide window dressing for BAE so that it doesn't become excluded from important global markets by dint of its less than savoury past. Does he succeed in this purpose? Not really. Lord Woolf uses the Princess Diana analogy to illustrate his difficulty. There are some who will never believe she was killed by a drunk driver, whatever the evidence.

With BAE, there are many who will likewise never be persuaded to think of the company as anything other than the devil incarnate, however hard it strives to be whiter than white in the way it conducts itself. It is no surprise that the company has agreed to accept Lord Woolf's report in full – there's nothing of substance here to accept. For all companies these days, this is standard stuff.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

Market Risk & Control Manager

Up to £100k or £450p/d: Saxton Leigh: My client is a leading commodities tradi...

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Head of Audit

To £75,000 + Pension + Benefits + Bonus: Saxton Leigh: My client is looking f...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam