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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada