LEADER:A crime, but no criminals

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The Independent Online
ANYBODY who ever thought that the only victims of fraud were the greedy or the reckless should have had their illusions shattered by the Robert Maxwell affair. Some 32,000 pensioners in his companies - former cleaners, clerks, secretaries, printers - suddenly found that they had been robbed of pounds 440m. These were not speculators hoping to make money above the odds, like the Barlow Clowes victims, but ordinary people saving for their old age as millions of others do. That their pension payments were eventually secured is beside the point; the Maxwell victims faced many months of agonising worry, and it is almost certain that some died prematurely as a result. "If you don't want the time, don't do the crime," said Michael Howard at the Tory party conference last October. The trouble with fraud, as we discovered last week, is that it is very hard to find anybody to serve the time. Robert Maxwell is dead; his sons are innocent. So are there any guilty parties left alive? Or has fraud, once regarded almost as a crime without victims, turned into a crime without criminals?

The extraordinary thing about Robert Maxwell was that he was identified 20 years before his death, in a Board of Trade report, as a cheat unfit to run a public company. Yet the National Westminster was willing to lend him money, Coopers & Lybrand to act as his auditors, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and numerous other pillars of City probity to arrange all sorts of unusual deals to help things along. Since Robert Maxwell committed his crimes, changes in pension law and the rules of corporate governance have gone some way to making similar cases less likely. But as his return from near ruin suggests, the defences against a man as powerful, as ruthless and as determined as Maxwell must go beyond the law. He got away with it not so much because laws were inadequate, but because dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, who worked with and for him were inadequate. With few exceptions, the obituaries were eulogistic; only when the illegalities of his financial transactions came to light did so many of his former colleagues and supporters suddenly decide that they had done his bidding only because he had bullied and terrorised them. The truth is that Maxwell was a hero until his death, not because people were deceived as to his true nature, but because they admired it.

This leads to three painful observations. First, the prevailing culture, particularly since the 1980s, is that companies have no responsibilities beyond making profits and keeping share prices high. Employees should not ask questions; if the boss wants to raid their pension fund, it is his business, not theirs, just as it is only his business whether he continues to employ them at all. Robert Maxwell, by all accounts, was an exceptionally, even monstrously, autocratic boss; this was why people found it so difficult to question his actions and why his crimes proceeded unchecked. But Maxwell's behaviour is just an extreme example of a tendency evident in many contemporary British companies. Only slowly, through Tony Blair's "stakeholding" ideas, is the notion coming back that employees, too, have rights to information on and influence over how a company is run.

Second, we continue to regard fraud as somehow less serious than other forms of large-scale theft. It is impossible to imagine government ministers denouncing company fraud, which is largely a white-collar crime, with the same eloquence and indignation as they denounce the crimes of the poor, such as mugging, housebreaking, and fiddling social security. People on fraud charges go to court in suits, with strings of advisers, not in handcuffs, attended by prison officers. Even if they are convicted, they waddle off to Ford Open Prison with their mobile phones and continue to run businesses.

Third, the British have not been tested by tyranny this century and they tend to take a rather superior attitude to those in other countries who did face dictatorship and who rather tamely accepted it. Robert Maxwell, an authoritarian personality if ever there was one - he got on well with East European dictators - presented as big a test as people in late-20th- century Britain are likely to face. He was not in a position to threaten murder, torture or even imprisonment. His only weapons were a bad temper and the power to remove people from well-paid jobs and promising careers. Almost without exception, the test was failed.