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Issue 47, May 2000

Getting Away With Murder

Corporate Crime
By Gary Slapper and Steve Tombs, Longman, 1999, £17-99
Reviewed by Chris Moore

CORPORATE CRIME is aimed primarily at students of criminology. It rightly criticises academia for largely ignoring this subject, especially in Britain.

The book gives shocking examples to illustrate how rare it is for corporations to be successfully prosecuted for crimes which often have devastating effects on employees and the general public. Its style, however, is academic, contrasting different theories and research. For readers not involved in criminal law it is, unfortunately, heavy going.

The authors accept that business interests are the driving force of capitalism and that putting profit first encourages corporate crime. But whilst criticising the effects of capitalism, Slapper and Tombs simultaneously defend it: 'Business organisations are legitimate organisations. They perform useful and socially necessary functions'.

In 1949 Edwin Sutherland developed the concept of 'white-collar crime', stating that some white-collar offenders avoid prosecution because of the class bias of the courts. This challenged the stereotype of working-class criminals turning to crime because of pathological criminal tendencies. Sutherland realised that power relations in society affected what people perceived to be criminal, and he pointed out that employers have more power to manipulate legislation than working-class people. For instance, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in the US, introduced to control cartels, was used mainly against trade unions. Slapper and Tombs seem broadly sympathetic to Sutherland's views but offer no solutions which could alter this power imbalance.


Pat O'Malley, an academic who describes himself as a Marxist, argues that criminology is based on the assumption that crime is a violation of the rights of the community and that the state acts on behalf of that community. He says that this is not so and that, therefore, health-endangering pollution and dangerous working conditions, etc, are not necessarily defined as illegal. Although Slapper and Tombs accept this, they put forward what they call 'radical solutions'. However, what effect can 'radical solutions' have on a criminal justice system which is run in the interests of the dominant capitalist class?

They do not recognise that the criminal justice system always tries to protect the interests of big business - unless events outside their control force the judiciary to make compromises. Even then, as soon as the pressure is relaxed, the system will attempt to backtrack. In 1972 five dockers involved in strike action were jailed. A mass movement developed to defend the 'Pentonville Five', as they became known, and a general strike was threatened. Under this pressure they were released - the government and legal system contriving a legal get-out clause.

The authors also show how difficult it is to successfully prosecute companies. The capitalists try to portray corporate crime as being the fault of individual wrongdoers. But companies' structures and policies, such as high profit targets, often pressurise individuals to break the law.

Between 1965 and 1995, 20,000 people were killed in accidents at work or disasters, yet only five cases of corporate manslaughter have been brought. In Britain, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recorded 376 deaths at work from 1994-95. This is a huge underestimate. It excludes deaths due to faulty gas supplies, fishing and merchant shipping accidents, and all driving employment fatalities including those involving coach and bus drivers, as well as deaths from long-term disease, asbestos exposure and occupationally-caused lung cancer. If these are included the figure is 3,018. As a comparison, murder, infanticide and manslaughter accounted for 834 deaths in England, Scotland and Wales over the same period of time.


It is no exaggeration to talk of the slaughter of British workers. According to the HSE, between 1981-83, 73% of 1,186 deaths investigated were the responsibility of management. Despite the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, less than 40% of workplace-accident deaths led to prosecution. Clearly, the law protects companies: the pursuit of profit is more important than the lives of workers and the general public.

There is no official measurement of the cost of corporate crime in Britain. The amount of money involved in 48 cases investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in 1994 was five times the total for all burglaries. The Securities and Investments Board estimated that 1.4 million public-sector workers were advised to cash-in their contribution pension schemes and transfer over to private schemes on the basis of false and misleading information. By 1997 less than 10% of these cases had been resolved. Researchers, Pontell and Calavita, estimated the cost to the US economy of savings-and-loans crimes in 1993 at $1.5 trillion.

Corporate crime is downplayed by the media. It is portrayed in terms of personalities, obscured with the use of terms like, 'scandal', 'accident' or 'a few bad apples'. This implies that they are isolated events which cannot be prevented.

Successful convictions are rare. In the inquiry into last year's Paddington rail disaster, all the witnesses, including rail managers, are immune from prosecution. With the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster, in which 192 people died, it was only pressure from the campaign which forced eight summonses for manslaughter against the company, including two against directors and two against captains. However, the charges against the directors were eventually dismissed and the other cases dropped.


Enforcement of economic crime, as opposed to social regulation (health and safety, etc), tends to be more rigorous - too many Nick Leasons (the broker involved in the Barings share-dealing case) are bad for business. Of course, the capitalist system creates these people in the first place.

The weakest part of the book is the section dealing with solutions. Slapper and Tombs talk of trying to organise business activity differently. The way business operates is, however, a direct reflection of a system based on individual ownership and profit-making. No reforms are permanent. Fines are only effective if corporations believe they will be caught and prosecuted, and even then the price is often paid by workers through redundancies, etc. The authors worry about the effect of fines on shareholders. Corporate probation, introduced in the US in 1987, compels the prosecuted company to carry out specific tasks. But again few offenders are caught. The idea that corporate rehabilitation can force changes in company policy ignores the economic pressures on corporations to break the law in pursuit of profits. Adverse publicity and jailing directors are also put forward. But when one director is jailed, another takes over: nothing has changed fundamentally.

This book is a damning indictment of capitalism. But its approach is too academic. It recognises that the move to the neo-liberal policies of cuts and privatisation has affected the whole environment towards corporate crime. Cuts in public funding for education, for instance, mean a greater reliance on money from business which, in turn, discourages research into corporate crime. At the same time, the business 'values' of individualism and competition encourage criminal activity. Slapper and Tombs see that the interests of the capitalist class are reflected in the criminal justice system and the academic world, which is why there is a relative indifference to corporate crime. However, their solutions revolve around how corporations could be better regulated or prosecuted.


The authors refer to and recognise the importance of the Marxist class analysis based on who owns society's means of production. Unfortunately, they see workers as passive victims rather than as a force able to determine their own future and transform society.

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