Why the Fortnum & Mason protesters’ case matters

The judge said we had not been personally intimidating, then found us guilty anyway. What now for th

If 300 football fans chant together and then one assaults a rival supporter, are they all responsible? If you're on a protest and someone commits a crime and you don't leave immediately, can you be held to account for the person's actions? That was the question put before Westminster Magistrates' Court as we, the first ten defendants in the trials of those arrested for staging a sit-in at Fortnum & Mason on 26 March 2011, faced our verdict. We were found guilty of aggravated trespass; nine of us were given a conditional discharge and order to pay costs of £1,000 each, while the tenth was also fined.

The prosecution was required to prove an act beyond ordinary trespass — which on its own is not a crime. In this case, it argued that the protesters demonstrated intent to intimidate. Michael Snow, the district judge, accepted in his sentencing that none of us had been personally intimidating towards staff and shoppers, but said that under the terms of "joint enterprise" we were responsible for the actions of other protesters.

For the first few days of the trial, prosecution witness after prosecution witness — staff, customers and police officers — explained that most of those inside the store were, in the words of the chief inspector on the scene, "sensible" and "non-violent". One key prosecution witness, when asked by the prosecution barrister if he had seen anyone inside the store doing anything he believed to be criminal, said: "No." The police officers co-ordinating the case held their heads in their hands.

There is some evidence that a small number of acts inside the store may have been intimidating. There is no evidence that any of us on trial was responsible for these. In fact, in the case of many defendants, no individual evidence has been presented at all, and in my own case the court was shown footage of me engaged in the intimidating act of . . . facilitating a meeting inside the shop. But the prosecution maintained that we were guilty because we didn't leave when the intimidating acts allegedly took place. We will find out if the high court agrees when we take the case to appeal.

In a sense, this sort of verdict has been waiting to happen. In the past, it was hard to go on a potentially civilly disobedient protest without first knowing each other and planning it together. But in the Internet Age, it is increasingly easy to read a tweet and just pitch up at a location along with strangers. Can you, in this situation, be accused of "joint enterprise" with everyone at the resulting protest, even though you have never previously met them? Should everyone at such a protest be held accountable for the actions of everyone else? The implications of a guilty verdict are pretty scary — in effect, the Crown Prosecution Service and District Judge Snow believe that the only evidence they need to convict you for protesting is that someone else at the protest did something illegal.

This rests on a ludicrous premise: that it is acceptable to drag through the courts a group of people whose only crime is to have attended a "sensible" protest. Aggravated trespass legislation was introduced in 1994 as an explicit attempt to criminalise certain types of protest. Yet even this dubious law wasn't written so broadly as to include any demonstration in a shop.

This new development is worrying. Perhaps more worrying, however, is the disparity between the Crown's enthusiasm in pursuing the case, compared to their complete failure to convict a single banker over the acts that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. We'll see them again in the high court.

Adam Ramsay blogs for Bright Green

Adam Ramsay is co-editor of the UK section of openDemocracy, a contributor to bright-green.org and a long standing Green Party member.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.