The UK Government Has Bailed Out Companies Complicit in Human Rights Abuses and Environmental Destruction

A VICE News investigation showed that companies had accepted billions of public money while paying shareholders and firing staff. Some of those companies are responsible for other shocking actions.
August 17, 2020, 3:19pm
rishi sunak budget
Photo: Paul Marriott / Alamy Stock Photo

A VICE News investigation this month revealed that companies accessing billions in public funds through a government scheme have paid out an estimated £11.5 billion in dividends, while announcing the loss of 42,000 jobs.

VICE News can now reveal that government funds, currently totalling £18.9 billion, have been given to companies that have engaged in fraud, corruption, environmental destruction and the manufacture of chemical weaponry, as well as defence firms that have sold weapons to regimes accused of human rights abuses.

Only the UK’s biggest companies can access funds through the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF). They have a year to pay the money back, at interest rates of 0.2 to 0.6 percent. Smaller companies, unable to access funds through the CCFF, must take out loans through commercial banks at a rate of up to 6 percent.

Companies using the CCFF can extend the length of their loan, but only if they pledge to refrain from paying dividends and to cut executive pay. The CCFF is administered by the Bank of England (BoE) for the Treasury.

The funds were made available to companies from the end of March, 2020, with no environmental or economic stipulations attached – a move that has been criticised by campaigners and activists. Plans are afoot to take the government to court over the lack of environmental considerations applied to the bailouts.

Among those receiving bailouts are companies that have been fined for bribery and fraud. There are also companies that have been criticised for poor treatment of workers, chemical companies responsible for catastrophic pollution and defence companies linked to wars and repression across the globe.

saudi arms sales protest

Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo

FINED COMPANIES

As reported by VICE News, American oil giant Schlumberger announced it would be slashing 21,000 jobs worldwide on the 24th of July, just a day after paying out an estimated £135.2 million in dividends. A month earlier, the company – which is registered in Curacao, a tax haven – drew £415 million in UK government funds from the CCFF.

When previously contacted for comment, Schlumberger directed VICE News to its Q2 results, which show the company reported $5.2 billion (£3.9 billion) in worldwide revenue in the second quarter of 2020.

In 2015, Schlumberger was fined $232.7 million (£179.6 million) for violating sanctions in Iran and Sudan. At the time, the fine was the largest in US history for sanctions violations.

Airbus SE – a multinational aerospace company that accessed £500 million of public money through the CCFF – was fined a record breaking €3.6 billion (£3.2 billion) in January of this year following an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. The investigation found that the company had used external consultants to bribe officials in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Ghana to buy its civilian and military planes between 2011 and 2015.

A company spokesperson said, “Airbus had agreed to pay penalties of nearly €3.6 billion plus interest to the authorities. The company has taken significant steps to reform itself and ensure that this conduct will not reoccur. The company is committed to conducting business with integrity.”

The company was the seventh largest arms company in 2018 and had £369 million of Ministry of Defence procurements in the same year. According to Campaign Against the Arms trade, Airbus has applied for UK arms export licences to 88 countries, including UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were halted by the High Court after it ruled that weapons had been sold to the country for use in the Yemen Civil War with no consideration of “whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law”.

Human Rights Watch has documented “abuses by the UAE and UAE proxy forces [in Yemen], including arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture”.

Rentokil Initial, which had accessed £600 million from the CCFF by the 18th of April, was given a record fine of £27,000 for failing to comply with a UK competitions and markets information request in August of 2019. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

G4S, the private security company, drew £300 million through the CCFF. On the 10th of July, G4S was fined £44 million after it accepted responsibility for three fraud charges in relation to an electronic tagging scheme. The fraud was carried out in an effort to “dishonestly mislead” the government, so as to boost the company’s profits, according to the Serious Fraud Office.

A G4S spokesperson said, “The BoE facility is a one-year loan and is due to be repaid in full in May 2021. G4S employs 25,000 people in the UK working in our security and cash businesses. Our employees provide essential services to businesses across a number of sectors and to the government.”

The company confirmed that no public money was used to pay the £44 million fine.

‘BAD’ BOSSES

The International Hotel Group, which accessed £600 million through the fund, was reported to the United Nations Global Compact in 2019 over alleged “unethical” anti-trade union activity and poor working conditions.

In 2017, London Mayor Sadiq Khan accused the group of reneging on its promise to implement the London living wage across its estate of hotels in the capital. The company, which owns Holiday Inn, pledged the rate of pay in order to win the title of “Official Hotels provider to the 2012 Olympic Games”. At the time, a spokesperson said employment costs had massively increased since 2012, preventing the company from fulfilling its pledge.

An IHG spokesperson told VICE News “The Bank of England confirmed IHG as an eligible issuer for the UK Government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), and in April we announced that IHG had issued £600m in commercial paper under this facility. This was part of action we took to strengthen our liquidity position, building on our conservative balance sheet approach and the measures taken to reduce costs and preserve cash.”


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DEFENCE COMPANIES

Defence companies are also among those to have drawn public funds through the CCFF.

Chemring Group is a defence company specialising in countermeasures, sensors and “energetics”, which accessed £50 million from the CCFF while also paying out £6.7 million in dividends this year.

According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the company has applied for UK arms export licenses to 95 countries, including Saudi Arabia. Investor Chronicle reports that, in 2017, Chemring listed Saudi Arabia as a “principal customer”. Saudi Arabia has spearheaded the military intervention into the war in Yemen, which has left more than 24 million people – 80 percent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance. It has been labelled the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Chemring did not respond to requests for comment.

Other weapons companies accessing funds through the CCFF include Meggitt, which confirmed plans to cut 1,800 jobs on the same day it announced it was eligible for the funds. It accessed £130 million in public money after that. Meggitt did not respond to requests for comment.

The company, which specialises in components and subsystems for the aerospace and defence industry, provides £700,000 worth of parts for every Typhoon jet manufactured. Defence company BAE Systems agreed to sell 48 of the jets to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.

Rolls-Royce, which produces military aircraft engines, naval engines and cores for nuclear submarines, accessed £300 million from the CCFF before the 3rd of June, 2020, the day the company announced 3,000 redundancies in the UK, with a further 3,000 expected in 2021.

Rolls Royce did not respond to requests for comment.

Andrew Smith from Campaign Against the Arms Trade told VICE News, “These companies have armed some of the most brutal regimes in the world. The weapons they produce have been implicated in repression, atrocities and abuses. This has only been possible because of the support of the government, which has boosted and enabled these disgraceful companies every step of the way.

“COVID must serve as a wake-up call and a chance to think about the impact that the UK government and arms companies have had around the world. The ‘new normal’ can’t be one in which arms dealers continue to profit from war and export violence.”

CHEMICAL MANUFACTURERS

Israel Chemicals Limited (ICL) drew £50 million from the CCFF just a month after paying out an estimated £23.45 million in dividends.

In 2017, ICL’s Dead Sea mine was found to be leaking toxic acid and polluting the area in a catastrophic spill known as the Ashalim disaster. In December of 2019, it was reported that an ICL mine in the Negev desert had sent phosphate sludge flowing into open mining pits near the country’s Zin stream bed, polluting the local area with toxic chemicals.

According to a report from ODHE, ICL is the sole provider of white phosphorus to the US army, which in turn provides the weapon to the Israeli army for use in Gaza. White phosphorus is a wax-like substance that ignites on contact with oxygen and sticks to flesh. It can cause life altering burns, as well as infections and damage to internal organs. It is claimed that the Israeli Defence Force have used white phosphorus in Gaza as recently as 2019.

ICL did not reply to requests for comment.

Other chemical companies to benefit from government funds include German pharmaceutical company BASF SE, which drew the largest amount from the facility. In April, the company accessed £1 billion before paying out the estimated equivalent of £2.76 billion in dividends to shareholders.

A BASF spokesperson said, “BASF issued commercial paper to the Bank of England in early April under the bank’s original programme as announced by UK treasury on March 17, and not under the amended programme as announced by the bank on May 19 – which only then contained certain conditions which are not applicable to BASF. Purchases of commercial paper are customary financial market transactions. The transaction with the Bank of England does not include any conditions that restrict capital distributions or senior management remuneration. BASF pays interest on the outstanding commercial paper. Thus, the transaction with the Bank of England under BASF’s existing commercial paper program does not have the character of state aid.”

In February, a Missouri court awarded a peach farmer damages of $265 million (£200 million) from BASF and fellow German pharmaceutical company Bayer for irreparable damage caused by a herbicide the companies jointly produce.

Bayer drew £600 million from the fund before the 3rd of June, having paid out an estimated £2.5 billion in dividends on the 29th of April. In 2018, Bayer bought Monsanto, the beleaguered American agrochemical corporation. In June of 2020, Bayer announced it would settle over 100,000 lawsuits in relation to Roundup, the Monsanto-produced weedkiller that allegedly caused cancer. The payouts for that settlement total more than $10 billion. In settling, Bayer admitted no guilt, and will continue to sell Roundup without labelling it as carcinogenic.

A spokesperson told VICE News, “Bayer is a global enterprise which makes use of global markets and considers the buying of commercial papers as a common financial market transaction.” They did not comment further.

Simon Youel, head of policy and advocacy at Positive Money, told VICE News, “The Arctic is on fire and millions are facing unemployment and destitution, but the British state has prioritised giving billions of pounds in special no-strings-attached support to the very corporations driving these crises, including fossil fuel firms and companies laying off tens of thousands of workers.

"Rather than simply propping up socially and environmentally destructive business models, we could be using the leverage we have here to force these companies to clean up their game, to protect jobs and climate. Even better, these billions could instead be invested in creating new industries and jobs which aren't based on the exploitation of people and planet.”

@bencsmoke