Crossing the Boundaries of Ethics

 On Thursday last week, at a bizarre and painful meeting, Uttlesford District Council effectively confirmed its £35m investment in a property knowing that the tenant is heavily involved in the arms trade, with connections to the war in Yemen. 


Bizarre, because that was studiously avoided. There was general and often passionate agreement that the council should act ethically, indeed the preceding motion which passed after tortuous debate, was to accept the Nolan principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. 

The motion before the council, drafted by the Green Party and powerfully proposed by Cllr Fairhurst, was to ‘…demonstrate its commitment to ethical integrity by requiring its investment strategy not to include the purchase of any commercial assets which are directly or indirectly associated with issues of human rights, environmental or social harms.’

That would appear to be unarguable in the light of the Nolan Principles, but an amendment had been submitted by R4U, which deleted every single word of the motion and ended with a motion that the ‘…Investment Board will be mindful of the commitments and policies that the Council has adopted’ and consequently would not invest in ‘a portfolio of forecourt garages,’ concluding:  ‘whilst the Council does not currently have a set out Investment Protocol it has 39 councillors, many of whom have no investment experience, who consider all aspects of proposed investments rather than just the commercial return.’

Something very clear was being replaced with something that didn’t feel like a policy, still less a substantive ethical commitment.

For almost two hours the debate continued, with points of order flying like confetti, while the elephant in the room was being studiously ignored. That elephant being the council’s £35m investment in a property in Tewkesbury, which will allegedly accommodate Moog Space and Defense (sic) which provides ‘sustainment services’ for the F15 bomber aircraft. Saudi Arabia operates a large fleet of F15 bombers which carry out air strikes in Yemen and consequently is implicated in the deaths of thousands of civilians, including women and children. 

Moog was not, of course, mentioned by name, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but both Oxfam and The Independent had publicised the link, and the research by the local resident who made the initial connection, was not denied. It was argued that the council is not investing directly in Moog, but purely in land and buildings, as a safe strategy for the investment of public money. 

Such an argument would have credibility if the investment were in premises that had no contracted leaseholder, and was indeed just bricks and mortar, but in fact the Investment Board were aware of the company and its involvement in the international arms trade. 

Or were they? It transpired that their officers and investment advisors had not briefed members about the nature of the company and the fact that 42% of its sales come from defence. Their focus had been on the geography of the site and the architects’ plans until one councillor took out his phone, googled the company, and discovered its extensive involvement with the ‘defense’ industry. Accounts then varied between there having been  no debate on the ethics whatsoever and Cllr Reeve’s assertion that there had been a full 45 minute discussion of the ethics: the two accounts were unreconcilable. 

Shockingly, one councillor is alleged to have said that profit had to be the ‘only consideration’, and whatever else might have transpired, that was the view that clearly resulted in the decision to invest. 

When confidentiality allows, the advice presented by officers, which informed our representatives’ decision, urgently needs to be made public.

The R4U amendment, therefore, while mentioning forecourts, was really all about protecting an indirect investment in the arms trade which would be costly to reverse. It was agreed that ethics are not easy. They are fraught with difficulty and after nearly two years in power the absence of a clear ethical policy had placed members in an invidious position. It was argued that since ‘We all buy stuff from China every day, who have not ethics…’ we are all unethical anyway, so why stop there? 

The agonising continued until after 11pm, but no amount of perfume was going to sweeten the hands of the Investment Board, who ironically represent many residents who have deep, historical ties with the Quaker movement and pacifism. For all their protestations of commitment to ethics, they stuck to their weaker amendment. How is it that R4U, who promised a different sort of politics, responsive to local people, free from party factionalism, demonstrated the very behaviours they once opposed. The vote went strictly along party lines and factionalism was rife.

Somehow local residents, who put themselves forward for election to try to make Uttlesford a better place, have found themselves implicated in the war in Yemen.

Cllr Freeman put it very clearly: Central government has underfunded local authorities for decades. They struggle every year to find the funds for local services and particularly to support the underprivileged in their area. Government, however, has allowed them to borrow money at their own, highly preferential rates and re-invest that money to support local services. This is not their savings they are investing but borrowed money. They dare not make a loss; they desperately need to make a profit, but they are not skilled investors or entrepreneurs. Investing such sums is way out of their comfort zone.

Central government has placed a burden on them that they are ill-equipped to manage. At moments last night felt like Handforth Parish Council meets Tolstoy: local drama, divisions, confusion and good intentions embroiled in the tragedy of the world’s most inhumane war.

Uttlesford will not be the only local council wrestling with the tension between ethics and a secure profit. Surely, however, there are now new, exciting, local, profitable and ethical Green investments to be made?