Corruption begins at home

Corruption, and how to tackle it, is a major issue on the international stage right now. The Bribe Payers’ Index, published in October by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, once again highlights the deficiencies in the efforts to tackle international corruption. Last month a special police taskforce was launched to investigate money laundering and bribery on the domestic and international fronts.

The Transparency International survey, based on anonymous interviews, is said to show the propensity of businessmen in many developed countries for paying bribes in foreign countries, mainly in the developing world. It reinforces the unfortunate adage that, as far as corruption is concerned, it takes two to tango. It is simply not sufficient for governments in the developed world to urge governments in poor, developing countries to do more to tackle corruption. They must also put their own houses in order.

The survey shows that the worst offenders are countries with fast-growing, resource-hungry, export-led, emerging economies, such as China, Brazil, Russia and India, which are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and which have not ratified the OECD Convention on combating bribery. However, even those countries that have ratified the OECD Convention and have other anti-corruption legislation in their statute books cannot claim to be whiter than white. Italy and France appeared to fare particularly badly as interviewees from lower-income countries in Africa identified their companies as among the worst perpetrators.

In the UK there has been no prosecution in recent times for corruption overseas, even though the OECD Convention on bribery was put into effect in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Much of the blame for this deficiency is often laid at the door of what is said to be a confusing plethora of statutes dealing with the offence of corruption, which date back as far as 1889. For instance, the Law Commission, in its proposals for the modernisation of the law regarding corruption, described the UK’s existing anti-corruption laws as “obscure, complex, inconsistent and insufficiently comprehensive”.

The Government responded to these criticisms by publishing the Corruption Bill in 2003, which attempted to update and consolidate the various anti-corruption statutes. However, this bill itself faced severe criticism, particularly with regard to how the new offences it introduced were defined. In response, in December 2005 the Home Office published a consultation paper on the reform of the existing corruption statutes and the powers of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in cases of foreign corruption. The consultation closed in March this year. It is not known exactly when the Government will publish its response. What is clear is that reform of the unsatisfactory existing anti-corruption laws is some way off.

In the meantime the Government appears determined to do the best it can within the existing statutory framework to improve on the prosecution record. In June this year Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, was appointed as the ministerial champion for addressing international corruption and it was announced that a new police taskforce to tackle international corruption would be established. The taskforce, which was launched formally on 1 November, will be funded by the Department for International Development and will comprise members of the City of London Police and the Metropolitan Police (the Met). The City of London team will investigate allegations of overseas corruption and bribery by UK businesses, while the Met will investigate money laundering in the UK by corrupt foreign politicians or significant individuals in breach of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

There is also evidence that the prosecution and investigation authorities are raising the profile of their drive against corruption crimes. In October the SFO confirmed that it had raided four premises in connection with its investigation into alleged corrupt acts involving BAE Systems. Detective Chief Superintendent Wilmot, head of the City of London team responsible for the investigation of foreign corruption by UK companies, was also quoted as saying that up to 10 well-known UK companies are under investigation for allegedly bribing foreign officials in order to win contracts.

But will the new taskforce, backed by a ‘corruption tsar’, improve the UK’s currently dismal record on prosecutions for corruption abroad?