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Corruption and the new UK Government

Written by Robert Barrington on Thursday, 7 May 2015

What lessons should the Prime Minister learn from his first term – and what should he do now?


Five years ago, we were not optimistic at Transparency International about tackling corruption in the UK.  The Bribery Act had been passed on the last day of the previous Parliament after heavy lobbying to prevent it becoming law; the new Government had neither committed to continue the post of Anti-Corruption Champion nor set a formal commencement date for the Bribery Act, and was again being lobbied to water it down, delay it or otherwise obstruct its implementation.  No commitments had been made about the wider corruption agenda in the UK, whether in public institutions, politics, the private sector, the UK’s international role or other key areas.  Then it got worse.  The abolition was announced, first of Standards for England, and then more astonishingly of the Audit Commission, two important guarantors of integrity in the public sector. The Serious Fraud Office’s budget was drastically reduced; corruption-related scandals started to surface in the banking sector and elsewhere, and nobody seemed to be held to account.

Meanwhile, we produced what turned out to be three important pieces of research:

  • Corruption in the UK a four-volume analysis, the most comprehensive ever produced, and arising from which we recommended there should be a coordinated national action plan to tackle corruption.
  • The UK Anti-Corruption Scorecard which used a traffic light system to rate 26 different areas of government, and which showed the UK was better at discussing international treaties than getting its own house in order.
  • The Global Corruption Barometer a national opinion survey which revealed that for the first time ever, 5 per cent of those polled in the UK said they had paid a bribe at least once in the past twelve months – a surprise until you reflect that all of the first prosecutions under the Bribery Act were indeed for bribes paid in the UK.

At the same time, the Leveson Enquiry  began to expose corruption in the media politics and police, followed by ever more police-related scandals; and ever more banking scandals; revolutions took place across the Arab world and in Ukraine, in which corrupt assets could be traced directly to London and the UK’s Overseas Territories; and the UK started some soul-searching over its role in Afghanistan in which it became apparent that the international community had for years been supporting a corrupt government with devastating consequences for economic development and long-term security around the world.

After three years, things began to change – slowly at first, but then more rapidly.  The Prime Minister promoted the idea that Governance should be central to the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals.  The UK adopted Transparency as one of its key themes when hosting the G8 Summit, and subsequently made a ground-breaking commitment on beneficial ownership.  The Home Office published a new Organised Crime Strategy, which highlighted the role of corruption in facilitating and perpetuating organised crime and terrorism.  These were positive steps forward, but it became increasingly clear that the threat was real and that the government’s understanding and coordination was inadequate.  The answer was the (very subdued) launch of the UK’s National Anti-Corruption Plan a few days before the starting gun sounded for the General Election.

Taking it all together, the progress made under the last Government came as a pleasant surprise.  After a very poor start, it made some eye-catching advances, and in the Plan, laid the groundwork for a much more positive approach in future.

What can we learn from the Prime Minister’s first term – and what should he do now?

  1. Tone from the Top.  Much of the UK’s advance seems to have been driven personally by the Prime Minister – supported in their own areas by the Home Secretary and Secretary of State for International Development.  But other departments with ministers who have been less engaged in the subject, such as Local Government & Communities, Defence and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, have seemed less inclined to advance this agenda.  Top-level support is critical.
  2. Admitting the problem.  UK Government documents now openly talk about the fact that corruption exists in the UK.  This is a huge step forward.  We might argue about whether they understand the scale of the problem, and whether the response is adequate.  But they are no longer entirely in denial.
  3. Coordinate and act, don’t just talk.  It’s easy to talk a good game on corruption – we hear that every time there is a coup in some part of the world and the new government promises a clean up.  The last UK Government put into place some of the tools for action – legislation, better coordination, more resources.  But it has not used them to full advantage.

And where next?  Here are three key tests by which the Government will be judged in its first month:

  1. Commit to the National Anti-Corruption Plan.   The subdued launch should now turn into real action.  That should be stated publicly and clearly.
  2. Appoint a Champion – quickly. Corruption needs a champion in the Cabinet.  The last Government’s record on this was very poor – the post lay dormant for months, had no terms of reference, and was demoted from Cabinet level.  That sent out all the wrong messages. This role should be given the emphasis it deserves, and the right candidate should be found to drive cross-government activity and build cross-party consensus where possible.
  3. Improve enforcement.  We may need new legislation in some areas – but we can do a great deal better with the laws we have, if they are properly enforced.  This should start with settling once and for all the future of the SFO, which has been destabilised by unproductive speculation about its existence.  Good enforcement needs strong political support not constant sniping, and needs to be properly resourced.  Yes, that will be difficult in times of austerity: but the fines received from wrong-doing will dwarf the costs of enforcement.

And by the autumn, here are three other things we would expect to see from any government that is genuinely committed to tackling corruption:

  1. Help restore trust in government by fixing corruption in politics.  Our recent report found thirty-nine loopholes in the regulation of revolving door, party financing and lobbying – as well as significantly different standards between the UK’s five parliamentary assemblies and chambers, with the House of Commons bottom of the league table.
  2. Make the ethical case.  Corruption hurts the poorest in society, in the UK and abroad.  We often hear the case against bribe-paying pitched in terms of economic advantage.  That helps when talking to resources-resources-businesses.  But let’s hear the Government make the case about what kind of society it wants the UK to be – one in which that is fair, and just, and does not promote misery elsewhere by allowing corrupt individuals from overseas to launder their wealth through the UK and enjoy a luxury lifestyle at the expense of their own people. 
  3. Take an international lead.  Once we have got our own house in order and are demonstrably trying to sort out the Overseas Territories and reduce our corruption footprint overseas, the UK has an opportunity to repeat the splash made by the G8 and make a genuinely meaningful contribution to improving the global anti-corruption effort, with the related benefits of economic advancement and addressing some of the root causes of global insecurity.  It’s an issue of key importance to the BRICS and other emerging markets.  No country has yet had the courage or confidence to take a global leadership role on corruption.  The UK could do so.

We have not yet had a major public speech by the Prime Minister on corruption and what needs to be done about it.  Though there is much more to do in the second term, there are also things to be proud of from the first term.  Perhaps the time has come.


Read 4070 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 12:18

Robert Barrington

Robert is TI-UK's Executive Director. You can view his full bio here, and tweet him @TIukED.

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