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Corruption in the UK: a risk of failure?

Written by Robert Barrington on Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Last week we launched the annual Corruption Perceptions Index.  Since the UK fell back to 17th place from the top ten a few years ago it has been making progress back up the rankings, has ranked 14th for two years running. On the UN Anti-Corruption Day we look at how well the UK is really doing – and what more needs to happen.


Last week we launched the annual Corruption Perceptions Index.  Since the UK fell back to 17th place from the top ten a few years ago it has been making progress back up the rankings but has ranked 14th for two years running. On the UN Anti-Corruption Day, we look at how well the UK is really doing – and what more needs to happen.

In 2013, we published an anti-corruption scorecard for the UK which gave the UK green ratings in six categories out of twenty-six amber in fourteen and red in six.  We noted that the first prosecutions under the Bribery Act had been for bribes paid within the UK, and that in a recent survey over five percent of people polled in the UK said they had paid a bribe in the past year. 

Why does corruption matter to the UK?  Here are four reasons:

  1. Corruption creates a space in which crime, and particularly organised crime, can thrive.  For example, corruption in the police has huge knock-on consequences in terms of the ability for organised criminals to gain information and exploit weaknesses in the system.  The threat to the UK is large and perhaps growing.  Good anti-corruption systems and strong institutions help to counter this.
  2. Corruption affects everyone in society but, as with corruption elsewhere in the world, it is the poorest who suffer.  They can least afford to pay, and are most likely to face demands for bribes.  We know little in the UK about the impact this has in practice, except through anecdotal evidence in areas such as housing and prisons – but those cases that do come to light indicate there are deeper problems.
  3. We know from experience that when corruption takes hold, institutions and systems can quickly deteriorate – and then be extremely hard to eradicate.  Prevention is better than cure.  Yet some of the safeguards that were in place, such as the Audit Commission, have been abolished by the government and not replaced.
  4. As a trading nation, we thrive when there is a flourishing global economy and political stability.  We are therefore deeply affected by corruption elsewhere in the world.  We often see the symptoms in other forms such as human trafficking, immigration or terrorism. The UK’s ability to lead or participate in global anti-corruption improvements only has credibility when it has a relatively clean bill of corruption-resources-corruption-resources-health at home.

This government has said more about the need to tackle corruption than any UK government in recent memory.  There have been particularly strong statements from the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development.  And there have been some positive developments – legislation on extractive industry transparency and creating a public register of beneficial ownership, as well as movement on police corruption and tackling corruption through the National Crime Agency.  There is greater coordination within government, and an emerging cadre of civil servants and law enforcement officials who really know the subject.

But so far the rhetoric has been more than the action.  Of course, the rhetoric has been good, and action sometimes lags the rhetoric.  But one area of very obvious inaction has been the serial delays to the National Anti-Corruption Action Plan, announced by the Prime Minister at an international summit in October 2013.   Great idea – but where is it?  The Plan’s launch date had been announced for the summer of 2014.  We are now in December – indeed on the UN’s Anti-Corruption Day itself – and there is no Plan.

This is worrying for two reasons.

First, such plans only ever work if there is political will.  The serial delay of the Plan’s publication calls into question the level of political will.  There may even be those in government who oppose it – we have seen this before in battles over the Serious Fraud Office and the Bribery Act.

Secondly, one of the purposes of such a plan is to make corruption a higher priority.  This is a laudable aim.  But the serial delay does seem to suggest that it is not anyone’s priority.

Surely someone must be in charge?  Yes indeed.  The Government has an Anti-Corruption Champion.  And this illustrates the problem.  When the post was established ten years ago, it was held by a Cabinet Minister.  Having declined in ambition and activity, the post fell vacant in July when Ken Clarke left government – and was not filled until October, when the BIS Minister Matthew Hancock was appointed.  The four month gap did not make it look like a priority or suggest that political will was there in abundance.

It is now perhaps three months before the electioneering starts for the 2015 General Election.  A month of that will be the Christmas break.  Mr Hancock has a lot to do in a short while.  Here are four things he could do

  1. Launch the plan.
  2. Future-proof it – by making it accountable to Parliament, and getting a manifesto commitment that it will be updated regularly if his party forms part of the next government.
  3. Identify within the plan what will be achieved before he leaves office – and guarantee to get it done. 
  4. Confirm that there are no plans to abolish Serious Fraud Office.  The SFO is the UK’s only law enforcement institution which has corruption as one of its top two priorities.  Given the messages the government has been sending about how much it really prioritises corruption, it would be simply irresponsible to abolish it.

It is important that the UK succeeds in the fight against corruption –  for the sake of the UK’s own society and economy, but also because of the impact this can have in the wider world.  But there is a risk of failure.  The Government, and its new Champion, can reduce that risk.  Will they do so?


Read 3227 times Last modified on Wednesday, 11 November 2015 10:07

Robert Barrington

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

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