News 17th Jan 2019

Seaborne Freight: crises and corruption

Robert Barrington

Executive Director (former)

Robert served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2013 until July 2019. He is now Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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One of the concerns most often expressed about Brexit by the anti-corruption community is that it will lead to a lowering of standards. This has usually been framed as a likely deliberate and cynical approach by a future government to securing trade deals, increasing non-EU exports and attracting inward investment – when those tiresome global standards and aspirations for transparency, oversight and a level playing field get in the way of getting the deal done.

The Seaborne Freight affair has given us an insight into how otherwise this might play out, perhaps more by accident than design. In this case, cast-iron procurement standards have been swept aside with the excuse of an unforeseeable national emergency. If such standards can be cast aside so lightly in the face of an event that has been foreseeable for at least two years, how likely are they to survive if the UK sees an economic decline and political turmoil?

This is not to say that the Seaborne Freight contract was awarded as a result of corruption. But the point is that casting aside the provisions designed to prevent corruption opens the door to corruption. One exceptional contract rightly attracts a great deal of media and parliamentary scrutiny. Fifty such contracts would not. An emergency measure passed to allow all contracts to bypass procurement procedures during the ‘crisis’ would open up a free for all.

Behind this stands the post-Brexit concerns that environmentalists also express: that love it or hate it, the EU has played an important function in getting member states to play by the rules. For reasons of political expediency, Governments often want to by-pass the rules they previously agreed to. Post-EU, what is the mechanism for this in the British system?

The language of emergency has an interesting analogy with President Trump’s wall: the use of a crisis as an excuse for exceptional action. It has many echoes in history – not least the anti-communist purge after the burning of the Reichstag – and is a classic mechanism for autocrats to consolidate their power and enable the process of personal enrichment that almost always characterises their rule. If such procedures are waived and such excuses bandied in the UK and the US, it will not be long before we hear those cases cited by Orban and his like as justification for much worse.

The Seaborne Freight case may or may not turn out to be significant in itself. But it is already important as a sign of what may be to come. The good thing is that it is not too late to head this off. The Government, perhaps through its Anti-Corruption Champion, should take note of what has happened and pledge, ideally publicly but if nothing else to itself, that it is a one-off.


For more information on global anti-bribery and corruption best practice visit our free-to-use online Global Anti-Bribery Guidance Portal