News 06th Oct 2015

What the Champion Told Us

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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‘London will not be a place where blood-stained dictators can spend out their twilight years.’  – Sir Eric Pickles

Last week, Sir Eric Pickles gave a major scene-setting speech to civil society on corruption.  It was in his capacity as the recently-appointed Anti-Corruption Champion, and was important in three ways.  First, never before had any of his five predecessors as Champion (Benn, Hutton, Straw, Clarke, Hancock) delivered such a speech to civil society. Secondly, he was characteristically frank (as he explained “I want to see this through and there’s nothing they can do to stop me.”).  Thirdly, he set out some priorities – the first Champion to do so since Hilary Benn ten years ago.

One of the problems with the role has been that it has no Terms of Reference and no formal obligation to set objectives or report.  In the past, it has had few or no staff to support it.  That is starting to change.  While the remit still needs to be clarified, there is now a national Anti-Corruption Plan for the Champion to deliver; the remit has switched back to include domestic corruption (under two Champions the remit had changed to being ‘international’, somewhat implying the problem is over there, not over here); and there have been statements about the intention to report.

Here are the five priority areas he laid out:

  1. Money laundering
  2. Asset recovery
  3. Beneficial Ownership
  4. Sports governance
  5. Electoral fraud

Is this enough?  It’s getting there.  Transparency International’s own views about what Sir Eric’s priorities should be can be read here.  Three quick wins would be:

  • unambiguous public support for a strong Bribery Act
  • action on corruption in UK politics – for example, replacing the toothless revolving door quango ACOBA with a body that is fit for purpose
  • formalising the Champion’s role , so we know what we can rightly expect from it.

To his great credit, after his speech, Sir Eric took part in a public Q&A, on a panel with members of the Bond Anti-Corruption Group Chido Dunn (Global Witness), Sue Hawley (Corruption Watch) and Beck Wallace (CAFOD).  Another first – along with his willingness to speak to the press.  He is certainly getting high marks for transparency and accessibility compared to his predecessors.

We learned some other things from the Q&A to supplement the speech (reading between the lines – not directly quoting):

  • although corruption did not feature large in his thinking when he was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he now thinks local government corruption needs a second look
  • not all Ministers are unambiguously supportive of the PM’s anti-corruption agenda
  • the Government is starting to believe that the transparency and corruption risks in the Overseas Territories are a significant problem – it’s no longer just civil society putting forward this message.

But looming over this broadly positive start is a black cloud.  The day before Sir Eric spoke, the Ministry of Justice had announced that one of the key actions under the Anti-Corruption Plan was being placed on hold – the plans to create a ‘failure to prevent economic crime’ offence.  The rationale was implausible to the point of being risible, that ‘there is little evidence of corporate economic wrongdoing going unpunished.’  I spent much of yesterday speaking to City lawyers about this – the type of lawyers who usually represent large companies.  They were astonished, and believe it is a big mistake. Moreover, this comes hard on several actions by BIS that are very off-message with regards to the Government’s declared strategy – plans to water down the Bribery Act guidance,  an extraordinary dilution of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and an apparently unilateral deregulatory review of Anti-Money Laundering procedures.  It’s a contrast to the more positive  approach BIS has taken to some other areas, such as implementing the public register of beneficial ownership. Confused? I certainly am.

All in all, with BIS apparently threatening to undermine the achievements of the PM and the Inter-Ministerial Group on Corruption, it’s becoming fairly clear that the Government has some hard work to do to sort out  whether it is just talking a good game, or whether it will really act when necessary.  The irony, of course, is that those business lobbyists who continue to fight against the Bribery Act and related areas are not representing mainstream business opinion, and are basing their case on hearsay not evidence.  By contrast, the Government’s own research shows that the Bribery Act is not causing problems for companies and there is a vast body of research showing how reduced levels of corruption benefits business.

And the verdict on Sir Eric? The UK needs an effective Anti-Corruption Champion because there is much to do: delivery of the national Anti-Corruption Plan; delivering an effective Summit in 2016; and tackling the priority areas he has laid out.  Of course, it’s too early to tell how effective Sir Eric will be.  The antics of BIS and now the MoJ are discouraging and may easily counteract any positive achievements he is able to make.  But in the league table of previous Anti-Corruption Champions,  Sir Eric is currently looking like the leader.