News 25th Jan 2018

What does the UK’s Anti-Corruption Champion do?

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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The UK has had an Anti-Corruption Champion since 2004.  There have been seven: Hilary Benn, John Hutton, Jack Straw, Ken Clarke, Matt Hancock, Sir Eric Pickles and – appointed in December 2017 – John Penrose.  The brief started off as attached to a Cabinet Minister;  moved to someone who attended Cabinet, and thence to a former Cabinet Minister on the backbenches, and now to a backbench MP.  The post’s location has moved from the home department of the minister in question (DFID, Business, Ministry of Justice, Business again), to the Cabinet Office, and now to the Home Office.  There have at times been long gaps between appointments, with the recent gap of six months being the longest so far.  The post is confusingly described as ‘a personal appointment of the Prime Minister’.

What can we discern from this?  It would be easy to conclude that things have been going downhill – no longer at Cabinet level, a long gap before the most recent appointment, and the location moving from the centrally-coordinating Cabinet Office to an outlying ministry.  But there are grounds for cautious optimism.  The most eminent of the previous incumbents were also the least effective.  One lesson from the past fourteen years has been that what most counts is the interest and energy of the individual office-holder.  Moreover, the unit created to provide civil service support to the Champion, the Joint Anti-Corruption Unit, has survived threatened cuts.

But what does the Anti-Corruption Champion actually do?  This has been a source of mystery over the years.  TI has repeatedly pressed the government to publish terms of reference, and the Government has steadfastly refused – until now.  In the past two months, a couple of documents have been published that shed more light on the matter than ever before.

The Anti-Corruption Strategy has the following clues:

‘The Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion, John Penrose MP, will challenge and support the government in implementing the strategy. He will also help to bolster UK efforts on organised crime and wider economic crime, and advocate for stronger international action against corruption.’ [Introduction]

‘The Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion will take responsibility for helping drive delivery of the strategy as well as representing the government’s anti-corruption agenda in the UK and internationally.’ [p.5]

‘We will… Undertake a review of procurement risks in local government by the end of 2018. This will be led by the Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government in collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion.’ [p.49]

‘Across government we will ensure that our efforts are joined up in the following ways…The Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion will take responsibility for helping drive delivery of the strategy as well as representing the government’s anti-corruption agenda in the UK and internationally.’ [p.66]

‘The Anti Corruption Champion will play an important role in enabling more proactive engagement with the private sector and civil society. We will especially do this where it helps to promote open and inclusive societies.’ [p.67]

More importantly, a submission by the UK Government to a UN review contains, for the first time, a clear job description for the Champion:

‘The Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion is a personal appointment of the Prime Minister. The Champion is supported by JACU in overseeing the Government’s response to both domestic and international corruption. The main elements of the role are to:

  • Scrutinise and challenge the performance of departments and agencies.
  • Lead the UK’s push to strengthen the international response to corruption and to represent the UK at relevant international fora.
  • Engage with external stakeholders, including business, civil society organisations, parliamentarians, and foreign delegations making sure that their concerns are taken into consideration in the development of government anticorruption policy.’ [pp.7-8]

So now we know.  It has taken fourteen years to get to this point, but this is progress – and particularly because the role has been clarified as being to champion the anti-corruption cause through ‘challenge’, not simply to champion whatever the Government happens to be doing, irrespective of how well the Government is doing it.  What should be on his agenda?  Here are my top five:

1. Work out how to address political corruption – at Westminster – the area of corruption in the UK that the public are most concerned about.  It is poorly addressed in the strategy, which highlights two challenges the Champion will face: vested interests, who want him to look the other way; and a wonderful British complacency which claims that corruption happens in lots of other places, and their parliaments, but not here.

2. Make sure that transparency and anti-corruption provisions are properly integrated into new trade agreements – the Commonwealth Summit could be a key focus for this if those involved get their act together.

3. Keep up pressure on the Government to reform the financial services industries in the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, which need public registers of beneficial ownership among other improvements

4. Keep up pressure on the NCA and other law enforcement bodies to make sure they deliver on investigating and prosecuting corruption; recent changes in legislation have improved the framework within which they work, and it’s time to show some real results

5. Gain a proper understanding about where corruption is happening in the UK, and in what form, and on what scale – is it prisons, police, local government, border security, corporate bribe-paying, etc; Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, Manchester, etc.  We know far less than we need to for evidence-based policy-making; the Champion needs to get a much better picture so that he can challenge the Government to act in the right places.

John Penrose has made a good start, reaching out to stakeholders, holding a public launch event for the new Anti-Corruption Strategy and reportedly pressing for the government to deliver on its long-held promise to create a register of foreign property ownership.  It is in the interests of all UK citizens that he succeeds: we wish him well.

Correction: subsequent research suggests that the first Anti-Corruption Champion was appointed in 2006 and not 2004.  Government documents are contradictory on this point, but contemporary press coverage suggests the date of 2006 is correct.