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Why we still need an Anti-Corruption Champion – and what more they need to do

Written by Robert Barrington on Monday, 1 August 2016

Since the post of Anti-Corruption Champion was created in 2004, six people have filled the role.  It started off being held by a cabinet minister; and more recently has been held by a distinguished former front-bencher with no ministerial status.  Does that means the role will now be quietly dropped?

The UK does not have many of the anti-corruption roles that exist in other countries.  It does not have an anti-corruption agency, or a single anti-corruption prosecutor, or even a government minister with corruption as an official part of their portfolio.  On the contrary, we have sixty-six separate bodies with some responsibility for corruption, plus forty-five police forces.  Since 2014, we have had a national anti-corruption plan, bringing together the disparate approaches and targets of different government departments, but with no individual empowered to make sure things actually got done.

There are pros and cons of having a focussed approach to corruption, such as having an Anti-Corruption Agency.  They can provide a centre of excellence, push through actions – including prosecutions – that may be politically unpopular, stimulate education in the field, ensure that adequate research exists, systematically engage all stakeholders including both public and private sector, provide an overview of strengths and weaknesses in the system so that early corrective action can be taken, and make sure that corruption has sufficient profile and priority that it is not neglected.  On the other hand, as British civil servants typically argue, letting each department have responsibility for anti-corruption approaches in their own domain gives them ownership of the problem, and makes it more likely that anti-corruption action will be successful.

The post of Anti-Corruption Champion was created to fill some of the gaps left by the UK’s decentralised approach.  While some Champions have done a very bad job, the rationale for the post is still sound. In fact, we need it more than ever – but perhaps in a slightly different form.

Why more than ever?  Because the threat level is increasing. A sudden change of government, a vast number of anticipated changes to laws and regulations resulting from Brexit, economic uncertainty along with pressure to generate inward investment from any source, the impetus to trade with parts of the world where corruption levels are high, the global security threat, cut-backs in law enforcement and areas of public institutions that are considered marginal such as compliance or audit functions, the sense from the referendum that injustice and inequality thrive in the country at large: this is fertile ground indeed for corruption to thrive. We need a Champion who understands this landscape and knows how to respond to it.

 The Champion’s post has three functions:

  1. Internal coordination.  Given the decentralised approach and the sixty-six different responsible bodies, coordination is key.  The Champion chairs the inter-ministerial anti-corruption group.  They need to take this seriously, and have enough clout to get senior colleagues round the table and commit to action.  Someone who does not sit in Cabinet is likely to find this more difficult.
  2. External representation.  The Champion is the spokesperson for government policy in this area, and there are both national and international forums in which the UK government’s voice needs to be heard.  The previous (and possibly current – there has been no announcement) incumbent, Sir Eric Pickles, was particularly strong in this part of the role.  He willingly engaged the wide variety of stakeholders from the OECD to business and NGOs, and his speeches always gave an insight into what the government was thinking but nobody else would say.
  3. Accountability.  Who is responsible for holding the government to account for its anti-corruption promises – or the absence of them?  This role theoretically belongs to the Champion, but those in the post have shown little appetite for taking on their ministerial colleagues since Hilary Benn.  A model that is being actively discussed is derived from one of Theresa May’s actions as Prime Minister.  When tackling slavery, she created an Independent Commissioner.  Why not do the same for corruption?

There are two other key considerations:

  1. Staffing. The Champion position only functions if there are civil servants attached.  It was never quite clear why Ken Clarke was so dispiritingly inactive when he held the brief, but he himself always blamed lack of civil service support.  Since then, a Joint Anti-Corruption Unit (JACU) has been created, and it is imperative that this team is retained.  Bizarrely, it is currently marooned in the new Brexit department having been moved wholesale with colleagues from the Cabinet Office, where it clearly needs to return.
  2. Strategy. The government is already working on a national anti-corruption strategy.  It is badly needed, and a good thing.  But these things can be done well or badly, ambitiously or unambitiously.  What is needed is a Champion with the vision to make sure that there is a world class strategy, accompanied by an ambitious but implementable action plan.

So who should it be?  The speculation is that it will be Ben Gummer, who has a broadly complementary set of responsibilities around open government and public sector integrity, and which would sensibly place JACU back in the Cabinet Office.

The appointment of a new Champion is one of the tests by which the new government will be judged by the global anti-corruption community.  Abolition, a long time lag or appointing an ineffective individual will send a signal that the government is not interested, and that despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, vested interests have won the day.  But a strong appointment with a brief to provide a world class strategy, perhaps coupled with an independent accountability mechanism, would show that the Prime Minister is living up to what she has been saying.

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.


Read 534 times Last modified on Monday, 06 January 2020 10:13

Robert Barrington

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

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