Time to close the loopholes in the corruption laws

Hot on the heels of Transparency International’s rebuke a couple of weeks ago, the UK’s record on fighting corruption is . This time it is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, who are “disappointed and seriously concerned with the unsatisfactory implementation of the Convention by the UK.”

The Convention in question is the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials, which Britain ratified in 1997, and has failed to act on ever since. This is the fourth time in five years that the OECD has reminded the UK government that their efforts are insufficient. 

The heart of the problem is the UK’s bribery laws, which the report says are “characterised by complexity and uncertainty.” When the Convention was first signed, the UK’s bribery laws didn’t apply overseas, which meant that UK businessmen were free to bribe whoever they liked, as long as it didn’t happen on British soil. Amendments to the law in 2001 supposedly extended the reach of the law, but left a gaping hole:as long as you use a middle-man in your bribe, you are pretty much in the clear. 

“It is widely accepted that the use of foreign intermediaries is a common modus operandi for companies that bribe foreign officials” says the report. “The present UK law may allow such companies to do so with impunity.” There are so many holes in our overseas bribery laws that there has only been one conviction in nine years. 

It isn’t that the government isn’t working on this, they’ve just been very slow. They proposed and then scrapped a bill in 2003, have tweaked and redefined things here and there, commissioned new reports… All the while British businessmen have continued to smooth their way with a little something under the table, buying themselves an unfair advantage and reinforcing bad practice in other countries. 

I grew up in a country where corruption was rife, and the consequences are devastating on both individuals and national economies. Corruption crushes free enterprise, keeps the poor in their poverty, and rewards the least deserving. The simplest transactions of life – getting a prescription, withdrawing cash from the bank – are used for extortion. Trust is impossible in a society where anyone in a position of power, from civil servants and policemen to college professors, can demand their cut. With everyone out for themselves, there can be no cooperation, no justice, no confidence in government or democracy. Development takes three steps forward and two steps back. 

In Britain, we can consider ourselves hugely privileged to live in a country that has managed, more or less, to eliminate corruption from most areas of life. It survives in business in a limited form, but most of us are unlikely to encounter it. We should be very grateful for this, and the fact that we live without the fear of corruption makes it all the more important that we take a zero tolerance approach to those of us who offer bribes abroad. 

Hopefully, better news is imminent. The Law Commission will have some recommendations very soon, and Jack Straw was appointed ‘‘ just last week. If you share my concern about corruption, join me in writing to Mr Straw, congratulating him on his appointment and letting him know that you’re expecting decisive action this time. Here’s my letter, if you want to use that. Just right click to save the Word file and you can add your own details. 

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