Three years ago, both Transparency International and the OECD released reports criticising Britain’s laws on bribery. Generally speaking, bribery is frowned upon in British culture, and stories of kickbacks or ‘bungs’ that shock the newspapers here would barely raise a ripple in many other countries, including some of our nearest neighbours. Perhaps its a legacy of Victorian piety. Corruption still happens, but in different forms and it’s certainly not the endemic problem it is elsewhere.
Overseas however, British businessmen show no such honesty. Paying bribes to secure contracts is commonplace, as Prince Andrew proved with his unguarded comments about doing business in Kyrgyzstan recently (thank you Wikileaks.)
In 1997 Britain signed the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, which made it illegal to pay bribes in another country. But despite signing the document, we didn’t amend our laws to make prosecutions possible for those who paid bribes overseas. After pressure to reform the laws, the government amended it in 2001, but left such gaping loopholes that it made no difference. All you had to do was pay your bribe through a middle man. – “It is widely accepted that the use of foreign intermediaries is a common modus operandi for companies that bribe foreign officials” said the OECD. “The present UK law may allow such companies to do so with impunity.”
Dragging their heels, the government proposed a new bill in 2003, and then scrapped it. They tweaked things and wrote reports, appointed Jack Straw as the Anti-Corruption Champion. Finally in 2009, twelve years after signing up, we finally had the first prosecution for foreign bribery. They began to draft a new Bribery Act, and just managed to squeeze it through in the ‘wash up’ before leaving office.
Despite it being signed off by both Houses, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has put the bill on hold, delaying its implementation by sending it for review. There is mounting pressure from business lobbyists to scrap it. After all, they’ve been able to buy their way into contracts and out of trouble for all this time – surely more transparency would be bad for business. London’s free paper the Evening Standard has taken up the cause with scare-mongering stories about the damage the bill will do.
It is vital that the Bribery Act goes through. Bribery has two sides, the taker and the payer. We constantly take the moral high ground and shake our heads at corrupt African governments, but it is our businesses that pay them. It is our arms dealers and construction companies that keep those governments dishonest and their citizens deprived, while our economy benefits from the tax receipts of big business. Putting British profits ahead of transparency is nothing short of despicable.
The Global Poverty Project are running a campaign to protect the Bribery Act. Visit their site here to send a letter to Ken Clarke, and write to your own MP about it. You can find out more at Transparency International.