Good Act, deplorable guidance

Robert Barrington is Director of External Affairs at Transparency International UK

The UK has had a long wait for a law that is compliant with the 1997 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, and this week the Government finally announced that the 2010 Bribery Act will come into force in July.

It is a good law, and builds on the experience of other such laws around the world, and where they have failed and succeeded.  Facilitation payments will continue to be illegal; there will be greater scrutiny of gifts, hospitality, agents and contractors, and it creates corporate liability for bribery.  But it has an Achilles Heel: the Government’s official Guidance, whose publication this week fired the starting gun for the Act to come into force.

The Guidance dilutes the Act and, some experts believe, exceeds the powers of the Minister of Justice, to the extent of undermining the intent of Parliament in passing the law.

Parts of it reads more like a guide on how to evade the Bribery Act, than how to develop company procedures that will uphold it.

For instance, non-UK companies could be listed on the London Stock Exchange, pay bribes and get away with it. This will disadvantage all honest companies and – perversely – turn on its head the Government’s stated aim of creating a level playing field through the Act’s extra-territorial reach.

The reason for this is easily explicable: intensive corporate lobbying by interested parties.  But what remains inexplicable is the Government’s naivete in giving in to lobbying that results in honest UK companies being commercially disadvantaged.

Corruption matters to the UK Government.  Taking a strong anti-corruption stance should allow the UK to speak with authority at times when it matters, such as in Afghanistan and in the Arab Spring.  The new Government is a year old, and has yet to set out its anti-corruption strategy.  Judged by its deplorable approach to the Bribery Act, it has made a very poor start.

Read TI UK’s statement criticising the  UK government’s guidance.

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