business corporate responsibility development

12 years later, Britain’s first foreign bribery prosecution

Among the many notable items of news last week, you  might have missed this one. The first prosecution of a business for bribery overseas has finally gone ahead.

It’s been 12 years since Britain signed up to the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials in International Business Transactions. The agreement recognised that bribery has two sides, the person who asks for them, and the person who offers them. Much is made of African politicians accepting bribes, with almost no attention given to the businessmen of the west who hand them out like promotional pens. Unfortunately, Britain supports its business interests by turning a blind eye. Everyone knows corruption is endemic in much of Africa. We shake our heads at it, but then use it to our full advantage to secure arms and construction contracts for British firms.

Last week however, bridge-building company Mabey and Johnson were convicted of paying over a million pounds in bribes in places such as Jamaica, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Madagascar. Among the specific cases named was a £33,o00 payment to Madagascar’s former public works minister Lt-Col Jean Tsaranasy. As someone who saw the consequences of a corrupt Malagasy government every day as a child, it gives me a certain satisfaction to see this kind of thing out in the open for once.

Why it’s taken twelve years to finally secure a prosecution, I don’t know. I can only assume the British government was saying one thing about corruption and doing another. I suspect that they were rattled by the OECD telling them off last year, and Transparency International dropping the UK in its ratings after the BAE fiasco, and now they’re trying to make back some lost ground. Either way, rumour has it that the Serious Fraud Office has its sights on BAE Systems next. Given how far up the political tree the BAE money trail goes (all the way to Tony Blair), that case could well tell us whether the government is getting serious about corruption, or just throwing the campaigners a bone.

  • Jack Straw was appointed as an anti-corruption champion last year. My letter to him below:

Dear Mr Straw,

I was pleased to hear of your appointment as the government’s ‘Anti-Corruption Champion’. This is a welcome step in the reform of the UK’s corruption laws.

As you will be aware, our record on corruption has been in question recently as a nation. Last month the UK dropped from 12th to 16th place in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index. Today’s report from the OECD Working Group on Corruption confirms that we are not acting fast enough to close loopholes in the current laws, and are failing to meet the agreements made at the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials in International Business Transactions.

We in the UK enjoy considerable freedom from corruption in our everyday lives, something that we should be very thankful for. It is disappointing to me that those same freedoms are denied to others in developing countries by our reluctance to hold our international businesses accountable. (I am particularly concerned at the use of intermediaries to circumvent our bribery laws, a practice that the OECD report says is “a common modus operandi for companies that bribe officials.”) In your new role, I would urge you to send a strong message to businesses that the UK will not tolerate corruption, and that it will seek to prosecute whenever possible.

Corruption undermines development, democracy, and confidence in the rule of law, and works against our own aid and development initiatives. I would encourage you do everything within your power to ensure that the UK sets an example to the rest of the international community on the issue of corruption.

I am glad to hear of plans for a UK strategy, and I look forward to hearing the Law Commission’s conclusions next month. These are positive steps, and I trust they will lead to decisive action in the near future.

Wishing you every success in your new role,

Jeremy Williams

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