How the UK can start to reverse a decade of anti-corruption decline

The new Corruption Perceptions Index has set off alarm bells for the UK’s approach to public-sector corruption, but politicians are not the only ones who need to wake up.

The UK has dropped to its lowest-ever position in the global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The latest annual ranking of 180 countries by perceived levels of public-sector corruption showed that the UK fell from 11th position in 2021 to 18th last year.

Above: UK Corruption Perceptions Index Ranking

The CPI’s authors at Transparency International (TI) offered several explanations for this.

Recently, the UK has suffered accusations of VIP lane’ access for businesses with political connections; House of Lords seats provided to wealthy governing party benefactors; and donations made by property developers to ministers responsible for housing, all of which has led to what TI calls a ‘worryingly low’ public trust in politics.

Below, we set out what this could mean for the UK private sector.

1. Stronger enforcement bodies

The CPI calls for anti-corruption agencies to receive ‘sufficient resources’.

Although pitched globally, this recommendation could easily be directed at the UK. We discussed in a previous piece the troubling lack of resourcing at the UK’s Serious Fraud Office.

What is notable from this latest development is that lack of resourcing appears to be a global issue, underpinning concerning developments in our efforts to counter corruption more broadly.

In this context, we could feasibly see a strengthening of enforcement bodies in the UK and abroad.

2. Stricter scrutiny of lobbying

The CPI also calls for governments to ‘limit private influence by regulating lobbying’.

Again, although the target-audience is global, the UK could easily take this one personally. As shown above, many of the UK’s most recent corruption scandals relate to influence over public officials by private actors.

This recommendation could add wind to the sails of the ‘Foreign Influence Registration Scheme’, a controversial plan to increase transparency around foreign lobbying in the UK. It also has the potential to influence the outcome of the House of Commons Lobbying and Influence Inquiry, which recently heard calls for stricter regulations around ministerial meetings with lobbyists.

Taken together with these developments in Westminster, the CPI’s recommendations could be seen as part of a broader increase in the scrutiny of private sector lobbying in the UK.

3. A new anti-corruption ‘champion’

Finally, the CPI’s creators call for the UK to establish an anti-corruption ‘champion’ and ‘strategy’.

The UK’s previous anti-corruption champion, John Penrose, resigned last year amid the ‘party-gate’ scandal.

One of the role’s key responsibilities was to ‘drive the delivery of the UK’s Anti-Corruption Strategy’, a framework for the implementation of government anti-corruption policies, including in the private sector. However, this strategy has remained unrenewed since it expired last year.

The UK is therefore arguably without leadership or direction on corruption. Amid the announcement of its worst-ever CPI ranking, it will be difficult for legislators to argue against reinstating both.

What happens next

The UK’s latest CPI results were described by TI as worthy of ‘alarm bells’.

If these bells ring true in Westminster, where many of the most significant accusations are targeted, we could see the UK Government acting on the CPI’s recommendations, bringing the potential for:

  • Increased action by UK enforcement bodies, as their anti-corruption powers are strengthened  
  • Stricter rules around lobbying of the UK political system by private actors
  • A revised UK anti-corruption agenda, with the re-introduction of a strategy and a ‘champion’ 

We believe it will take a lot for the UK to regain its position among the CPI’s top ten, but the scandals underlying these latest results show us that private actors need to play a part in this process.

These ‘alarm bells’, therefore, could represent the first step towards meaningful improvement, but only if the private sector also wakes up to the need for change.   

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