How the UK could reclaim its role as a world-leading anti-corruption enforcer

Today, on International Anti-Corruption Day, we recognise the 17 years since the United Nations Convention against Corruption entered into force in 2005.

Like every birthday, this offers us an opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved, and what we can hope to achieve in the coming year.

Transparency International (TI)’s latest Exporting Corruption report will provide UK anti-corruption legislators with plenty to consider as they do so.

Of the 47 countries covered by the report, the UK and Israel were the only two relegated from ‘active’ to ‘moderate’ in TI’s appraisal of their anti-corruption enforcement deficiencies.   

However, with the UK’s AntiCorruption Strategy 2017-2022 up for renewal, the deficiencies we face today could offer us some insight into the standards by which we will be judged in the years to come.

From TI’s assessment of the UK, three key issues emerge:

1. The need for sufficient resources

The report puts the UK among a list of countries whose ‘key weakness’ is their under-resourcing of enforcement bodies.

This finding should come as no surprise after the recent publication of the Calvert-Smith report, which detailed instances of staff members at the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) working late into the night, while on annual leave, or in one case while considerably unwell as part of its broader depiction of under-resourcing at the enforcement body.

In this context, TI calls for the UK government to ensure that the SFO has the resources and leadership it needs to carry out its role effectively.

2. The role of debarment

In May, the UK government introduced the ‘Procurement Bill’ making convictions for foreign bribery mandatory grounds for debarment of suppliers.

However, the government did not apply the same debarments to suppliers in deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) or who are found guilty of a bribery offence in the ‘failure to prevent’ category.

On this basis, the report calls for the UK government to strengthen its bribery-related debarment mechanisms for public contracts, implicitly by extending them to cover suppliers who are in DPAs or who are found guilty of failing to prevent bribery offences committed by associated persons.  

3. The importance of victim compensation

The SFO, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Crime Agency (NCA) are all signatories to a statement of general principles for compensating victims of bribery.

However, TI’s report argues that the application of these principles in the UK varies on a case-by-case basis. The report recalls, for example, the 2021 DPA between the SFO and Amec Foster Wheeler, which resulted in a penalty of £103 million, of which only £210,610 (0.2 per cent) was payable as compensation to victims in Nigeria.

With this in mind, TI calls for the UK government to ‘enshrine the principles for compensation of victims into law’ and to ‘ensure adequate compensation can be given’ in complex cases.

What happens next

If this latest assessment of its efforts is anything to go by, the UK will have considerable ground to make up in re-establishing itself as one of the world’s ‘active’ anti-corruption enforcers.

Taking three key areas of concern as examples has shown us that this process could feasibly involve:

  • Strengthening the resources at the disposal of the SFO;
  • Increasing the scope of corruption-related offences leading to debarment; and
  • Legislating more decisively in favour of victim compensation.

These recommendations from TI are being released at a time when the UK is already due to update its 2017-2022 AntiCorruption Strategy. Therefore, this International Anti-Corruption Day isn’t just about looking ahead to the coming year. It may also provide us with some early indications of what the next five years of UK anti-corruption enforcement will look like.

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