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Corruption: Prosecutions

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 4 February 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many prosecutions of British citizens or companies have taken place for corruption or bribery abroad.

There have been three successful criminal prosecutions related to bribery by British citizens or companies abroad in recent years, and three non-criminal settlements related to allegations of bribery by British citizens or companies abroad by the Financial Services Authority and Serious Fraud Office.

My Lords, given that we put new legislation on the statute book just a few years ago, does the Minister share my surprise at such a low number of prosecutions? Is he aware that those of us who attended a crowded meeting upstairs last month heard from one of the whistleblowers in Kenya that nearly every one of the rampant cases of corruption there relates to a British company? He wondered why we were not prosecuting, which is why I tabled the Question.

My Lords, the UK is in the top one-third of the 38-strong OECD working group on foreign bribery proceedings in terms of prosecutions, convictions and non-criminal fines, ahead of some of our G7 colleagues. We are working well on this. It took some time after the change in the law in 2001 before the SFO was given appropriate authority. These cases take a long time to investigate—sometimes as much as two to three years. Then, if they are brought to court, they can last a considerable time. Our record over recent years in particular is good.

Does my noble friend expect a more aggressive policy towards bribery prosecutions after the Bill currently going through the House passes through into legislation, as noble Lords on all sides of the House hope will happen?

Yes, we do. As I have argued, the UK is already compliant with our international obligations following the 2001 Act; but our ambition, particularly in relation to Clause 7 of the Bribery Bill that we hope will receive its Third Reading next Tuesday, is to go beyond simple compliance and secure the most effective deterrent to bribery of all kinds in the public and private sectors, whether by rogue traders or corrupt public officials.

My Lords, noble Lords will remember that the Bribery Bill will receive its Third Reading on Tuesday. The Government have given a commitment that they will not bring it into effect until they have produced guidance for companies on how the Bill will operate. When do they think that guidance will come into effect?

I am afraid that is a difficult question to answer exactly. We will move forward very quickly with the guidance. We want all parts of the Bill to come into effect as soon as possible, because it is part of our attempt to show that we are at the forefront of dealing with bribery of this kind.

Does the Minister agree that Clause 7 of the new Bill, if enacted, will encourage British companies to audit and improve their policies on ethics, whistleblowing and corporate social responsibility, and therefore is to be welcomed? I declare an interest as a deputy chairman of a plc operating abroad.

I am grateful for that question. We have indeed had great help and support from industry, which does a fantastic job in providing jobs and exports for this country. The vast majority of firms always behave in an exemplary way. The fact that Clause 7 is supported by industry is very important to its passage through both Houses.

Is my noble friend aware that what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said was entirely right. You cannot do business in almost any country in Africa or the Middle East without bribing the relevant people. Is it not the case that about the only people who do not seem to be aware of the scale of corruption and bribery in these countries are Her Majesty’s Government? The companies use agents and claim that they are therefore not doing the bribery, but that does not convince anyone at all.

I do not take quite as cynical a view as my noble friend. In any event, we are bound by our OECD membership and by what is right to ensure that bribery, which of course takes place in this world, is minimised and that, where it is discovered, it is dealt with. I make no apologies for saying that. The policy of any Government in this country cannot be other than to say that the law should be obeyed.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that bribery does enormous damage, particularly to many developing countries, and that the Bribery Bill is an essential step in helping to defeat it?

Of course I agree, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for the part he has played in the Bill so far. As my noble friend mentioned a moment ago, bribery is a fact, but its corroding effect puts developing countries, in particular, back years and years.

My Lords, what proportion of police resource is spent on international commercial corruption and how much is spent on corruption within our foreign aid budget? In other words, to what extent is it still true that foreign aid is poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries?

I think the noble Lord knows that I will not be able to give him the figures but I shall of course write to him. If there is one thing that this Government can be proud of, it is the increase in foreign aid that has taken place during their time in office.

My Lords, do all the other G8 countries, and indeed the major commercial powers in this country, have similar legislation making bribery of their commercial interests abroad, in competition with ours, subject to the same restraint?

I think it is fair to say that every country has its own laws, habits and customs around this subject. I am in a position to speak only about our country, and I am proud to say that if the Bribery Bill goes through, it will mean that we will be among the very top countries in the world in terms of dealing with bribery.

Has the noble Lord had time to reflect on the debate on Clause 12 of the Bribery Bill concerning the merits of prior authorisation by Ministers of acts of bribery undertaken by arms of government?

My Lords, I have had time to reflect. Indeed, I and other Ministers are meeting the noble Lord and some members of his committee this afternoon. However, I have to tell the House that an absolutely vital part of the Government’s support for the Bribery Bill is that Clause 12 should go through as it stands.