The latest cash for access scandal may well have highlighted yet again the murky world of party financing and lobbying but overall the UK can pride itself on not being corrupt; Transparency International places it in the least 20 corrupt nations in the World. How does this tally with opinion polls showing that almost three quarters of the British public think corruption is a serious problem in the UK that many consider has got worse in recent years?
Whether the public perception is wrong, there is a profound gap between public and expert definitions of corruption or if there really is a big problem with corruption, the Government should probably act; the public certainly think it is central Government’s responsibility.
A major sticking point is the definition of corruption. The business leaders consulted for the Transparency International global ratings naturally focus on the prevalence of bribery, conspicuous nepotism and so on.
Public polling makes it clear they don’t think this is a big issue here; they consider the country to be broadly meritocratic with a relatively low level of bribery, although the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry may change that. Instances of ‘corruption’ highlighted in the surveys range from MPs employing family members to large companies avoiding tax to lobbying and party funding in general. It is a class of activity less than seeking direct personal financial advantage that is explicitly against the law; it is more subtle rent-seeking behaviour, hard to catch by legislation such as the Bribery Act.
This soft corruption is highlighted regularly in Private Eye but seems to escape the notice of the mainstream media and civil society until something particularly outrageous happens, such as the recent Peter Cruddas scandal. Public perception over the extent of corruption is despite of, not because of, the media’s treatment of the issue.
The Liberal Democrats should be taking the lead on this; they have a staunch potential ally in the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and a need to reinvigorate their new politics credentials. Implementing the recommendations of Transparency International’s report on the state of corruption in the UK would be a good start.
We must try to find a more realistic definition of corruption that makes it clear what sort of ethos should be at the heart of public life and what behaviour is unacceptable.
A more robust public sector audit system, politically but not policy neutral with a wider remit should be established and allowed to roam freely across British public life, having the power not only to identify, but to right wrongs. This should build on the work of the Audit Commission, National Audit Office and others, rather than looking to outsource this function to the big consultancy firms, who just might have some vested interest outside of public service. A bolstered audit regime would look not just at how public money is spent but how power and decision making are distributed and used.
At root ignoring this problem will have damaging consequences for the economy and the amount of faith the public places in political institutions. Recognising the problem, even if it is only one of perception, must be the first step.
* Tom Smith is Director of Liberal Insight, the new liberal think tank.