Opinion: Corruption – We can do better than this

The UK is more corrupt than Qatar. That’s not my judgement, but that of the World Bank and their Control of Corruption Index. This places the UK 18th in the world, behind not only Qatar but Iceland, Chile and Liechtenstein.
It’s easy to sound jingoistic with this sort of comparison, and I really don’t mean to. So here’s an even more worrying comparison. In 2010, the latest year the World Bank has collated its figures for, the UK received a control of corruption score of +1.48 (on a scale of -2.5 to +2.5). In 2000 its score was +2.17. The influential Corruption Perceptions Index put together by the anti corruption NGO Transparency International shows a similar trend, with the UK’s score falling from 8.7 in 2000 to 7.6 in 2010, although with a slight improvement to 7.7 in their latest 2011 survey.
In the last 10 days I have read, and agreed with, several well argued articles putting the case that the Liberal Democrats need to find a few core issues on which we can build a distinctive image that reflects our ideological position, builds on our work in government and could be popular. Looking at these figures I humbly suggest that the fight against corruption, big and small, should be at least one of those issues.

It’s not that the UK is a massively corrupt country. It isn’t. However, when we talk about corruption in this country we tend to lurch from scandal to scandal without taking in the bigger picture. This is that most people in this country, rich or poor, believe that money can buy influence and that few people really believe this can change. It is beliefs like this that show that we have a problem.
Tackling corruption is an aim that is completely consistent with other Liberal Democrat and Coalition aims. Corruption is bad for economic growth as it distorts markets, entrenches monopolies and reduces the efficiency of government spending. Corruption leads to increased government spending and decreased tax revenues, making it harder to reduce our fiscal defect. Finally, corruption is deeply unjust and contributes to an unequal society where the voices of ordinary people count for less and their opportunities are fewer.
I believe that the UK can and should be right at the top of any measure of control of corruption. This should not be too hard as most of the countries ahead of us are either our close neighbours (Germany, The Nordic Countries, The Netherlands and Belgium) or share many aspects of our political system (Australia, Canada and New Zealand). As a former resident of Hong Kong I am deeply proud of the work that the UK did to clear out corruption before handing the territory over the china, work whose legacy remains in the fact that Hong Kong too does better than the UK on measures of international corruption.
We can do better than this and we should do better than this.

* Simon Beard is Academic Programmes Manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and a two time PPC for Dartford. He lives in Cambridgeshire.

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  • Daniel Henry 14th May '12 - 4:28pm

    Surely it’s obvious to say that we must do better.
    The bigger questions is a matter of HOW.

    Any suggestions?

  • We could do better by actually prosecuting people under the international convention on the bribery of foreign public officials. Instead we took forever getting it into UK law it took three attempts because government lawyers kept cocking up! At present the Serious Fraud Office hasn’t brought a case to trail. Unlike the Americans and the French (who we like to always portray as being very corrupt in winning international contracts).

    It was pretty shocking how little media and parliamentary attention the decision by Tony Blair to halt the investigation into BAE systems deals in Saudia Arabia. Strangely this happened just before Swiss Federal Prosecutors handed over bank records to the SFO. Clearly the timing was purely coincidental in this decision and not because it would have exposed Saudia Princes, HM Government and BAE systems of any guilt…

    Getting rid of the serially incompetent and inefficient SFO and replacing it with better investigating body might help. I believe this may be happening with the creation of the National Crime Agency so perhaps there will be some improvement.

  • Simon Beard 14th May '12 - 6:21pm

    Tim and Daniel – Yes, I have plenty of suggestions about what we can do, but I think the most important thing is that we should as a party affirm that we believe it really is possible to do better and to commit ourselves to doing so.

    It may surprise you to know that the Lib Dem’s don’t appear to have made any new policy on corruption and standards in public life since the mid 1990s. Naturally things have moved on since then, and indeed many of the things we asked for are now laws. Of course this doesn’t mean the party isn’t still interested in tackling corruption, but I think that like most of the nation we have preferred to react to each new scandal, often with little more than hand wringing and jumping on other people’s band wagons. There does not seem to be any energy going into working out how we can proactively reduce corruption, rather than reactively closing doors we all knew existed once a Sunday paper has decided to make an issue of them. My first idea therefore is that FPC should set up a working party on controlling corruption and that it should be tasked with producing a set of policies aimed at doing what I suggest here, making the UK the least corrupt country in the world.

    What might such policies look like? Personally I would say they should include some form of independent commissioner against corruption. This was the model that worked so well in Hong Kong helping the territory move from somewhere famous for its endemic corruption to a state with an anti-corruption culture so strong it has withstood the influence of being ruled by a country where corruption is still endemic (again this isn’t my judgement but that of the World Bank and Transparency International). Such a person needs to be fully independent of political control, able to investigate corruption at any level, given the resources to do a good job, including the power to compel people to give evidence and to launch prosecutions against those who are found to be acting corruptly. Why would this be so important? For one thing it would mean that somebody other than the Sunday papers was concerned with exposing corruption to the public. For another it would unify policy against corruption, which is currently split between different departments, senior ministers, the cabinet office and various QUANGO’s, allowing many cases to slip between the cracks. I know this might sound like just creating another layer of bureaucracy, but I think the for dealing with corruption it has been shown that self-regulation is never enough. Finally, Simon, I think such a commission would be the best way of increasing the number and success of prosecutions, which I absolutely agree is a vital step in tackling corruption, and also people’s perception that corruption is being tackled.

    Another policy I would hope it might consider is the removal of quasi judicial powers to the judiciary, leaving them in the hands of politicians creates to many temptations!

    Finally, Alex, yes corruption can be hard to define at the edges and it isn’t always illegal. In one respect anybody whose political message will appeal most to those with the time and money to support them in getting elected is going to find it easier, so there will always probably be an imbalance of influence. I think however that there are too many cases that appear clear cut, like paying for access to ministers or giving those who have chosen to award you a contract a well remunerated job to go to for this to be a concern that holds us back. We can do an awful lot of good by trying to stamp out all of these sorts of things, and then we can have a debate about what else needs to be dealt with as well. Let us not let the best be the enemy of the good here.

  • Tackling corruption is very worthy. But corruption is, by definition, behind the scenes, out of public gaze. Corruption is almost as old as the oldest profession. The average person in the street know that corruption goes on, and has done so, ever since Adam was a lad. It’s not accepted, but they know it goes on.
    But, what about tackling the kind of blatant corruption that goes on in plain sight? The kind where politicians say they will do one thing and then cynically do the very opposite.
    Today Nick Clegg said that the proposal for regional pay differences for teachers (or anyone else?), was not on the cards.
    Do you believe him? Does the average voter believe him?
    But before you start with corruption/dishonesty in general society, how about tackling the LibDem internal stuff first?
    How about this? Tony Blair cynically used the Labour party as a vehicle for his power despite the fact that he was neither a socialist or Labour.
    David Laws anyone?
    Tackling corruption is admirable. For the LibDems right now, tackling trust is vital.

  • Paul Reynolds 15th May '12 - 2:11am

    Yes the Lib Dems have made new policy on corruption. Recently. A policy motion was passed at Conference on large scale civil service corruption and conflicts of interest a couple of years ago. Conference goers were shocked to hear that tthere is no absolute prohibition on civil servants having direct financial interests in companies that they were contracting with in large scale procurements, and to hear how easy it was in the UK to reward civil servants, legally, with multi-million pound payments. The motion called for a proper civil service law passed by parliament, (the UK is one of three countries in the world without one) and other measures.

    The motion blamed corruption and conflicts of interest, not incompetence, for many of the major procurements scandals of late – in defence, transport, welfare, NHS and Home Office.

  • Daniel Henry 15th May '12 - 2:34am

    Good ideas Simon – definitely need the attention you suggest.

    I’ve been thinking lately that most voters really don’t care about ideology, they just want a government that’s honesty and competent. I think strong anti-corruption measures would be very popular.

  • John Roffey 17th May '12 - 4:27pm

    @ Daniel Henry

    I did offer this a while ago.


    It seems to me that corruption has become so endemic, that only a root and branch solution, such as this, can reslve the issue,

  • I hate it when we’re 18th in a list and people pick on 2 or 3 places that are above us and highlight them as though (i) it;s a surprise that they are and (ii) it’s a disgrace that they’re above us …. personally, having watched the news in the last year, I’m not at all surprised that Chile is deemed less corrupt that the UK. Why highlight it?

    it’s the same in Wales where, under endless Labour assembly governments education standards (and everything else) are the least impressive in the UK – but the press always report that they are ‘lower than Azerbaijan’. Why?

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