November 6, 2015 6:53 pm
The government undertook a “widespread, secret and one-sided consultation” that was “hugely damaging to the UK’s reputation”, according to an anti-corruption campaigner who has released emails revealing that key businesses were polled on whether to alter guidance on the Bribery Act.
Most respondents told the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills that they had no major concerns about the Act. One defence contractor went further on the implications of the consultation.
Thales, the French defence electronic company, said: “This survey seems to be sending out a message that if we eased up on bribery, UK plc would win a few more overseas contracts.”
The company added that the answer to that was: “No, in the vast majority of countries; possibly, in some and for certain, in less than a handful of others. But at what cost to the UK’s reputation,” according to emails published on Friday by Corruption Watch after a Freedom of Information request.
Companies including GSK, currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, and Agusta Westland, where two executives were cleared of corruption last year in Italy, took part in the exercise, according to the emails. Both companies said they had no concerns about the legislation or guidance.
The most severe criticism was from the Engineering and Machinery Alliance, which represents small and medium-sized companies and called for more pragmatism.
“To think that bribes do not happen in Asia and Arab countries is naive,” it said. “They are an integral, accepted part of doing business in many of these markets and therefore a necessity if you are going to export to these regions.”
The consultation, which was led by the business department and the National Security Council, sought to determine earlier this year whether the Bribery Act could be made “simpler and/or less costly to follow” and whether its implementation “could better support exporters,” according to the emails.
It follows an attempt two years ago to change guidance on the act, which came into force in 2011 and overhauled Britain’s antiquated anti-corruption legislation.
To think that bribes do not happen in Asia and Arab countries is naive. They are an integral, accepted part of doing business in many of these markets– Engineering and Machinery Alliance
The UK was pressured by the OECD group of advanced economies to introduce the legislation after the scandal of BAE Systems, when Downing Street intervened nearly a decade ago in the Serious Fraud Office investigation of alleged corruption in Saudi Arabia.
The consultation follows other efforts to row back on tough reforms. Last month, the government quietly dropped a plan, strongly supported by the SFO, to extend the act to other types of economic crime.
“The government must not let its deregulation agenda derail its anti-corruption efforts, or cave into a small section of the UK business community,” Corruption Watch said.
“This consultation exercise is hugely damaging to the UK’s reputation and the UK must now show it is prepared to put serious political effort into bolstering the Bribery Act.”
The SFO, the main agency that enforces the act, was not informed of the recent consultation. It declined to comment.
The business department said in a statement: “The government is not reviewing the Bribery Act. We are proud of the Bribery Act and serious about tackling corruption