Where the Wild things are – bribery at the edge of business


The Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e12e0efc-0d71-11e2-bfcb-00144feabdc0.html#axzz28VeYteen) reports that one third of Board members would happily bribe to win business despite the introduction and publicity over the Bribery Act that was enacted in 2010 and brought into law last year. FTI Consulting, which did the survey, believes that the Serious Fraud Office is showing no desire to investigate and prosecute low level crime and is only after the big boys (www.fticonsulting.com/…/the-realities-of-the-uk-bribery-act.pdf).

 

This is no surprise to those of us involved in agitating to bring the Act into being – 34 years after the FCPA in the US and years after we signed up to the OECD convention. Jack Straw advised that around 1.1 extra prosecutions a year would ensue from the Act – so, no real surprise.

 

The Grown-ups get it

 

The report from FTI shows that businesses are being divided into those (usually large and quoted) that comply and other who are becoming the “risk takers” – willing to go for business in whatever way and hope they don’t get caught.

 

Like tax evasion and using deep and difficult schemes to evade tax, these organizations are willing to act outside the law and depend on the SFO’s inability to implement the law.

 

The grown-ups get it, the kids don’t – but, we have insufficient numbers of grown-ups in the SFO (many of whom left to go to private industry when the Bribery Act came into effect).

 

Just like Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, our small and medium companies wander into places and get transfixed by the wilder side of business. It wasn’t that long ago that the costs of bribery overseas were tax deductible in the UK and big companies (especially in defence and aerospace, construction and energy routinely bribed to get business and keep business.

 

Now, most large UK-based businesses act like their American and European cousins and have mainly (not completely) forsaken large-scale bribery. The SFO has said it will prosecute those who threaten the stability and reputation of the UK.

 

ITV’s Exposure on Wednesday, 10th March at 10.35 (UK) – “No Bribes Please, We’re British” – takes a look at the UK one year on. I spent some time helping with this documentary made by Ed Harriman and was interviewed for it – http://www.radiotimes.com/episode/sgzfv/exposure–no-bribes-please-were-british and it looks back at how we did business before the Act – and how many still do such business now.

 

 

This leaves the kids – SME’s / SMB’s.

 

Should we worry about the children?

 

Winning business overseas (especially in the BRICs – where methods of business may be different) in any recession is tough. Competition from those who don’t worry about giving bribes (and that is much more of a norm in the rapidly growing nations of Asia, Russia and South America) is enormous and business leaders want a level playing field.

 

The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention was signed by 39 nations – all the OECD countries plus Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, South Africa and Russia (China has not signed) and aims to tackle the “supply-side” of bribery. This is where the money comes from – the wealthy nations that enable bribes to take place. It was on this basis that the UK eventually enacted the Bribery Act.

 

The question asked is now that the Act is in force and most very large businesses comply, does it matter that the smaller ones don’t? Shouldn’t we only concern ourselves with large-scale bribery and corruption?

 

While we don’t want to go back to the 18th Century when you could get sent to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread, the impact of bribery is substantial. From small-scale “facilitation payments” upwards, bribery impoverishes and kills. This sounds overly fraught maybe – but, funds diverted to projects that a country does not need means less is spent where it does – on doctors, hospitals, safety measures and the like. As bad, poor construction of buildings and bridges in China (as an example) causes death each year – the contractors are normally found to have won the work through bribery.

 

In the 21st Century and in our global economy where we are all much closer to each other economically (as customers and suppliers), we need to ratchet up the standards not diminish them. The UK is a wealthy nation that can do without involvement in helping to destroy developing nations. Bribery is a constant threat at any level as Transparency International constantly shows in their annual Corruption Perception Index. Even in industries like Defence which have been subject to anti-bribery investigations for many years, the picture is unclear as TI have recently shown: http://www.transparency.org.uk/news-room/press-releases/13-press-release/375-defence-companies-fail-anti-corruption-test

 

Now countries like Greece, whose economy has been based on corruption, are paying the price. Countries like Mexico are likewise – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/world/americas/bribery-tolerated-even-as-it-hurts-mexican-economy.html?_r=0

 

Bribery hurts those countries receiving the bribes. If we let our kids (the SME’s) run amok, then the hurt just grows. We have to keep our neighbours safe.

 

Getting an ASBO

 

In the UK, Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBO’s) are now routinely given out by police to kids who run riot in the streets and disturb neighbours. The UK was close to receiving the equivalent from the OECD before the Bribery Act was enacted. The UK had to be pushed to enact it – although all party support was eventually forthcoming.

 

Now, a year on, we see that lack of implementation (always feared by those most supportive of the Act) looks like it is providing those with more risk attuned attitudes to buck the system here and enter into the system overseas. Our neighbours (our trading partners) often don’t help – bribery takes a long time to eradicate and often governments are implicit in it. But, countries like the UK managed to stop slavery, made drug running illegal (although after we grew rich on both) and campaign to stop child-labour improve safety standards worldwide. Bribery seems a softer crime to many yet studies have continuously shown that the impact can be as horrific.

 

The UK is in recession but a get-rich-quick attitude that admires tax evasion (and tax havens) and tolerates bribery is not a modern society – it is a throwback to the 19th Century. We deserve credit for enacting Bribery legislation and we deserve an ASBO for tolerating bribery and for tolerating the use by foreign businesses especially in the energy sector that use London to raise capital on the stock exchange – and who are notorious for their poor business practices in poor health and safety and corruption.

 

The current UK Government has been mute in its delivery on anti-bribery provisions and the FTI survey – which should be a wake-up call – has received scant reaction. Watch Exposure on Wednesday, 10th October at 10.35 (UK) – No Bribery Please, We’re British. One year on from the Bribery Act, we should not be rolling back the legislation by lack of implementation.

 

 

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