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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“Everyone should be allowed to bribe”

I had an interesting discussion the other day at a Fundraising event. Sitting opposite me was a businessman who also does a tremendous amount of work for charity. We got into a discussion on corruption – specifically, bribery. The discussion centred on how “the Bribery Act was causing business a lot of trouble” and that the UK “as always” was taking it seriously whereas other countries would not. We would therefore be undermined and lose business.

I argued differently. Working for Global Witness since 2007 (I left in late 2011), I had played a small part in working to get the Bill into law, then to ensure the guidelines made sense and have since worked with organizations like the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) to provide guidance (I wrote their guidance on the Act) and chaired their Bribery Act conference at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011.

The businessman, actually a very interesting, successful and intelligent individual, suggested that, to make it fair, “everyone should be allowed to bribe” as much as they liked.

It was a Fundraising event, so not the time for a row – nevertheless, it reminded me sharply about how the world works and how it is split between those who understand the chaos that endemic bribery causes and those that see only the micro-economy (through the eyes of individual businesses) rather than the macro-economic chaos and individual misery that bribery causes.

We live in a disjointed world

I have recently been involved in the filming of a documentary on corruption that will go out later this year. So, although I have left Global Witness (which campaigns against natural resource-related corruption and conflict), I have stayed in touch with the issue.

It is easy when involved within an NGO to forget how business folk (as I counted myself for many years) can disassociate themselves from wider issues. I spent most of my career in business and those who are very successful are completely focused – like an athlete focused on winning a gold medal at the Olympics. The best are relentlessly single-minded in the pursuit of gold – the best business people are similar. This means that they are completely focused on what benefits their business.

This is why the US Chambers of Commerce have been waging a war on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for some time. The USA has, since the FCPA was brought into being in 1977, been way ahead of the field in anti-bribery law. This has heated up recently as the US authorities have piled into those who are believed to have breached the Act and, mainly through out of court settlements, have gained hundreds of millions of $ in fines and caused real change in US companies and how they operate outside the US especially.

But, the Chambers of Commerce believe that this puts the US at a disadvantage as other countries don’t have similar laws, they believe, or flout them.

Of course, this is no longer the case in many parts of the world. The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention was signed up to by 39 countries and the Convention is a tough one. As a result, the UK was eventually shamed into all-party support for anti-bribery legislation and the Bribery Act was the outcome – which came into law in July, 2011. It is actually a tougher law than the FCPA – making facilitation payments illegal, for example, and making the bribery of anyone (including government officials) a criminal act if it affects a decision. However, if a company has good processes and trains its staff well (Adequate Procedures), Directors of the company are unlikely to be prosecuted. Let’s face it, the funding of prosecutions is also likely to mitigate against major cases being developed.

However, the Act has led to a large industry being developed in training and in new processes. I was on the working group in the UK that brought in guidance for the not-for-profits (charities and NGO’s) in the UK (under the auspices of Transparency International and Mango) so saw very clearly how every organization (business or not-for-profit) could be affected by the Act.

This new anti-bribery industry has seen a number of lawyers move from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to private industry – confirmation if needed for business people that the whole thing is a cash generator for law firms and those in them and nothing more.

The equivalent of the “revolving door” that has been denigrated for years when politicians or civil servants enact laws or make project decisions and then move to senior positions in companies, is now taken as a serious concern by business people who see the same situation used against them! There is an irony there somewhere.

Corruption hurts

Business people see anti-bribery legislation as a problem. It makes business (in their opinion) more difficult in the same way that early 20th Century business people saw health and safety legislation as a problem. I am sure that many business people in the 19th Century saw government money being used to build the sewer system in London as a huge drain on their wealth and a public use of funds that proved that their wealth creation was being used against them – even if for the public good.

So, it must be galling to see anti-bribery legislation (which is international in concept and which is aimed at benefitting the poor in the poorest countries) put into force. In the USA, business is working to erode the law that has been in place successfully for 35 years – a law that has led the world. In the UK, there is irritation (maybe mounting anger) at the Bribery Act. And its implementation costs.

Business folk (and I was one for many years) see the short term and their bottom line. They find it hard to associate themselves with the wider questions about how corruption transfers wealth from the mass of people to a few – as, say, in Angola; how it ensures that money is spent on items that are not needed – very expensive air traffic control systems  in Tanzania, for example; how it adds to the price that poor nations pay; how nations like Nigeria are completely beholden to corruption as was England in the 18th Century – a nation where every job, every hospital appointment, every legal decision is likely to be subject to payment / bribes. Look at Greece and its current malaise – not paying tax is a symptom of a society corrupted – so much of the economy is bribery-induced – the black market is a corrupt market and leads to short-term benefits and long-term disaster.

Values are not for sale

The Bribery Act is now in place in the UK; the FCPA has been tried and tested in the USA for 35 years; 39 countries have signed up to the OECD convention. Yet, we probably face a bigger problem. The growth of nations such as China, India and Russia face us with enormous challenges as each nation is, in its own way, a centre of corruption.

China has adopted a Confucian posture – hit hard at home to rid itself of the endemic corruption that is at the centre of its totalitarian heart while allowing corruption to exist where it trades – such as in Africa. The Confucian spirit allows it to leave alone the nations with which it does business at the same time as Western nations attempt to apply governance to aid budgets. This is a time of real challenge and western countries should be working more than ever to instill values not just trying to compete for short-term gains. It used to be “if we don’t bribe, the French will”;  now the same phrase is directed at China, Russia and India (the home of www.Ipaidabribe.com).

We should not allow our values to be for sale for short-term benefits even in times of economic stress.

Is Bribery good for Business?

There are examples of businesses that have high values and most do not engage in bribery. Usually, those with the highest values are large businesses that know their CSR will be shaken by reputational problems. It makes business sense not to take the risk – bribery is bad for business.

Medium to small businesses, where the main opportunity for employment growth exists in most countries, are less concerned with CSR – which most think of as meaningless nonsense. Societal issues are way down the list of priorities – international issues are nowhere.

Hemmed in (in their view) by unjust legislation on all sides that seeks to choke off the spirit of enterprise, small businesses fight to survive daily. To them, bribery may be a necessary part of life. So what if people overseas suffer as a result – jobs are created for British firms and if we don’t do it, someone else (like the Chinese) will.

Globalisation in this context means nothing but cheap supply chains, cheap overseas labour and opportunities for exports. Globalisation does not mean we should take account of international problems.

Like 19th mill owners who fought sanitation bills as bad for business, who (in the main) were not interested in the health of their workers, who were only constrained by legal changes, many business people will only react to changes in the law because they are focused on their business and anything that adversely affects that business is bad – by its very nature. Bribery may allow business to take place – if a British company is not allowed to do it, business may well be lost.

Is bribery good for business? Of course not – just like the death of a worker because of shoddy safety systems, just like the gradual reduction in bullying at work because most acknowledge it is not needed – we inherently know that bribery (the corruption of people to make decisions go our way) is abhorrent. The impact is grotesque and cannot be justified even for a few extra short-term jobs.

Relentlessly focused business leaders know that bribery is wrong (at least most do) and, apart from the most extreme libertarians, understand that globalization means that the rules of business engagement are going to be made international. We cannot for long assume that developing countries will, for long, expect to be treated as the working class of 19th Century England. The class structure of international business will, over time, lessen just as we have made changes to our own class structure in Europe and North America and elsewhere.

Good business cannot “allow everyone to be bribed”. It is not just an ethical position, but a business one. Business should be undertaken on a level playing field where no-one bribes – we should be striving to ensure that bribery is minimized not allowed everywhere. Rules or norms are basic for societies to function. In a global society, the norms need to be widely applied. Bribery is bad – we all know it. Business leaders, here and in the USA, should be leading the fight – not over-reacting and running in the opposite direction.