Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International UK: exclusive interview
As the UK prepares to host an anti-corruption summit designed to break the deadlock on global action, Robert Barrington, the UK head of Transparency International tells Matt Ross that Britain could boost the summit’s chances by getting its own house in order
It’s wrong to talk about whole countries as corrupt, argues Robert Barrington; even where corruption is widespread, there are plenty of honest and public-spirited people.
“In most of the countries accused of being corrupt, the citizens themselves are the most passionate anti-corruption advocates,” he says. “They live in a society which is poorer, where the infrastructure is crumbling, where they can’t get access to health or education, where there’s no foreign investment because their rulers are corrupt – and they don’t like it any more than we would.”
“One thing that guards against corruption is having strong institutions, an effective civil service with a strong ethos about serving the public,” Barrington adds – so when civil services themselves become corrupt, the cancer of self-interest spreads ever faster through countries’ other institutions. Yet even in corruption hot spots, some civil servants always try to do the right thing ¬– “highly-principled people full of integrity, who absolutely loath the system they’re in and realise it’s bad for the country. They’re often the bravest, most courageous people you’ll ever find.”
Barrington is executive director of the UK chapter of Transparency International (TI): a global pressure group campaigning against corruption. In part, TI-UK’s work involves preventing British businesses from feeding corruption overseas – and he was closely involved in the passing of the UK’s 2010 Bribery Act, under which people with British connections can be prosecuted in the UK for giving or accepting a bribe anywhere in the world. It was the last piece of legislation passed by the 2005-10 Labour government, and Barrington praises parliamentarians in both houses.
Acting on corruption
“We had distinguished legal minds in the Lords demolishing some slightly charlatan arguments that certain interests were trying to put forward in the Commons,” he recalls. “And the Commons, to their credit, maintained an all-party consensus despite fierce lobbying from some business groups.” As a result, Barrington believes, the UK probably has the best anti-bribery legislation in the world – though he criticises budget cuts at the Serious Fraud Office which, he says, help explain why the law’s produced so few prosecutions.
Does he accept that the Act – as some opponents argue – puts the UK at a competitive disadvantage when investing or trading overseas? “In most countries, if you set out to do business in a clean way then it may take longer, it might be more difficult, but you’ll find a way,” he replies. “In some countries, that’s pretty hard; so there you have to make a choice. And if you’re a Chinese company, you typically draw the line in a different place from a company governed by the Bribery Act. So you can say that UK companies are losing out.”
“On the other hand, there are lots of laws we have because they’re social goods,” he continues. “We don’t allow our companies to use child labour, even though that would make them more competitive, because we understand the damage it does. Equally, corruption is very damaging, both in economic terms and to individuals – and as a company, you probably don’t want to be complicit in that.”
The scarcity of prosecutions could suggest that the UK has very low levels of corruption: where are the greatest challenges here? “A fascinating thing about the UK is that very little is known about corruption here,” he replies. “That’s partly because nobody collates the data; there’s no bit of government whose job it is. And in TI’s view, the reason for that is that the UK government is very complacent about corruption. There’s a sense that it doesn’t really happen here, so we don’t need to do all the things that we urge other countries to do – gathering data, having good anti-corruption defences and so on.”
In fact, Barrington argues, the UK suffers from a “peculiarly British form of corruption” in which the establishment colludes in “the legalisation of things that look dodgy” (see also news article). People living within the ‘Westminster bubble’ at the top of politics, business and the civil service, he says, often create systems permitting activities that appear unprincipled and corrupt to the wider public. “There are some clear areas where you can see the defences [against corruption] are weak,” he comments. “In UK politics, whether it’s lobbying, the revolving door [between business and government] or party financing, there’s been a series of low-level scandals that nobody has sorted out.”
He cites the case of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind as a “very interesting example of things that are wrong with the system that the establishment doesn’t think are wrong with the system.” After an undercover TV reporter filmed the two former foreign secretaries offering to lobby for a Chinese firm, a parliamentary investigation found that they hadn’t broken any rules – but Barrington says it’s worrying that “former British foreign secretaries can be bought by a foreign company for a relatively low amount of money.”
Similarly, 2009 leaks revealing MPs’ exorbitant expenses claims caused huge anger against politicians – yet “most MPs I talk to will not consider that it was corruption. They feel slightly hard done-by,” he points out. “Pretty much everybody else sees that as the front-centre example of corruption. So there’s a real mismatch”.
Following the MPs’ expenses leak, a new and tighter system was established – and Barrington points out that such revelations often do generate concrete action. Similar leaks in other countries have brought “massed populations out on the streets protesting against corruption, and that’s had a knock-on effect in all sorts of ways,” he says. “Normal people are the biggest victims of corruption and they feel very angry about it. And the more transparency there is the angrier they feel, because they can see what’s being done to them and who’s doing it.”
Being clear on clarity
When such public anger forces reforms that squeeze out corruption, the outcome can be a good one; but Barrington urges governments to get ahead of the game. “If governments are voluntarily transparent, it’s a process that to some extent they can control,” he points out. “They can ensure that the information put in the public domain is accurate and timely, and they can take action beforehand. Whereas if they’re reactive and wait for people to hack into the system or leak documents, it’s completely out of their control.”
The recent ‘Panama papers’ leak showed again how an uncontrolled data release can threaten a government’s plans – for the UK is hosting an International Anti-Corruption Summit in London on 12 May, and the naming of UK prime minister David Cameron’s father in the papers will have raised eyebrows amongst the invitees.
“What [the PM] was caught up in personally was not corruption, as far as I can tell from what was put in the public domain, and it would be unfortunate if that came to overshadow the summit,” comments Barrington. “But the Panama papers did show a link between [the UK’s] Crown dependencies and overseas territories and the global system of corrupt capital flows; and also the role of pretty respectable firms – of lawyers and accountants and intermediaries – both in those offshore areas, and here in London and the UK, who are part of that system. That at one stage was on the agenda for the summit to address, and I think it’s a critical point; I hope it’s still on the agenda.”
“The onus is on the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to show why they are a legitimate part of the global financial system, and the only way they can do that is through much greater levels of transparency,” he adds, noting that they “have fought at every turn against transparency, and that raises red flags all over the place.”
Agenda item 1: the agenda
At the time of writing, it’s not clear whether this issue remains on the summit agenda. “As far as we can gather, the negotiation over the agenda is going right down to the wire,” comments Barrington. “The early intimations are that it’s a pretty far-reaching, ambitious and potentially very high impact agenda, but the results will depend on who they get on board to sign up to the key provisions.”
That, in turn, will depend on whether any of those countries that Barrington calls the “blockers” show up. “Most anti-corruption summits fail because some of the people around the table are themselves corrupt and want the summit to fail,” he says, “but this one should be different, because it invites countries that really want the anti-corruption agenda to succeed.”
In a bid to bring together a coalition of the willing outside the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) – a global group that moves at the speed of its slowest member – UK prime minister David Cameron has confined his own invitation list to a group including the G20 countries and keen Commonwealth nations. But even within the G20 it is, as Barrington says, “pretty obvious that not everybody is a high performer on the corruption agenda.” Might the invitations received by countries such as Russia, which have a poor reputation for corruption, be less than fulsome? “I sincerely hope so!”
If Cameron’s summit generates substantive action, we may see the world’s nations divided into pioneers and laggards on the anti-corruption agenda; and Barrington sees this as a sensible way to make progress. “This will never be said by the British government, but it seems pretty clear that if UNCAC was working optimally then you wouldn’t need this kind of summit,” he comments. “It may be that you need a twin track approach; an UNCAC approach that can be seen as lowest common denominator; and a higher-aspiration group”.
A good clean race
In time, he thinks, anti-corruption high-performers – with tighter standards and effective enforcement – could enjoy the economic and social benefits of clean business and government, inspiring others to join them. And the two-speed system will help identify “the non-cooperators, the people who aren’t taking corruption seriously. And then the world community can increasingly start to take action on those who are clearly recalcitrant.” This latter group might, he speculates, end up subject to much tighter controls on activities such as trade and asset purchases.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: Cameron must first make his International Anti-Corruption Summit a success. In part, that will rest on his credibility as an anti-corruption campaigner; and that, so far, is built more on rhetoric than delivery. The government did publish an Anti-Money Laundering Action Plan on 21 April, including a strong proposal for ‘unexplained wealth orders’ (see box) – but the action itself has yet to come: the plan is “bold and imaginative in places, but the most bold and imaginative parts are all being put out for consultation – they’re not commitments,” comments Barrington. “It’s still a matter of wait and see.”
“The question is: are other governments going to be willing to turn up at take part because the UK has the credibility to be able to talk about corruption?” says Barrington. “I think governments that are inclined to act on this will probably want the UK to go a bit further, particularly on the overseas territories and Crown dependencies – because they’re such a big weak spot.”
Without stronger commitments, he fears, Cameron the anti-corruption crusader could find the blockers exploiting chinks in his armour. “The countries that would like this whole thing to go away could find quite a few excuses to accuse the UK government of hypocrisy and to shoot this down,” he concludes. “There are only a few weeks to go until the summit – but the more our government can do to close off those avenues of criticism, the better.”
Read our news article for more on Robert Barrington’s views on corruption in the UK; or watch his five thoughts for better government below
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