New legislation to tackle corruption is on the cards in the UK, but Corker Binning's Jemma Sherwood-Roberts questions the substance of the proposed bill.
On 18 December 2014, the UK Government published “for the first time” its plan to tackle Corruption in the UK and internationally. In reality, this is a patchwork of various strategies proposed by the Government in recent years, with a few new ideas thrown in for good measure. The plan promises to “ensure that future activity to tackle corruption is joined up and collaborative across government”. The Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, the Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP, and the Minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, Karen Bradley MP, set out in the Ministerial Foreword their bold vision for the UK; to “tackle” corruption in the UK, to “set out our priorities for raising international standards” and to lead the “global fight against corruption in all its forms”.
A broad view
Fighting talk indeed from our Champion, but what does this plan give us that has not been said before? Regrettably, the plan does not seek to assist in defining “corruption” but states that it takes a “broad view” as to what the “UK public may commonly view as corruption”, which includes bribery, but also apparently the “use of corruption by criminals to enable their crimes” and “abuse of position” for “personal gain”. So far, so unclear.
The plan adopts a four pronged (and alliterative) approach: pursue, prevent, protect and prepare. It talks of “disrupting people engaged in corruption (pursue); preventing people from engaging in corruption (prevent); increasing protection against corruption (protect); and reducing the impact of corruption where it takes place (prepare)”. To do this, it states that the UK should “build a better picture of the threat of corruption”, “increase protection” by increasing integrity in “key sectors and institutions” and “strengthen our law enforcement response”.
Areas of risk
The ‘plan’, in many ways, reads like a company’s bribery compliance manual; identifying risks and stating what UK Plc is going to do about it, what it is already doing about it, or what in fact it should think about doing in the future. It looks at areas of ‘risk’ within the UK’s public sector and seeks to articulate how it should address those areas. Particular targeted areas include National Offender Management Service (NOMS) in prisons to “cover the increasing number of non-directly employed staff delivering custodial services”; increasing the Border Force “existing anti-corruption capability”; and ensuring MPs are also working in line with the “rules”, including lowering the gift list register value. The MoD, it seems, has not been paying attention and is now planning to implement not only training on the Bribery Act for MoD personnel but also a package of anti-corruption activities. There is a targeted approach to the Gambling Commission to “combat corruption in sport” and the plan highlights the (not so) new rule of allowing Crown Courts to ballot jurors by number rather than by name where the judge considers this to be “necessary” (rule 38.6(4) of the Criminal Procedure Rules, as of 6 October 2014).
There are also some esoteric but detailed proposed changes. The ‘plan’ suggests the abolishment of bearer shares which are “high risk” and “useful for criminals, including those laundering the proceeds of corruption”. It also seeks to amalgamate another issue as recently seen in the 4th money laundering EC directive: the implementation of a central register of UK company beneficial ownership information. This, it is said, is to stop company misuse through hidden ownership. Such issues do not tend to focus on corruption but may assist in a wider attack against organised crime and will no doubt be offered up to the general public in the election build-up as evidence that the Government takes crime seriously.
The plan also seeks to establish various so-called “new offences”. These include an offence of ‘police corruption’, which is actually already expected to receive Royal Assent in January this year (not such big news then) and the offence of “participating in the activities of an organised crime group” for those who “oil the wheels of serious crime” including “where the basis for that relationship is corruption” (also already announced within the Serious Crime Bill). The only genuinely new offence announced is an intention to criminalise persons who “operate as a private investigator without an SIA issued licence”. It is not clear why or how this goes to tackling corruption.
Most notably the plan suggests that the Champion is seeking to introduce some new and important legislation, but on closer examination these again appear to have nothing to do specifically with corruption but have been tagged on to amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. These include the power to “enable the use of investigative powers after a confiscation order has been made to facilitate the tracing and recovery of hidden assets” and to change the “legal test for a restraint order from one of ‘reasonable grounds’ to one of ‘suspicion’”. No further explanation is given regarding these proposals but lawyers will need to stay aware of the creep of such changes. It also seems that more may be in store as the Home Office is to consider “further strengthening the financial investigation powers available to law enforcement”. Bold words, but again no specific details are stated.
New unit to be established
To implement the plan the Cabinet Office is to establish a new cross-departmental unit on international corruption, providing support to the Government Anti-Corruption Champion. The plan in most ways seems more like a propaganda announcement of what the UK Government has done and what it plans to do in the round. There seems little innovative in its fight, except perhaps recognising some risks within the public arena and the cohesive “whole of government” approach. It remains wholly unclear how that will result in Hancock’s bold aim; “to stamp out bribery and corruption and raise global standards”.
Jemma Sherwood-Roberts is a lawyer at Corker Binning. She has extensive experience advising on a wide range of white collar, general crime, extradition and regulatory matters including investigations and prosecutions brought by the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Health & Care Professions Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Taxation Disciplinary Board.