All the elements of high drama are there. BAE Systems – Europe’s largest defence company – stands accused of corrupt practices in far-off (and not so far-off) lands, having allegedly bribed its way to defence contracts in South Africa, Tanzania, the Czech Republic and Romania. The authority which has doggedly pursued the investigation so far – the UK Serious Fraud Office– needs to prove it can stick with a case and demonstrate that justice is done. Baroness Scotland, Britain’s politically appointed attorney-general, herself recently embroiled in legal difficulties, is now in the spotlight again, faced with deciding whether the SFO’s case should go to court.
She should not hesitate. Though a plea bargain may yet be reached whereby BAE accepts some culpability in return for a reduced fine, Britain’s chief legal officer should live up to her rhetoric on corruption and consent to an SFO prosecution. The sooner, the better.
A quick and unambiguous decision would begin to repair the damage caused to Britain’s reputation in 2006, when a probe into alleged kick-backs paid by BAE to secure an arms deal in Saudi Arabia was scrapped under pressure from the government, which claimed national security would otherwise be put at risk.
It would also demonstrate to officials in third countries that, even with protection at home, they risk exposure in the UK when seeking bribes. Britain’s legal system should be an ally, not an obstacle, to attacking corruption globally.
A plea bargain could be painful for BAE in the short term. A successful prosecution would risk the company being blacklisted in Europe and the US. But both BAE and the SFO need a conclusion to this long-running saga.
Corruption allegations – some linked to events 10 or more years ago – have hurt BAE’s reputation. In recent years, the company has cleaned up its act, making changes in management and firing some commercial agents. But attempts to restore confidence – such as last year’s commissioning of a report into BAE ethics from a former British judge, Lord Woolf – will fail so long as allegations about its past have not been fully addressed.
BAE is a big manufacturer, employer and keystone of national defence. It is in Britain’s interest that it prosper, and that its business practices be unimpeachable. But BAE should recognise that some superficially attractive business deals are just not worth making. The SFO, meanwhile, must be allowed to proceed with its case, free from political interference.
Get alerts on UK business & economy when a new story is published