The UK came under the spotlight at an international anti-corruption conference on Wednesday as the head of the OECD marked the 10th anniversary of a landmark convention by warning that some signatory countries were backsliding.

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, told the Rome ministerial conference he did not want to “spoil the birthday party” but went on to say: “Sadly, some countries are sliding back on their commitments. They are lowering their guard.”

“Some are still holding back on implementing the convention. They have almost no investigations. They have brought no cases to court. They are not being proactive.”

Mr Gurría pointedly did not name any countries in his opening statement, and stressed that overall the convention had been effective in combating the corruption of public officials by foreign companies.

However, delegates and officials said he was primarily referring to the UK and, in particular, its citing of national security as justification for scrapping a probe by the Serious Fraud Office last December into the alleged bribery of Saudi Arabian officials by BAE Systems, the arms company.

Speaking at a news conference, Mr Gurría challenged the argument used by Tony Blair’s government at the time. Mr Gurría said article five of the OECD anti-bribery convention, signed by 37 countries, did not allow national interests to be used to stop investigations. The “founding fathers” of the convention had foreseen this, he added.

BAE has denied making more than £1bn ($2.1bn) of secret payments to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, in connection with the £43bn Al-Yamamah arms deal between London and Riyadh. Prince Bandar has also denied the allegation.

Mr Gurría appeared keen not to deepen the simmering dispute between the OECD and the UK, saying the two sides were still friends and praising the speech by Lord Davidson, advocate-general for Scotland, who represented the UK at the conference.

Lord Davidson said the UK remained a strong supporter of the convention and was absolutely committed to fighting corruption.

He said the Serious Fraud Office was investigating 11 cases of transnational bribery, and would decide on at least one prosecution later this year.

Anti-corruption campaigners were delighted that Mr Gurría had publicly challenged the UK argument. Two British NGOs won a court case this month to have a full judicial review of the decision by the SFO to scrap its investigation. “This will be a blow to the UK government,” Susan Hawley, analyst with Corner House Research, said of Mr Gurría’s remarks.

Transparency International, an independent watchdog, was blunt in its criticism of the UK and Japan, and vocal in its praise of France, Germany and the US in their support of the convention.

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