To delay implementing the UK’s bribery law once, as the government did in July, was unfortunate. To do so a second time, as happened this week, starts to look like recalcitrance. Anti-bribery legislation is good for Britain and for British business. Aspects of this law do still need to be clarified. Politicians should have used the extra time they granted themselves to resolve outstanding areas of uncertainty. They must now finish the job swiftly – and not dilute this vital law in the process.
It is lamentable that the UK still lags behind other developed countries in its bribery rules. Implementing the new law will remedy that. Clear and enforceable rules benefit honest businesses. The legislation is the first significant reform of UK corruption rules in more than a century. Dallying longer risks harming British interests overseas and signals that the country does not take graft seriously.
Britain’s reputation was damaged in 2006 when the Serious Fraud Office scrapped its investigation into BAE’s overseas deals. The 36-member anti-bribery group of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is now calling the UK to account, and threatens to blacklist UK exporters if the government delays further. British exporters do not need that additional burden.
It is understandable that business resists onerous and expensive red tape. But this is good legislation, voted for by a cross-party consensus. The impact of these rules have been thoroughly researched; since the late 1990s, there have been detailed consultations on the need for, and provisions of, such a law.
Companies are right to press for more guidance in some areas to ensure that innocuous business practices do not fall foul of the law. Clarification is needed on what hospitality corporations may offer and accept, and law enforcers should be encouraged to exercise common sense and not prosecute technical breaches.
It is harder – but not impossible – to outline adequate procedures for businesses to follow when recruiting overseas agents. These will be more taxing than the current law requires, but it is surely right to demand due diligence in dealings abroad.
There is no defence for corruption; tackling graft should be a priority for any government. Politicians are right to clarify the details of this law. But they should get a move on. At stake is nothing less than the ethical reputation of British businesses.