The UK government’s decision to delay implementation of the landmark Bribery Act for the second time casts serious doubt on its commitment to combating corruption, say major aid agencies.
Global Witness, Tearfund, CAFOD and Christian Aid made the challenge to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition administration last week.
Passed with an all-party consensus in April 2010, the Act was supposed to be implemented last October, but was first shifted to April and is now delayed indefinitely.
"Bribery is neither the victimless crime nor the necessary evil that some UK companies may suggest," said George Boden of Global Witness.
He continued: "It cripples development and it’s bad for our long-term business interests. British companies should back their superior technical capacity with high ethical standards, not compete in a race to the bottom to see who can pay the largest bribes - which we would likely lose anyway."
Neil Thorns, Head of Advocacy of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) added: "Bribery of foreign public officials results in government revenue which could be used for development, being wasted on unnecessary and poor quality procurement projects, posing a risk to health and even life where essential services are affected. This risks undermining UK development assistance and ultimately wastes taxpayers’ money."
Like any other law, this one is subject to judicial discretion and common sense when implemented. Companies will be allowed to continue to provide proportional hospitality to potential clients without fear of prosecution.
Arguments that the bill is too complex or stringent for businesses to implement do not bear scrutiny, say critics. The bill underwent extensive consultation with business and NGOs before being passed with support from the business sector. The Act was passed with cross party consensus, as a much-needed update to legislation dating back to 1906, which was roundly criticised by the OECD.
The Act will bring the UK into line with countries like the US, which already have robust legislation, and meet the recent call of the G20 for every member country to introduce legislation to combat bribery.
"Bribery is already illegal, but companies are operating under laws which are chronically outdated," said Mr Boden. "Since the Act was announced last April, we have seen a concerted campaign to get it watered down, but the argument remains clear and simple. Bribery destroys lives and damages UK interests – companies which do not pay bribes have nothing new to fear from the passage of this law."
The government must now give a clear timeline for implementation, including guidance for business, and stick to it, say the UK-based global aid agencies.