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Tuesday, 9 January, 2001, 18:08 GMT
UK 'failing to tackle' global corruption
The UK is facing criticism from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for not cracking down on international corruption.
Few company directors have been prosecuted for briberies overseas under existing UK law, which dates back to the turn of the last century.
But the scale of bribe-paying by international corporations in the developing world is massive, argues Transparency International, a campaign group which fights against corruption by international companies abroad.
And it argues that the UK should be taking the issue more seriously.
"The problem is no-one outside the Home Office thinks it is an offence," Graham Rodmell, co-ordinator for the group, told BBC News Online.
This week, representatives from companies who do business around the world - such as BP, UK construction firm Balfour Beatty, and drinks group Diageo - have been meeting with MPs to discuss the problem.
But, argues the OECD, this will just be another talking shop, unless the UK government takes action and pushes the modernisation of its foreign corruption laws to the top of its agenda.
A global problem
Research by the US Commerce Department has highlighted the significant role corruption plays in international commerce.
Two years ago, there was an international conference on corruption in Washington, sponsored personally by Al Gore, the Vice-President.
It is also a serious issue affecting the UK. Some 37 of the 55 companies, which the World Bank publicly blacklists because of evidence of corruption, are domiciled in Britain.
It is commonly seen as a problem in developing countries, but it can occur worldwide, John Bray, of the specialist consultancy organisation Control Risk Group, is keen to emphasise.
His firm advises international companies on how to avoid corruption when trading abroad and gave evidence to the MPs on the international select committee.
Many companies operate different standards at home and abroad.
"The main debate is about paying bribes to secure business. But there is also the question of facilitating payments to speed up transactions to which companies are legitimately entitled," he said.
He also agrees that legislation in the UK is not up to scratch, but highlights the problems faced by companies doing business abroad.
"They would generally welcome a change in the law, providing that companies from other countries are also subject to the same restrictions so that they [the UK ones] get a fair playing field," he added.
Companies doing business abroad regularly complain about facing demands for payments, which amount to extortion, he says.
But they can make their lives easier for themselves, John Bray emphasises, by having a clear policy against corruption at the outset and by making sure that all the parties and governments concerned know about it.
The UK was a signatory to the OECD's convention on the bribary of overseas public officials, which came into force in February 1999 and made the bribery of foreign officials a criminal offence.
But as yet, it has not followed other countries in changing UK law.
Until recently, the UK argued that existing legislation, which dates back to the turn of the last century, was broad enough to be applied to foreign bribery cases.
But the OECD disagreed, calling on the UK government to modernise its legislation in line with other countries that had signed the bribery convention.
"As far as we could determine, there has not been an effective prosecution under existing [UK] laws, this wasn't good enough," Enery Quinones, the head of the organisation's anti-corruption unit, told BBC News Online.
"No-one's going to be as bad as the UK, to put it bluntly. We found problems in other countries' legislation, but at least it's there," she added.
'A deadly virus'
Home Secretary Jack Straw upped the war of words in the summer of last year, by describing corruption in global business as a deadly virus which must be fought "wherever it is found".
But still there was no mention of the issue in the Queen's speech in December, where the government sets out its legislative programme for the coming year.
Although a Home Office spokeswoman did tell BBC News Online that the government was "looking to bring in legislation at the earliest opportunity".
But campaign groups such as Transparency International are still waiting for a firm date.
"There is still no sign at all of when this might become law," David Murray, spokesman for group's UK division said.
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