Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 10:56 UK

Corrupt firms 'face phone taps'

SFO headquarters
The Serious Fraud Office says firms could enter plea bargains

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) says it will use phone tapping and surveillance to uncover British companies involved in corruption abroad.

The SFO says companies have one last chance to come clean before the new powers are introduced.

About 15 UK companies are already under investigation, according to the SFO.

Last month the engineering firm Mabey and Johnson admitted bribing officials in Jamaica and Ghana and breaking UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein.

The 15 companies are said to include major household names. The SFO has set up a team of 100 investigators to look into British firms who use bribes to win foreign contracts.

The SFO's director, Richard Alderman, is writing to UK contractors, telling them they have one last chance to admit breaking anti-corruption laws.

An SFO spokesman said: "What we're saying is, don't brush it under the carpet. If a firm co-operates then we'll look at civil action to recover money rather than criminal prosecutions."

He said firms now had the chance to enter plea bargains with investigators: "If we find out a company has known about corruption, then we can now take stronger action.

"Cover-ups at senior levels within companies aren't acceptable."

Mabey and Johnson - which constructs bridges - admitted trying to influence foreign officials to win lucrative public contracts in Jamaica and Ghana.

It also paid more than $200,000 (£123,000) to Saddam Hussein's regime, breaking UN sanctions imposed on Iraq under the Oil for Food programme.

Last year, the construction firm Balfour Beatty agreed to pay £2.25 million after it admitted financial irregularities by a subsidiary company in Egypt.

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