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The OECD rightly harangues Britain for a dire record on tackling bribery – especially as the government is the worst offender

  • David Leigh
  • David Leigh
  • Friday October 17 2008 18.30 BST

The OECD bursts the banks of normal diplomatic nicety with its public denunciation of Great Britain’s behaviour in its latest bribery report.

The UK claims to be fighting corruption, and regularly lectures African countries and the like about the need to clean up their act and stop taking bribes for arms and engineering contracts. But the OECD anti-bribery international working party party and its feisty Swiss chairman,Professor Mark Pieth, have drawn up a report that depicts the behaviour of the UK administration itself as, in effect, corrupt.

The report paints a picture of a Labour government that spent many years, under Tony Blair, obstructing justice, evading action and making a series of dishonest promises about its non-existent intention to pass legal reforms. Ministers’ real intentions, it would appear, were to do nothing that would inconvenience British business and its traditional methods.

None of this will come as a surprise to students of history. The government archives at Kew contain the formerly top secret cabinet records of the Callaghan Labour government of the 1970s, at the time of the great overseas bribery scandals involving US arms companies like Lockheed.

Behind closed doors at Chequers, Labour ministers admitted that British companies were themselves also paying big bribes to get contracts, and so were nationalised aerospace, engineering and shipping firms for which Whitehall was directly responsible. What was to be done?

The answer, it was readily agreed, was to hush up the truth, while stalling international efforts at reform for as long as possible. British exports, and the jobs of British voters, were more important to Labour ministers than ethical considerations or international reputation.

It would appear that absolutely nothing has changed. And the exceptionally exasperated language of the OECD report is there because the OECD has no power to make Britain change. It only has the power to name and shame, when Britain flouts the terms of the international treaty outlawing overseas bribery, to which it has ostensibly signed up.

The 75-page OECD report is a detailed analysis of British shortcomings – lack of political will, archaic laws, under-funded investigators and interfering politicians. But it focuses on two key areas, one looking backward and one forwards.

The backward look is at the BAE affair, which the Guardian can take some credit for first bringing to light. The Serious Fraud Office then tried to investigate the case, after this paper published evidence that millions of pounds in secret payments were being distributed by one of the world’s biggest arms companies.

The then prime minister, Tony Blair, aided and abetted by a compliant attorney general, personally intervened to stop a criminal investigation into BAE, on the grounds it was upsetting the company, and upsetting the Saudi royal family, who had received many hundreds of millions of pounds in secret payments.

The then director of the SFO, Robert Wardle, was bullied into closing down the case. It marked a new low in the degeneration of British justice, and the OECD report slips in illuminating fresh details of how it was done.

As far back as December 2005, BAE was writing “private and confidential” letters to the attorney general, trying to get the case against the company dropped. BAE said the Saudi ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles, was busy meeting the Saudis to try and promote the new Typhoon deal and pave the way for a sales trip by the then defence secretary, Geoff Hoon. (This was the same Cowper-Cowles who laterunblushingly assured the head of the SFO that British lives would be at risk from Saudi terrorists if the case was not dropped.)

BAE also recruited ministers and officials to put pressure on the SFO. They wrote in the same month that there was “a high risk the Saudis would take their business elsewhere, at the least the Typhoon procurement, if not the maintenance of the existing equipment”.

But as well as rehearsing the sordid story of BAE’s grant of impunity, this OECD report also looks forward. It makes clear that the fundamental touchstone of British good intentions in future will be whether the government makes good its endlessly delayed promise to reform the law on corruption, and turn it into an effective instrument for corporate discipline.

The omens are not good. Jack Straw, justice minister, and the third successive, and hapless, “anti-corruption champion” to be nominated by the government, has not responded by making a definite promise to legislate, with a firm timetable. Without that commitment, all the government’s words will be seen as worthless by anti-corruption campaigners.


*Headline comment in brackets added by John Donovan

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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