UK Parliamentary Committee supports Bribery Bill

by Joint Committee

first published 28 July 2009

Despite signing the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention back in December 1997 and ratifying it one year later, the UK has been slow to implement its measures into domestic legislation.

In March this year, however, the government published a draft Bribery Bill, which a Joint Committee comprising members of both Houses of Parliament scrutinised in May and June, taking oral and written evidence from a wide range of individuals and organisations, including The Corner House.

The Committee's final report, published on 28 July 2009, "strongly support[s]" the draft Bribery Bill. The report's opening paragraph states:

"It represents an important, indeed overdue, step in reforming the United Kingdom's bribery laws, which have been a source of criticism at home and abroad for more than thirty years."

The draft Bribery Bill would introduce the specific criminal offence of bribing foreign public officials, required by the OECD's Anti-Bribery Convention.

The Corner House emphasised in its oral and written evidence to the Committee that, for this offence to have any preventative effect, the draft Bill needs to ensure that the offence is investigated and, if the evidence so warrants, prosecuted without the investigation or prosecution being concerned that it might affect the UK's economic interest or upset relations with another country and without it taking into account the identity of the particular individual or company involved. These considerations are required by the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention (Article 5), but are completely unenforceable within the UK because Article 5 is not incorporated within domestic law. The Corner House also submitted to the Joint Committee a legal opinion on the issue.

In its report, the Committee stressed vigorously that:

"Article 5 of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Convention must, at a minimum, be enshrined in guidelines applying to all prosecutors. Confidence in the criminal justice system will be undermined unless this important principle is both protected and respected. We recommend that the Attorney General take the earliest opportunity to ensure that this happens." (para 183)

The Committee closed its summary by stressing that "the Government must focus on the need for rigorous enforcement [of the Bribery Bill], including the resources this will require. We believe it is an investment that is well worth making."

In addition, the Committee recommended stiffening another new offence directed at companies that fail to prevent bribery by persons acting on their behalf; it proposed that a commercial organisation should be made "strictly liable" for such bribery.

The Corner House had stressed in its submission that bribes are invariably paid for company benefit and advantage rather than solely for an employee's or individual's personal gain. The Serious Fraud Office itself has noted that "individuals do the bribing, corporations benefit."

The challenge now is for Parliament, currently on its summer break until October 2009, to pass the legislation before the UK's General Election, which has to take place by May 2010. The Committee urged the Government to "find time promptly" to introduce a Bribery Bill reflecting the Committee's suggested changes.

Postscript: Parliament passed the Bribery Bill on 8 April 2010.