On 18 December UK Government finally unveiled its long-awaited National Anti-Corruption Plan (see here). The plan covers pretty much every area of public life in the UK, ranging from sport to prisons, and from how British companies should do business abroad to policing issues. The 66 action points are for the most part detailed and clear. The plan subsequently looks like a genuine step forward in the UK’s attempt to get to grips with the challenges that corruption poses.
The plan is not something that’s appeared overnight. Indeed, the anti-corruption community has been eagerly waiting the day when it finally emerged – it was originally scheduled to be published in June – and it didn’t take long for their comments and analyses to appear. Transparency International UK’s Chief Executive, the ever-sensible Robert Barrington, called the plan (see here) a “ground-breaking document” and praised the government for saying more about corruption in recent times than any UK government in living memory. Barrington was also quick, however, to note that there are still rumblings in the background about, for example, closing the Serious Fraud Office (the “only law enforcement body in the UK that has corruption as one of its top two priorities”) and that only this week the the audit commission’s renowned anti-fraud unit was unceremoniously closed down.
Alex Stevenson, writing on politicos.co.uk’s website, took a slightly different approach (see here), criticising what he described as “two politician-sized holes” in the plan. On the one hand the issue of a ‘revolving door’ that helps well-connected (often ex-) politicians move seamlessly in and between positions in the private sector (see here for a controversial recent example) was largely glossed over. How these relationships should be regulated subsequently remains decidedly unclear. On the other hand Stevenson also lamented the lack of anything substantive on party funding (a favourite topic of this blog, see here and here). Given the animosity between Labour and the Conservatives on this issue, that’s perhaps unsurprising. But, Stevenson claims, no less unfortunate for that.
Given that you can never please all of the people all of the time, how much substance is there to doubts such as these? One would hope that the fact that Westminster will soon lock down and descend in to election mode shouldn’t affect things unduly, although there is of course an outside chance that the next government might have no interest in taking the plan’s aims forward. Not impossible, but still very unlikely. That having been said, the biggest problem with plans – any plans – is not formulating them, it’s putting them in to practice. As Mike Tyson once said “(every one of) my opponents has a plan … until they get punched on the nose”. Iron Mike has a point. Even assuming the very best of intentions, plans can still be very big let-downs as (often unforeseen) things get in the way and stop aims from being fulfilled. The metaphorical punch on the nose can come at any time and in ways you’re not necessarily expecting. Plus, some of the aims in this document are still just a little too vague for comfort. In the area of sport there is talk of the problems of match-fixing when the real issue is sports governance (something that is glossed over), whilst the action point (singular – point 14) on tackling corruption in prisons means everything and nothing.
The government also hasn’t really explained how it will evaluate progress. Would it not make sense for the (decidedly low-key) anti-corruption champion, currently Tory MP Matthew Hancock (the business minister with the intriguing full title of ‘Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Minister of State for Portsmouth’), to report back to parliament annually on this? It also appears to be everyone’s duty to take the plan’s aim forward, yet no one’s obligation. Political will is a notoriously hard concept to pin down (see here for one attempt to do so), but there is a feeling that if the will had been stronger, then someone would have been commissioned to take this forward as a main priority.
Ultimately, tackling corruption is – like many things in politics – not an event but a process. We will only be able to judge the plan’s success over time, and that means substantive change in key areas. Whether the resources and the commitment are going to made available to affect this change nonetheless remains very much to be seen.