Cameron goes big on anti-corruption, but is the devil in the detail?

On 28 July David Cameron chose Singapore to go big on the UK government’s anti-corruption efforts.  The choice of Singapore will have been no coincidence; the late grandfather of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew turned the city-state from a place where corruption was endemic to one where a strong, vibrant anti-corruption commission, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, helped transform the country develop in to a flourishing, economic success story.  When successful anti-corruption efforts are the talk of the town, the Singaporean experience normally makes more than just an honourable appearance.

Much of what Cameron said (see here) is commendable.  His government is indeed making progress, and the 2014 National Anti-Corruption Plan (see here) provides a good framework for tackling the myriad of issues that the UK still faces.  On the specifics there is also evidence that Cameron wants to move forward; the thorny issue of the beneficial ownership of companies, for example, has been – to the surprise of many – faced down, and the UK is doing a good job in placing itself in the international vanguard in this area.  The 2010 UK Bribery Act, to take another example, is a piece of legislation that has many honourable facets.  There is subsequently mounting evidence that the UK has moved on from assuming that corruption happened in far off places about which we knew little.

Cameron nonetheless needs to be careful that he doesn’t go overboard on the rhetoric.  Matthew Hancock, formerly the UK’s anti-corruption champion, was largely noticeable by his absence in UK domestic politics, whilst his successor, Sir Eric Pickles, doesn’t possess a cabinet rank post.  In and of itself that need not be a major problem.  The head of the UK’s anti-corruption drive needs to be someone who has the character and dynamism to drive the agenda forward; Pickles, as even his detractors are likely to admit, has that.  But, as Robert Barrington, Head of Transparency International in the UK, perceptively noted back in May, Pickles, as then Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and local government, was strong at taking on alleged corruption in the problematic London borough of Tower Hamlets but much less impressive when he led the way in abolishing the audit commission – a body that had a clear and unambiguous role in revealing financial malpractice.  The fact that nothing of note replaced it was even more worrying.

It would be easy to get too caught up in the personality politics of Westminster.  But if the UK is going to carry on the good work that this regime has started and, even more importantly, if the UK’s anti-corruption plan is going to be something that has a long-term impact, then individuals need to be empowered to complete the tasks set out in the plan.  Someone needs to have ownership of it and to stand up and be accountable for implementing it. As things stand, this isn’t the case.

Unless this happens, we will continue to see grand speeches the type of which Cameron delivered in Singapore but frustratingly little in substantive terms. Unless someone specific is tasked with putting each of the plan’s aims in to practice then the successes that Cameron rightly flags will remain beacons in an otherwise choppy sea. Tackling corruption requires both strategy and stickability. The UK may well have a case for saying that it could have both – but someone needs to be tasked with illustrating that that’s the case in practice.

Dan Hough

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