Last week’s publication of Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometersparked a number of headlines in the UK press and no doubt also caused a number of raised eyebrows and furrowed brows.

Whilst Transparency International surveyed more than 114,000 respondents in 107 countries, some of the results for the UK were particularly eye-catching and worrying.  A number of these are listed below:

  • 65% of people believe corruption has increased in the last 2 years;
  • 69% of people believe the media to be corrupt or extremely corrupt (a marked increase from the last survey in 2010);
  • 67% of people believe political parties to be corrupt or extremely corrupt;
  • 55% believe the UK’s political system to be corrupt or extremely corrupt;
  • 45% believe public officials to be corrupt or extremely corrupt;
  • 24% believe the judiciary to be corrupt or extremely corrupt; and
  • 90% believe that the UK Government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interests.

The dramatic increase in the perceived levels of corruption within the media (with its 69% rating bestowing it with the unwanted tag of being the sector the UK public believe to be the most affected by corruption) has no doubt been fuelled by the phone-hacking scandal, a media maelstrom that led to a lengthy and highly publicised inquiry by Lord Justice Levesonand which continues to rumble on.  This was shown by the recent conviction of a senior Metropolitan Police officer for (unbelievably) attempting to sell information about the phone-hacking investigation itself to the now defunct News of the World newspaper, the same tabloid that was put under the most intense scrutiny for its more nefarious journalistic practices.

Transparency International’s press release for the UK suggested that there was a crisis of trust in political system” in the UK and the results of the survey do not make pretty reading for politicians and political parties.  This is another area of public life that has been beset by scandals for a number of years, from the “original” cash for questions furore involving Mohammed Al Fayed and Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, to the expenses scandal that so badly damaged public confidence in politicians. Not to break from tradition, recent undercover journalism into members of the House of Lords alleged that a number of Peers were willing to accept payments to ask Parliamentary questions on topics as diverse as lobbying for new laws on behalf of a South Korean solar power firm  and championing the readmission of Fiji to the Commonwealth. This subsequently led to the suspension of two peers and the resignation of another.

How bad is it elsewhere?

Given the rather unnerving figures for the UK, it is useful to briefly consider how other countries have fared under Transparency International’s watchful gaze.  In the US, the political system also failed to come out smelling of roses, with 76% of those surveyed believing political parties to be corrupt or extremely corrupt and 61% feeling the same about the political system as a whole. In addition, a rather worrying 42% believed the judiciary to be equally corrupt and 43% felt medical and health services had a corruption problem to address (in comparison with the 19% who felt the same of healthcare providers in the UK).

This apparent crisis of trust in politics is not solely confined to the UK and the US.  The global results show that in 51 of the 107 countries surveyed, political parties were seen as the most corrupt institution and 55% of people felt that their Government was run by special interests.

Creeping levels of corruption

It is worth striking a note of caution with regards to the results of any survey.  It is a notoriously inexact science and in the UK (as was common elsewhere) one thousand people nationally were asked online questions in order to gauge their perceptions on corruption.  And whilst how any institution is perceived by the public is undoubtedly important (with public confidence in, and the legitimacy of, the institutions in question being two obvious examples), care must be taken to not confuse perceptions – however crucial they may be – and reality.

Despite the above caveat, what was most shocking about the UK survey results was the percentage of people surveyed who admitted that they had paid a bribe to a public official in the last 12 months. A worrying 5% said they had done so, a jump from the 1% who admitted to paying bribes in the 2010 survey.

Exactly where these bribes have been paid are also worth noting. 21% of people who came into contact with the judicial system resorted to paying a bribe, making this the sector in which bribes are most common.  The payment of bribes was also prevalent in relation to the issuing of permits and licences for registry and land services, with 11% stating that they had paid bribes, whilst 8% of people claimed they had bribed the Police and 7% of people admitted they had bribed people in the education system.

These figures suggest that the three prosecutions to date under the UK Bribery Act (which have seen a court clerk imprisoned for taking bribes and providing advice to help motorists avoid court summons and being disqualified from driving for traffic offences and a Bath University student imprisoned for attempting to obtain a higher mark on his dissertation) may be just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Whilst the Serious Fraud Office’s desire to obtain a “big-ticket” prosecution involving a large corporate offender is understandable, the prosecutions that have been secured to date and the results of the survey show that corruption (and attempts at it) is not confined to London’s Square Mile or the board rooms of blue chip companies.

It is with this in mind that the recent calls on the UK Government by the pro-business lobby for the UK Government to soften the existing rules on facilitation payments (dealt with in an earlier post on this blog) must be viewed.  If this attitude to so-called “grease payments” is adopted by captains of industry, it easy to see how similar attitudes can permeate into other sections of society.

The way forward

If the above figures are any way near accurate, it is hard to argue with the executive director of Transparency International, Robert Barrington, and his assertion that the UK has been “complacent about corruption” and can no longer claim it is purely a “problem overseas”.  He has called for a national corruption risk assessment to be launched and a national action plan to be drawn up, in order to ensure that all areas of the public sector have in place the same rigorous anti-corruption procedures that the Government expects the private sector to adopt as part of anti-corruption legislation.

One of the key findings of Transparency International’s report was that corruption is a real burden globally and that more than one in four people (27% of respondents) admitted to paying a bribe when interacting with public services and institutions in the last 12 months.

Yet the survey also contains some crumbs of comfort.  Nearly 9 out of 10 people said that they would act against corruption, roughly 66% of those who were asked to pay a bribe had refused and the majority of people said they would speak up and report an incident of corruption.  It should also be noted that two of the three prosecutions secured under the UK Bribery Act to date resulted from the intended recipients of the bribe refusing to accept them and reporting the matter to the authorities.

Undoubtedly, the tone should be set from the institutions at the apex of society and it is hard to argue with the majority of Transparency International’s recommendations, which include Governments ensuring they act with transparency and developing codes of conduct for members of Parliament and civil servants alike.  In the same vein, members of the public must adopt a similarly stringent attitude to corruption, by refusing to pay or receive bribes and reporting any attempts to do so.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what the results of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer are in a few years’ time.

Special thanks to Squire Sanders Manchester office and particularly trainee solicitor Philip Bonner for preparing the article below.