The UK Bribery Act comes into force today.

The Act will apply to all companies who carry on business in the UK.

It is not too late to establish the corporate defence of having adequate procedures to prevent bribery provided that establishing such procedures begins as soon as possible.

Despite some uncertainty over its future the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) will remain the chief enforcer of the Act for at least the next year (and possibly much longer) until a UK government review is concluded.

The SFO has recently given useful guidance in relation to its attitude to small facilitation payments. Concern had been expressed by some companies that a complete zero tolerance to facilitation payments would mean that they could be forced to move business from certain parts of the world because they could not effectively conduct business there without paying them. In a speech on 9 June 2011, at the Russia Legal Seminar in London, Richard Alderman, the Director of the SFO, said:

“Nevertheless, of course, I recognise that these payments will not come to an end, whether in Russia or other countries, on 1 July when the Act comes into force. Our approach in the SFO has been to recognise that this will not happen. What we have said is that our aspiration is that companies generally should move towards zero tolerance over a period of time and that we shall let them do that if they keep us informed about what they are doing. I want to know, in respect of those that still make the payments, what they will be doing after 1 July to bring an end to this practice and over what length of time. I recognise that this may be a process that takes a few years but what matters is the end result.”

While it remains to be seen what approach the SFO will take in relation to enforcement of the Act and facilitation payments in particular, companies should refer to the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Justice when putting in place procedures to prevent bribery and ensure that they engage the SFO in reporting requirements where necessary.