On 13 October 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate:

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects of corruption in the United Kingdom.

1. What is corruption?

Collins English Dictionary defines corruption as “dishonesty and illegal behaviour by people in positions of authority or power”. Transparency International, a charity which describes itself as a “global coalition against corruption” concurs, defining corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. It highlights a range of examples of corruption, such as: public servants demanding or taking money or favours in exchange for services; politicians misusing public money or granting public contacts to their sponsors, friends and families; and corporations bribing officials to get lucrative deals.

2. What are the effects of corruption?

The World Bank has argued that corruption has a disproportionate impact on the poor, increasing costs and reducing access to services. The bank concludes that corruption “erodes trust in government and undermines the social contract” and “impedes investment, with consequent effects on jobs and growth”.

The UK government shares these concerns, with its ‘United Kingdom anti-corruption strategy 2017–2022’, published in December 2017, stating:

Corruption threatens our national security and prosperity, both at home and overseas. Unchecked, it can erode public confidence in the domestic and international institutions that we all depend upon.

More recently in the explanatory memorandum accompanying the Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations 2021, the government noted:

Serious corruption has a range of corrosive effects on states, markets and societies wherever it occurs. It fuels national security threats; is linked to terrorism, serious and organised crime and instability; impedes international trade and investment; undermines sustainable development; threatens democracy and deprives citizens of vital public resources.

3. How corrupt is the UK?

3.1 Global perceptions of corruption

Transparency International produces an annual corruption perceptions index (CPI) which ranks 180 countries and territories around the world by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. The results are given on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

The most recent analysis, the 2021 CPI, was published in January 2022. It ranks the UK as eleventh out of 180 countries, with a score of 78, an improvement of one point since the 2020 CPI. This contrasts with Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, ranked joint first, each with a score of 88. The lowest scoring countries are South Sudan and Syria with scores of 11 and 13 respectively. While the situation in the UK has improved from scores of 77 in both 2019 and 2020, the 2021 score is a drop when compared to scores of 81 in 2015 and 82 in 2017.

Transparency International has argued that progress to tackle corruption has “flatlined” in recent years. Commenting on the situation in Western Europe and the European Union, it notes:

The Covid-19 pandemic has threatened transparency and accountability across the region, leaving no country unscathed and exposing worrying signs of backsliding among even the region’s best performers.

The CPI has its critics, who note that corruption is a complex issue and different forms and levels of corruption are hard to accurately convey in one score. As outlined by Daniel Hough, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, the CPI measures the perception of corruption rather than being an objective measure. It also only examines public corruption, that is, corruption in and around governments. However, Daniel Hough describes the CPI as “a decent place to start” and “the most well known indicator of how much corruption exists”.

Professor Hough also notes that the conclusions reached by the CPI on corruption in the UK are not an outlier and are comparable to a number of the other indices of global corruption produced, commenting:

The fourth edition of the Global Corruption Index, for example, has the UK 8th in its 2021 table, an improvement of three places on where it was in 2020. In the 2021 Freedom from Corruption Index the UK came in 13th (out of 181), scoring 87 out of 100 while it was 10th in the most recent (2019) Index of Public Integrity. The World Bank also has the UK doing very well in terms of control of corruption, placing it very near the top when it comes to quality of governance.

3.2 A worsening problem?

Given the relatively stable position of perceptions of UK corruption in recent years, it is perhaps surprising to see some commentators claiming that corruption in the UK is, in fact, getting worse.

In November 2021, Robert Barrington, professor of anti-corruption practice at the University of Sussex, claimed:

[…] the UK has taken the first steps on a journey towards state capture which ends in being a mid-ranking, politically unstable semi-democracy, with a mid-level economy, in which corruption is prevalent and government is for the purpose of self-perpetuation and not the public interest.

He highlighted a selection of events which had led to perceptions that corruption was getting worse in the UK. He mentioned the Owen Paterson affair, where Conservative MPs were initially instructed to vote against the standards committee’s call for Owen Paterson to be suspended for 30 days for breaching rules relating to paid advocacy. Also highlighted were suspicions and allegations over the allocation of Covid-19 contracts to supporters of the Conservative Party and issues with the payment of then prime minister Boris Johnson’s holidays and interior decorating. Finally the Jennifer Arcuri affair, where a Greater London Authority oversight committee investigated allegations that Boris Johnson had abused his position when London mayor to “benefit and reward” the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri were also mentioned by Professor Barrington.

Barrington concludes that “it is not too late to reverse the decline and change things for the better” and suggests that recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), published in November 2021, are implemented and that the government consider setting up an anti-corruption agency or creating an anti-corruption commissioner. The most recent CSPL recommendations are discussed in further detail in section 4.3.

Daniel Hough, also from the University of Sussex, points to the time lag which exists between incidences of alleged corruption and the corruption filtering through into tables, noting “it may well be over the next few years the UK starts to slide”.

4. What is the government doing?

4.1 Anti-corruption strategy

On 11 December 2017 the government published its cross-department anti-corruption strategy, which runs from 2017 to 2022. The strategy aims to build on previous measures, such as the 2014 anti-corruption plan, the national security strategy and the 2016 London anti-corruption summit.

In the foreword to the strategy, the then home secretary, Amber Rudd, stated:

Although the UK enjoys higher levels of integrity than many other countries, we are not immune from the effects of corruption. Stories of corruption can undermine confidence in our institutions and our business reputation more widely. Meanwhile, corruption overseas threatens our security and makes it harder for UK companies to compete for business. To secure our future prosperity, we must do all that we can to make sure that Britain remains one of the safest and cleanest places in the world to do business.

She highlighted what she described as key achievements of the government over time, such as the framework provided by the Bribery Act 2010 up to the Criminal Finances Act 2017. She also drew attention to the work of the anti-corruption tsar, Conservative MP John Penrose, noting, “since 2010 the UK has arguably done more than any country in the world to fight corruption”.

The anti-corruption strategy aimed to reduce threats to national security, produce stronger economic opportunities, and build greater public trust and confidence in institutions. It sought to do this by focusing on six priorities, which were to:

  • reduce the insider threat in high-risk domestic sectors such as borders and ports
  • strengthen the integrity of the UK as an international finance centre
  • promote integrity across the public and private sectors
  • reduce corruption in public procurement and grants
  • improve the business environment globally
  • work with other countries to combat corruption

Reports highlighting progress made against strategy commitments are published annually. The most recent, published in December 2021, stated that the government had made ‘significant progress across a number of commitments in the anti-corruption strategy. The report drew attention to action such as:

  • securing the public commitment with all crown dependencies and inhabited overseas territories to implement publicly accessible registers of company beneficial ownership information
  • extending the remit of the national fraud initiative and helping local authorities to undertake bank account and active company checks
  • reforming the police complaints and disciplinary systems to make them more transparent, independent and proportionate
  • securing endorsement from G20 ministers of a G20 call to action for countries to combat corruption in the Covid-19 response and recovery
  • publishing a review of procurement risks in local government that improves understanding and strengthens our response
  • publishing the green paper on procurement reform with specific proposals to further strengthen transparency and integrity across government

The report indicated that over 50 of the 134 commitments made in the 2017–2022 strategy had been completed with a further 68 on track to be met. Fourteen commitments were either at risk or at serious risk of not being met.

In a written statement announcing the publication of the update, the then Home Office Minister Damian Hinds committed to update parliament on progress made in 2021 in the fourth annual update due in 2022. In addition, he announced that the government had started to develop the successor to the strategy, which expires at the end of 2022.

4.2 Anti-corruption tsar

Since 2004 the UK has had an anti-corruption tsar. Most recently this was John Penrose (Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare) who was appointed in December 2017. The government has outlined the purpose of the role as follows:

The prime minister’s anti-corruption champion is a personal appointment of the prime minister. The champion is supported by JACU [the joint anti-corruption unit] in overseeing the government’s response to both domestic and international corruption. The main elements of the role are to:

  • Scrutinise and challenge the performance of departments and agencies.
  • Lead the UK’s push to strengthen the international response to corruption and to represent the UK at relevant international fora.
  • Engage with external stakeholders, including business, civil society organisations, parliamentarians, and foreign delegations making sure that their concerns are taken into consideration in the development of government anti-corruption policy.”

On 6 June 2022, John Penrose resigned as the anti-corruption tsar, citing what he argued was a fundamental breach of the ministerial code by the then prime minister, Boris Johnson. While Mr Penrose highlighted a number of achievements in tackling corruption, he argued that the failures of leadership and judgment outlined in the Sue Gray report into parties in Downing Street meant:

It wouldn’t be honourable or right for me to remain as your anti-corruption champion.

To date a new anti-corruption tsar has not been appointed. The Privileges Committee in the House of Commons is currently holding an investigation into the conduct of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The matter was referred to them by the House of Commons on 25 April 2022.

4.3 Other measures

In June 2022, the then Cabinet Office Minister Michael Ellis provided the following overview of measures to ensure standards of probity in public life, stating:

There are a range of mechanisms in place to maintain and drive-up standards, including codes of conduct (such as the Ministerial Code, Civil Service Code, Special Adviser Code), policies and guidance (such as Managing Public Money), and bodies and offices charged with overseeing aspects of government activity (for example the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Civil Service Commission). The Committee on Standards in Public Life also issues regular reports with ideas and recommendations for the government and other public bodies to consider.

He also referred to the government’s work on the anti-corruption strategy.

The most recent CSPL report, published in November 2021, had included recommendations on a number of areas mentioned by Mr Ellis. The foreword to the November 2021 CSPL report, written by chair Lord Evans of Weardale, stated:

The regulation of the Ministerial Code needs greater independence as it lags behind similar arrangements for MPs, peers, and civil servants. The scope of the Business Appointment Rules should be expanded and the rules should be enforced through legal arrangements. Reforms to the powers of the Commissioner for Public Appointments would provide a better guarantee of the independence of assessment panels. Transparency around lobbying is poor, and requires better co-ordination and more consistent publication by the Cabinet Office.

Outlining the government’s response to the CSPL recommendations in a written statement made on 15 July 2022, Mr Ellis concluded:

Work on further reforms, including those proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life […] continues and will be informed by the new prime minister.

On 29 July 2022, Lord Evans wrote to both candidates in the Conservative Party leadership contest, drawing attention to the committee’s report and indicating that “the committee would greatly welcome your commitment to taking forward our recommendations”.

On 6 September 2022, Liz Truss was announced as winner of the Conservative leadership contest and therefore prime minister. During a debate on the seven principles of public life on 7 September 2022, the then Cabinet Office Minister Heather Wheeler argued that the government “continue to hold public standards in the highest importance” and stated:

The prime minister is fully committed to ensuring all ministers are held to account to maintain high standards of behaviour, and to behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect. As part of this commitment, we continue to carefully consider the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, and we will be updating the House on this work in due course.

5. Read more

Cover image by Christopher Bill on Unsplash.