The governance of the UK’s response to corruption: who is in charge?

Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, summarises two new papers in the CSC Discussion Paper series that address the question of how, and how well, the UK approaches the governance of its anti-corruption response.

When studying corruption, there is a lot of talk about governance.  Sometimes, it seems like a politer and more positive term to use than corruption, and sometimes it’s because good governance is seen as an effective defence against corruption.

To date, there has been little analysis of the governance of corruption: in other words, how a country provides oversight and accountability for its response to corruption.  This is fundamental, because as anti-corruption responses increase in number and complexity, there is a basic question about who is conducting the orchestra – and whether they have the powers, remit, resources, support and status necessary to do the job properly.

Two new papers in the CSC Discussion Paper series address this question in the context of the UK.

The Role of the UK Anti-Corruption Champion looks at a post, appointed by the Prime Minister, that is both important and frustrating.  The role, which has existed since 2006, is important because the Champion is responsible for overseeing delivery of the UK’s national Anti-Corruption Strategy, and in the absence of anyone else in charge, this is what we have.  But it is frustrating because ‘there are some structural flaws which date from the way in which the role was originally created…too many areas around a role of this importance have been, and remain, vague and ad-hoc.’

Of the seven Champions to date, some have been very poor, and some have been much better.  The paper looks at each Champion individually, and assesses their personal achievements in the role, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the position as a whole.  Although the post has matured over the years, it is still not fit for purpose considering this person is at the centre of the UK’s anti-corruption response.   The paper concludes with five recommendations to make the role more coherent and effective:

  1. Terms of Reference: create and publish adequate Terms of Reference;
  2. Status: respond to the House of Lords Bribery Act Committee recommendations that the role should be at Cabinet or Ministerial level; and related to this, consideration should be given to re-locating the civil service support unit, JACU, back to the Cabinet Office;
  3. Accountability: formalise the accountability mechanism for the role and the discharge of its duties, and allow proper parliamentary scrutiny of this;
  4. Institutionalising the role: remove the highly inappropriate element of Prime Ministerial patronage by institutionalising it, and ensuring there is a swift re-appointment when the role is vacant;
  5. Transparency: remove unnecessary secrecy – for example, over the name and date of appointment of the Champion and the membership of the Inter-Ministerial Group on Anti-Corruption that the Champion co-chairs.

But The Governance of Corruption in the UK argues that since the post of Champion was created as a knee-jerk reaction to the BAE Systems scandal of 2006, the UK has missed out on a  proper review of how it should govern its approach to corruption; having an Anti-Corruption Champion may not be the right answer to the question of how the UK should plan, coordinate and implement its response to corruption.  Many countries have tried to fill this gap by creating an Anti-Corruption Agency; the UK has addressed other issues like Modern Slavery by creating an Independent Commissioner.  Would either of these be suitable for the UK?  We don’t know, beause they have never been properly looked at.  What we do know is that the UK’s response to corruption is split between dozens of agencies and departments, with at least two ministerial committees giving some form of oversight, little transparency and rare attempts at public accountability.

A reasonable counter-argument is that although the system looks to be messy from the outside, the UK has made considerable progress over the years.  The issue is therefore not whether the UK can continue to get by with its current approach; but how an improved approach might better help the UK achieve its stated objectives.

Ultimately, having reviewed numerous documents, and drawing on more than a decade of practical interactions with the UK government, the conclusion is that ‘above all it is simply not possible to answer one key question: who is in charge of overseeing the UK’s national well-being with regard to corruption?’  Regarding the role of Anti-Corruption Champion, particularly the important place it currently holds in the UK’s anti-corruption governance, the paper recommends that ‘after nearly fifteen years and creating a new Strategy, the Government should be reviewing the alternatives that exist – and if it concludes that the UK is best served by having the Champion at the core of its governance, re-design the role accordingly.’

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