The UK Government’s Corruption Problem

Professor Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex

The UK has had a precipitous fall in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the most widely used and cited ranking of countries in the field of corruption. The UK has moved from 11th place down to 18th, its score going from 78% to 73%. Is that significant? Small falls in the score, or large drops in the ranking when several countries are tightly bunched, can be largely written off as statistically insignificant. But regrettably for the UK, this year’s decline in score and ranking are statistically significant.

This should come as no surprise. The US position took a similar tumble in the Trump era. The measurement period for this year’s result largely coincides with the tenure of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. As I have written elsewhere, there was more corruption and corruption risk in and around the Johnson government than any British government since the second world war. Although former PM Sir John Major had already delivered his verdict that the UK was ‘politically corrupt‘ it can be hard to state this with conviction, when there are a series of apparently isolated incidents, some of which are clearly corrupt, some on the borderline, and some are disputed.

The Johnson government was notable for having barely a month without some new scandal related to standards, probity or integrity – and at times, out and out corruption (of which the Owen Paterson case and certain PPE procurement cases have most usually attracted that label). Viewed as individual incidents, each one might be written off as untypical, or the result of a rotten apple, or open to more benign interpretation. However, at some indefinable point such scandals aggregate into a larger picture of corruption, and the experts whose opinions feed into the CPI have now delivered their damning verdict.  

Perhaps it does not matter. One index from one NGO, when much else is happening in the world. Actually, it does matter.  The CPI has been heavily critiqued by academics, but after nearly thirty years of existence, is still closely watched by those who analyse political risk, by the media, by the business community, and by other governments.  It affects reputation, confidence and investment. And it is usually an indicator of other sets of problems – political instability, democratic decline, and rising inequality between a venal political elite and the interests of ordinary people. That will be the likely conclusion that the wider world draws from this year’s result.

The government will find it difficult to ignore this. Although many countries routinely criticise the CPI’s methodology when they perform badly – a standard response from Russia, China and Venezuela – the UK government has previously used the CPI as one of the measures of its success in tackling corruption. Moreover, there may be worse to come: CPI scores that are linked with ongoing scandals tend to get worse before they get better.

We need not undertake a detailed analysis of the Johnson government to know how the UK got here. Even now, we still see the fallout of a Prime Minister who casually set aside the standards of public life, reflected in the Zahawi tax affair and the claims that the then Prime Minister’s appointment of a senior banker to chair the BBC was linked to his own financial affairs. Investigations continue into PPE procurement, Tory donor Baroness Mone, and even into Johnson himself. The Johnson era did not just feature endless scandals and credible allegations of unambiguous corruption, it was accompanied by attacks on the constitutional checks and balances that provide institutional safeguards against corruption: the media, the civil service and the judiciary. The UK looks much more like Viktor Orban’s Hungary than the Scandinavians, Singapore and New Zealand, who head up the CPI table.

The last time the UK did this badly in the CPI was in the aftermath of the BAE Systems scandal around fifteen years ago. At that time, the Brown government took swift corrective action: it introduced the Bribery Act, responding to the prime reason for the UK’s declining position. Of course, the CPI does not actually tell us the reason for a country’s score: but just as the correlation between the previous decline and the BAE Systems case was inescapable, so it is with this year’s correlation with the actions of the Johnson government.

What should Rishi Sunak do? There are three obvious things, and then a more structural change to consider. First, he should accept in full and immediately the 34 recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which reported in November 2021 to a resounding silence from the government. Conveniently, those recommendations have already been put into a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Lord Anderson – the Public Service (Integrity & Ethics) Bill – which the government could decide to support. Secondly, he should appoint an Anti-Corruption Champion, a post which has been vacant since the last one resigned in disgust in the dying days of the Johnson premiership. Finally, he should publish a new national Anti-Corruption Strategy – the previous one expired in December – and placed at front and centre of this strategy should be an acknowledgement that the UK now has a problem with political corruption.

Even if Sunak were to do these things – and there is little sign to date that he will fulfil his proclaimed goal of ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’ – the UK still has an underlying problem with what might be described as the governance of corruption. What the Johnson government demonstrated is that the UK system of standards, integrity and defences against corruption can be fundamentally undermined by the person at the apex of all decision-making – the Prime Minister. For the UK to restore its reputation, it needs a system which acknowledges the threat that comes from those who are themselves corrupt getting into positions of power.

France and Australia are among the countries that have recently created anti-corruption agencies, which have previously been rarely part of the institutional set up in developed economies. Such countries have tended to take a multi-agency approach, with lots of different bodies doing different things. The UK has sixty-six different bodies responsible for corruption, plus the police. That may have worked in the past, but the UK now needs a system which incorporates independence and coordination alongside a mechanism that has the teeth and remit to prevent corruption in and around government. The result of this year’s CPI is telling us that the current system for the governance of corruption in the UK has failed: serious consideration needs to be given to updating it with institutions that are fit for purpose, and this should be a high priority for any government that values integrity, professionalism and accountability.

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