The unsolved mystery of corruption in Teesside

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Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, examines the recent Tees Valley Review, finding that despite claiming not to have found any evidence to support allegations of corruption, it is curiously vague about how it reached this finding; and concludes that others faced with the same information may have reached a different conclusion.

In May 2023, following ‘allegations of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality’, Michael Gove (as Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC)) laid out Terms of Reference for an ‘Independent Review into the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s oversight of the South Tees Development Corporation and Teesworks Joint Venture’. This review was into the Teesworks project, a vast regeneration converting former industrial land into ‘the UK’s first and largest freeport’, which has absorbed more than half a billion pounds of public money while providing the private sector joint-venture partners with handsome profits. The project has been dogged by allegations of corruption, not least because the local MP accused it in the House of Commons of ‘truly shocking industrial-scale corruption.’

Did this review follow good practice?

There are many things to admire about this review’s insights and recommendations on governance and transparency, as pointed out in this excellent piece in the Financial Times – but it fails to answer the central question of whether there is merit in the allegations of corruption. Here are six things anti-corruption experts would typically look for in an investigation into this kind of project to assess whether it is likely to produce a insightful report into corruption. None of these six gets a tick in the box – and big question marks hang over several of them.

1. ​Getting the Terms of Reference (ToRs) right. This is critical in making sure that such reviews are effective.  Indeed, proscribing or limiting the ToRs is a classic way of apparently investigating while not really doing so. The ToRs for the Tees Valley Review have been criticised by the local MP, Andrew McDonald, for drawing the scope of the investigation too tightly. The ToRs start badly –  framed with the premise that “The department has seen no evidence of corruption, wrongdoing, or illegality”, which might be seen as a less-then-neutral framing of the Panel’s work. The ToRs then proceed to list seven “specific questions/issues [that] have been identified for the review to explore”. There are two problems with this list: a) none of the seven questions asks “is there evidence of corruption or a high risk that corruption has occurred?”, b) they are all questions about process and governance rather than about actual wrongdoing. For example, Question 6 asks for “An assessment of the robustness of local systems and operations in place to guard against any alleged wrongdoing” rather than to find out whether there was any wrongdoing. Moreover – and crucially – this process being commissioned is consistently described as a ‘review’ and not an ‘investigation.’ It is hard to think of any ‘review’ with ToRs of this nature that has ever succeeded in uncovering corruption.

2. Explaining what the Panel means by ‘corruption’. A definition of corruption was, for example, outlined at some length in the Morgan Report into the Metropolitan Police. What the Tees Valley Panel was looking for is clearly fundamental to what it is likely to find. Yet the 96-page report contains no definition or description of corruption.  This means we do not really know what it was looking at, making it much harder to evaluate whether it did a good job. Was it trying to find evidence of bribery, or breaches of the Bribery Act? Or cronyism, perhaps linked to conflicts of interest? Or misconduct in public office? Or significant breaches of the Nolan Principles? Or (like the Morgan Report) institutional corruption? Or was it on the lookout for something else? The UK does not have in law a general offence of ‘corruption’, although the Law Commission made proposals in December 2020 for a ‘corruption in public office’ offence, which might have provided a good starting point for the Panel’s considerations. But from the report as published, it is not possible to tell what the panel was looking for.

3. Specialist expertise. We might expect that Panel members reviewing corruption have some known expertise in the subject of corruption, or if not that they have expert advisors to hand. The biographies of the Panel members have not been published on the DLUHC website but, although the Panel members are clearly very familiar with local government and local authority accounts, none of their publicly-available biographies (LinkedIn and a university website) mentions corruption. This is not to imply that they lacked other skills or expertise, but to note that in the specialist area of corruption which they were asked to ‘review’, none of the Panel member’s biography claims that they have an interest or expertise in corruption. Such gaps might be supplemented by having expert advisors, but there is no information or evidence that such advisers were called upon.

4. Soliciting written or oral evidence from corruption experts. Where might the Panel have looked for written or oral evidence to assist in their ‘review’ of corruption? In many countries, a natural place to turn would be the anti-corruption agency, but the UK is in a minority of countries in the world in that it does not have an anti-corruption agency. Instead, the UK has an Anti-Corruption Champion, appointed by the Prime Minister. However, the most recent Champion resigned his post in June 2022 and was never replaced. Neither this former Champion, nor the civil service team that supported him (the Home Office’s Joint Anti-Corruption Unit) is listed as having given evidence. Nor are any of the civil society organisations that specialise in this area – such as the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition, Transparency International UK or Spotlight on Corruption. A couple of journalists (notably Private Eye’s Richard Brooks) are listed as having given evidence, but it is notable that of the 49 people who gave evidence, well over half were either from the organisations under review or were politically affiliated to those under review.

5. Reviewing appropriate evidence. The report states that “we have found no evidence to support allegations of corruption”. This of course begs the question of what evidence the Panel reviewed – as well as what kind of corruption the Panel was actually looking for, and therefore where it sought to find the evidence. The report states ‘we have reviewed over 1400 documents’ – which may sound a lot, but compare this to the Serious Fraud Office, where, according to its former Director, “a standard SFO case’s material, if printed, could fill up 22 London buses.  The documents run into many millions, with complex digital data across many different devices”. We have seen from the Covid Inquiry the importance of WhatsApp message, text messages and emails. Yet WhatsApp is mentioned only once in the report – when an individual giving evidence proactively offered to share a message to back up a statement. It looks like there was no systematic review of the kind of material where the evidence of corruption is most likely to be found.

6. Timescale and resources. SFO investigations take years, sometimes involving teams with dozens of staff. Of course, they are criminal investigations not ‘reviews’.  It is unclear what a ‘review’ of corruption really is, and therefore how long it might be expected to take. But in the six to eight months allocated for this Review – commissioned in May 2023, available in internal draft in November 2023 and delivered in January 2024 – the Panel concluded “In the time available to the Panel, we have not been able to pursue all lines of evidence or examine all transactions. We therefore chose to look at a number of significant decisions that have shaped the current arrangements”. Local MP Andrew McDonald had claimed there was “industrial-level corruption”. Might the Panel have found evidence of corruption at that scale within those six months? Possibly – or possibly not. It is worth remembering that SFO investigations into the largest bribery cases take years and lots of people. It is not an exaggeration to say that unless the corruption at Tees Valley had been both huge and unusually badly disguised, a panel with these ToRs, operating on this timescale and level of resource, would have had a very small chance of finding evidence of corruption.

What does the report actually say about corruption?

Despite having been specifically asked to review corruption, the report is actually very vague about this. Astonishingly, apart from the statement ‘we have found no evidence to support allegations of corruption’ there is not a single reference to corruption in the text, other than citation of the ToRs. Neither is there a single mention of cronyism or bribery or misconduct. This reinforces the impression that the ‘review’ did not really cover corruption in any standard or recognised way.

Let us take cronyism as an example. Although not asked to investigate cronyism, the ToRs did ask the Panel to “explore…Potential conflicts of interest between various parties”. The report concludes “conflicts of interest are not routinely recorded or articulated”. This shows the Panel usefully identifying a governance failing, but not in any way trying to determine whether unrecorded conflicts of interest opened the door to cronyism or other inappropriate conduct.

Fundamentally, for all its other merits, this is not a report about corruption, and certainly not an investigation into corruption, and so it is not a coincidence that no evidence of corruption was found. It is important to recognise that finding no evidence is not the same as there having been no corruption. On the other hand, the Panel did find a high level of corruption risks, though it was not stated in such terms; and a dearth of standard controls, accountability and transparency that would typically be expected to manage such risks. It is hard to over-state how much of a red flag this is, and how many red flags this report raises. Red flags for corruption risk are not the same as corruption: but they are an alert that a proper investigation should take place. Ironically, given the British tendency to assume corruption happens overseas but not at home, with the red flags that the report reveals, there can be no doubt that this project would not qualify for British overseas development aid.

The report’s public presentation

The Panel members’ letters of appointment from the DLUHC helpfully offered that the Department would “be on hand to provide any press support when managing interest that may be generated as a result of your review”. In other words, the Department which stated publicly before the review that it had “seen no evidence of corruption, wrongdoing, or illegality”, was to be in charge of messaging about the report’s findings. This came in the form of a ministerial statement on the report to the House of Commons, when the Minister informed the House that “Today we have the answers to the primary question about the extremely serious charges of corruption and illegality—they are not correct; they are untrue. For the avoidance of doubt, let me repeat that: no corruption, no illegality”. The Minister erroneously concludes “it has been proven comprehensively through an independent review that there was no corruption and there was no illegality”.

This, of course, is not what the report says. It actually says that “we have found no evidence to support allegations of corruption” and that time constraints meant that not all evidence could be examined. What could be examined within the scope of the ToRs and in the time available were the procedures and governance, and these are sometimes strongly criticised in the report, which produced 28 recommendations for improvement.

Moreover, the report was asked to look at ‘wrongdoing’ as well as corruption and illegality. Although it is correct to say that the report states the Panel found “no evidence to support allegations of corruption or illegality” this would seem to imply that it did find wrongdoing (the report’s carefully-crafted language makes this hard to discern, but the shockingly poor practice it describes in places is presumably intended to be read as non-illegal and non-corrupt wrongdoing). An alternative framing of the report’s findings might therefore be that it found evidence of wrongdoing but that there was insufficient time or resource to conclude whether there had been corruption or illegality. It is natural that a government, when faced with possible criticism, should seek to give the best possible version of events but the Ministerial statement stretches this very thin. We have yet to hear from the Panel members themselves.

The sense of the government offering a protective veil to the Teesworks project and its controversial Chair, the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, is strengthened by his own treatment during the review. Many figures in the public and private sector who are under corruption investigations are suspended from their roles pending the outcome. Mr Houchen, by contrast, was awarded a peerage.


Faced with the same information, another Panel might have concluded that a) there was a high risk of corruption and b) there was insufficient time, resource or information to find evidence of corruption. It is perfectly possible to believe the Panel when it says that “Based on the information shared with the Panel, we have found no evidence to support allegations of corruption or illegality” but that may well be because the conditions did not exist for such evidence to be found, or for the evidence that was found to be properly evaluated.

We should note that the Panel members had a tough job. In mentioning their apparent lack of experience in examining corruption, no reflection is intended on their overall capabilities or impartiality. Their task was made harder because it is unclear what it means to ‘review’ corruption. Moreover, it is never easy to investigate corruption, which is why so many countries have specialist teams to do it. Corruption thrives in the shadows; it is deliberately hidden; it is the work of years, and experts, to uncover evidence and prove it.  

The ToRs state that the government had commissioned the review because it “recognises that the continued allegations pose a risk to the government’s and the combined authority’s shared ambitions to deliver jobs and economic growth in Teesside”. As an exercise in restoring public confidence and putting to bed the allegations of corruption, a generous rating would be around three out of ten. It is entirely possible that there has been no corruption in relation to Tees Valley Project but this report definitely does not tell us one way or the other.

What next?

There are many lessons to be learned here, about the vacuum of local authority audit since the abolition of the Audit Commission, about the governance of such schemes, and about the desirability of having corruption offences properly in statute in a new general law on corruption. We might hope to see the auditors having corruption specifically included in the ToRs of their appointment as auditors, as was the case with the Audit Commission; and that somebody, somewhere, should be held to account for the entire abrogation of the Nolan Principles relating to accountability and openness.

Above all, there is a lingering question of how the UK should do an investigation (or ‘review’) into corruption in a public body.

There may well be other such reviews over the next few years. The Labour Party has promised, for example, there will be a Covid Corruption Commissioner. The government needs to work out how to handle such things if they are to do the job they promise. Even better, the nation should have someone whose job it is to keep an eye on corruption across the country and make sure it is not getting out of hand.  It’s far better to intervene early than to have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Whose job should it be? The role of the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion has long been vacant, and in all truth had probably run its course. A full-service Anti-Corruption Agency (like the one recently established in Australia, with a mission for “deterring, detecting and preventing corrupt conduct involving Commonwealth public officials…through education, monitoring, investigation, reporting and referral”) is probably too costly and complex to create right now. But there is a low-cost and agile alternative, that could play a role in cases like Tees Valley and Covid – an Independent Anti-Corruption Commissioner, based on an existing model like the office of the Modern Slavery Commissioner. Whatever the result of the next general election, the new government will need to consider such an arrangement.

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