Will the UK’s new anti-corruption strategy be a paper tiger or slay the dragon?

9 January, 2024 | 6 minute read

At some stage early this year the UK should be launching a new Anti-Corruption Strategy. The last one ended over a year ago in December 2022. The Strategy is already delayed – it was widely trailed by ministers on various occasions in Parliament as coming out by the end of 2023. 

Ideally, the Prime Minister will also appoint a new Anti-Corruption Champion at the same time. The last one resigned more than 18 months ago in June 2022. 

The UK should not have gone this long without an anti-corruption rudder. Last year, the UK fell to its lowest score for over a decade on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, from 11th to 18th. Public perceptions that the UK has a corruption problem are rife. A poll last September found that 53% of the UK public think the government is institutionally corrupt. 

Any additional delay in bringing forward the Strategy and Champion would risk further tarnishing the UK’s reputation as a country that takes corruption seriously, as well as its authority to advocate anti-corruption reforms worldwide. 

And with an election looming, it would be a mistake for those at the heart of government to think this is no longer a priority. As President Biden highlighted when he introduced the US’s anti-corruption Strategy in 2021, corruption is a threat to national security, global development efforts, but above all to “democracy itself.”

What can we expect to see in the Anti-Corruption Strategy?

Nearly a year ago, the government’s Integrated Review Refresh, outlined that the new strategy would provide a road map for:

  • Taking action to “close down London as a centre for corrupt elites to launder money and enhance their reputations;
  • Scaling up the law enforcement response “to detect, investigate and prosecute corruption both domestically and internationally;” and 
  • Strengthening “the UK’s institutional integrity”, including “the resilience of our democratic institutions to corruption and influence.

Government ministers on various occasions meanwhile have told Parliament that the strategy will “address the impact of corruption on our national security and strengthen trust in our institutions.”  

Most interestingly the Strategy will be framed around a new definition of what corruption actually is. The previous Strategy defined it narrowly, as “the abuse of office and position to benefit a third party… in return for payment or other reward.” As statements by ministers in Parliament show, the government is now working to a new definition that corruption is: “the abuse of entrusted power for private benefit that usually breaches laws, regulations, standards of integrity and/or standards of professional behaviour.

This definition is much broader and recognises that corruption isn’t just about backhanders and bungs but is about the underlying ethics and culture that pervades government, institutions such as the police, and business. It would cover at least some of the behaviour that is being exposed by the ongoing Post Office scandal. This would be a big and very welcome shift.

Deja vu? What the last strategies said and did

The UK has had some sort of anti-corruption strategy in place since 2014. The UK’s first Anti-Corruption Plan promised to “strengthen our law enforcement response,” improve integrity in UK institutions, tackle illicit finance, increase protections for those who report corruption, and boost transparency in government. 

The 2017-2022 Anti-Corruption Strategy similarly committed to strengthening law enforcement, ensuring the UK was hostile to illicit finance, building integrity in institutions, protecting whistleblowers and having more open government.

Both plans focused heavily on UK police, border force, prisons, and local government when talking about domestic institutions, and contained very little meaningful action on high-level political corruption. The 2014 Plan did cover work being done in Parliament around members’ codes of conduct. The 2017-2022 Strategy committed to ensuring that government departments and agencies would be able to prevent, detect and investigate corruption and fraud. But the absence of any ambitious actions to tackle risks of potential corruption at the highest levels of government now looks alarmingly complacent in light of recent scandals. 

The outcomes from the different strategies meanwhile, have been mixed. There has been considerable activity and important steps forward. However, there has never been a final report into the 2017 Strategy so we don’t know which actions were finally completed, and which left to do. 

Overall progress meanwhile, on the overarching goals has been slow or in some cases non-existent. Transparency in government for instance has plunged to new lows. And it is questionable how encouraged, let alone incentivised, whistleblowers – who are critical to exposing the secret closed-door dealings that characterise corruption – currently feel to come forward despite several reviews being undertaken.

Last year also saw a slew of reports which suggest that tackling corruption in domestic institutions still has a very long way to go. These included the Morgan report which found instances of institutional corruption in the Met Police, a Border Force inspection which found that the risk of corruption was still high, and the National Audit Office’s conclusion that the government does not have an estimate for levels of corruption or “a good understanding of the extent of corruption” in public spending.

What needs to happen next?

Corruption is clearly an ongoing and constantly evolving threat but the UK desperately needs to inject greater urgency and ambition into tackling it. Lessons must be properly learned from previous anti-corruption strategies, and the evidence base from background reviews that never see the public light of day must be properly captured and mined for new insights. 

The new Strategy will have a lot of expectations resting on its shoulders. If it is to have any real bite, the government needs to ensure that it:

  1. moves beyond committing to more reviews – a tendency in previous strategies – without concrete targets for what outcome will result; 
  1. has a whole of UK approach to corruption, to ensure ethical and professional standards are the same across the devolved institutions and as well as at both local and national levels;
  1. includes concrete action on improving ethical and anti-corruption standards up to the very top echelons of government. The welcome but somewhat half-hearted measures to tackle standards in public life announced last summer have yet to be set in motion and no timeline has been announced for this to happen. Without action in this space, the strategy’s credibility will be stretched; and
  1. is delivered with genuine involvement and consultation which draws on the expertise of civil society and academia (as well as other non-governmental actors such as the private sector), as it promised just before Christmas.

The risk is that if it doesn’t do these things, this strategy may end up feeling a little like groundhog day. 

Finally, it’s worth remembering that as the election looms, any new strategy would have little time to bed-in. After the campaign rhetoric subsides, it is critical that whoever takes the helm of the next government revisits this strategy to ensure it is as ambitious and comprehensive as possible. It will also need to review whether the architecture for overseeing the strategy should be significantly beefed up, and whether the time is now ripe for an Independent Anti-Corruption Commissioner.

Gathering clouds over Westminster: the wait for a new Anti-Corruption Strategy continues
Gathering clouds: the wait for a new Anti-Corruption Strategy continues

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