News 11th January 2013

National Action Plan priority: Anti-corruption

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

Where: The Open Data Institute

When: 10 January 2013

Introduction

On 15 November, members of the Cabinet Office Transparency Team and the civil society network met to scope out the areas of the UK’s next open government National Action Plan. Four areas were identified based on the UK Government’s priorities and the civil society network’s vision for the Open Government Partnership:

  • Extending the principles of openness and transparency
  • Moving forward the global agenda on openness and transparency
  • Participation and open policy making
  • Anti-corruption

A document was drafted after the 15 November session, based on the civil society network vision, that sets out some examples of policies and issues that the civil society network would like to consider under each of the themes.

Over previous and coming weeks, sessions are being held on each of these areas in turn to begin discussions with relevant policy makers regarding the policies and commitments that could be included under each. A schedule of these meetings can be found on the Open Government Partnership UK website.

On Thursday (10 January), we held the third session in the series, on ‘Anti-corruption’. The following sets out the general areas of discussion, rather than providing a verbatim account.

Attendees

Andrew Palmer (Devint); Beck Wallace (CAFOD); Joseph Powell (ONE); Joseph Williams (Publish What You Pay); Paul Bumstead (Independent); Tim Davies (Practical Participation); Claire Schouten (Integrity Action); Chris Taggart (Count Culture); Gavin Hayman (Global Witness); Alice Powell (Publish What You Pay); Andrew Parsons (Public Concern at Work); Melissa Lawson (Tearfund); Simon Burall (Involve); Tim Hughes (Involve); Ilaria Miller (Transparency Team, Cabinet Office); Laura Clarke (Transparency Team, Cabinet Office); Hugo Gorst-Williams (Ministry of Justice); Sarah Mackie (Home Office); Simon Whitfield (Department for International Development); Dave West (UK Border Agency).

Focus of meeting

What would civil society like to see in action plan? What is ambitious but realistic? What can become commitments in the action plan? What should be pushed in other forums instead?

Cross over with other forums

There was some discussion regarding whether initiatives that are dealt with in other forums should be included in the open government action plan as well.

It was suggested that including things in the UK’s open government action plan helps make a statement and provides a benchmark for other countries. A number of people commented that the UK has a role to play as a thought leader and showing what can be done.

In addition, the Open Government Partnership provides a helpful umbrella under which different things can sit. However, it was highlighted that there’s a need for consistency and to ensure that it’s the best way to do it.

It was also commented that by its nature corruption fits into a number of different areas and that there’s a need to bring those different areas together.

It was suggested that the OGP could be used as a statement about how micro policies should be working, providing another mechanism for reviewing their implementation.

Three layers of anti-corruption

Three layers of focus for anti-corruption were identified:

1)    Legislation layer – ensuring there are good quality laws that are rigorous

2)    Data and information flows – joining them up and improving standards and disclosure

3)    Implementation and use – building the micro level skills and macro level systems

It was suggested that there is nothing currently in plan at the implementation layer.

Open data and anti-corruption

There was some discussion of the importance of open data for combating corruption, but that there is a need for data to be published in a way that is machine readable and allows it to be tied together with other data. This would make it harder for those engaged in corrupt activity to fit between the gaps. Information that’s published (e.g. on beneficial ownership) needs to be easy to access and combine. It was suggested that this goes with the grain of where ministers wants to go with open data.

It was highlighted that while DfID is now publishing data on its funding, the joining up of datasets between different funders is currently not happening, making it difficult to identify where corruption is taking place.

It was noted that there are a number of different dependencies regarding the actions that need to be taken to combat corruption. It was suggested that one of the prerequisites is the opening up of financial information, including everything that is held by Companies House. Making the link between the opening up of Companies House data and an effective anti-corruption strategy would also make it more difficult to resist. Chris Taggart (Count Culture) offered to produce a briefing on the specifics of this.

The Prime Minister’s recent letter to G8 leaders was highlighted, which announces that the PM wishes to review the UKs position on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

Open registries of beneficial ownership

It was suggested that there is quite a lot of momentum building around the issue of beneficial ownership. Gavin Hayman highlighted a briefing paper that Global Witness has recently produced on the issue. It was reported that while beneficial ownership isn’t hardwired into the G20 anti-corruption action plan, it was an issue that was talked about.

It was commented that these are issues that keep coming up and that there is no dispute that something needs to be done, but issue is what? It was suggested that one route would be to set a clear target as a landmark commitment to prompt action. It was commented that a big ally in making the case for action on this issue would be law enforcement.

Anti-corruption strategy

It was reported that the Bond anti-corruption group has been calling for a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy for a while. There are a number of government departments working on anti-corruption, but there’s nothing linking them together. There’s therefore a need to coordinate on anti-corruption across government. A cross government strategy would also help Parliament and civil society to hold government to account. It was reported that there is appetite within government to have those discussions on who should lead on bribery and anti-corruption.

It was suggested that when it comes to cross borders corruption, there is an opportunity for the UK to take a lead by publishing relevant data, which would help to clear blockages internally and externally, and enable civil society to perform a scrutiny role.

It was suggested that the anti-corruption champion in government has been deprioritized. This was said to be a shame, because there were a number of innovations that came about because of it and that it would be good to have that role to aid coordination and engagement. It was responded that Ken Clarke continues to be the anti-corruption champion, but there is question about how he is supported.

It was highlighted that the group currently has quite an international focus and that there’s a need to make sure that those working on domestic anti- corruption are included.

It was suggested that within the UK there’s currently not a very good understanding of the scale of bribery and corruption. It was reported that a cross-departmental bribery and corruption group are reviewing this, including how bribery and corruption are reported. More information will be circulated around the group on this at the end of the month.

It was suggested that it would be useful for government to have a list of those from civil society who are working on anti-corruption. The Bond anti-corruption group was identified as a good place to start and Melissa Lawson (Tearfund) offered to make a start on drawing up a list. It was suggested that this should take the form of a Googledoc that people can add to, linked to on the network’s blog.

Deterrent laws

It was questioned whether there is anything missing from legislation that could deter corruption.

It was suggested that the process of plea-bargaining by companies, when they have admitted to corrupt behavior by their employees, should be transparent. In addition, there is a need for an effective deterrent to ensure that companies are open. It was commented that UK fines are currently much less than other places, such as the US, and that fines have become regarded as a cost of doing business.

UK Bribery Act

It was suggested that the implementation and enforcement element of the Bribery Act is key. Demonstrating that not only does that the UK have a strong piece of legislation, but that it is actively enforcing it. It was suggested that there has been some difficulty getting prosecutors to use the law, rather than other laws, despite it being a well-considered piece of legislation. However, work is being done to tackle this.

It was highlighted that increasing understanding of what to report and how to report is key.

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