There’s two politician-sized holes in Britain’s new anti-corruption plan
There's two gaping holes in the government's much-delayed anti-corruption plan which was finally released today – and it's the politicians who are escaping scot-free.
Almost every area of public life is covered by the coalition's document, which contains 60 points for action: corruption in prisons and the police, in sport, in business and abroad.
But the section covering the biggest problems with the people actually in charge of running the country are missing entirely.
Last year Transparency International (TI) published its anti-corruption scorecard for Britain. Overall the UK did alright; it puts Britain on 'green' in six categories, 'amber' for 14 and 'red' for six more.
But, as ministers acknowledge today, there is no room for complacency. Five per cent of citizens polled in the UK paid a bribe at least once in the past year – and 90% think the government is captured by special interests.
Two of TI's red categories have everything to do with politics.
First comes the revolving door between government and business. The 'generals for hire' scandal of October 2012 revealed just how poor the current system of controls and oversight of movement between the government and the private sector is, TI claims. It laments the fact that the government is ignoring plans to introduce a new 'statutory conflict of interests and ethics commissioner'.
Today was the perfect opportunity to change tack, but ministers have refused to do so. The corruption plan barely touches on the issue at all: its section on central government is preoccupied by protecting civil servants from organised crime and encouraging them to conduct 'corruption risk assessments'.
Today we published the UK's first ever anti-corruption plan. About to answer questions on it in the Commons: https://t.co/BK1aPgNx0f
— Matt Hancock (@matthancockmp) December 18, 2014
The second red category is party funding – something the government has completely failed to address. The impasse between Labour and the Conservatives over where exactly a cap on donations by individuals might be placed is compromising Britain's integrity. Cash-for-access scandals show just how big the vulnerability to corruption is for parties, TI says. It points out that 42% of voters believe donations of over £100,000 are designed to gain access and influence over a political party.
Measures contained in today's action plan target the symptoms, not the underlying cause. They include:
- – Introducing a statutory register of lobbyists
- – Making MPs personally responsible for the conduct of their staff
- – Lowering thresholds for reporting of financial holdings and gifts
- – Revising the code of conduct for dealing with lobbyists
- – Strengthening disciplinary sanctions for misconduct
These have all been criticised in one way or another for not quite tackling the issue. The statutory register of lobbyists, for example, only covers third-party lobbyists – not the bulk of public affairs professionals who work in-house. The coalition's recall bill has been rejected by supporters of direct democracy.
Even taken on their own terms, none of them address the root of the problem: that the party funding system in Britain is deeply flawed.
"I think it's disappointing," says TI executive director Robert Barrington. "The plan is very strong in some areas. In the area of parliament I think it's overcautious. Presumably this is the government being wary of stepping on the toes of parliament, which is meant to be independent. But on the other hand, the committee on standards in public life has published positions on these. It could just have repeated those and it's not doing that."
Podcast: The party funding impasse
The absence of any kind of commitment to reform party funding is even more concerning in the light of evidence that the Conservatives are seeking to 'buy' the next general election.
The Tories will funnel large amounts of cash into target seats next year after ignoring the Electoral Commission and securing a 23% increase in spending during the regulated period, the Observer reported.
"This is a party flush with big-money backers but without the empathy or ideas the country needs, so they are rigging the rules of our democracy in their favour," Ed Miliband's election strategist Lucy Powell complained.
Such concerns about the failure to address one of the most corrupt parts of British public life will only be amplified by today's report, which Barrington now fears is under threat because of a lack of interest.
"Such plans only ever work if there is political will behind them and if it is someone's priority," he added. "The government is sending out very mixed messages."
After Ken Clarke, who used to be anti-corruption champion, quit back in June the post was left vacant for four months before Matt Hancock finally stepped in. Observers say his appearance in the Commons on the issue today was occasionally hesitant, suggesting he may not be entirely on top of his brief. His performance has left some wondering whether the government is really serious about tackling this issue.
Britain used to be in the top ten of the corruption perceptions index but has now slipped to 14th. It has come up with a strategy, which is a step in the right direction. But with just months to go until the next general election, it's not clear whether the plan will be future-proofed by making its delivery accountable to parliament.
"The government needs to give an unambiguous message that tackling corruption through this plan is a high priority," Barrington says.
Britain ought to be setting an example to the world on its anti-corruption stance. The refusal of its politicians to fix the funding system is stopping us from doing so.