Bribery in Business and the Role of the Anonymous Whistleblower

07:25 Friday 1st July 2011
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY GALL: British businesses operating abroad are going to have to review almost everything they do from today, as the Bribery Act comes into force. The Act means that companies could face unlimited fines if they fail to prevent bribery, and there are fears that many firms are unprepared for the new rules. Julia Pittam has the details, and she joins us now. Good morning Julia.
JULIA PITTAM: Good morning Andy.
ANDY GALL: So bribery, what does the whole Act mean for businesses?
JULIA PITTAM: Basically this is a message from Government, saying that turning a blind eye to bribery is no longer an excuse for UK firms. It’s all part of the fight against business corruption, and basically it brings in 4 new offences. It brings the UK into line with other countries, and the system as it was before today has been accused of being over-complex and rarely enforced. So the 4 new offences, you’ve got the general offence of paying a bribe, accepting a bribe, a specific offence of prohibiting the bribery of foreign officials, and a corporate offence of failing to prevent bribery. And as you mentioned, the punishments have changed too, so the maximum jail sentence for an individual is raised from 7 to 10 years, and there will be unlimited fines. So it is likely we’re going to see more cases.
ANDY GALL: It’s a funny one, isn’t it, because you can sound quite glib about it, and it’s not .. you don’t condone it, it’s just that it’s been acknowledged that it goes on. And now do you think it ..
JULIA PITTAM: Well this ..
ANDY GALL: .. go on.
JULIA PITTAM: Yes, I was going to say,  one of the criticisms of the Act is that some businesses fear this could make UK firms less competitive, because this practice on some level is accepted as perfectly normal in many countries across the world. So really the Act is interesting in how it defines what constitutes a bribe, and what is accepted. And that’s specifically well illustrated in the discussion about hospitality, for example. Many businesses at the moment are taking their clients perhaps to the corporate boxes at Wimbledon. Well is that a bribe? And many firms have been wanting the Ministry of Justice to clear this up. That wouldn’t be seen as a bribe. Much of that is seen as normal common business practice, and the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is asuring businesses by saying they’re not going to be ridiculous about this. This new Act, which comes into force today, will be implemented in a workable and common-sense way.
ANDY GALL: Yes. All the semantics around it can be quite comical. I know it springs to mind when you mentioned about bribery, the FIFA, and there were allegations that England had provided handbags for some of the people, and these goody bags, you know the goody bags you sometimes get ..
ANDY GALL: .. at these events, and they seem to have become part and parcel of business conferences, don’t they?
JULIA PITTAM: They do. Well there was actually a prosecution this year, for somebody who was given a Rolex watch as a thank you. By and large the prosecutions on this are very few and far between. That’s why the Act’s being tightened up. But the Serious Fraud Office itself, well it’s subject to cuts, so it’s not saying that it’s going to increase its monitoring of firms. In fact for much of this stuff it’s actually relying on whistleblowers to come forward and put their hands up, and say when they find something a bit uncomfortable, or wrong, beyond the handbag giving stage, then that’s how they’re going to rely crack down on these cases of bribery.
ANDY GALL: It’s a curious culture that’s developed, hasn’t it, over the years. And I suppose reining them in is going to be the most difficult thing.
JULIA PITTAM: Absolutely. What firms have to do is basically make all their staff aware. That’s one of the things they must crack on with now. They’ve got to put procedures in place, and prove that they’ve put procedures in place to prevent it, and they’ve got to make clear, make it easier if you like, the route for those whistleblowers, so that if someone within a firm is concerned, then there’s a clear route for them to follow, someone for them to go and talk to, and obviously remain anonymous if they so wish to.
ANDY GALL: Very interesting. Julia Pittam, thank you very much for talking to us this morning.