With only months left before a general election, the British
government seems at a loose end.
One would think there is hardly a shortage of serious
problems to be tackled, but the Brown administration appears to have nothing
better to do than propose
bills to make business provide figures on employee pay according to gender and
to make it an offence for a business to “fail to prevent bribery”.
This last is another example of an obligation being imposed
on business to things over which business has no control. Despite widespread
criticism, a similar impossible duty was imposed
on business in respect of employing illegal immigrants – one that is so
impossible that even the minister
who proposed the law was convicted under it!
Needless to say, she remains in her job – as Attorney
General, the government’s chief legal adviser.
The same hypocrisy permeates government attacks on bribery
“by business”. After all, the pressure to bribe comes from government, not
business. Most entrepreneurs hate being asked for bribes: quite apart from the
moral repugnance, it is an additional cost and we have a vested interest in
keeping costs low.
Yet some form of bribery, official or otherwise, is part of
the price of doing business in some parts of the world. This is particularly
true in the arms industry.
Governments in general tend to have morally ambiguous
relationships with their big arms manufacturers.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK at the time,
played an active role in securing the gigantic al-Yamamah “Dove of Peace” deal
with Saudi Arabia for a British consortium – a deal essential to keeping
British industry going through a difficult transitional period.
In 2006, the Blair administration squashed an investigation
by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) into alleged bribery relating to al-Yamamah,
because the investigation was “not in the public interest”.
The SFO – an organisation which does not enjoy a high
professional reputation – is taking out its resentment on BAE Systems, the most
controversial player in the consortium, by going after them for alleged bribery
on other deals. Obviously, despite what one might think, there must be no
serious fraud going on in the UK itself at the moment if the SFO has the spare
time to police the world.
According to respected newspapers,
BAE Systems and the SFO are negotiating over the amount of a fine that would
In other words, the SFO are asking for a bribe not to press
Incidentally, the politician who will have to sign off on
any deal between the SFO and BAE Systems is none other than the Attorney
General – see above.
Truly, there is one law for the rich and one law for the
poor – and yet another law altogether for governments.