Blog / June 5, 2014

UK leads charge in some key battles against corruption – now others must follow

The message from David Cameron in today’s Wall St Journal could not be clearer – corruption is one of the key issues of our time.

“Corruption is the archenemy of democracy and development. It stifles growth and corrodes the contract between state and citizen. Taking action against corruption is crucial to building stability around the world: whether it’s supporting a new Ukraine free from crony capitalism; fostering more open societies in the Arab world; or eliminating the poverty and bad governance that still blight too much of Africa.”

He’s very clear about the ways to crack this problem, too.

We need greater transparency over the ownership of companies and the use of natural resources to stop corrupt officials, oligarchs and money launderers from plundering the wealth of countries and funneling money around with impunity.

These two concerns have been the central planks of Global Witness’ work to fight corruption for several years. If natural resource revenues are to spark development rather than conflict and state-looting, citizens need to know how much money is going in, and what is happening to the profits. Allowing payments to be made in secret and corrupt individuals to hide what they are doing behind sham companies is a sure fire way to stop that happening, as our investigations have shown time and again.

UK leads the charge

The Prime Minister, Business Secretary Vince Cable and the UK government as a whole should be commended for recognising this reality and doing something meaningful about it in our own backyard. Yesterday, the Queen announced that her government will bring in a public registry of the real owners and of UK companies. At the same time, the UK has come out strongly in favour of laws which would force companies to publish the payments they make for natural resources to foreign governments.

These efforts to fight corruption at the source mark a welcome departure from the common, flawed idea that it is a problem “over there”, which we can do little about. The UK is out in front in both cases – we sincerely hope other global leaders in answering his call that “we need others to do the same”.

These are global problems – only global solutions will work. That’s why we’re pushing for a worldwide standards on requiring companies to publish their payments. And it’s why Global Witness founder Charmian Gooch is currently using her 2014 TED prize to campaign for action to end secret company ownership in the US, which is by a distance the world’s worst offender on this score. The PM needs to push his peers in the US and elsewhere to do much more.

These  efforts aren’t born of altruism, either. The reality, which the PM recognised in his piece, is that transparency is good for British consumers and businesses. Take anonymous companies – all sorts of criminals, from tax-evaders to sex-traffickers, use them to cover their tracks. If we stop them, we’ll be safer citizens and save a whole lot of police time trying to unravel layer upon layer of fake companies. I know this takes huge amounts of time, because we have to do it in our own investigations.

Of course, the job is not done yet. Like any law, the one the Queen announced yesterday will only be as good as its implementation. That means a strong registry with plenty of good-quality information on company owners. There has been support for this from business groups such as the Institute of Directors.

And when the Prime Minister says he needs support from other powers, he also needs to make sure current efforts aren’t undone by Britain’s own Crown Dependencies. The British Virgin Islands, for example, has recently been expressing support for greater transparency on the one hand whilst also proposing new laws that would make it a crime for anyone, in any country to leak or publish leaked information about a BVI company. They plan to punish people less severely for using child pornography, which is an extraordinary way to prioritise things.

So there is work to be done. As the PM says, “we must have the political courage to be radical in seeing this through.” The G20 is coming up soon, and this issue needs to figure at the top of the agenda. And the UK will soon publish its anti-corruption strategy, which needs to be similarly progressive, and joined up.

But yesterday’s measures and today’s words are a big step in the right direction. I think this issue of promoting accountability and ending corruption will come to be seen like universal suffrage or the civil rights movement – once we’ve fixed it, we’ll wonder how things were ever that way in the first place. Let’s hope this is the start of that change.