Changing the rules*

Is it ever OK to bribe a foreigner? Can I get a place on one of Tony Blair's people's panels? Let th

On a recent trip abroad, I was stopped for speeding, and had to slip the officers the price of a stiff drink to avoid a hefty fine. I’d actually done nothing wrong, and would like to make a complaint via the embassy concerned, but a friend told me that our own boys in blue might take an interest if I did that. Can that be right?

A reluctant outlaw, East Grinstead

It is. Since 2001, overseas bribery has been a serious criminal offence in this country, and it is defined so broadly that you can be found guilty even if your motives were not dishonest. All that needs to be proved is that you offered someone an inducement to perform their duties in a particular way.

The law's scope reflects a belief that public trust is essential for the effective functioning of international trade. It treats the purchase and peddling of influence as a crime that needs prosecution across national borders, and assumes that the perception of venality can be just as corrosive as the reality of it.

But those responsible for executing that law have a considerably less fundamentalist attitude. Tony Blair's confidence in his own moral probity allows him to dispense and accept favours with a remarkable freedom. UK prosecutors, meanwhile, have never indicted any company or individual for bribing a foreign official.

They came close last year, following allegations that BAE Systems maintained a multimillion-pound slush fund to lubricate arms deals with Saudi Arabia, but the investigation was terminated by the Attorney General, Peter Goldsmith. He decided that legal inactivity was imperative for reasons of foreign policy and national security that it was thought best to keep secret.

I appreciate that your own payment was different. It was not motivated by greed. It raised fewer geopolitical issues. Lord Goldsmith is not, as a consequence, likely to obstruct the ordinary course of justice on your behalf. But British citizens who aim higher with their kickbacks can expect a far greater degree of official protection.

That may come as little consolation to you - but the truly corrupt, at least, can take comfort from assuming that their interests are dear to this government's heart.

I recently read that the government intends to establish a “people’s panel” to advise it on its legislative programme. I have several opinions that I would love to share. How can I join up?

Esther Sherrow, London

You are correct about the government's intention. It has announced that it will resolve particularly "tough questions" of policy only after consulting a specially selected panel of 100 people. At a series of brainstorming sessions, they will be invited to consider various ethical puzzles - asked, for example, whether smokers and obese people bring ill-health upon themselves, and whether supermarket loyalty cards are sinister or useful - and their opinions will then be incorporated into national policies.

As this could conceivably herald major political changes - to National Health Service priorities and expansion of the identity card scheme, for example - your desire to participate is understandable. On the assumption that the government genuinely wants to learn what 100 people think, and is not simply using them to legitimise predetermined decisions, the panel will wield an extraordinary degree of influence.

Sadly, it seems impossible to volunteer. Being a person is insufficient qualification to serve on the people's panel; you must apparently be "demographically representative" as well.

I am not sure how you could best achieve that, but I suggest you find out from your MP. That is what he or she is elected for, after all.

Sadakat Kadri is a barrister and author of "The Trial: a history from Socrates to O J Simpson" (Harper Perennial, 2006). Send your civil liberties and human-rights dilemmas to: Changing the Rules, New Statesman, 52 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0AU. This column appears fortnightly

*"The rules of the game have changed" Tony Blair, August 2005