Parliament neglects the human cost of corruption. Photo: Flickr/Lars Plougmann
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The fight against poverty overseas is undermined by money laundering in the UK

Why the government's anti-corruption plan is a missed opportunity.

This week, the government published its anti-corruption plan. It has a number of welcome measures – such as making it easier to freeze corrupt funds by lowering the evidential test for a restraint order – but in a number of respects it is a missed opportunity. 

Repeated delays in publishing the plan, and an action list littered with yet more consultations and future reviews, mean money laundering loopholes which could be fixed in the Serious Crime Bill before the House of Commons in January 2015 look set to remain.

The shortcomings of the government’s anti-corruption plan reflect a wider lack of focus in parliament on corruption, despite its devastating consequences for the poorest in the world.

Parliament has voted to increase the overseas aid budget at a time of budget cuts elsewhere, and repeatedly debates the amount of aid the UK distributes. Yet there is far less debate on how much money is being lost from the poorest countries.

The cost of corruption in Africa is estimated by the African Union to be $148bn, on top of the $1tn which the World Bank estimates is paid in bribes.

Specific examples give a sense of the scale of leakage. Malawi is a country where according to Water Aid more than 3,500 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. The UK government gave Malawi £106m in aid last year.  Yet $30m was recently stolen from Government accounts, and a Minister murdered, in a scandal referred to as “Cashgate”.

The UK’s Department for International Development paid for consultancy firm Baker Tilly to provide expert investigators into Cashgate, but so far they have recovered no cash. External consultants like these do not have the power to obtain key transaction data from banks, or request intelligence from other governments, raising questions as to the value for money of their appointment.

In Nigeria over $1bn was stolen by corrupt officials in a single case, involving Malubu Oil. The oil minister of Nigeria awarded the rights to oil from an offshore site to a company which last year the UK High Court ruled was a company he owned.  $1bn is the equivalent of two thirds of Nigeria’s health budget serving 170 million people, in a country with the second highest HIV burden in the world. 

The UK has some of the best financial investigators globally, but they are massively under-resourced compared to the best lawyers and accountants corrupt money can buy. They can only review a tiny fraction of the number of suspicious activity reports they receive. Investigators also have the cards stacked against them in terms of insufficient time limits to complete investigations.

There is a lack of transparency at home with for example non-government organisations suggesting 45 per cent of London property valued at above £2m is owned by offshore companies. The UK government does not know who owns these offshore companies, and so does not know if a modestly paid minister has suspiciously afforded a multi-million pound London property. 

There is also a lack of transparency overseas. Why are we not requiring ministers who receive UK aid to publish assets declaration records, in line with the UN Convention? Why are we not extending the register of beneficial owners of UK companies to include overseas territories in 2015? 

The benefits of aid risk being undermined due to a failure to tackle corruption laundered here in the UK. 

Corruption is a rich person’s crime against the poorest people in the world. It should outrage us all. It is time for parliament to spend more time looking at how much money illegally comes out of countries, and not just how much money we put in.

Steve Barclay is the Conservative MP for Northeast Cambridgeshire

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA