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