On 13th October 2022, the House of Lords debated the issue of corruption in the UK in Grand Committee. The Bishop of Leeds spoke in the debate, proposing that the government establish an ethics committee and an independent anti-corruption board:
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for securing this urgent debate, unnervingly but possibly appropriately overseen by a rather Caucasian Moses.
I was pleased to see that the United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Strategy 2017-2022 and the Library note for this debate both begin with definitions of corruption. Broadly speaking, they define it in terms of the abuse of office or illicit procurement for personal gain—the misuse of entrusted power, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans, put it. That is reasonable enough, but I want to offer another definition. Corruption happens when integrity is reduced to expediency and principle to mere pragmatism.
Of the many possible examples we could draw to mind, we might fix on the years of complacent steering of Russian money through the sewers of London. Despite many warnings about both the nature and impact of this, it was financially convenient and politically cost-free. Then, once Vladimir Putin went off-piste in Ukraine, suddenly the language changed to that of moral outrage: same money, same people, same oligarchs, same “brutal dictator”, same banks—the only thing that had changed was the temperature and political expediency. Principles of integrity and transparency, the virtues extolled by Nolan, were frequently mentioned and comprehensively ignored when convenient money was involved.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the tortuous years of subsequent legislation, the House heard many challenges to the abuse of language—the “normalisation of lying”, the “corruption of the public discourse”. Virtue received a nod while those in the highest power in our land sought to ignore both the claims and consequences of corruption. Corruption is not primarily about systems; rather, it is about character, both individual and corporate. What do we see in today’s papers? Reports in the Times of a letter from the chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition asking them to avoid promoting candidates who are “unsuitable”. I do not need to name examples who, by virtue of their nomination, bring our polity into disrepute—money, power and influence.
I am not naive and I do not speak from some moral pedestal. Lord Acton’s famous dictum:
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
was, after all, addressed to an Anglican bishop and related to the writing of history about the Inquisition. In fact, his point was pertinent to today’s debate. He wrote:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong.”
That is why it matters when those with power throw integrity and virtue to the winds while enriching or protecting themselves. It is utterly corrosive of public ethics and the common good.
Earlier I referred to what I call the corruption of the public discourse. Corruption begins with language. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because
“moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect”.
Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as liberty or equality, which have the power to move people without enlightening them. Yet politicians who revere Burke also seem to see fit to defend draft parliamentary legislation that proposes to breach international agreements and therefore the rule of law, give unlimited power to Ministers to fill in the detail of skeleton Bills, see accountability as a nuisance and ignore conventions such as correcting on the record things that have, to put it generously, been misspoken in our parliamentary Houses.
These things matter. Behaviour and language are never neutral. The insidious truth is that corruption ignored, downplayed or spun opens the door to corruption elsewhere in both individual and corporate life. Why no ministerial ethics adviser? Why no anti-corruption tsar? Why still no real pinning down at a systemic level of cronyism, dodgy lobbying and unaccountable political donations that lead to personal reward? Why a laughing dismissal of hedge fund professionals who game a mini-Budget and make millions out of the economic and social misery caused to the rest of the population? No champagne parties for the losers. Why do we tolerate a legal system that is being run down, as if justice does not require adequate funding and resourcing? Why a Ministerial Code that reduced moral accountability on the part of Ministers? What just recompense for the public, whose money was used to pay billions in contracts to government cronies during the Covid pandemic? I will not mention the honours system.
All this is in plain sight. If we choose to ignore what is evident, we incur ethical judgment on our neglect. This is not incidental. If democracy and the rule of law are to mean anything, if integrity in public life is something to be honoured and not mocked, if public virtue is not to be shrunk into political or economic pragmatism or expediency, this Parliament must clean up its own act, pay attention to its use of language, show an example of transparent accountability in its vital work and demonstrate the power of humility in setting a public culture.
I have positive proposals for the Minister: set up an anti-corruption board with teeth and independence and appoint an ethics committee in Downing Street or the Cabinet Office with the power to hold the powerful to account.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Coaker (Lab): I say to the Minister, who will make a measured and reasoned reply in response to the debate, that I am pleased with what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has done. The system needs a shake up and a wake-up call. A surge of electricity needs to be put through it. There have been many economic crime Bills, ethics watchdogs and standards committee reports, time after time. I agree with the examples the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds gave, but the frank reality is that it does not matter which Government it is—I want a Labour Government and I hope that is what will happen—we have to have somebody who uses that power to hold people and businesses to account in a way which means that they are not frightened of them but of the law and being held to account. That is the real issue before us. Where is the will within government, our country and the international community to take it on? We describe the problem, we talk about the problem, we say what should be done about it and what can be done about it, and it goes on in the way that my noble friend Lord Sikka mentioned when he went through various things.
The situation is incredible. As the noble Lord, Lord Evans, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kramer and Lady Jones, pointed out, it comes to something when on the Floor of the House—it is no wonder there is a crisis of confidence—just a few months ago the Minister responsible for tackling fraud resigned. I have his letter here. He read it out. He said that the Government were not serious about tackling fraud. It is no wonder the public lack confidence. The Minister himself, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, resigned, saying the Government were not serious. He was not talking about the lack of law. It was one particular law, and he was talking about his belief about whether the Government were serious in taking it on and whether the system was serious.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and the right reverend Prelate mentioned John Penrose MP. He did not just move on; he resigned. He did not just stand aside. He resigned in disgust at what was going on. He was the anti-corruption tsar appointed by the Government. So the Minister in the Lords responsible for tackling fraud and the anti-corruption tsar resigned. Why did the anti-corruption tsar resign? He said that the Prime Minister of our country had broken the ministerial code and had not been—let us put it this way—forthright in his explanation of what had happened: in other words, in how he responded to the Sue Gray report. Absolutely at the heart of this—leaving aside what the level of corruption is, which we can debate another time—the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, hit the nail on the head. Many people in this country believe that there is one law for us—us, people in Rooms like this, the establishment, however you judge that—and one law for everybody else. That is what people think, and it is corrosive of democracy if we do not address it.
Baroness Kramer (LD): The right reverend Prelate talked about the way in which we ignored the London laundromat. We tut-tutted about it but knew that oligarch kleptocrat money was flowing into the City and that it was a major facilitator, but until the invasion of Ukraine the Government were not particularly interested in taking any action. The legislation in the first round of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill had been sitting in an in-tray for at least a decade. It was ready to go and might, had it been introduced in time, have had a more significant impact in stemming that ongoing development of corruption.
Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office): Before I talk about some of the things that the Government will do, it is worth defining corruption in response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate. The debate has raised a number of topics which demonstrates how broad a topic corruption can be, so it is important that we understand what we mean by corruption and define its scope. Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private benefit that usually breaches laws, regulations, standards of integrity and/or standards of professional behaviour. Corruption need not be economic in nature and can still exist even if everyone has acted within the law. Therefore, it is imperative that we also consider actions that go beyond economic crime legislation and capture the broader elements of corruption.
Corruption is harmful in many ways. It threatens national security, global stability and development; it can amount to a hidden tax stifling the growth we need to get our economy moving; and it can undermine trust in our democratic institutions—a point that I think all noble Lords made. As the former president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, said so eloquently,
“corruption is a cancer that steals from the poor, eats away at governance and moral fibre and destroys trust”.
Corruption is far from a victimless crime. While the impact of corruption is often hidden, we must never forget that it undermines the efficiency of public services, weakens the security of ordinary citizens and hurts the bottom line of businesses. More broadly, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, just noted, it undermines trust.