Friday, December 23, 2011

How Corrupt is UK Government?

The recent reports of the top-nobs at the tax inspectorate hob-nobbing with CEO's of big companies before agreeing how much tax they should pay has raised this question in my mind. What is the answer? Here are my thoughts:

1. Human nature being what is is corruption is unavoidable, everywhere in the world it goes on. Doh!
2. But some countries are more corrupt than others (also Doh!) - for example, I am reliably informed by colleagues familiar with Pakistan that this is simply how things are done there. If you want a visa, or a driving licence, or whatever, the way to get it done quickly is to grease palms, fail to do so and it takes months, if you ever get it. That kind of thing is not common in the UK.
3. By comparison with a lot of other countries UK politics is reasonably clean - some of the overseas students I teach are surprised to learn, for example, that a government Minister had to resign for fast tracking a visa for his lover's nanny. That it just so "small potatoes".
4. And yet....perhaps the impression we have that the UK is relatively free of corruption is because so much of what - on a broader definition of the word - is "corrupt" is also perfectly legal. It seems (if Margaret Hodge is to believed) that the tax bosses broke no law, although they may not have adhered to their own guidelines. But it looks iffy to me. The "revolving door" syndrome (where ex-Ministers and ex-civil servants turn up on the boards of companies with which they have had dealings in government) is on any common-sensical definition of the word "corrupt" but again quite legal (I am thinking also of a former top copper who was/is cosy with News International and whose recent evidence before a Select Committee was brazen insolence). Or take PFI (and the preferred bidders) - and there is a revolving door here as well - all quite legal and in my view quite corrupt. Finally, it is interesting is it not that although there have been prosecutions and convictions of corrupt bankers in the USA there has been not one, not a solitary one, in the UK. That is not how things are done here. I wonder also if the old T. Dan Smith type of thing still goes on in local government (when the supermarket chain got permission to build the mega-store did the members of the local council planning committee find their bank balances inflated?). Another example: some years ago Politaholic experienced a spell of unemployment and was sent to a private company which was commissioned by, I suppose, the DHSS, to run what are essentially job-clubs. What a scam! For each unemployed person, sitting around all day in what is essentially day-time detention, the company received a generous stipend (at taxpayers expense). Those running it appeared very cosy with those who commissioned it.
5. I am only aware of one scandal actually linking a former senior politician to organised crime but I suppose it is wise to say no more.
6. I suppose these sorts of things - privatisation scams, revolving door corruption - go on in other countries too. I think the UK is certainly less corrupt than the USA, or Italy, or Bulgaria, or Pakistan, or....
7. But even so, perhaps there is more of it than we like to think. Its just that much of it is legal.