Guest Post: Lessons from the Campaign for the UK Bribery Act

Today’s guest post is from Robert Barrington, who is currently Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, and who previously worked for Transparency International’s UK chapter (as Director of External Affairs from 2008-2013, and as Executive Director from 2013-2019).

The United Kingdom Bribery Act (UKBA) was enacted into law just over a decade ago, on April 8th 2010. This overhaul of UK law on transnational bribery was the culmination of a dozen years of vigorous campaigning by civil society advocacy groups, including Transparency International’s UK chapter (TI-UK). I was TI-UK’s Director of External Affairs for the final couple of years of that campaign, and I thought it might be helpful to reflect on some of the key lessons we learned in the course of the campaign for the UKBA. I explored these issues at greater length in a lecture marking the tenth anniversary of the UKBA, but in this post I want to focus on three of the most important lessons that we learned from the campaign for the UKBA, lessons that I hope will be useful to other civil society organizations engaged in similar campaigns elsewhere.

  • Lesson One: Be Persistent. The global advocacy campaign for the adoption or strengthening of transnational anti-bribery laws began in the 1990s. TI was one of the civil society organizations that pushed for the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, which was adopted in 1997, and TI and its national chapters then pushed for the member states to adopt appropriate national legislation to implement that Convention’s requirements. The UK had several false starts, including a draft Corruption Bill of 2003 that the government dropped through lack of support. TI-UK was eventually able to restart the debate by getting a new professionally drafted bill introduced as a Private Members’ Bill in the House of Lords in May 2007. While that bill did not get government support either, it did its job by showing that there was overwhelming cross-party support for a new law, and demonstrating that significant legal reforms in this vein were workable. Eventually the government relented and enlisted the Law Commission to draft a bill, which produced the proposal that eventually became the UKBA. The important point here is that it took nearly a dozen years from the UK’s ratification of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention (in December 1998) until the UK finally adopted appropriate national legislation implementing that Convention’s requirement. During that dozen years, TI-UK and other civil society advocates were constantly on the case: responding to consultations, chivvying the government, speaking to the OECD, gathering support in parliament and the press. In campaigning, one cannot always expect quick results, but persistence pays off.
  • Lesson Two: Be Prepared To Counter For Intense Corporate Lobbying. The intensive lobbying against the Bribery Bill was led by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which convened a special working group that included some of the crown jewels of British industry. We felt totally out-gunned. Fortunately for us, the CBI ran a poor campaign, and was never really able to muster convincing arguments against the UKBA. Yet the CBI was able to leverage its substantially greater resources and government and media connections in opposition to the bill. When the CBI realized that they were losing the substantive argument, they resorted to delaying tactics. For example, as the 2010 general election approached, Conservatives—acting under CBI pressure—advanced over twenty amendments. And even when the CBI and its allies had failed to prevent the UKBA being passed, they launched a furious rearguard lobbying action to influence the official guidance on compliance with the UKBA in ways that would weaken the Act. At every step of the way, business lobbyists had substantially more resources than civil society. It can feel overwhelming, especially when it seems like professional business lobbyists get to play by different rules. But this is something that campaigners need to be prepared for.
  • Lesson Three: Take the Initiative and Support Your Allies By Producing Substantive Arguments and Materials. One of our most effective civil society campaigning techniques, which helped us counter the much better resourced CBI-led opposition, was to put good arguments in the hands of those who instinctively supported new legislation, or were wavering. An early example of this, as noted above, was to produce a professionally-drafted bill in 2007. Even though this bill did not become law, it proved that such a bill was possible, and made genuine anti-bribery law seem practical and feasible, rather than a slogan or an abstraction. Similarly, throughout the campaign we scrutinized the CBI’s opposition campaign (which wasn’t always easy, because much of their lobbying took place behind closed doors), and produced a series of rebuttals, usually in the form of briefing papers, which we drip fed in at key moments of the parliamentary debates. Another example of this technique in action related to the post-enactment debate over the official guidance on the Act, in particular how the government would interpret the “adequate procedures” defence. As noted above, the CBI and its allies hoped to undermine the law by pushing the government to define adequate procedures excessively broadly in its official guidance. Anticipating this, within a few weeks of the Act’s enactment—and before the government had published its official guidance—TI-UK published its own guide to “adequate procedures” under the UKBA, in the form of a comprehensive volume, complete with checklist, available to download free of charge. The longer the government delayed publishing its official guidance, the more companies started to use the TI-UK guidance. Moreover, TI-UK’s guidance on adequate procedures established a baseline, such that if the government had published official guidance with a substantially weaker standard, this would cause confusion and open the government to accusations of watering down the UKBA. This seizing of the Adequate Procedures narrative was possibly the finest hour of the campaign.

Every country and every campaign is different, of course, but I hope that the lessons that TI-UK and its allies learned in our struggle for the UKBA prove useful to other campaigners around the world. Persistence, coupled with smart and substantive campaigning techniques, can achieve substantial victories even in the face of well-financed and well-organized corporate opposition.

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