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The U.K.’s Growing Pains

A recent post at highlighted a recent U.K. House of Lords select committee report (here) on small and medium size enterprises.  The objective of the committee was “to consider the Government’s assistance and promotion of the export of products and services by Small and Medium Sized Enterprises and to make recommendations.”

A section of the report concerns the Bribery Act, and as detailed below, the committee recommends that “the Act should be the subject of post legislative scrutiny by a Parliamentary select committee.”

Chapter 10 of the report states, in full, as follows (emphasis in original).


10.1. The Bribery Act 2010 came into force in July 2011. Its purpose was to modernise domestic and foreign offences of bribery. Its enactment led to a flurry of concern that SMEs would be particularly harshly affected. Mr Simon of UKTI agreed that the Act had “provoked a bit of anxiety” and said that “it is possible that [the UK] have lost some business”

10.2. It was not surprising, therefore, that whilst several witnesses recognised it as having enhanced the reputation of the UK in terms of business ethical standards, some expressed concern that the Act had given rise to uncertainty and put the UK at a trading disadvantage. Deltex Medical Ltd, for example, said: “The Bribery Act is a concern because it creates an imbalance with other markets. We support appropriate measures to uphold industry best practice and ethical business practices. However, the terms of the Bribery Act itself potentially restrict trading opportunities—for example in countries such as China and Brazil that do not conform to the same code of practice as the UK. In our experience, we have had to pay to review potential overseas distributors in China. Many Directors of SMEs are rightly concerned about being able to expand export markets whilst conforming to the Bribery Act.”

10.3. He went on: “BRIC countries especially raise challenging questions around the Bribery Act. My fellow directors and I have concerns over how we operate correctly under the Bribery Act within those countries. We have taken legal advice. We have made changes to our contracts. All of those areas have ways of trading that are different from those that we have in the UK, and different standards. It is difficult for any company to go in and follow the recommendations.”

10.4. Tony Shepherd of Alderley plc expressed his views robustly: “The existing Act is virtually impossible to operate as far as a UK company is concerned. You cannot really take someone out to dinner without committing a crime. I am very strongly in favour of trying to eliminate bribery, but to have a situation where we are subject to a law that is much more severe than anywhere else in the world is not good.”

10.5. ADS also recognised the value of the Act but asked for “clearer guidance … on its practical application and its implications, particularly the responsibility on SMEs for local ‘agents’. They also thought it “essential that the UK pursues a global level playing field in bribery rules so UK companies are not disadvantaged”.  LMK Thermosafe Ltd. similarly understood the purpose of the Act but said that adhering to the Act restricted their ability to sell successfully and, as a result of Act, they preferred to “work in markets where honesty is appreciated”.  Mr. Ehmann of the IoD described the Bribery Act as a “counterproductive” measure that has “held us back”. It had had, he said, “a significant impact” on his members, especially for those trading with BRIC countries and developing economies.

Current Government action

10.6. The Government explained to us what action they had taken to help SMEs to understand the implications of the Bribery Act 2010. The Ministry of Justice has published guidance on the Act and has run a programme of awareness-raising, prioritising UK industrial sectors most exposed to corruption risks. There is an online Business Anti-Corruption Portal which is specially targeted at SMEs and provides a comprehensive and practical business tool to help them avoid and fight corruption, with specific advice on 62 countries. Commercial Awareness training for FCO staff aims to equip them with the knowledge and skills to be able to provide suitable support to businesses, including advice on this issue.  Mr. Simon referred also to an initiative being considered by UKTI, “a potential signposting opportunity to people who can give specific guidance to companies as to how directors can take appropriate levels of care to ensure they do not infringe the Bribery Act”. He suggested that the “most dangerous thing” was not “the legislation per se” but a “lack of confidence”

10.7. As with intellectual property issues, we exhort the Government to make efforts to promote the international harmonisation of standards, and also to raise awareness amongst SMEs about the application of the Bribery Act 2010 and explain exactly how it will be applied in practice.

10.8. Mr Simon suggested that “there is a desire that the Bribery Act be tested by the Crown Prosecution Service, because then the community as a whole will have a better sense of where it stands”.  We do not agree. It is not satisfactory to wait for elaborate court cases to define the actual workings of the Bribery Act 2010 in case law.

10.9. Whilst we acknowledge the importance of the example of high ethical standards being set by the UK, application of the Bribery Act 2010 has been met with confusion and uncertainty. We recommend, therefore, that, at the earliest opportunity, the Act should be the subject of post legislative scrutiny by a Parliamentary select committee.

To be sure, the report and its recommendation represent U.K. growing pains.  But let’s not forget, here in the U.S. we too had growing pains concerning the young FCPA.

As detailed in prior posts here and here, the ink was hardly dry on the FCPA when concerns were raised that the law was harmful to U.S. business.

There was much activity on this issue in the early 1980′s and among other things:

(i) the Carter administration (Carter signed the FCPA into law in December 1977) “sent a hefty 250-page report to Congress on the various ways the U.S. discourages exporters” – one example – “the provisions of the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which have never been clearly spelled out by the Justice Department;”

(ii) the GAO released a report in 1981 detailing how the FCPA “is riddled with complicating ambiguities and shortcomings;”

(iii) President Reagan’s “transition team on the workings of the Securities and Exchange Commission […] recommended decriminalization of bribery; and

(iv) John Fedders, named in 1981 to be the SEC’s Director of Enforcement to replace Stanley Sporkin who left to become general counsel at the CIA, stated during a news conference that he “pledged to enforce, with discretion, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which he criticized as being ambiguous.”

Our FCPA growing pains lasted until 1988 when the FCPA was amended in significant ways and, to a certain extent, the growing pains have not fully disappeared even as the FCPA has matured into an “adult” statute.

In short, the U.K’s growing pains are understandable and to be expected.

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