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As We Begin to Exit the European Union, the Government's Commitment to Fighting Corruption Must Not Take Its Leave as Well

22/07/2016 16:10 | Updated 22 July 2016
Neil Hall / Reuters

One of the lesser discussed but sizeable danger facing Britain at the moment is that, in the face of the enormous nation changing project that is Brexit, all other policy agendas and commitments will fall by the wayside and all Government functions outside Brexit will grind to a halt.

It is our duty as Her Majesty's Opposition to make sure this does not happen.

Yesterday I wrote to Theresa May to ask her to affirm her continued commitment for one particular policy area: anti-corruption.

Corruption is a scourge that affects the whole world. It is estimated that Africa, one of the poorest parts of the globe, has lost in excess of $1trillion over the last 50 years in illicit financial flows - an amount roughly equivalent to all of the development assistance received by Africa over that time. The World Economic Forum has shown that corruption increases the cost of doing business by up to 10%, and by cutting corruption by just 10% we could boost the global economy by nearly $400 billion each year.

Although the 'fantastically corrupt' nations David Cameron so famously referred to in May are far from Britain's shores, we as a country are heavily implicated in global corruption. According to the World Bank the most popular place in the world for the corrupt to incorporate a company is the UK's Overseas Territories. Of the 214,000 corporate entities that were exposed in the Panama Papers over half were registered in the British Virgin Islands.

If Theresa May is serious about her promise of the UK remaining an "outward-looking and globally-minded and big-thinking country", it is vital that we continue to play a leading role in fighting corruption across the world.

But we've had early warning signs that the Government's previous commitment to tackling corruption might be on the wane.

When I asked Theresa May if Eric Pickles would remain in his current role as the Government's Anti-Corruption Champion the response was "The Prime Minister will consider all such appointments, including that of the anti-corruption champion, in due course." It is unthinkable that at a time when the Panama Papers has just revealed the extent of global corruption and Britain's particular role in the problem, that the UK Prime Minister could be considering scrapping the role tasked with leading the fight against corruption.

A secondary threat to the resources currently dedicated to anti-corruption are the demands of the new Brexit and International Trade departments which will need officials, resources and money that will inevitably diverted from the rest of government. It is vital we do not allow staff to be sucked from other important projects such as fighting corruption - particularly as these officials may be some of the few with experience of negotiating international transparency, trade and information exchange deals. It was the Tory government who called the referendum and presided over the Leave vote and it is this new Tory government that must put up the money and resources to make sure the rest of Government is able to continue while new resources and staff are brought in to oversee Brexit.

In addition to ensuring that the anti-corruption teams are properly resourced, the Prime Minister must make sure not to spend her first few months in office u-turning on pledges made by the last Government, of which she was a crucial part.

We were promised a new Anti-Corruption Strategy by the end of 2016. Will that still happen? We were promised a new public register of foreign companies owning property in the UK to make sure houses in places like London aren't being bought by the corrupt to hide their dirty money. Will that still go ahead? Particularly salient given the decision the IOC is about to take regarding Russia this week, will the Government's pledge to work to develop an International Sport Integrity Partnership be honoured?

Theresa May has said before that "Britain's world leading financial system is at risk of being undermined by money laundering, illicit finance and the funding of terrorism. The laundering of proceeds of crime through UK institutions is not only a financial crime, it fuels political instability around the world, supports terrorists and extremism and poses a direct and immediate threat to our domestic security and our overseas interests."

As Britain enters into negotiations to reshape our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world we will be more vulnerable than ever to corruption slipping through the gaps in the new order. As we seek new investment and trade partnerships around the world we will have to be vigilant that it is only legitimate investment we welcome, and not the proceeds of criminality and extremism. Only the full commitment of the Prime Minister and her Government to the aim of fighting corruption here and around the world and embedding that aim in her new departments will enable us to achieve this.

I sincerely hope that as we begin to exit the European Union, the Government's commitment to fighting corruption does not take its leave as well.

Jon Ashworth is the Labour MP for Leicester South and shadow minister without portfolio

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