This week Transparency International published research detailing public perceptions of corruption in the UK and the results are shocking. Sixty-seven per cent of people believe political parties are affected by corruption, 69% think the media has a corruption problem and 5% have themselves paid a bribe. For anyone interested in combating corruption the report cannot be ignored.
Given recent scandals about Parliament and political parties we might not be surprised by general disaffection with politics. I've written before about the domino-like toppling of British institutions over the last few years, including scandals over parliamentary expenses and the undue influence of corporates over MPs/peers. This research should be a wake-up call for those who too easily forget that such incidents translate directly into public distrust of politicians.
Results about the media are particularly stark with a 29% rise since the last survey three years ago, highlighting the deep damage done not only by the hacking scandal, but also alleged cover-ups such as the Jimmy Saville affair. While there is at present much emphasis on corruption in big institutions like these (and rightly so) we should not lose sight of the third fact revealed by this research: the significant amounts of low level corruption happening in the UK.
Most important to bear in mind is how this petty corruption links to the broader picture. If citizens believe that major institutions are endemically dishonest then a small minority will feel little incentive to maintain higher moral standards themselves. I have said it before and I'll keep saying it until something changes: unless people have faith in their politicians, we will not have the moral authority to act against corruption in other areas of UK life. First we need to get real about cleaning up our own act then we need to work with the institutions cited by this research to improve standards across the board.
To tackle corruption - whether by high-profile cabinet members or rogue border agency guards - the first issue is to understand the problem through accurate data collection. It is somewhat ironic that we recognise transparency as a key tool to fight corruption, but do not collect information about the problem itself. Transparency International's research is vital in highlighting the perceived scale of the problem and it is currently doing a better job at understanding corruption than the British Government. Worryingly, the UK does not have central records of UK corruption cases, investigations or prosecutions.
Indeed our lack of information on the scale of the problem is matched by a lack of information on what the UK is doing to prevent it. The Government has a fragmented approach to the issue without strong central leadership. Despite appointing Ken Clarke as Anti-Corruption Champion he has been given no resources or staff support for the role. If the Government were to simply improve his capacity to lead while providing the means to collate accurate data, our former Secretary of State for Justice could provide an essential point of accountability emboldened by a clear picture of the problem we face.
Until we have objective information about corruption across the board little is likely to change. The onus is on politicians to ensure that the systems we have in place are open, accountable and reflect the societies we seek to represent.
This article was originally posted on the Transparency International UK blog.