What to make of the Attorney General's comments in The Telegraph? Corruption is certainly a growing problem in the UK - but TI's research has found no evidence to link it to immigrant communities.
When the Attorney General told a reporter that some minority communities "come from backgrounds where corruption is endemic. We as politicians have to wake to up to it..." and that they "come from societies where they have been brought up to believe you can only get certain things through a favour culture. One of the things you have to make absolutely clear is that that is not the case and it's not acceptable", he was entering controversial territory.
What he has said is important; not because his main point is right, but for another reason.
The reason is that he accepts corruption is a growing problem in the UK. It is. Transparency International has probably done more research into Corruption in the UK than any other body; we find it is increasing, and the risks of it getting worse are also increasing. There have been several alarm bells in different areas - organised crime, prisons, politics, the City - and they need to be heard. It is vital that the government accepts that corruption happens in the UK, and needs to be addressed. Encouragingly, the Prime Minister recently announced that there would be a national action plan on corruption. In light of the Attorney General's remarks, this obviously needs to be founded on a thorough analysis of where the problems really lie.
It is here that the Attorney General's argument starts to unravel. Why am I suspicious of this hypothesis? There are three reasons:
Where is the evidence? To my knowledge, he is expressing a hypothesis, and there is little evidence to support it. Indeed, in much of our own research we have questioned whether such an assertion would stack up, and not seen any evidence. It is one of many areas of UK corruption that could benefit from further research although, for the reasons that follow, it would be invidious to single it out for special treatment.
An immigrant is more corrupt than a 'native'. Nonsense. Britain in the 18th century could match any country in the world for endemic corruption. There are plenty of contemporary examples of corruption in the non-immigrant community - we mention some in a report we published last month. What this tells me is that no country's citizens are innately more corrupt than another's. But in any society there are a few people who will exploit opportunities for corruption, usually to gain money or power - what usually prevents them is a robust system of institutional integrity in key areas such as the judiciary, law enforcement, civil service, etc.
Take people from a corrupt culture and put them in the UK, and they bring corruption over here. Apart from the lack of evidence, think of it the other way round. Is it correct that virtuous native Brits who go overseas are busy spreading their virtue? Unfortunately not. There is incontrovertible evidence that British citizens and companies overseas pay bribes - where systems allow and encourage it. That is precisely why we needed the new Bribery Act, and UK companies continue to be caught paying bribes all over the world.
There is also a great irony here. When you ask the British public about where corruption is present in the UK, what do they say? Political parties and Parliament. Party funding, lobbying and the revolving door, for example. In the minds of most people, the biggest corruption scandal in recent years was MPs' expenses. Were MPs of Asian origin more likely to fiddle their expenses? I don't think so. The public will also tell you that the financial crisis has revealed the City is corrupt, with LIBOR-rigging as an example. Was this just foreign bankers? I don't think so. Preventing and rooting out corruption needs good institutional integrity; but it also needs leadership. Before blaming immigrants, we need to ask ourselves the hard question of whether we are getting that from our political and business leaders.
I conclude three things:
1. It is welcome and timely for the government to start taking corruption in the UK more seriously.
2. It is a mistake to point the finger at immigrants; both because there is no supporting evidence, and because it diverts attention from the underlying problem in other communities in the UK - business and politics to name two.
3. If the government is serious about tackling corruption, it should be making sure it does not pursue policies that open the door to it. Yet we have seen it start to strip away some of the defences against corruption, for example in local government - as our report from last month highlighted.
And here are three things that could be done:
1. Speed up the national anti-corruption action plan. Where does corruption happen in the UK - who does it affect, and how bad is it? And what is the plan for dealing with it? And in particular, what is the role of organised crime in exploiting or initiating corruption? We need to know the government's answers to those kind of questions.
2. Work out who is in charge of tackling UK corruption. It is time for someone in government to take a lead. Do we need a national anti-corruption agency, like so many other countries? Perhaps we do. Do we need a centralised anti-corruption unity in the police, like Police Scotland have just set up? Possibly. Above all, we need a coordinated strategy.
3. Don't make it any worse than it is. We have looked in one area in detail recently - local government - and found sixteen areas in which there is a mounting corruption risk due to recent government changes. That may well be the case in other areas. The government should be trying to make things better not worse, as it has been doing in removing some of the safeguards such as the Audit Commission.
Ultimately, whether you are a citizen of the UK, Pakistan, or anywhere else, you are far more likely to be a victim of corruption than a beneficiary. It is extraordinarily damaging to society and the economy and the lives of ordinary people. That is why most people loathe it around the world - and it has been a rallying cry on the streets from Russia to North Africa to Brazil. We are fortunate in the UK to live in a country where corruption is not endemic. Research tells us it is on the increase, and it will be easy to cast the blame elsewhere. If the government is really serious about tackling UK corruption, it should do a proper assessment of where it happens, and take steps to improve systems to prevent it, not pick on individual targets as cases randomly come to light.