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Bribe culture

Are some British companies taking bribes to win contracts abroad?

British companies operating civil engineering contracts abroad are under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), NCE learned this week.

The SFO con med it is looking at allegations made against 50 British companies, and a number of these investigations relate to civil engineering contracts abroad.

The UK, as a signatory to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) anti-bribery convention, is obliged to prosecute UKbased companies who engage in corrupt practices abroad.

According to Transparency International's (TI) project director for construction and engineering Neill Stansbury: 'Unquestionably, companies are working in corrupt markets and paying bribes, although many are not.' A spokesperson for the SFO said: 'Certainly it is the case that as a result of new legislation, it is illegal to offer bribes or an inducement, for example to win a contract. We have a register of allegations, and some of these have evolved into fraud cases.' Engineering or construction companies are among those under investigation.

Two corruption reports were published in October. The first, TI's Bribe Payments Index, ranks 30 of the OECD's major exporters by how corruptly they are perceived. The UK was the eighth least corrupt. 'So we are not the cleanest, ' said Stansbury.

The second, which was published by the Chartered Institute of Building, showed that respondents felt corruption, while not widespread, was certainly active, and that some people felt certain corrupt practices were acceptable.

The ICE takes a hard line on members engaging in corrupt practices abroad and has joined the Foreign Office and TI in forming the Anti-Corruption Forum. The organisation gives advice to companies working abroad who may be susceptible to corruption.

Companies may legitimately win a contract, but nd themselves blackmailed into paying cash to allow normal business to proceed. 'Many leaders remain who are corrupt, ' says Stansbury. 'To bribe to win is one thing, but on-site there may be extortion. Responding to the extortion is also a crime, ' he said.

Paul Taylor, from ICE's professional conduct department, wants to ensure that members do not mistakenly engage in corrupt practices. 'This is something we need to address - attitudes to corruption. There may be practices members are carrying that they may not realise are illegal.

The code of professional conduct now lists corruption as an offence. Any form of involvement, either direct or indirect, would breach this rule. We want to stress the malign effect of bribery in these countries and take a very hard line, ' he said.

Prosecutions are inevitable, according to Stansbury. 'Two years ago there were no cases pending. Today there are over 50. It is going to happen.' No prosecutions have yet been made under the anti-corruption legislation, but the SFO is investigating KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, over alleged bribes worth some £89M in Nigeria, and BAE Systems over an alleged bribe to obtain a defence contract with Saudi Arabia.

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