We’re all familiar with the phrase “laws are made to be broken”. While we may not agree with that sentiment, it is fair to say that new laws are made to be tested. The Bribery Act came into effect in the UK on April 1st 2011, and now, two and a half years later, the first defendants charged with contravening it by the Serious Fraud Office has appeared in Westminster Magistrates Court.
There has been sporadic criticism of the SFO for taking this long to bring a prosecution, but major fraud investigations take time, and the painstaking work in the run up to this case has sent a message to the business community that this law was definitely not made to be broken.
The case concerns Sustainable AgroEnergy plc, which was placed in administration in March of 2012. Four men have been accused of using unlawful means to promote biofuel products to UK investors, and today’s proceedings mark the latest step in a two year investigation. Working closely with the police, the Serious Fraud Office are said to be pursuing between twenty and thirty similar cases. Anyone mistaking a lack of prosecutions with a lack of activity has been shaken out of their slumber.
Many companies of all sizes have seen the new regulations as an opportunity to review and tighten up their procedures, for trading in the UK and overseas. The Bribery Act’s six principles for prevention offer excellent working guidelines, and large numbers of EVS Translations clients have followed them, committing themselves to safe, regulated trading in any market.
In recent decades, the key global reference point for anti-bribery enforcement has been the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977. While the two laws have many principles in common the UK Act goes further in a number of key areas. It’s significant that where the FCPA only legislates against active bribery, the UK Act targets both the giving and receiving of a bribe. These tighter rules can be applied to any business trading in the UK, regardless of where the alleged bribe takes place. This has led to reports of some companies ceasing overseas trade. It seems the “bribe culture” is so ingrained in certain markets that some businesses would prefer to opt out of them altogether. EVS Translations Managing Director Edward Vick recognizes the problem but believes in finding solutions, not walking away: “International trade is the lifeblood of our economies, in the United States, the UK and globally. We welcomed the Bribery Act in 2010 and we welcome its practical application today. While it’s understandable that companies are wary of the penalties for non-compliance, finding a way to play by the rules is surely a better option than quitting the game.”
The recent case in London isn’t the first Bribery Act prosecution. Two years ago the Crown Prosecution Service secured the conviction of Munir Patel, a clerk at Redbridge Magistrates Court who accepted approximately £20,000 in exchange for helping over 50 drivers avoid penalty points. The Serious Fraud Office is chasing bigger fish, of course, and now sees the first of what may well be a long line of high profile cases. Astute businesspeople will make sure they never find themselves standing in that line.