Where is the Government’sAnti-Corruption ‘Champion’?
Sam Bright explores the role of John Penrose MP, and his unwillingness to call out systemic corruption in the UK
Corruption has finally entered the British political thesaurus. After 18 months of dancing around the subject (often due to entirely justifiable legal reasons), ‘cronyism’ and ‘chumocracy’ have been usurped by their big brother – ‘corruption’.
Public outrage over the intermingling of private and political interests has been triggered by a row about the second jobs of Owen Paterson MP, and his “egregious” lobbying on behalf of these firms, in the words of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. He announced his resignation from Parliament after the Prime Minister withdrew his support for the North Shropshire MP, who was facing a 30-day suspension from the House, that Boris Johnson initially sought to overturn.
A practice that previously occurred under the radar and tacitly endorsed by the Westminster system, the issue of MPs’ second jobs is now being systematically dissected and condemned.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey Cox QC has earned some £900,000 over the course of the past year for legal work – advising the British Virgin Islands on a corruption investigation launched by the UK’s Foreign Office.
But, while discomfort grows in the Conservative Party over its association with sleaze, one person has stayed relatively silent: the Government’s own ‘anti-corruption champion’.
A role created in 2004, the anti-corruption champion is tasked with overseeing and implementing policies that reduce the risk of corruption domestically, while representing the UK at relevant summits abroad.
The position has been held by Conservative MP John Penrose since December 2017, who represents Weston, Worle and the Villages and is the husband of Baroness Dido Harding, who formerly ran the UK’s COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ operation.
Primarily, Penrose is responsible for the implementation of the UK’s first anti-corruption strategy, published in 2017. “Corruption threatens our national security and prosperity, both home and overseas,” it states. “Unchecked, it can erode public confidence in the domestic and international institutions that we depend upon.”
One year after the strategy’s publication, Penrose said that “transparency is a vital weapon in the anti-corruption fight, so we have to keep walking the talk ourselves”.
Given his role, it would be fair to assume that John Penrose is one of the people advocating for Westminster to clean up its act, particularly given recent events. But this has not been the case.
Last week, when the Prime Minister told his MPs to vote in favour of scrapping the punishment handed to Paterson for his breach of lobbying rules, Penrose dutifully marched through the lobbies in support of his colleague. And, unlike others in his party, Penrose’s support for Paterson was not tacit or begrudging. He openly declared his backing for a reformed parliamentary standards system that would have seen Paterson’s case retried.
However, the anti-corruption tsar was not so vocal on Monday, when the Labour Party led a parliamentary debate on the Owen Paterson affair and the corrupting influence of private sector interests in politics. In fact, Hansard shows that Penrose made no contribution to the debate.
“The anti-corruption champion’s role is clear and should not include commenting on or investigating individual cases, but to support and challenge the Government’s broader anti-corruption efforts,” John Penrose told Byline Times. “As part of this, I have commented both privately and publicly on how to improve the overall system.”
But it appears as though Penrose has not been keeping abreast of the mounting public anger over the Conservative cash carousel, which is being fuelled by daily news stories.
Appearing on BBC News on Monday, Penrose was asked about recent stories suggesting that Conservative donors are automatically offered a peerage if they donate a certain amount of money to the party. Penrose was asked how he planned to act on this ‘cash-for-honours’ crisis, in his role as anti-corruption champion.
“I’m afraid that I didn’t see the piece, so I can’t comment on the detail,” Penrose said, to the exasperation of BBC presenter Ben Brown, who replied: “As an anti-corruption champion, a major story in a major newspaper about corruption I thought would be right on your radar.”
John Penrose has also skirted around the major corruption scandals that have enveloped the Government during the Coronavirus crisis. In a speech to the 2021 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Anti-Corruption Forum, in late March, Penrose was asked to comment on the UK’s successes and failures during the Coronavirus pandemic.
He could have pointed out that at least £3 billion in public contracts have been awarded to donors and associates of the Conservative Party, often without competition. He could have noted that many more contracts were awarded to firms that had virtually no experience of delivering the services they were offering. He could have mentioned that several legal cases have been launched against the Government for its handling of COVID-19 contracts, while a High Court judge found that former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully in failing to promptly release the details of Government agreements with private firms.
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Instead, however, Penrose attempted to justify any failings that may have taken place by highlighting the pressures placed on Government procurement due to the crisis.
“What we discovered is that our government procurement and buying, while it had all sorts of in-built transparency measures, is too slow when you’re trying to work in COVID time and when you’re trying to get fast procurement for things like protective equipment,” he said.
In other words: anti-corruption measures were relegated due to the need to procure supplies quickly.
The UK’s hypocrisy when it comes to corruption is exposed by its attitude towards other countries.
In Penrose’s 2018 anti-corruption update, he maintained that more countries should be encouraged to publish registers showing the beneficial ownership of domestic companies, “so there’s no hiding-place for dirty money”. In particular, he said, the UK should encourage “British Overseas Territories to do the same”.
However, a leading Conservative MP has been actively helping the British Virgin Islands – a British Overseas Territory – in a corruption case against the UK Government, while the Russia Report released by MPs in July 2020 concluded that London was a “laundromat” for oligarchs seeking to clean their dirty money.
Ultimately, Penrose’s apparent lack of concern for certain anti-corruption issues, despite his title, is an indictment of the political system. It shows how the guardians of British democracy are often hollow name-plates, capable only of posturing and preaching.
The anti-corruption champion is directly appointed by the Prime Minister and serves at his pleasure. In this way, the Government is again marking its own homework. How is it that an anti-corruption tsar can serve at the behest of the most powerful person in the country, if we profess to care about genuine democratic accountability?
In the case of Owen Paterson, the Conservatives sought to redraw the rules – to police their own standards. What we fail to recognise is that many aspects of the British state, including in the field of corruption, are already governed by these rigged rules.
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