Corruption in Britain is not a thing of the past

From a talk by John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office, given at the Royal Society of Arts in Bristol
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The Independent Online

The office of Comptroller and Auditor-General goes back to 1314, when it was an office in the court of the king. The comptroller's task was to sit on the king's treasure chest. If you wanted to do something exciting, like invading Scotland or beating up the French, you would come to my medieval predecessor and ask for the money to do it.

The office of Comptroller and Auditor-General goes back to 1314, when it was an office in the court of the king. The comptroller's task was to sit on the king's treasure chest. If you wanted to do something exciting, like invading Scotland or beating up the French, you would come to my medieval predecessor and ask for the money to do it.

My predecessors continued in the court until the 17th century when, seeing the king's share price going down, as it were, the Comptroller removed his loyalty from the monarch to Parliament, where it has remained ever since. The marker of history continues, because every day the Treasury has to come to me and ask for the money to keep the government going.

I propose to say something about the developing work of the National Audit Office, discussing two themes: that effective public administration is a function of both honesty and value for money.

I have distinguished four levels of public-service corruption. One of these is what I call endemic corruption. In some countries the word "corruption" has no meaning, because corruption is the way that everything is done. We were like that once. In the 18th century in this country, everything turned around family connection, cronyism, who you knew, and it is something of a puzzle how we changed from that system.

The same goes for corruption in which public officials indulge because their salaries are so low that the only way they and their families can survive is by doing three jobs, charging you for a licence, charging you for a passport. The salaries of public servants in this country are not specially high, but they are not as low as in those countries where the only way officials can live is by charging citizens for every piece of activity.

There is a danger that, because we do not have those levels of corruption in the UK, we think we are not corrupt at all, that we are a fundamentally honest society. While as a general proposition that has a great deal to be said for it, it is not a proposition that admits of no exceptions. Somebody doing my job tends to see quite a lot of them, and we have to recognise that in the UK there are dangerous areas, areas of potential weakness, and areas of fraud, theft, and corruption at the another two levels.

The first concerns purchases and projects. There are examples of the granting of contracts on a corrupt basis. There is also procedural corruption, where somebody sees a weakness in procedure and exploits it for personal gain.

A few years ago, a Mr Williams stole £5m from the Metropolitan Police. Mr Williams was the finance officer for clandestine operations, the work of the Special Branch. It is important that detailed knowledge of what the Special Branch does should not be bruited around so that everybody should know its plans. The arrangement was that if the Special Branch needed to buy, say, a yacht or a safe house, it asked Mr Williams for the money. If he was satisfied, he would ask for the sum to be paid into a particular bank account. He did not have to say what he wanted the money for. After a time, it dawned on him that he could ask for money for himself, and that is what he started to do.

The point of these examples is that, though we quite rightly pride ourselves in the United Kingdom on not having endemic corruption or the corruption necessary for public servants to make a living, we cannot be so sanguine as to believe that we do not have problems about projects and purchases and procedures.

I am not suggesting that we should increase the quantity of rules and regulations. In fact that is probably a bad thing. What I do suggest is the development of attention to systems in corporate governance and to training that makes people more aware of weaknesses in the way that money and resources are handled.

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