The Bribery Act will come into force on 1 July, the government announced today, as it published delayed compliance guidance for businesses.
Briefing reporters this morning, justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said that it was ‘best to get it right rather than head for some artificial deadline’.
The start date for the act, which received royal assent in April last year, was pushed back after business lobbies claimed that the compliance guidance was unclear.
The act creates the offences of bribing another, being bribed, bribing a foreign official, and failing to prevent bribery.
Convicted individuals face up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and companies face unlimited fines unless they can show they had ‘adequate procedures’ in place to prevent bribery.
Clarke said he doubted that the act would lead to drawn-out court battles with companies trying to prove that they had adequate procedures in place when defending bribery allegations.
The director of public prosecutions (DPP) and the director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), who decide whether or not to prosecute under the Bribery Act, today published joint guidance for prosecutors.
The guidance gives examples of how public interest factors in the Code for Crown Prosecutors and the Guidance on Corporate Prosecutions may be applied to prosecutions under the act.
According to official figures, only nine bribery convictions are made every year under the old legislation.
Clarke said: ‘I have listened carefully to business representatives to ensure the Bribery Act is implemented fully and in a workable, commonsense way.
'I hope this guidance shows that combating the risks of bribery is largely about common sense, not burdensome procedures.’
He added: ‘Without changing the substance of the act, this guidance should save organisations of all sizes from the fears sometimes aroused by the compliance industry that millions of pounds must be spent on new systems that, in my opinion, no honest business will require in response to the commencement of this act.’
Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy and external affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: ‘We are encouraged by the government’s recent efforts to make the act clearer, especially for small- and medium-sized companies.
'The new guidance highlights that common sense, rather than bureaucratic procedures, should lie at the heart of smaller companies’ approach.
'Legitimate businesses must be able to operate in foreign markets, engage agents, and entertain potential clients without fear of falling foul of the law.
'Meanwhile, the full force of the law should be brought to bear on the unscrupulous.’
DPP Keir Starmer QC noted: ‘While the act takes a robust approach to commercial bribery, it also applies to individuals who attempt to influence the application of rules, regulations and normal procedures.
'This guidance will enable prosecutors to adopt a consistent approach to decision making across the whole range of bribery cases.
'The issues prosecutors must consider before deciding whether to seek my consent to prosecute an individual or an organisation for bribery are clearly outlined, and by making this guidance publicly available, our approach is made open and transparent.’
‘The Bribery Act is good news for the UK and UK business,’ SFO director Richard Alderman said.
‘It confirms our commitment to helping to eradicate bribery from business practices. It will help ensure that ethical businesses do not lose out to others that use bribery and corruption to win contracts.
'We shall enforce the act vigorously, but we are still very keen to listen to specific issues that companies have. I want to work with ethical businesses to resolve problems pragmatically and fairly.’
According to a survey by risk consultancy Kroll in October, less than half (47%) of businesses said they were confident that they had sufficient controls in place to prevent bribery.
Monty Raphael, special counsel at Peters & Peters and author of Blackstone’s Guide to the Bribery Act, commented: 'No one thought there would be many prosecutions under the Act but now I believe there will be fewer still.
'Prosecutors, judges and juries are all sent a clear message: "British business must be allowed to entertain and promote to remain competitive",and perhaps that is uncontroversial if it is reasonable and proportionate.
'What will worry anti-corruption campaigners and the OECD is the wiggle room unethical businesses will have to structure their corporate activities to take themselves outside the ambit of the legislation and still maintain their right to raise money on the London capital markets.
'Transactional lawyers will be in greater demand than compliance officers.'
The guidance is available on the Ministry of Justice website.