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Issue #1744      August 17, 2016

Just how corrupt is the UK?

Even though “brown envelopes” are less ubiquitous in Britain than they are in places like Afghanistan and Nigeria, there can be no doubt that the country is seriously corrupt, says Ian Fraser.

There have been recently quite a few people who have been insisting Britain isn’t corrupt. They claim to see nothing wrong with former Prime Minister David Cameron describing countries such as Afghanistan and Nigeria, whose leaders were in London for the Anti-Corruption Summit in May, as “fantastically corrupt”. When Cameron was caught on camera uttering these words in what he thought was a private conversation with the Queen, his clear insinuation was that their former colonial master is, by comparison, whiter than white.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth speaks with Prime Minister David Cameron when he dropped his “fantastically corrupt” bomb.

On social media, many people subsequently claimed they could see nothing wrong with the prime minister’s remarks. As evidence they cite Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), according to which Britain is the 10th least corrupt country of 168 countries surveyed. Or, to be precise, Britain is ranked 10th “least corrupt country”, alongside Luxembourg and Germany. By contrast, Afghanistan, where Britain fought a war from 2001-14, was ranked 166th, and Nigeria, which was a British colony until 1960, was ranked 136th.

However, the methodology Transparency International uses to produce its corruption index is flawed. It is based on subjective “perceptions” of corruption garnered from pre-existing surveys and interviews – whose very subjectivity means there’s a risk of reinforcing existing stereotypes – not from primary research.

Off the scale

Even though “brown envelopes” are less ubiquitous here than they are in places like Afghanistan and Nigeria, there can be no doubt that Britain is seriously corrupt.

The failure to prosecute any of the bankers who are widely believed to have committed fraud in the run-up to the banking crisis and our so-called “two-tier justice system” are clear evidence for that. This was encapsulated by the announcement from Scotland’s state prosecutor, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, on May 12 that it had found “insufficient evidence” to press criminal charges on Fred Goodwin or other former directors of Royal Bank of Scotland, despite what is widely considered to have been the bank’s fraudulent rights issue in April 2008. That was capped by the appointment of the Lord Advocate who presided over the inquiry – or should I say “whitewash”?

The bailing out of kleptocratic banks with more than 1.3 trillion of taxpayers’ funds in 2008-09 without demanding or enforcing structural or behavioural change on the banking sector is another sign of, at best, “crony capitalism” and, at worst, “corruption”. One might argue that the rebranding of criminal fraud as “misselling” and “misconduct” is another; as is the UK government’s shameful kowtowing to the congenitally corrupt HSBC, which saw Cameron’s government last year water down much-needed post-crisis banking reforms, after Europe’s largest bank rattled its sabre and threatened to remove its headquarters from the UK.

Other signs of insidious corruption in the UK include the ability of the former prime minister Tony Blair to (i) appease bankers by enfeebling City regulation, mainly in 2002-07, a period when he and fellow Labour cabinet ministers repeatedly intervened to prevent the Financial Services Authority from doing its job in order to protect banks from much-needed scrutiny; (ii) take a $3-million-a-year senior advisory role with JPMorgan Chase within weeks of leaving Downing Street. And don’t get me started on the other roles Blair has fulfilled since 2007, including his notorious 5 million deal to launder the image of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a man accused of horrendous human rights abuses.

The revolving door between Westminster/Whitehall and the City of London/private sector is not the exclusive preserve of former prime ministers. Former chancellor Alistair Darling is now a director of US banking giant Morgan Stanley, and former chief secretary of the Treasury Danny Alexander, who lost his parliamentary seat in the May 2015 general election, is now vice-president and corporate secretary of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. And of course, another former Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, last December joined the global advisory board of Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund manager.

According to a piece in the Daily Mail, these four are just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly 400 former government ministers and senior civil servants have, since 2008, cashed in on their experience of government in order to pass through the gilded revolving door into lucrative private sector and regulatory jobs. The revolving door also works in the other direction, with, for example, Stephen Green, former chairman of HSBC, ennobled by Cameron so he could become a trade minister. As the door has spun at warp speed, so the scope for corruption has intensified.

The recent failure of David Cameron’s government, despite the revelations contained in the Panama Papers, to force Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, which include the British Virgin Islands, and indeed the City of London itself, to become more open and transparent and to cease acting as a hiding place for tax evaders, money launderers, drug barons, fraudsters and corrupt politicians to stash their ill-gotten gains as the most glaring recent example of corruption.

The governments of Nigeria, Kenya, France and Afghanistan all recently committed to providing public registers of the beneficial ownership of companies, trusts and foundations. But the UK’s tax and secrecy havens are refusing to make any such commitment and Cameron has no intention of forcing their hands.

Fuelling war

Dirty money from tax-evading oligarchs and other nefarious individuals is inflating London’s property bubble (in the process turning the capital into even more of an unlivable city for ordinary mortals) at the same time as adding what is perceived to be much-needed liquidity to London’s financial markets. However, in welcoming it, we’re effectively giving a “getaway vehicle” to international gangsters. In the process we’re fuelling international crime, war and terrorism and depriving developing countries including Russia, China and India of hundreds of billions of dollars that are rightfully theirs.

None of this would be possible were it not for the UK’s notoriously feeble anti-money laundering defences.

In its excellent “Don’t Look, Won’t Find” report, Transparency International highlighted how so-called professionals in banking, accountancy, law, estate agency and company formation – as well as direct sellers of products and services to wealthy foreigners including auction houses, purveyors of luxury goods and private schools – are ushering in this toxic tide. Most of the 22 regulators that are supposed to stem the flow of “dirty money” into the UK were revealed to be far more interested in cheerleading and lobbying for their member firms (which of course make huge sums from laundering dirty cash) than in regulating them. Such self-regulation has become an utter farce.

Scotland’s company factories

The situation in company formation is particularly worrying. Anyone from anywhere in the world can set up an opaque UK-registered limited partnership (LP) (shell company) for a relatively small fee, on a no-questions-asked basis.

Companies House admits that verifying the identities of those who incorporate such vehicles, or checking whether they have legitimate intent, are outside its remit. Last summer Richard Smithand I, when researching the role of Scottish limited partnerships (SLPs) in a US$1 billion Moldovan bank fraud, discovered that such vehicles are now widely recognised as “Europe’s secrecy vehicle of choice” and are widely favoured by organised criminals, tax evaders, fraudsters and money launderers.

Today these secrecy vehicles are being churned out at a rate of 6,000 a year (up from 500 a year in 2008) by “company factories” based in a twilight zone of modest ex-council flats in housing schemes in places like Edinburgh and Inverness in Scotland. We found that a single ground-floor, one-bedroom flat located in the neighbourhood where Irvine Welsh set his Trainspotting movie was not only home to two company formation businesses – Royston Business Services and Arran Business Services – but was also the registered address of 425 companies.

At least 90 percent of the Scottish limited partnerships churned out by these “company factories” have anonymous general and limited partners (corporate “beneficial owners”) located in offshore secrecy havens such as the British Virgin Islands, Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Belize and Panama. Fortuna United was controlled by two firms purportedly based in Seychelles – Trafford United Ltd, where the flat’s owner Viktorija Zirnelyte is the sole director, and Brixton Ventures Ltd, where her fellow Lithuanian Remigijus Mikalauskas is sole director.

Scottish limited partnerships along similar lines to Fortuna United – whose opacity is so impregnable it’s virtually impossible to verify the purpose to which they’re being put, who controls them or the sums being channelled through them – are today being heavily marketed by outfits across Central and Eastern Europe including Darwin Tax (believed to be a feeder for Zirnelyte and Mikalauskas), Five Consult, Gestion Baltic, Inlat Plus, LTSS and Sanemto, all Riga-based, and by incorporation agents based in jurisdictions including Belarus, Belize, Cyprus, Dominica, Greece, Ukraine (where there are a great many providers), Panama, Russia and Hong Kong.

Shell companies

If it was not for the ready availability of anonymous shell companies registered in supposedly reputable tax havens and jurisdictions such as the UK, time could be called on the offshore game. Without them, the corrupt would be unable to loot developing countries without leaving fingerprints, and Western firms, allegedly including Rolls-Royce, Petrofac and Weir Group would have no anonymous conduits with which to grease the palms of overseas officials and politicians in the hope of securing lucrative contracts.

In her excellent BBC Radio 4 File on 4 documentary on the Unaoil scandal first broadcast on May 10, “Dirty Oil”, Jane Deith revealed how UK-based shell companies, including Comex Industries LLP, were allegedly being used by Monaco-based Unaoil to funnel bribes to, among others, Iraqi politicians.

Despite the recent grandiloquent claims from former PM David Cameron, neither the British nor the Scottish government seems willing to do anything to address this particular open sore, as the revised beneficial ownership rules he keeps trumpeting don’t apply to limited partnerships with overseas-based general partners and limited partners.

David Whyte, professor at the University of Liverpool, recently produced a comprehensive guide that includes other examples of serious corruption in the UK. Editor of the book How Corrupt Is Britain?, Whyte summed up the situation in an earlier interview given to Afshin Rattansi of RT’s Going Underground. In the interview, Whyte said: “We have a national myth that Britain is not corrupt ... There’s an almost racist assumption that Britain is not infected by corruption ... in banking, the SFO [Serious Fraud Office] only prosecutes about 20 cases a year, but there are around 40,000 burglaries that end up with prosecutions each year ... we have a problem of impunity and a problem with institutions which are unable to hold the powerful to account.”

Still, at least we’re in the world’s top 10 least corrupt countries – according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index anyway.

Responding to Cameron’s “fantastically corrupt” comment, Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International, said: “There is no doubt that historically, Nigeria and Afghanistan have had very high levels of corruption, and that continues to this day. But the leaders of those countries have sent strong signals that they want things to change, and the London Anti-Corruption Summit creates an opportunity for all the countries present to sign up to a new era.

This affects the UK as much as other countries: we should not forget that by providing a safe haven for corrupt assets, the UK and its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are a big part of the world’s corruption problem.”

Third World Resurgence

Next article – Corporate funding of social activism

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