Tougher rules on bribery welcome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am


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As an international business and financial centre, it is in Hong Kong's interest that the best practices are maintained. Reputation counts, so we have to ensure companies and officials do not bend or break the rules. Every effort has to be made to strengthen what is in place. It is good that thousands of firms in our city will, from next month, be subject to Britain's new Bribery Act, widely perceived as the world's toughest anti-corruption law. On paper, the law has considerably more bark and bite than the legislation after which it is modelled, the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Penalties include up to 10 years in jail, unlimited fines and confiscation of property. It has almost universal jurisdiction, allowing prosecution of individuals or companies with links to Britain, no matter where the offence took place. Bribery, being bribed, bribery of foreign public officials and failure to adequately prevent bribery by company employees or clients is prohibited. Facilitation payments- common in Asia to cut through red tape - are included.

The law would seem harsh, and perhaps even wrong. It is important that it is implemented fairly and does not place an unrealistic burden on businesses. Britain is not the world's policeman, nor does it still have jurisdiction over Hong Kong. But the British government does not have the resources to pursue relatively trivial payments or go through financial statements with a fine-tooth comb. And that is not what the legislation is about anyway.

At its heart is improving Britain's business reputation. It has slipped below Hong Kong, Japan and Germany in the international corruption index, in large part because it has been slow to put in place regulations and has suffered major bribery scandals. Getting tough is the remedy. Hong Kong already has good rules and enforcement, but we should always be looking for ways to strengthen them. If firms in our midst have to adhere to higher standards, we must try to ensure they also apply to our business and finance communities.