Corruption was one of the main items on the agenda of the G20's annual meeting, which took place in Hangzhou, China earlier this month. At the meeting of the 20 major global economies, an Anti-Corruption Action Plan for 2017/18 was agreed. New action plans have been introduced every two years since the establishment of the G20's Anti-Corruption Working Group in 2010.
The leaders committed to public sector contract transparency, to make it easier for countries to recover stolen assets, to increase inter-governmental cooperation on financial crime investigations, and to make it easier to identify the ultimate beneficial ownership of companies and assets.Get tips for managing beneficial ownership risk in our free webinar next week.
Perhaps the most significant commitment in the latest Action Plan is a pledge to increase transparency in how public bodies agree contracts and spend budgets. The G20 said that corruption leaves governments in the G20 with significant financial losses, noting that "governments spend around $9.5 trillion on public procurement yet corruption erodes between 20-25% of procurement budgets". The G20 leaders pledged their support for legislative and institutional protection for whistleblowers. They suggested transparency could be increased in the public sector by strengthening anti-corruption authorities, using public-private partnerships, preventing conflicts of interest affecting public officials, and using open data.
This commitment to open data follows the agreement by attendees of the London Anti-Corruption Summit in May that public contracting should be "open by default", so that citizens and businesses can access a publicly-available record of how government money is spent.
If G20 governments do implement these recommendations, it should it make it more difficult for corrupt public sector employees to accept bribes from companies undetected. So companies who benefit from government contracts should strengthen their compliance procedures to ensure the way they bid for and fulfil contracts is above board.
The G20 leaders also strengthened their commitment to work together to prevent, investigate and take enforcement action against corruption. In the Action Plan, they agreed to 'take steps to improve cooperation between law enforcement and other relevant authorities within and between our countries'. The G20 countries committed to sharing best practice in the enforcement of financial crime, including the use of new technologies, to learn from each other, and to provide technical assistance to one another.
This statement is merely the latest evidence that governments and enforcement agencies are working increasingly closely together to investigate financial crime. At the London Anti-Corruption Summit in May, the UK announced the creation of a new International Anti-Corruption Coordination Centre which will work on cross-border investigations with enforcement agencies in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. At present, regulators in the US, UK and Australia are among those collaborating to investigate companies and individuals implicated in allegations of bribery by Unaoil to secure billions of dollars of government contracts in the Middle East and Africa.
In the past, some companies might have felt that if they paid bribes or hid assets in a foreign country, they could escape the attention of the regulator in their own country. But this statement of intent from the leaders of 20 of the world's largest countries should reinforce the message that financial crimes committed overseas are more likely to be exposed than ever before.
At the meeting, the leaders endorsed the G20's High Level Principles on Cooperation on Persons Sought for Corruption and Asset Recovery. These say that countries should increase their cooperation to recover assets and extradite persons sought for corruption, and make it harder for corrupt officials and those who corrupt them to be given "safe haven".
This is a particular priority of the Chinese government, which has also set up something called the 'Research Centre on International Cooperation Regarding Persons Sought for Corruption and Asset Recovery in G20 Member States'. It is significant that all G20 leaders have committed to helping to prosecute those who commit financial crime overseas but find a legal loophole to escape prosecution in that jurisdiction.
The G20's latest Action Plan also committed to making public information about the ultimate beneficial ownership of companies. The leaders said they would "fully implement" the Financial Action Task Force's Recommendations on Transparency and Beneficial Ownership of Legal Persons and the G20's own High Level Principles on Beneficial Ownership Transparency. Both of these have previously been agreed by the G20 leaders but not implemented by every member country.
Transparency International points out that although G20 members France, the UK, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia are considering or have committed to establishing public registers of beneficial ownership, the rest of the G20 have not.
It is true that while the G20 leaders may agree to policies or recommendations, it is not guaranteed that all member countries will implement them. But the fact that the leaders of 20 of the world's leading economies have placed corruption high on their agenda should send a message to companies that their international business dealings should be conducted cleanly and honestly. Corruption is more likely than ever before to be noticed by national and international enforcement agencies, so companies risk heavy fines and equally heavy hits to their reputation. The G20 will release an implementation plan next month, which will include more detail on how these pledges should be implemented. The clock is ticking for companies to strengthen their due diligence processes.
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