Scandalous levels of public service corruption in Britain

Is honest dealing by businesses and politicians compatible with capitalist society and the profit motive?

Lalkar writers

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The scale of corruption in Britain is so vast that it often gets dismissed as merely ‘doing business’. And of course, this is true. Corruption is endemic to capitalism and an inevitable side-effect of the ceaseless drive for maximum profit.

Lalkar writers

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Transparency International, TI, the creator of annual reports on corruption worldwide, defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Unfortunately, TI only deals with perceptions, gleaned from public surveys etc, of corruption in national and local government and the judiciary of a given country.

This means that the continual and multitudinous corruption facilitated by imperialist powers in foreign countries (whether those countries be their own satellites, those dominated by imperialist rivals, or generally anti-imperialist countries) are not really covered when they compare various countries, and this omission can even lead to corruption from an imperialist source being perceived as corruption emanating from the target country itself.

Jason Hickel, in his book The Divide (2018) revealed that US research group Global Financial Integrity estimates that $1.1tn a year flows illegally out of poorer nations, stolen from them through tax evasion and the transfer of money within imperialist corporations. This practice alone, he believes, costs sub-Saharan Africa around 6 percent of its GDP.

Another problem with the listing of countries by degrees of corruption is that, because the information used is mainly from public surveys, the media, owned mainly by pro-imperialist representatives of either a foreign or local (comprador) bourgeoisie, are often the ones conducting these surveys or, where not, are exerting great influence over survey respondents.

The TI report released in 2020 identified 16 recent legislative changes in Britain that have increased the risk of corruption. These were alongside other trends – such as the decline in scrutiny by local press, and the move to more private sector outsourcing – that were driving Britain towards greater levels of corruption or, at the very least, creating a much more enabling environment for said corruption to grow and flourish.

Britain has dropped out of the list of ‘top ten countries fighting against corruption’ in recent years, and it is almost amusing to read the TI report’s comments that “The new government now has an opportunity to pull the UK back into the top ten. To do so, it will need considerable ambition that will put anti-corruption front and centre of public policy both at home and abroad.” The new government referred to was that of Boris Johnson.

As we have explained, the rampant corruption indulged in around the world does not register in TI’s index, but just a quick look at home should be enough to convince anyone that the present Conservative government of Boris Johnson is not even going to pretend to put anti-corruption ‘front and centre’ of either its policies or activities!

When Dominic Cummings singlehandedly brought the first 2020 lockdown to an end by brazenly breaking the law (some prefer to say ‘rules’ or even ‘guidelines’, but plenty of people were prosecuted and fined under those rules/guidelines for very much lesser infringements!), he absolutely refused to admit that he had done anything wrong, and was instantly backed up by the prime minister.

He faced out the criticism and kept his job, with a 40 percent increase in salary, in a show of blatant cronyism and arrogance that lifted a virtual two fingers to the public anger that resulted.

Martin Fletcher, writing in the New Statesman, exclaimed: “The David Cameron lobbying scandal is just the latest example of how the UK is becoming a corrupt country of the kind it once regarded with disdain.”

We are sure that whoever sat in the government’s driving seat certainly didn’t regard any corrupt country with disdain as long as that corruption was useful to British imperialism, but the correct point that Mr Fletcher was making was that, publicly at least, corruption was regarded with contempt both abroad and at home.

In order to back his statement up, Mr Fletcher pointed out further: “Gone are the days when David Blunkett resigned as home secretary for the relatively trivial offence of allegedly fast-tracking a visa application for his lover’s nanny, or when Peter Mandelson resigned as trade secretary for failing to register a loan from a ministerial colleague,” (Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government, 29 March 2021)

In the case of both, the corruption was fully intended but having been found out they both ‘fell on their ministerial swords’ (only to make a very quick comeback in Mandy’s instance).

From John Profumo, and even before him, being corrupt was fine, but if found out you had to pay the price and at the very least resign your ministerial position.

Seven ‘principles of public service’ were set out by Lord Nolan in his 1995 report Standards in Public Life, which followed an almighty sleaze scandal, that are supposed to be adhered to by those in political/public life. These are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. That 1995 report seems so far away now and again reminds us that corruption (sleaze if you like) is not new. However, the exceptionally easygoing reaction to it does seem to be.

The rules of the game have changed in recent years: can anyone imagine a prime minister 50 or 60 years ago having it publicly revealed that while at university as a member of a rich kids’ political group, he had performed some sexual deviance with the head of a dead pig? It would have probably been covered up quickly, but only at the cost of said PM discovering a sudden need to spend more time with his family. Of course, David ‘Teflon’ Cameron managed to struggle on regardless, and it seems that from there on the sky was the limit!

It does seem odd that Mr Cameron should also be involved in one of the latest cases of corruption as well. To quote directly from Martin Fletcher’s article: “With the prime minister’s support, a City whiz kid is secretly awarded privileged access to top civil servants so he can flog a dubious money-making scheme that diminishes the government’s obligations to pay contractors on time …

“After the prime minister leaves office, the whiz kid employs him as an adviser – and gives him stock options that are potentially worth tens of millions of pounds until the company runs into trouble. The former prime minister then privately lobbies the chancellor of the exchequer for hundreds of millions of pounds in taxpayer-funded loans to save the business from collapse.”

To this day, no-one involved is under any investigation or threat of legal action for the Greensill scandal, while the present prime minister dismisses the affair with a wave of his hand.

Again quoting the New Statesman article: “Jennifer Arcuri told the Sunday Mirror that she was having an affair with Johnson, then London mayor, at the same time as he was including her on taxpayer-funded trade missions, and giving grants to her technology company. He will, of course, flatly deny any impropriety and move on.”

We now also know that Johnson’s government, last November, “awarded £10.5bn worth of pandemic-related contracts without a competitive tender process, and that companies with the right political connections were ten times as likely to win them.

“Ministers have unlawfully refused to publish a full list, but we know contracts for personal protective equipment went to jewellers, pest controllers and confectionery companies. A contract for glass vials went to the former landlord of Matt Hancock’s local pub. An £840,000 contract to ‘test coronavirus messaging’ went to Public First, a company run by close associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.”

Has anyone heard any apologies, explanations or perhaps the ring of a single shot from behind a closed parliamentary office door?

What about home secretary Priti Patel, who was found guilty of bullying her civil servants in a flagrant breach of the ministerial code? Not only did she did not resign, but the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Alex Allan, who wrote the ‘ignored by the PM’ report on her did!

“Johnson gives jobs, as well as lucrative contracts, to cronies. Putting Dido Harding, a former business leader and the wife of a Tory MP, in charge of the NHS Test and Trace programme,” a programme that achieved very little in the way of testing or tracing but cost the public funds £37bn!

What of Kate Bingham, daughter of Lord Bingham and wife of Jesse Norman, the financial secretary to the Treasury, who was placed in charge of the vaccine task force?

We mustn’t forget the housing secretary, one Robert Jenrick, who remains in post in spite of approving a Tory donor’s £1bn property development plan that had already been rejected by both Tower Hamlets council and by the government’s own planning inspectorate. As luck would have it, Mr Jenrick approved the plan submitted by Richard Desmond just in the nick of time for him to avoid paying a £45m levy to London’s poorest borough.

Moving on to honours and knighthoods for friends, A peerage for the premier’s brother, Jo Johnson, seems almost mild compared to some. Take former Conservative party treasurer, Peter Cruddas, who was found guilty in 2013 of selling access to then PM David Cameron, but who managed to cop a peerage from Johnson despite the Lords Appointments Commission strongly objecting. Tory donors Michael Spencer and Aamer Sarfraz managed to get on board the knighthood train, as did Evgeny Lebedev, who just happens to be the owner of both the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers.

We now know that Michael Gove ordered officials to use an ‘emergency Covid contract’ (publicly-funded to tackle the pandemic) to conduct political research for Tory constitutional campaigning. He has been found to have acted unlawfully in awarding this £560,000 ’emergency’ contract to a market research firm that is owned by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, both former team members of Mr Gove. The high court ruled that this “gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful”, but, as ever, no apologies were received, much less resignations.

Even the New York Times has shown an interest in this growing phenomenon. Its journalists analysed a large segment of roughly 1,200 UK government contracts relating to the Covid-19 epidemic, worth $22bn (£16bn), whose details had been made public. They found that about half, worth £8bn, “went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy”. (Waste, negligence and cronyism: inside Britain’s pandemic spending by Jane Bradley, Selam Gebrekidan and Allison McCann, 17 December 2020)

Of course, corruption is what makes capitalism work, and, as imperialist capitalism has brought the world into a series of even tighter strangleholds, the corruption has reached such a level that much of it cannot any longer be disguised.

And what is the British government’s answer to this? If found out, just ignore the complaints and condemnations since they will soon be forgotten and sumberged by the arrival of a new corruption scandal! That, or just point a finger at someone else (Russia and China are two of the usual targets) and scream “Corruption!” Making sure all your media puppets take up the scream with gusto, naturally.

We have over the years highlighted the corruption (call it cronyism, chumocracy, revolving doors, conflicts of interest, old boy’s network, sleaze, etc) prefalent in all areas of British life. A look through our archives reveals articles covering corruption scandals involving the police at all levels and across the country, and the almost incredible rottenness running through the entire health industry, both public and private.

Within hospitals and health authorities we have seen the corruption practised by managers and governing bodies it terms of PFI schemes; in keeping wards understaffed and then using private ‘bank’ staff to cover. We have seen the way that chemists can rip off the NHS when asked to make a one-off medicine, usually by mixing two or more ready-prepared drugs and charging fees running at thousands of percent of the cost of the originals.

We have seen how GP and dentistry practices can generate huge funds from the simple addition or subtraction of certain patients; how some of them are withholding NHS treatments in order to push private, more lucrative ones. We have seen the corruption involved in the giving of contracts worth millions of pounds to private companies by CCGs and NHS Britain.

And we have seen that the largest leeches sucking funds from the NHS budget are the big drug-producing companies. This last grouping, the drug giants, or ‘big pharma’, continues to develop its corrupt hold over the public purse in Britain.

The rip-off is basically the same as it always has been. Did we really think that drug production (along with GPs and dentists) was left out of the 1948 nationalisation of a large part of the health service by mistake by the well-meaning Comrade Attlee and his Labour government? Anyway, the NHS needs drugs to treat its patients and, as it cannot produce its own, it must buy them.

The drugs companies do not usually try to undercut each other as there is less profit to be made by all of them if a price war takes place. Although there are some price differences, in general if one bloodsucker hikes up a certain product by a few thousand percent, the others tend to follow suit if they can.

After all, the NHS is a captive customer, and, although various governments of different hues have often talked tough on reining in the astronomical pricing of drugs provided to the NHS, they rarely do. Any legislation they produce that on the face of it puts obstacles in the way of corruption tends always to be riddled with loopholes that let the drug giants carry on much as before.

Sam Blanchard, writing for the Daily Mail, reported back in 2018 that the NHS is still being robbed of about £200m a year while drug companies are raising some prices by around 12,500 percent. He revealed that government officials in charge of ‘overseeing’ price rises are doing no such thing, as companies make use of a nice little loophole that means that ‘unbranded’ drugs do not have the maximum price limits that branded ones have.

So the drug giants slow down the production of the branded product to a trickle and ramp up the production and price of an unbranded version that the NHS is forced to buy since the branded cheaper version is virtually unavailable. The Department of Health and Social Care was legally given the power to push down the retail price of overpriced branded drugs, but, at the same time, their legs were kicked from underneath them when Parliament allowed the unbranded products to be left out of the equation.

Accidental oversight?

The giant multinational drug companies, having turned themselves into one of the most profitable industries in the world, are busy peddling the lie that they’re charging these immense prices for their often lifesaving products because it costs a fortune to research and develop them. What they don’t tell us is that a very large part of that research is publicly funded in the first place.

The government is quite aware of this, of course, but the share options and various kickbacks in ‘jobs’ (not real jobs, of course, just those where your name is given a title and you are given very large sums of, er, ‘wages’!), donations to a party or to some individual’s election expenses etc, seem to blind our public servants to the robbery that is going on.

A report published by independent campaign group Global Justice Now and the Aids charity STOPAIDS has revealed that big drug companies are taking over research funded by British taxpayers and selling the resulting drugs back to the NHS to the tune of more than £1bn a year, thus showing that we are effectively paying twice for our medicines – once to research and develop them, and again to buy the finished drugs. (Pills and Profits, October 2017)

Unfortunately, many people still don’t believe that such a level of corruption could really exist, while probably just as many people recognise that it does but are totally overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the problem – to the point that they just ignore it.

But the hard truth is that wherever there is capitalist production, wherever imperialism can dictate to weaker states, or even where imperialists ‘do business’ with one other, there is rampant corruption. It is baked into the bones of the system of maximum profit. If we want to see the end of corruption we have no choice but to put an end to that system once and for all.

The apologists for imperialism will at this point be jumping up shouting that there have been examples of corruption within societies developing the socialist mode of production as well, and to a certain extent this is true. But when in the western imperialist world did you ever see lengthy prison sentences or even death sentences handed to people who have abused the trust that working people put in them?

These things did happen in the Soviet Union, in China and other socialist orientated societies. Only in a socialist society can those in power, either within the government, a shop, a farm, a hospital or a factory, be required to be so open and transparent about their life and dealings with others as to reduce the possibilities of corruption to the very minimum, and only in that society are persons in those powerful positions so trusted and respected that an infringement against the interests of the people demands the strictest of punishments.

At this moment in time, despite a popular belief that Britain is little more than a third-world country that just does as US imperialism tells it to do, there is plenty to back up the claim of Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah (2007), that the “UK is the most corrupt nation on Earth”.

The corporate tax haven index published by the Tax Justice Network (TJN) shows that the three countries that have done most to facilitate corporate theft – ie, corruption or imperialist ‘business’ – are the British Virgin islands, the Cayman islands and Bermuda. All three of these are British territories. Closer to home, the seventh on the list of shame is Jersey.

These places are financial satellites of the City of London. They are all officially ‘overseas’, which means that the City can benefit from all the unsavoury activities that see so much wealth flooding into its coffers without either the City or the British government being linked when scandals arise – as they do with monotonous regularity.

The City of London’s exemption from the UK’s freedom of information laws creates an extra ring of secrecy around all the dodgy blood-soaked money sloshing into the City.

Oliver Bullough, a sometime Guardian journalist, revealed how easy it has become to hide your stolen loot and fraudulent schemes in the City. Apparently, “using a giant loophole in company law: no one checks the ownership details you enter when creating your company”. (How Britain can help you get away with stealing millions: a five-step guide, 5 July 2019)

You can call yourself any name at all, with a registered address anywhere on earth – or, indeed, on any other planet – and get away with it. That is literally all you need to start money laundering.

The National Crime Agency estimates that money laundering costs Britain £100bn every year, but the City makes so much more than that from it. Britain is a major imperialist player in the world and has committed countless crimes against so many people – people we must stand up and join with if ever we want to see an end to British imperialism and the criminality and corruption that flows from it.