The Sound of Silence: Concerns over UK’s Delay in Airbus Corruption Prosecution

April 23, 2019

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Sound of Silence Corruption icon

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The UK government faces criticism as it is accused of unnecessarily delaying the prosecution of a multimillion-pound corruption case involving an Airbus subsidiary and Saudi Arabia.

What does this mean?

The UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (the government’s chief lawyer) has come under fierce criticism for taking over a year to approve a corruption prosecution against the European aerospace group, an Airbus subsidiary. For any prosecution case, the Attorney General’s approval is needed under the Prevention of Corruption Act. It has been alleged that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is moving too slowly when it comes to the investigation of this grand-scale corruption allegation. The case in question concerns illicit gifts and payments (with a value totalling at least £14 million) made by the Airbus subsidiary to Saudi Arabia. These payments have allegedly been made to ensure that the Airbus subsidiary secures a £2 billion military contract with Saudi Arabia. It has been suggested that this delay is due to the political fallout that a prosecution may have. It could result in a souring of relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia and further, it could expose British complicity in the wrongdoing.

What's the big picture effect?

This delay highlights the political sensitivities in international cases and the external pressures lawyers face in the pursuit of justice. This case very much reflects the charges faced by Tony Blair’s government in 2006 over what became known as the BAE scandal. Under very similar circumstances, the SFO was investigating allegations of bribery against Britain’s biggest arms company, BAE. However, following a complaint made by Saudi Arabia over the investigation, the SFO was essentially ordered to stand down in that instance. This case may be an opportunity to right the wrong approach taken over the BAE scandal.

Corruption Watch, an anti-bribery campaign group, is suggesting that the emerging Airbus ‘scandal’ is simply a rerun of the concerning ‘rule of law’ infringement that BAE clearly represented. Susan Hawley (a Policy Director at Corruption Watch) has criticised Cox, saying “it is completely unacceptable that the attorney general has been sitting on this file for so long. The fact that the attorney general is holding this case up is deeply concerning.”

With a House of Lords committee last month also criticising the “slow pace” of bribery investigations, the emerging Airbus scandal is seen by many as a barometer as to whether the lessons from BAE have really been learned. As Hawley puts it, this is a “key test of whether the UK has moved on from the BAE scandal and whether the SFO can tackle politically sensitive bribery cases”.

The message the UK sends by prosecuting, or not prosecuting, will undoubtedly have a significant impact on international relations and the perception of Britain’s attitude towards corruption. But will it learn from its past mistakes?

Report written by Mark P

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