New Delhi: The UK’s new anti-corruption law casts a transcontinental net over bribery offences. Prosecutors in the UK now have powers to investigate and arrest people anywhere in the world, including India. Upon conviction, the penalty is a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and possibly an unlimited fine too. In an interview, Lord Goldsmith, a former UK attorney general and now the European chair of litigation at Debevoise and Plimpton Llp, explained the UK Bribery Act, 2010, (which came into force on 1 July) and why he thinks this is the way ahead for countries grappling with corruption. Edited excerpts:
What is the intention behind this law?
The UK Bribery Act is intended to be a modern, up-to-date, tough law to tackle corruption, both at home and overseas...
How is this law different from previous such laws in the UK?
The previous law—anti-bribery law in the UK—was very old, over 100 years old. It goes back to the Victorian days, so it needed to be updated and the new Act does that. But it does two other very important things... First, it gives the Act a very broad extra-territorial reach... by applying that rule to any company that does some business in the UK, but in relation to what it does outside the UK. For example, if an Indian company has a branch in the UK then British prosecutors could proceed against it for something that Indian company had done in Indonesia, in Africa, anywhere in the world.
Widening ambit : Lord Goldsmith. Photograph by Bloomberg
They would have jurisdiction over it as long as it does some business in the UK. But this is the point I want to emphasize, not just in relation to what it does in the UK, but what it does anywhere in the world...
Who have to take measures to comply with the law?
Any company that does any business in the UK—doesn’t need to be a UK company, doesn’t need to be listed in the UK, doesn’t even need to have an office in the UK. As long as it does some business in the UK, it needs to be concerned...
What are the diplomatic channels through which the UK would seek to enforce this Act in India?
If someone’s actually got a presence in the UK, there’s no problem. You don’t need to be a UK national, if you’re actually physically in the UK it’s easy for the prosecutors and the police to interrogate you, to investigate you. If you’re outside the UK, like a company outside the UK, there will need to be the use of channels for cooperation. Now, I can tell you, having been the attorney general I had to deal with these; these channels of communication between different countries in the field of criminal law are much stronger, much faster than they used to be.
One police agency will be able to communicate with another police agency, they will ask a judge to ask for evidence to be obtained in another country. All of this can be done.
And ultimately, if somebody is to be removed from one country to be taken to the UK to stand trial, for extradition, that will go through a diplomatic channel. But there things are much more automatic than they used to be.
Is this not a bad move, considering that you want to attract investment, particularly from Indian companies?
I think the world has now moved to a place where you can’t compromise with corruption. It’s the issue all over the world, it’s bad for the public, it’s bad for business, it’s bad for the economy. All over the world, the agencies are getting tougher in dealing with it. And you only have to open the newspapers in a number of countries, including India, and you see the stories and the issues and the concerns. So you can’t compromise and say, “Okay, let’s not tackle this.” You have to tackle it. And Indian companies need to be ready to deal with it.
There has been a debate about an independent ombudsman (Lokpal) in India. What is your message to Indian lawmakers and citizens on tackling corruption?
From my experience, I think one has to recognize that you can’t hide from (the) need to have proper and effective procedures in place. And there are different ways of doing that. The courts are important, the prosecutors and the agencies are important, but there’s a big place for civil society as well. But if the system isn’t working well enough, then the right thing to do is to create something...