This article was published in the New Law Journal NLJ 2010 Vol 60, No 7441, p1572:
The Bribery Act 2010 received royal assent on 8 April. According to the Ministry of Justice, it will among other things “provide a more effective legal framework to combat bribery in the public or private sectors” and “help tackle the threat that bribery poses to economic progress and development around the world”.
It is fair to say that the old regime was a fractured state of affairs, and it is also fair to say that it didn't achieve very much. In 2007, for example, the US brought 69 cases relating to foreign bribery, Germany 43 and the UK none at all.
It can't be said, therefore, that there was no case for reform. If anything the surprise is the length of time reform has taken; it is not as if the previous government was reticent about altering the criminal law, in any other respect. The total number of pages in Halsbury's Statutes devoted to criminal law more than doubled between 1997 and 2010. That sort of increase is totally inconsistent with the rule of law, which requires, among other things, the law to be reasonably stable and knowable in advance.
Justified or not, it may be doubted whether the new Act will have the desired effect. The fact that the old law was in a slightly jaded state can scarcely be a complete explanation for the dearth of successful prosecutions. Perhaps the most famous, or rather infamous, case of a non-prosecution was the Al Yamamah investigation of the mid-2000s by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
Readers may recall that the investigation concerned the sale of Eurofighter jets to Saudi Arabia. The director of the SFO formed the view that there had been fraud, and began an investigation accordingly. All proceeded as normal until BAE Systems plc (the Eurofighter's manufacturer) said that to comply with a notice for disclosure would impair relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia. That initially did not suffice to prevent the investigation, but in short order the Saudis upped the stakes. They made quite clear that unless the investigation was halted two things would follow: first, the Eurofighter deal (and presumably any future weapons purchase) would be called off; and secondly, cooperation in the “war on terror” would cease. In case anyone didn't get the hint, the implications of the second threat were spelt out—British lives on British streets would be put at risk. And just to make sure the right people heard, they made those threats directly to No. 10 Downing Street (not being convinced of the constitutional arrangement of the independence of the prosecution process in Britain).
By means of a “Shawcross exercise” the Attorney General (who superintends the Director as with every other prosecutorial authority) had solicited the views of the cabinet in relation to the implications for foreign relations and, given the unambiguous threat emanating from Riyadh, ultimately concluded that it was not in the public interest to continue with the investigation, much less prosecute anyone.
That decision was the subject of well-known judicial review proceedings (R (on the application of Corner House Research) v Director of the Serious Fraud Office  4 All ER 927), but despite the Divisional Court railing against what it saw as an abominable interference with the rule of law, on appeal the House of Lords gave the complaints short shrift. Distasteful as it all was, their lordships held, the decision of the Director was not unlawful by traditional judicial review criteria, and therefore could not be interfered with by the courts. He had been entitled to take into account the public interest, in particular the threat to British lives, and indeed could have reached no other decision in the circumstances of the case (see John Cooper QC, “The Day We Sold the Rule of Law”, in Cases that Changed Our Lives, LexisNexis 2010).
One can look at the Al Yamamah affair from several different angles: a supine capitulation in the face of a foreign threat (that would presumably have set Lord Palmerston spinning in his grave), or a correct utilitarian balancing of the public interest. Or an outrageous selling out of the rule of law versus a proper exercise of the discretion which the prosecuting authorities have always correctly possessed. One thing, however, seems clear beyond argument: no matter what the state of the bribery laws, the Attorney General (or his subordinates) will exercise the discretion not to prosecute when they conclude it is not in the UK's interest to do so. And when British lives are at stake they will inevitably follow that course.
It would therefore pay to bear in mind that although the bribery laws may have changed—the “war on terror” continues unabated; the state of the nation's finances has become worse; we are still committed to a costly and protracted armed struggle in Afghanistan; our planned weapons procurement programmes are in a shaky state; which means the defence industry is as well; and we are as dependent on foreign oil as ever. In those circumstances it seems most improbable that nothing resembling the Al Yamamah deal will happen again and, if it does, that it will be treated any differently.