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     Volume 4 Issue 73 | December 2, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Accounts and Accountability

Farah Ghuznavi

LOOKING at the state of the world today, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that corruption - of one kind or another - is a universal failing. The only effective remedy is having strong systems in place to monitor and punish those who engage in such activities. And maintaining those systems requires an ongoing commitment - any shortfall in vigilance frequently results in new violations. This leads to the cynical thought that human nature responds best to the threat of sanctions - as opposed to the "moral" reward of doing the right thing simply because it's right!

Concerns about financial corruption are most often expressed in the context of developing countries. And it is certainly true that such problems are pervasive in some developing nations, though many are working hard to address these issues.

Sometimes things just get absurd! Although the current Brazilian President raised hopes for change when he was first elected, this was followed by severe let-down. Recently, when Brazilian police stopped a low-level political aide, the ensuing scandal implicated many higher-ups. The man concerned was found to be illegally carrying $85,000 worth of currency in cash in his luggage! But the height of this farce came when the police looked more carefully, to find a further $100,000 stuffed into his underpants…

To be fair though, much as the "developed world" would wish it otherwise, Western countries are plagued by similar concerns. From the phenomenal levels of fraud involved in scandals such as Enron and WorldCom, to the more "modest" levels of dubious behaviour frequently emerging from the corridors of power, the twin issues of financial impropriety and ethical inadequacy appear in the news headlines with depressing regularity.

The wife of the current British PM, a highly successful lawyer in her own right, seems to have a gift for attracting such adverse publicity. Cherie Blair's decision to appear at the ticket-only event at the Kennedy Centre in Washington (for a reputed fee of £20,000) caused a political furore. Mrs Blair had been billed as "The Trail-Blazing First Lady of Downing Street", and tickets for the 2450-seat centre were practically sold out. Unsurprisingly, this raised questions about whether the PM's family should be making money in a way so clearly linked to his duties as head of government.

There have also been questions asked over the cost of covering the security on previous lecture tours by Mrs Blair to the US, and as someone who earns an estimated £ 250,000 annually as a leading human rights lawyer, there have been understandable questions as to whether this is appropriate behaviour for Mrs Blair.

Critics have too often been provided with easy ammunition. One ex-Cabinet minister, Clare Short, described her decision to make a speech on life in Downing Street for a large fee as "outrageous". Ms Short insisted that Mrs Blair had "crossed the line", adding it was one thing to pursue her career as a lawyer but that "getting money for herself personally out of being the wife of the prime minister is wrong". This view was echoed by the shadow Commons leader, who said "What is wrong to me is the Blair family making tens of thousands of pounds out of effectively exploiting Mr Blair's job" (UK Independent).

Opposition politicians urged Mrs Blair to hand her fee for the lecture on life inside Downing Street to charity. More tellingly however, the senior Tory MP, Tim Yeo, accused Mrs Blair of being part of the "gradual corruption of the integrity of public life".

This is not the first time Cherie Blair's financial dealings have excited controversy. On another occasion, the PM's wife is reported to have been forced to pay VAT and duty on several items she bought during an official tour of East Asia items, including pearls worth around £15,000. Downing Street dismissed the report as "wildly inaccurate" as it sought to protect Mrs Blair from more negative publicity connected with her shopping habits. But it emerged some time ago that Customs had, in fact, looked into the question of unpaid duty on jewellery brought by the Prime Minister's wife in July 2003. Although officially it decided to take no further action, it was reported that the decision was taken after Mrs Blair offered to pay VAT and duty on the goods retrospectively.

But just as John Major's Conservative administration suffered continuously from allegations of sleaze, concerns over cronyism and financial misdemeanours have been made against a number of those associated with the Blair government. The delays in removing the ex-Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and the Prime Minister's refusal to accept that his friend and colleague had done anything wrong, did nothing to reassure the British public regarding levels of transparency and accountability in the New Labour machine.

Blunkett was finally forced to resign, when overwhelming evidence indicated that he had interfered in the process of the visa application of the Filipina nanny employed by his lover, Kimberly Quinn, to look after their son. But even then, the learning curve of New Leader appeared to remain vertical! Or perhaps, they just didn't care… Within less than a year, David Blunkett was back - this time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions!

But every now and then, there is justice! Mr Blunkett (clearly another victim of that pesky vertical learning curve!) has managed to lose a government job in what must be record time, by breaking official anti-sleaze rules. According to the UK Independent, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions failed to seek advice from an independent watchdog before becoming a director of a DNA testing firm in April. The breach came only a month after he was reminded of the rules!

Mr Blunkett was briefly a non-executive director of DNA Bioscience before he returned to the Cabinet after Labour's election victory on 5 May. According to section 5.29 of the official code he should first have sought the advice of the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. The watchdog, set up under John Major to stem the tide of sleaze cases under his leadership, has confirmed that the former home secretary failed to consult it over the lucrative directorship.

More disturbingly, it also released correspondence showing that Mr Blunkett was warned in March that he had failed to consult over a previous appointment. The former minister wrote then to apologise about the "misunderstanding" over his work as an adviser, but it clearly did not stop him from making the same "mistake" shortly thereafter! Mr Blunkett's spokesman said that he admitted "with hindsight, it might have been better if he had written to the committee" (hmmm…)

Accountability in public life is a key element in maintaining high standards of governance. So if progressive Western democracies like the UK (who rightly criticise others for lack of transparency) think that this is leading by example, then God help those of us who live in countries where good governance remains a distant dream! Or perhaps we should be happy - after all, these standards of governance we can achieve all too easily…

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