Serious Fraud Office releases guidelines to encourage companies working abroad to report bribery within their organisation in exchange for civil settlement

Companies that report suspected bribery offences within their own organisations may avoid criminal prosecution, under guidelines released yesterday by the Serious Fraud Office.

The move comes shortly after Reading-based engineer Mabey & Johnson became the first British company operating overseas to be prosecuted for corruption by the SFO, for trying to influence officials in Ghana and Jamaica when bidding for public contracts.

Critics of the old system suggested that to encourage more companies working abroad to come forward with suspicions of corruption, the UK should offer an alternative to criminal prosecution for corruption, much like the USA. The SFO has released these guidelines in response, claiming that for those who self-report it is offering “the prospect (in appropriate cases) of a civil rather than a criminal outcome”.

However, it stressed that it could not give an “unconditional guarantee” that all cases would be appropriate for a civil settlement. Among other factors, it would take into account the extent to which members of the board have been personally engaged in wrongdoing.

Jeremy Cole, a partner and regional coordinator of the bribery and corruption task force at law firm Lovells, said: "When suspicions of corruption arise, the board needs to take an informed decision in relation to the company's next steps. The provision of guidance makes this less of a gamble and therefore must be welcomed as a step in the right direction. It is encouraging that the SFO does seem to be willing to take a reasonably constructive approach to tackling bribery offences.”

“But it's also quite clear that it will be nobody's fool if management does not report early enough and cannot demonstrate that adequate steps have been taken to limit the potential for these types of activities to take place within their organisations.

The SFO said it would offer parties the opportunity to “manage any publicity”.

It also said negotiated settlement would mean companies would avoid the provisions of article 45 of the 2004 EU Public

Sector Procurement Directive, which would bar them from tendering for public projects.

Cole said: “For some businesses this can be a matter of commercial life and death - losing public sector contracts could kill some businesses overnight.”