UK OGP Officials Exploring Corporate Transparency

19 November 2012

Officials in the United Kingdom who are managing the UK’s leadership stint with the Open Government Partnership are exploring how to place more emphasis on corporate transparency.

While always an area in which member countries were encouraged to make commitments, corporate transparency was rarely addressed in the national action plans.  UK officials are at the early stages of considering ideas for the UK action plan and the plans of other OGP countries.

Sophia Oliver, the lead UK staff member on OGP matters, said recently, “We actually are thinking about some of the corporate transparency issues that could be considered during our co-chairmanship of the OGP and would welcome your comments on our co-chair’s vision on how we might develop that strand.” She was speaking during an Oct. 23 online forum sponsored by the Guardian newspaper.

UK officials are still “very much in listening mode when it comes to corporate transparency,” explained another UK government official to FreedomInfo.org, who said a new team member has been added to explore options in this area.

The official said “everything is on the table at present” and that ministerial-level discussions to decide priorities have yet to be held.

We’ve been looking at a range of things – from ideas around greater transparency over corporate social responsibility performance, to compliance with international standards / directives (e.g. EITI, COST etc), to ways in which government might help in the creation of unique identifiers from which corporate information could be hung,” according to the official.   

 Few Pledges on Corporate Transparency

OGP countries have shied away from making commitments on corporate accountability in their action plans.

“Corporate Accountability” is one of five “Grand Challenges” set by the OGP to be addressed in the action plans.

A June 2012 study by Global Integrity found that only 2.5 percent (19) of the 778 action plan pledges, broken down as “Commitment Activity Focus Areas,” were about corporate accountability.  The plans included 15 commitments in the category of “Safer Communities.”

 By far the most commitments were made in the other three categories: “Public Integrity” (353), “Public services” (237) and “Public Resources Management” (154), according to the Global Integrity report.

Gutierrez Urges More Attention to the Topic 

Eric Gutierrez, Christian Aid’s senior governance adviser, told FreedomInfo.org, “There are transparency commitments that are more politically difficult than others, and which are not appearing in the Cabinet Office’s agenda on the OGP.”

“I think it will be a mistake if a major transparency initiative like the OGP does not address these politically difficult transparency commitments, especially since it can lead to failure in understanding the larger picture on problems and challenges in public services delivery,” he said.

For example, Gutierrez said:

–          Beneficial ownership of companies. One reason why the Treasury (in the UK and elsewhere) is continually deprived of billions in taxes that can be used to improve public services is the opaqueness of who benefits from the ownership of companies and holding firms that have been set up to dodge taxes. Will the Cabinet Office: a) support moves to require the collection of information on beneficial ownership of companies in the UK and in other OGP countries? b) lead in requiring overseas territories and Crown dependencies to publish their company registers?

–          Country-by-country reporting. Country-by-country reporting is another important instrument that will allow governments to track the taxes that are due them. Christian Aid supports an expanded definition of country-by-country reporting – that it also includes the financial sector (not just extractives) and should also cover sales turnovers, purchasing, hiring (not just what companies pay to host governments). Will the Cabinet Office and the OGP support legislation mandating country-by-country reporting?

–          Open contracting. Financial transparency is of limited use without the terms of procurement and allocation of contracts to accompany it. People need to be able to assess the deals that governments cut with companies. In the UK, MPs should be able to access easily public procurement information on deals like G4S or the Virgin/FirstGroup tenders. In developing countries, MPs too should be able to assess the kind of deals their government is cutting with international companies. What is the Cabinet Office’s stand on open contracting?

Gutierrez expanded on the topic in Guardian article Oct. 30.

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