This post was also written by Fionnuala Lynch.

Earlier this month, Richard Alderman, Director of the SFO, was speaking at an international symposium on economic crime in Cambridge and made an interesting point which has been picked up by many UK newspapers.

He referred to the fact that 20 years ago, it was possible for UK companies to get deductions for tax purposes in respect of bribes. Clearly this is no longer the case and, now that the new Bribery Act is in force, may lead to potential prosecutions.

Mr. Alderman was however suggesting that companies should have information to ensure that they are not claiming tax deductions in respect of bribes and the SFO has therefore started to require companies to disclose relevant parts of their tax calculations in the hope that these might provide evidence of bribes and the fact that companies are identifying them.

The SFO is seeking to persuade companies to self-report their own breaches of the Act.

There are several potential situations where companies’ tax calculations may reveal unlawful practices under the Bribery Act:

  • Where companies offer or hold offshore accounts – Various tax authorities worldwide are trying to unravel the secrecy surrounding offshore banking. This process involves the exchange of information between worldwide tax authorities on the tax affairs of multinational companies and offshore account holders. This could result in previously undetected bribes coming to light.
  • The Act’s impact upon existing disclosure requirements – Section 6 of the Bribery Act (the foreign public official offence), in contrast with Sections 1 and 2, does not require any intention to procure “improper” conduct from the official. The briber need only intend to “influence” the official to act to the briber’s business advantage. The British Bankers’ Association (BBA) has, in the past, expressed concerns that what would normally be considered legitimate promotional expenditure, could now be caught by the Act. This uncertainty over what constitutes an offence under Section 6, may result in banks and financial institutions making more frequent Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). The institutions’ tax calculations are likely to be disclosed and inspected as part of this process, which may expose bribes.
  • More stringent monitoring roles for companies relating to bribes – Companies should use internal monitoring to look into all policies and procedures that may shed light on potential bribes. In particular, financial monitoring may well include ensuring that books and records relating to tax are properly kept and will pick up irregularities which indicate that bribes are being paid.

Despite the hype, the likelihood that companies’ tax calculations will reveal bribes seems remote. In particular, it seems unlikely that those preparing tax calculations will be made aware that bribes have been paid. For example, payment of a bribe is usually supported by an invoice for consulting services.

Mr. Alderman was previously the Director of National Teams and Special Civil Investigations in HMRC, where he conducted specialised tax investigations. In his speech, Mr. Alderman explained that, if a tax deduction was sought in the context of a bribe where the expense had not been identified properly, this would create another ‘books and records’ offence and a separate line of prosecution for HMRC, rather than the SFO.