Leaders: European corruption needs urgent attention

Across the EU the amount of money paid in bribes may add up to more than 100 billion pounds. Picture: Getty
Across the EU the amount of money paid in bribes may add up to more than 100 billion pounds. Picture: Getty
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Corruption is something which, thankfully, few British people experience. But in the southern and eastern European countries, it is much more widespread.

According to the EU’s home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, a Swede, across the EU the amount of money paid in bribes may add up to more than £100 billion, a staggering amount of money.

The estimate stems from surveys of people who were asked whether they knew about specific cases of having to pay a bribe and what their general perceptions of the problems of corruption in their country were. In the UK, less than 0.5 per cent of people had either experienced, or knew of, an instance of bribery, the lowest percentage in the EU’s member states. But in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, between 6 and 29 per cent of respondents indicated they were asked or had been expected to pay a bribe in the past 12 months.

The perceptions of corruption are quite astonishing. Even in Britain, 64 per cent of people think corruption is widespread, while across the EU, an average of 74 per cent believe this is the case, and in Greece the perception rises to 99 per cent.

The gap between actual experience of corruption and perceptions of it can be explained by the widespread publicity which is given to instances of political corruption and the attention given to the scandals of interest and exchange-rate fixing still emerging from the financial industry. In the countries with the highest experience of bribery, most instances relate to healthcare, where inadequate public health services lead people to bribe doctors to secure early treatment of illness.

Ms Malmström notes that stamping out corruption is not the responsibility of the European Commission, but is that of national governments, on whom she calls to do more. She is right to argue that it is not just draining resources from legal activity and feeding criminality, but that it also undermines trust in democratic institutions.

Nevertheless, the report’s findings may well have, in the UK, the unintentional consequence of further eroding fragile belief in the EU. It has long been the subject of reports of incompetence and irregularities in the management of its own budget, and this report notes that the Commission’s own anti-corruption unit is under-resourced and has too many allegations of fraud in EU spending to investigate satisfactorily.

That, obviously, should be remedied. But it may have the effect of further colouring many Britons’ already jaundiced view of the EU that it is even more corrupt than they thought – and that their taxes which flow to the EU are being wasted or, worse, are feathering criminal nests.

With the possibility that there may be an in-or-out referendum on British membership of the EU in 2017, this report will only confirm Eurosceptical prejudices. The EU needs to act, soon and effectively, to lead efforts to cleanse Europe of the cancer of corruption.

Hospital hygiene still at fault

Keeping hospitals clean, it might be expected, is so fundamental to basic hygiene that complaints of poor cleanliness should be close to non-existent. Disturbingly, the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate has found that this is not the case.

Its report does state that hospitals are generally clean and well-maintained. Doctors, nurses, and managers are also clear about what they need to do to prevent and control infection. But it also found recurring problems which are pretty basic. These related to keeping hospital bed frames and commodes clean, staff keeping their hands clean, and the proper management of waste material and needles.

The Inspectorate conceded that this was not because its advice was being ignored and it commended health boards for taking action when problems were found. But while it says that cleanliness standards are improving generally, improvements tended to be short-lived. Of course, NHS staff work hard to deliver the best patient care that they can. It is understandable that, given their workloads, routines such as washing of hands can get skipped when there are other, ostensibly more important priorities. Alex Neil, the Health Secretary, recognises that, but rightly says there can be no let-up in the drive to improve hygiene and reduce hospital-acquired infections.

The provision of dedicated patient equipment teams, for example, whose job is not just to ensure that equipment is available for patient treatment but that it is also properly disinfected is one of the relatively simple-sounding recommendations the Inspectorate has made, all of which he wants implemented. Now health boards must act.