UK: The price of a bribe.

UK: The price of a bribe. - The difference between gifts and bribes is not easy to judge.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The difference between gifts and bribes is not easy to judge.

Being the recipient of corporate gifts and hospitality is a welcome perk - but at what point does a gift become an inducement, or put more plainly, a bribe?

In some cases a bribe is merely a question of scale. The easiest way to control the situation in government and quasi-government circles is to limit the value of an acceptable gift. The Inland Revenue's threshold is £100 (including VAT) - over which the recipient must pay income tax; Cabinet Office guidance notes for ministers and civil servants say that individuals can only keep gifts worth less than £125; English Partnerships, which goes by civil service guidelines, imposes a stricter limit of £40 for any one gift - over that, the gift is handed to the organisation for general use.

The rule of thumb at National Power is not based around fixed values. If employees are in any doubt whatsoever about whether an invitation or gift is entirely appropriate, they should decline. Assistant company secretary Catherine Springett puts it like this: 'The basic rule is that all invitations and gifts should be disclosed to line managers.' Springett suggests that small impersonal presents such as calendars are generally acceptable, but 'if an employee feels he or she is risking being coerced or encouraged to support any business or individual, they should refuse.' Whitbread's code of business ethics offers guidelines rather than definitions. It also warns employees that personal dealings with the firm's suppliers could be compromising.

According to Philip Martyn, general counsel at Sumitomo Bank, there can be no compromise. 'When it comes to procurement, we are extremely hot on any possibility of inducement. We come down like a ton of bricks on any hint of impropriety.' The stringent regulations imposed on financial organisations make disclosure of gifts essential. Martyn explains: 'Every gift is written down in the gift book - even a bottle of wine.'

Peter Jackson, partner with corporate law firm Hill Dickinson Davis Campbell, says that partners and employees are required to disclose all gifts, but what is or isn't acceptable is left to a partner's discretion. 'If a client offers to buy us a pie and a pint after a meeting, that's one thing. If a case of champagne arrives from a supplier, that's another.' The wooing of clients and customers can be a subtle process, but not always. Robert Wade-Smith, a director of the independent fashion retailer Wade-Smith, remembers one invitation: 'One supplier invited us out to Italy for a week, ostensibly to buy for the next season. And yet somehow the buying took only one morning.'.

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