UK: The thin line between hospitality and bribery.

UK: The thin line between hospitality and bribery. - As Wimbledon and the World Cup draw near, so the height of the corporate hospitality season is upon us again. But public concern about standards in public life and in the boardroom has never been more

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As Wimbledon and the World Cup draw near, so the height of the corporate hospitality season is upon us again. But public concern about standards in public life and in the boardroom has never been more acute and many are questioning quite where the legitimate mixing of business and pleasure ends and bribery begins.

'A good lunch, theatre tickets or seats at a top sporting event are all perfectly legitimate,' says former broker Chris Neal, who has just retired after 20 years from a job famous for its lavish entertainment budgets.

'The problem is people don't always know when to stop.' He cites this summer's package where guests are flown by helicopter to the British Grand Prix, then travel by private jet to the World Cup Final in Paris. 'That's a marvellous day's entertainment but, if I were a boss, I would be very worried about my employees accepting it - how beholden would they be to the provider of such entertainment?'

And City hospitality also has its darker side. 'I recall a situation in New York where several brokers were arrested for ostensibly supplying cocaine to clients in return for business,' he says.

Clearly, here, the boundary between entertainment and bribery has been overstepped but there is no shortage of companies flocking to invest in more legitimate areas. David James, sales director at International Creative Events, says demand has never been higher: 'I'm up 400% on last year and prices are soaring,' he says. He reels off prices for wining and dining at the main attractions. 'You'd not get much change out of £2,000 a head for the Wimbledon Men's Final but the World Cup Final is a snip at £1,500,' he says.

This still leaves the unresolved question of drawing distinctions between the lavish and the corrupt. One solution is that taken by Shell, which recently took a high-profile moral stance by firing 23 employees for bribery (albeit not in relation to corporate hospitality). It acknowledges that business practices vary and that a gift that is standard politeness in one country would be viewed as a bribe in another. It is wise then to make concessions to the local conditions, says a spokesperson, and this also applies to 'reasonable' entertainment. To be safe, however, this should be declared to superiors.

The problem is that it can still be difficult for the recipient to know when to speak up (after all, socially, it would be considered highly impolite to ask one's host how much the ticket cost). Equally, it is also far too easy to forget - as even the generally saintly Tony Blair can testify (he was recently officially rebuked for failing to declare a trip to Silverstone).

But, in the end, for all the accusations of 'sleaze' and occasional scandals, British business could learn from the public sector. According to Clive Power, policy officer at the Local Government Information Unit, councillors and their officers will be precluded from most of the summer's entertainment.

'A free pen or a modest working lunch might be alright but tickets to a football match are out of the question - even if it's Grimsby Town playing at home to Scunthorpe,' he concludes.

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