Giving in to international bullying is legal

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It's been a day for major stories. Another has just emerged from the UK's Courts. The House of Lords, the UK's highest court, this morning OVERTURNED the High Court's ruling of April 2008 that the Director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) acted unlawfully when, acting on government advice, he terminated in December 2006 a corruption investigation into BAE Systems' arms deals with Saudi Arabia after lobbying by BAE and a threat from Saudi Arabia to withdraw diplomatic and intelligence co-operation.

The High Court ruling was in response to a judicial review brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and The Corner House.

Today, the law lords described the threat made by Saudi Arabia as 'ugly and obviously unwelcome'.

Baroness Hale said that she would have liked to have been able to say that it was wrong to stop the investigation as it was 'extremely distasteful that an independent public official should feel himself obliged to give way to threats of any sort.' But she felt she had to agree that the SFO Director's decision was lawful because of the breadth of the Director's discretion.

In response to the Lords' judgments, Nicholas Hildyard of The Corner House said:

Now we know where we are. Under UK law, a supposedly independent prosecutor can do nothing to resist a threat made by someone abroad if the UK government claims that the threat endangers national security.

The unscrupulous who have friends in high places overseas willing to make such threats now have a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card -- and there is nothing the public can do to hold the government to account if it abuses its national security powers. Parliament needs urgently to plug this gaping hole in the law and in the constitutional checks and balances dealing with national security.

With the law as it is, a government can simply invoke 'national security' to drive a coach and horses through international anti-bribery legislation, as the UK government has done, to stop corruption investigations.

Symon Hill of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said:

BAE and the government will be quickly disappointed if they think that this ruling will bring an end to public criticism. Throughout this case we have been overwhelmed with support from people in all walks of life.

There has been a sharp rise in opposition to BAE's influence in the corridors of power. Fewer people are now taken in by exaggerated claims about British jobs dependent on Saudi arms deals. The government has been judged in the court of public opinion. The public know that Britain will be a better place when BAE is no longer calling the shots.

The law lords judgment confirms that the UK is in flagrant breach of its duty to implement and give force to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

In practice, the UK Government now has a green light to use an undefined and broad concept of 'national security' to cover themselves when taking potentially unlawful decisions.

The SFO, BAE and the Government might think that, with today's judgments from the law lords, it's now all over. Far from it! The real challenges have only just begun.

I wish the CAAT and Cornerhouse good luck in their continuing campaign on this issue.