Hotline rings corruption changes

Anne Schwöbel, head of Transparency International Switzerland, tells swissinfo about the organisation's new phone line for corruption "whistleblowers".

This content was published on October 9, 2005 - 10:27

Recent claims of corruption at the Swiss Accident Insurance Fund (Suva) show that Switzerland is not immune and parliament is now stepping up the fight.

A third of Swiss workers will come across illicit dealings during their career and around 12 per cent of economic crime concerning Swiss companies involves corruption.

One study by financial analysts KPMG into economic crimes in Swiss companies put corruption in second place, behind fraud.

Former Suva workers have been caught up in a bribery scandal concerning the sale of property for tens of millions of francs below the market price. Seven people have already been arrested.

Schwöbel explains how Transparency International Switzerland, a private and non-profit organisation, is campaigning for the implementation of fundamental rules and principles in the fight against corruption.

swissinfo: How is corruption harmful?

Anne Schwöbel: Corruption distorts competition and guilty parties often add the amount of the bribe to their invoices. In the public sector it's ultimately the taxpayer who is cheated.

The negative effects of corruption are seen above all in the consequences of backhanders. It's a waste of public money as inevitably the best project does not get chosen.

swissinfo: Is Swiss legislation suited to this?

A.S.: Since 2000 we have seen a tightening of criminal law regarding corruption. Since then bribes paid abroad have no longer been deductible from taxes.

Corruption has gone down considerably in the public sector: Swiss civil servants who accept money or unwarranted benefits risk up to five years' imprisonment.

The problem is that the upper-limit value of presents such as bottles of champagne and watches is a grey area – it varies according to department and canton. It would be necessary to fix a maximum sum which is valid at the federal level.

swissinfo: And the private sector?

A.S.: Private corruption is dealt with under the unfair competition law. Up until now only active corruption is punishable by law: the briber faces a fine of up to SFr100,000 ($77,000) or imprisonment, but the person being bribed will not be touched.

But following a decision by the House of Representatives last week, passive corruption – the accepting of bribes - would also become a criminal offence.

However, a complaint would need to be brought before legal action could be taken.

The draft of the government's new law, which was accepted by the Senate in the summer and now by the House of Representatives, rectifies this oversight.

swissinfo: How do you rate this draft?

A.S.: It's got several gaps. Private corruption will not be prosecuted automatically but only after a complaint. And who's going to do that? Certainly neither of the two sides involved as the person who pays a backhander gets a contract in exchange. There's therefore no victim in the classic sense.

Those companies which are left out are victims, but they're rarely aware that they've suffered as a result of unfair competition. If no one lodges a complaint, the new law will be ineffective and obsolete.

swissinfo: Do you receive calls from whistleblowers?

A.S.: Yes, disgusted employees contact us to find out what they can do. There is a real need. By the end of the year Transparency International Switzerland will have opened a phone line to advise and inform whistleblowers.

They will be able to call us anonymously and in certain cases we will hand the information over to the relevant authorities.

At present it is forbidden for an employee to tell a third party about harmful practices that they've seen at work. If you expose a case of corruption, you risk being made redundant.

As a result of various scandals, countries such as the United States and Great Britain have introduced effective protection for whistleblowers. During its spring session the House of Representatives demanded – against the wishes of Justice Minister Christoph Blocher – that the new law guarantee such protection.

swissinfo: What are the draft law's other gaps?

A.S.: Private corruption is described as an offence and not as a crime. The punishment incurred is thus limited to a fine and one year in prison. The law concerning unfair competition does not cover non-profit organisations.

Even sporting authorities such as Fifa [the International Federation of Football Associations] and the IOC [the International Olympic Committee] are not safe from corruption.

Finally, the Senate has abandoned the introduction of a criminal legal standard on influence peddling [use of position on someone's behalf for money or favours].

swissinfo: Do Swiss companies underestimate corruption?

A.S.: The multinationals are aware of the danger. ABB, Novartis and Nestlé have set up an internal hotline to enable staff to report problems anonymously.

Small- and medium-sized businesses on the other hand believe they're unaffected and that they don't have the means to deal with the problem.

swissinfo-interview: Luigino Canal

Key facts

Global corruption adds up to an estimated $400 billion (SFr520 billion) a year.
Around 12 per cent of economic crime concerning Swiss companies involves corruption.
The Swiss parliament is discussing a new, more stringent anti-corruption law.

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In brief

On October 12 a forum on corruption is due to take place in Bern, organised by Transparency International Switzerland.

Founded in 1995, the non-government organisation is private and non-profit and has more than 140 members.

It is campaigning for the implementation of fundamental rules and principles in the fight against corruption.

Every year it publishes a global corruption index – Switzerland is currently the 7th least corrupt country in the world. Finland was the most corruption-free.

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