A month after the Prevention of Corruption Act was passed in the Senate and two months after it moved through the House of Assembly, a minister is questioning if the deterrents outlined in the law have gone far enough to prevent corruption in the private sector.
Minister of Energy, Small Business and Entrepreneurship Kerrie Symmonds declared on Friday that while the country should be “justifiably proud” of the Prevention of Corruption Act, he wondered if its hefty fines were sufficient.
This comes as he warned operators of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to pay greater attention to good corporate governance policies, warning that a lack of such mechanisms and processes could grossly undermine their operation.
Suggesting that there could still be some challenges when it comes to the temptation of bribery and corrupt practices especially in the private sector, Symmonds referred to the Victorian-era English novelist Charles Dickens’ noting that public executions, intended as a deterrent in England, were themselves scenes of thriving pick-pocketing.
Symmonds said: “The interesting irony of that was that theft at the time was punishable by hanging. So the question of the deterrent effect is raised. People are only deterred if they feel they will not be caught, and we know this to be a reality even today . . . So I make that point to say to you, while I congratulate those who contributed, and I am happy to be part of that process, but if you ask me the individual personally where I think we stand as a result of that legislation, I think we have made some progress, but I ask myself ‘have we gone far enough?”
Also making reference to the UK Bribery Act, Symmonds further queried: “Are we throwing out a wide enough net within the private enterprises in Barbados. Under the United Kingdom Act, the senior officers of companies are held accountable for the corporate behaviour and I want to emphasise that”.
“The UK legislation urges one to reflect on whether or not it is useful to shine the spotlight on not just the corrupt public official, but on the directors and managers of the enterprises in the broadest possible way.
“I feel that the question must be asked as to whether that type of approach is not also relevant in the Barbados context. If we want to have a serious and robust discussion on corporate governance I want you to think about these things.”
With the Barbados anti-corruption law limiting public officials from holding public office for a period of 10 years if found guilty of corruption, Symmonds questioned if consideration should not also be given to barring private sector businesses that induce bribery from accessing publicly funded contracts for a period of time.
Symmonds said he was “very disappointed that our private sector remains deafeningly silent” on such a matter.
“I caution that though we have gone where we have never gone before in the history of Barbados, it cannot be seen through the lens of dealing with the public sector alone,” said Symmonds. “There will always be people in the private enterprise who believe they can ‘try a thing and they may be able to get away with it’. If we are going to seriously treat to the issue of corporate governance then we have to be prepared to turn an eye of absolute intolerance in the direction of those temptations.”
The commerce minister was addressing the BSE ninth annual conference on Corporate Governance and Accountability on Friday, which was focused on the SME sector.
He insisted that corporate governance was not just for big enterprises, saying that there were “far too many” small enterprises that were “deluding themselves that size matter in this matter”.
“I want to assure that in the business of corporate governance size has no place – all firms, irrespective of size or structure, irrespective of if they are large, small or medium, public or private, whether they are recently created or long-established – all have to compete in an environment where governance is absolutely critical,” said Symmonds.
He also stressed that the “quality of governance can determine the success or failure of any enterprise”.
“Simply put, bad corporate governance approaches or policies can begin to undermine the very foundations of the business that you are building,” he warned.
Symmonds, who also expressed disappointment that too often black-owned businesses tend to “disappear” after one generation, said Government recognised the need to assist MSME operators to avoid financial pitfalls and that was a major reason behind the establishment of the Financial Literacy Bureau.
Also acknowledging the continued difficulty small businesses faced in accessing financing especially due to a lack of required assets, Symmonds again touted the planned establishment of a collateral registry to help meet that challenge.