It was recently reported by various broadcasters, including Sky News, that the UK had allegedly paid “bribes” to Libyan officials in order to get British citizens out of Libya.  Apparently, UK officials were forced to hand over more than £11,000 to Colonel Gaddafi’s government for each and every one of the rescue flights that landed at Tripoli airport. 

To my mind, these payments raise two questions: should such payments really be considered bribes (in the context of the UK Bribery Act or otherwise) and, if so, is it acceptable for them to be made in the circumstances?

Dealing with the first of these questions, it should be noted that, when questioned about these payments, a representative of the UK Foreign Office stated that they were merely increased “administration fees” imposed by the Libyan officials at Tripoli airport and that there was a difference between paying hugely inflated airport fees and bribing officials for landing slots.  The representative went on to emphasize that these administration fees applied to all flights using the airport during this difficult period and that the alternative to paying them would be to leave British nationals with no means of escaping the rapidly disintegrating dictatorship.

From a purely legal standpoint, it is at least arguable that the payment of these increased administration fees does fall within the scope of section 6 of the UK Bribery Act, being the bribery of foreign public officials.  It does not matter how these payments are characterized if the effect is to obtain an advantage within the meaning of the Act.  Likewise, it is irrelevant that every flight using the airport paid the same increased administration fees.  It is, however, interesting to note that there is a  defence available under section 13 where the conduct was deemed necessary for: the proper exercise of any function of the intelligence service; or, the proper exercise of any function of the armed forces when engaged on active service.  Depending on who paid the relevant administration fees, this defence may well be applicable.

However, I do not wish to carry out a detailed analysis of whether there has been (or, rather, would have been; given that the UK Bribery Act is not yet in force) a breach of the legislation in these circumstances.  Instead, turning to the second question, I think that it is important to make the point that this is not something that the policymakers would have had in mind when drafting the UK Bribery Act and/or were specifically seeking to prevent.   

Put simply, the safety of those British nationals trapped in Tripoli airport was of paramount importance.  The fact that increased administration fees and even, arguably, “bribes” were paid must be viewed in this context.