Recently a local parish council wrote to members of its bowls club asking them to cease giving Christmas gifts to the club’s ground staff, fearing that such gifts could constitute bribery under the Bribery Act 2010.  The story was picked up by the BBC and the Ministry of Justice was ultimately kind enough to clarify the position: “A Christmas tip for ground staff would not constitute a bribe.”

Not particularly surprsing and good news for the bowls club of course but, going forwards, the Ministry will not be addressing individually every instance where the scope of its far reaching new legislation is misunderstood.  The extent of the misunderstanding rests largely on the role that ground staff peform.  If they are only involved in the maintenance of the facilities for the benefit of all members, it is hard to see how the gifts could induce them to peform their duties improperly.  But if they are also involved in allocating the use of the facilities to members, the position becomes somewhat murkier…

A simple scenario shows the potential pitfalls.  When you tip a waiter generously at a restaurant, are you simply thanking them for the quality of their service?  Or is there lurking behind this seemingly innocent everyday transaction a soupçon that future favours might be anticipated?  Perhaps a hope that a table might be made available more speedily next time or that service will be faster.  Is this an improper performance of the waiter’s duties?  Have you therefore bribed him?

It is worth remembering that prosecutions under the Bribery Act can only be brought with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Director of the Serious Fraud Office.  These low level borderline transactions will doubtless be of no interest to either and – from the Ministry of Justice’s response – it seems apparent that there was no intention to criminalise them.  But the letter to the bowls club members highlights the scope for the Bribery Act to inveigle itself into private life.  After all, everyone is all too familiar with some of the dafter interpretations of health and safety regulations imposed by well meaning busybodies.