Independent SFO 'set to stay' after general election result, says expert

Out-Law News | 14 Jun 2017 | 11:04 am | 1 min. read

Conservative plans to merge the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) with the National Crime Agency (NCA) are unlikely to go ahead following last week's general election result, an expert has said.

White collar crime expert Barry Vitou of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the government must now focus on proper funding for the SFO, which investigates and prosecutes the most serious cases of fraud, corruption and corporate crime.

The Conservative Party had pledged to merge the SFO into the NCA as part of its pre-election manifesto. Doing so would "strengthen Britain's response to white collar crime ... [improve] intelligence sharing and [bolster] the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime", according to the document.

The party lost its parliamentary majority at last week's general election, and plans to form a minority government with support from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ahead of the state opening of parliament on 19 June, at which it will set out its plans for future legislation.

"With her authority now seriously dented, it is unlikely that Theresa May's plan for the SFO will now be carried through," said Vitou. "The SFO is set to stay."

"The SFO's political independence is very important as it helps ensure that it will pursue cases even if that risks embarrassing the government or UK Plc. Operationally, it is a much improved outfit, and a period of immense change and restructuring could jeopardise those improvements," he said.

The SFO has had some high-profile successes in recent months despite considerable budget cuts. These have included deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) with Rolls Royce and with Tesco Stores Ltd, in which both businesses paid multi-million pound settlements in order to avoid a criminal investigation and potential prosecution.

Before the election, the UK Cabinet Office had been reviewing the various bodies involved in the oversight and enforcement of economic crime in the UK as part of a wide-ranging review. Home secretary Amber Rudd said in December that this review would consider "the effectiveness of our organisational framework, and the capabilities, resources and powers available to the organisations that tackle economic crime".

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned in March that a "pragmatic and effective" SFO should be at the heart of the UK's anti-corruption efforts. International watchdogs praised the effectiveness of the so-called 'Roskill model', bringing together prosecutors, investigators and other specialists within a single agency.

The creation of an independent SFO was the central recommendation of the independent Fraud Trials Committee, chaired by Lord Roskill, in its 1986 report. The committee was set up by the government in response to public dissatisfaction with the existing system for investigating and prosecuting serious or complex fraud in the UK.