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"Serious concerns" over UK's approach to economic crime, says expert, as reports point to delayed fraud plan

Out-Law News | 07 Oct 2014 | 10:05 am | 2 min. read

The UK's first national anti-corruption plan, setting out the roles of the various bodies involved in the investigation and prosecution of economic crimes, will not be published until the end of this year at the earliest, an expert has said.

Writing on his blog, thebriberyact.com, Barry Vitou of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the delayed publication of the anticipated document raised "serious concerns" about the UK's commitment to fighting corruption and economic crime. The Financial Times has also reported that Theresa May, the UK home secretary, is planning to close down the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and transfer responsibility for serious crime to the newly-formed National Crime Agency (NCA), he said.

"This moment would be exactly the wrong moment in history to shut down the SFO ... [and] risks stalling some of the most important and biggest fraud and corruption investigations and prosecutions ever mounted by the SFO," he said.

First reported in the Financial Times and confirmed by then-solicitor general Oliver Heald at the end of June, the cross-departmental anti-corruption review is focusing on the roles of the NCA, SFO, City of London Police, financial regulators and the Metropolitan Police's overseas anti-corruption unit. The NCA, which comes under Home Office management, took over responsibility for national and international serious and organised crime last year. The SFO, which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the most serious cases of economic crime, is overseen by the attorney general's office.

May previously attempted to merge the work of the SFO into the NCA in 2011, when developing plans to replace the previous Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) with a single national crime force. Although those plans were overruled by then justice secretary Ken Clarke and the previous attorney general, Dominic Grieve, May said that the government would review the "appropriate relationship" between the two bodies "in due course".

In a letter to the UK prime minister seen by Out-Law.com, a group of influential non-government organisations including campaigners Transparency International said that any decision to replace the SFO should be taken with "the most extreme caution". The letter said that any replacement must combine investigation and prosecution teams within the same agency; treat corruption as its top priority and not "simply one amongst many"; and employ specialist corruption teams, in the same way as the SFO does currently.

"The SFO is now involved in investigating and prosecuting some massive cases," Vitou said on his blog. "We agree with [May] that 'for too long' the UK had 'not taken economic crime seriously'. Yet, at the same time, the Home Office is backpedalling on the publication of the anti-corruption plan, we have reported on inadequate SFO funding, cuts to the funding of the City of London Police and a drastic reduction in the work done by the NCA in sifting reports of corruption and sending them on in intelligence packs to those who might investigate them," he said.

"Parliament must do more than create new laws. Existing and new laws must be backed by cash and backing for those public servants charged with the task of enforcing them," he said.