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UK fraud agency plans uptick in enforcement activity

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The UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has unveiled a plan to ramp up the number of investigators and case workers by up to a third, which will enable it to deliver an increasing number of investigations and enforcement work.

The SFO is planning to recruit between 100 and 150 investigators, prosecutors, accountants and case workers; potentially pushing the total number of full-time staff at the multi-disciplinary agency to around 600. The statement was made by the SFO’s joint head of fraud, bribery and corruption Sara Chouraqui during the American Bar Association’s annual London White Collar Crime Institute conference.

The intention to increase enforcement capabilities comes shortly after Nick Ephgrave took the helm as the director of the SFO last month. As first reported by the Financial Times (registration required), Chouraqui told the London conference that the new director “is determined for us to increase our capacities, so we’re recruiting currently over 100-150 new investigators and prosecutors at the SFO, as well as analysts, accountants and so forth.” She added that “he wants to do more cases” and he wants to do them “fast”.

Andrew Sackey of Pinsent Masons, who is the firm’s head of global investigations and a former SFO case controller, said: “Recruitment and upskilling of skilled resource clearly takes time. However, the fact that the new SFO director has already secured approved funding for what amounts to a 25% increase in full-time investigative resource is a serious statement of intent. The political reality is that such an up-front funding commitment will have been secured on the basis of anticipated future outcomes. We can expect the SFO’s triage and adoption pipeline to be influenced by the desire deliver many more investigations, and deliver them quickly.”

According to the SFO’s most recent annual report, by the end of March 2023 it had an active caseload of about 120, including criminal, civil, proceeds of crime and international assistance cases. In the last financial year, it opened one criminal case and closed five. One of the most significant cases is a bribery case against Glencore Energy. In June 2022, the energy company pleaded guilty to bribery charges and was sentenced to pay a fine of £280m. This is the agency’s largest ever financial penalty following a guilty plea.

More recently, the SFO has opened a criminal investigation into suspected fraud at funeral plan provider Safe Hands Plans, and brought fraud charges against four individuals behind the collapse of high street bakery chain Patisserie Valerie.

In its annual report, the SFO also said that it faced growing challenges with the recruitment and retention of staff and had a high vacancy rate. A notable percentage of its permanent posts were filled by temporary workers. One of its priories for the current financial year is to recruit permanent staff to fill permanent vacancies.

The SFO’s pledge to grow its capacities also comes at a time when the government’s Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill is now in the final stages of its journey through parliament. The Bill includes provisions to expand the SFO’s powers to compel suspected criminals, financial institutions like banks and technology companies to share information or documents in relation to a suspected crime.
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