The Conservatives’ election pledge to bring an end to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) could well prove to be a mistake that has damaging implications for the investigation of white-collar crime in the UK.
Theresa May has vowed to abolish the SFO as part of plans to improve the UK's handling of white-collar crime. If the Conservatives win next month's General Election, the Prime Minister intends to have the SFO’s work taken on by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
But while the Prime Minister believes the change is necessary. It is difficult, from a legal perspective, to agree with her. Not only does there appear to be no real need to abolish the SFO - such an action could have a damaging effect on the UK’s approach to tackling white-collar crime.
Since its creation in 1987, the SFO has had its critics. At times, I have been one of them. Mistakes have been made. Its judgement when it comes to what cases it pursued and how it pursued them has often been questionable.
But in recent years, the SFO has been taking a more consistent approach. In the five years since David Green became its director, the SFO has focused on the larger cases and on the issues that affect UK Plc.
For example, the activities surrounding Libor and Forex have come under scrutiny while high-profile investigations into Rolls-Royce and Tesco have been concluded.
Deferred prosecution agreements (DPA) have become a useful tool for the SFO – as the Rolls-Royce and Tesco cases showed. Lengthy bribery investigations, some of which pre-date the Bribery Act, are also a regular part of the SFO’s diet.
Asking another organisation to pick up the baton on such a large, complex and constant workload may be asking too much.
Certainly, the SFO’s track record is not one of unblemished success. But it is hard to imagine that this record will be improved if the workload is transferred to another organisation.
Mrs May twice considered taking this step when she was Home Secretary. She believes it will strengthen Britain’s response to white-collar crime. But it is difficult to understand why her plan would do anything to enhance the investigation of business crime.
There can be no argument that the investigation and prosecution of the most serious fraud cases in the UK requires specialist knowledge and resources. This is what the SFO has. There is no reason to dismantle it.
The SFO has had its faults. It has been repeatedly criticised for them, as is appropriate. But it is fair to say that the SFO’s reputation has been enhanced in recent years. It has chosen its targets more carefully, it has conducted itself with a greater degree of caution and responsibility and, as a result, has earned respect.
Bringing an end to the SFO will mean the loss of an organisation that has both a strong identity and a huge amount of specialist expertise and experience in its field.
Trying to replicate its work in another organisation seems a risk that can bring little, if any benefit, to the UK.