Issues with the funding of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) were discussed in a parliamentary debate last month (see here). Nic Dakin MP suggested that the SFO’s independence was at risk as it needed to go cap in hand to the Treasury to obtain so-called ‘blockbuster’ funding for its investigations on an ad hoc basis. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP accepted that special funding was required from the Treasury for certain cases but explained that this was necessary in order to ensure that its budget did not exceed what was necessary when those investigations were not taking place. He accepted there was a theoretical issue but stated that the SFO had not been prevented from carrying out any investigation as a result of any restriction on its financing.
Although Mr Grieve provided some words of comfort in relation to the SFO’s ability to carry out investigations to date, this approach still poses a real risk of political interference in any future sensitive bribery cases. Further, there is an implicit suggestion in the former Attorney-General’s language that suggests the SFO’s budget should be especially policed. This perhaps suggests a lack of confidence in the law enforcement agency. Perhaps with the Tchenguiz cases now settled and a few major Bribery Act investigations apparently in the pipeline that the SFO can now finally discard the trappings of past perceptions and be recognised as a serious enforcer – but to do so the SFO will need to start prosecuting major cases. But that leaves one question: with the heavy budgetary cuts the SFO faced in 2010, does it genuinely have the resources to match the performance of its US cousins under the FCPA? Although the cost of prosecuting foreign bribery may be expensive, the risk posed by allowing it to flourish is even greater, and affects us closer to home than we think – allowing corruption to thrive under our noses produces an anti-competitive environment, can deny the opportunity for good corporate citizens to flourish, and can be a straitjacket on UK foreign policy as we have seen in relation to recent developments on the global scene.