The UK will be going to the polls again on 8 June 2017, this time to elect a new parliament. If, as predicted, the incumbent Theresa May’s Conservative Party wins a majority, it could spell the end of the road for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
The Conservative Party Manifesto, published on 18 May 2017, pledges that it will disband the SFO and merge its functions into the National Crime Agency (NCA). The closure of the SFO has long been an ambition of Mrs May, who, as the Home Secretary (prior to becoming Prime Minister), had responsibility for the NCA – but not the SFO.
The manifesto claims that a takeover of the SFO by the NCA will “strengthen Britain’s response to white-collar crime”. Whilst it is true that both the SFO and NCA currently have a remit that includes white-collar crime, the two agencies are very different creatures and the assertion that a takeover by the NCA will strengthen the UK’s response to economic crime should not be taken at face value.
First, the NCA has a much wider remit than the SFO. It has responsibility for investigating a range of offences, such as people trafficking, child sexual exploitation and abuse, missing persons and cybercrime. There is a real risk that in amongst those other very serious types of offences, focus on bribery, corruption and serious and complex fraud cases – the SFO’s caseload – will become diluted or lost.
Secondly, the SFO operates a model unique within the UK’s criminal justice system, in that it both investigates and prosecutes offences. The cases that are dealt with by the SFO require skilled investigators and prosecutors to work together closely. The NCA, by contrast, only investigates; it passes the burden of prosecuting the cases over to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS is already overstretched; the addition of further workload, quite possibly without the addition of prosecutors skilled in complex fraud and corruption cases, risks a greater number of cases either not being brought, or collapsing if they do get as far as a trial.
Thirdly, there is a real risk that a takeover will further slow the system. The progress of fraud and corruption cases from investigation to trial is already slow. Organisational change on the scale proposed, coupled with the risk of loss of experienced staff, will serve to hold up cases already in train, and possibly prevent new investigations being opened.
The takeover pledge is also difficult to understand in two further respects. The SFO has had a chequered success rate over its lifetime, but it has recently seen a number of high profile successes, in particular the deferred prosecution agreement reached with Rolls Royce. In addition, the UK has a huge political and logistical task ahead of it in terms of negotiating and executing Brexit. Quite why Mrs May would want to take on another challenge at this juncture, given those factors, is unclear.
What is clear is that if the takeover of the SFO by the NCA goes ahead, there will be a potentially damaging period of disruption in the UK’s fight against corruption and fraud.