The proliferation of fraud in the UK over the past decade has been widely publicised and discussed. We have already written regularly on the topic, including in March, when we explored the link between economic decline and increasing fraud offences; and in May 2023 when we discussed new statistics revealing the everyday reality for businesses operating in the “fraud capital of the world”.

This year, the government has ostensibly made some progress towards acting on the UK’s fraud epidemic, in the shape of two key documents: the Economic Crime Plan 2023-26 and the updated Fraud Strategy. The documents set out extensive to do lists - including working groups to be set up, new officers and investigators to be recruited, and a new fraud reporting system to be implemented – and the government claimed that these represented significant and, in some cases, radical plans which would reverse the fraud trend.

However, both the Plan and the Strategy have been widely criticised for being too weak and lacking the necessary backing of adequate funding.

The news cycle moves on quickly, and – beyond specialist circles – talk of fraud has died down again. Progress on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which will introduce a new corporate criminal offence of failure to prevent fraud, has been erratic; and, while the new Director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is now in post and the new Director of Public Prosecutions is due to take up his post in November, it will take some time to see the outcome of these changes in leadership. It will also take a considerable period of time, necessarily, to see the output from the Independent Review of Disclosure and Fraud Offences which was announced earlier this week.

As political party season wears on, law and order has emerged as a hot topic, with the media seizing on soundbite-ready speeches covering immigration, prisons and even citizens’ arrests. At the Conservative Party Conference, Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk praised the country’s legal system, as well as its judges and lawyers, while Home Secretary Suella Braverman took a rather different position.

But what are the parties saying about fraud and corruption?

The answer is, in summary, not very much — and certainly not enough in the face of the scale of the problem.

Party by party

Conservatives

Due to their position as the governing party, we already know a considerable amount about the Conservatives’ plans to deal with fraud, as summarised very briefly above.

Their party conference included two fraud-related seminars (both co-hosted by banks): ‘What is driving the increase in fraud?’ and ‘Where next in the fight against fraud: The fraud strategy and beyond’, although it appears that nothing significant was said on either fraud, or corruption more widely, during the event’s mainstream speeches, including in those made by Alex Chalk and Suella Braverman.

Labour

As the party which potentially could be running the country within the next 12 to 18 months, you may expect Labour to be saying plenty on this issue.

In their Manifesto for the 2019 General Election, the party promised to “review the structures and roles of the National Crime Agency”, with a view to improving the response to all types of economic crime, including cybercrime and fraud, as well as to boost the capacity and skills of the police in this area. On an international level, Labour also stated they would “reject any trade agreements that undermine labour standards or environmental protections, and rule out UK Export Finance support to companies engaged in bribery or corruption.”

Since then, the party has been relatively vocal on fraud, led by the work of Emily Thornberry MP, the Shadow Attorney-General. In September 2022, her office published a report titled ‘Turning the tide on Corporate Fraud’, which focused on how a Labour government “would set about fixing the fundamental problems that have affected the SFO for too long, and enable it finally to start turning the tide on corporate fraud.”

The party itself published a Policy Review which looked at the UK’s laws on corporate criminal liability, the penalties regime for white collar crime, how to deal with the proceeds of crime, and, again, reform of the SFO.

Although the party’s conference agenda has not been made public, a number of pronouncements have been reported. On 9 October, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would appoint an anti-corruption commissioner. Details of the plan are not entirely clear: the commissioner’s mandate would be to focus on recouping money lost by way of fraudulent Covid grants, rather than overseeing anti-corruption efforts more widely, but the plan would also include efforts to “bring together HMRC, the Serious Fraud Office and the National Crime Agency”, and give the commissioner power to take cases to court.

On the same day, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy was reported as saying that his party wanted to make the UK the “anti-corruption capital of the world”, although the remainder of his comments made it clear that he was referring to anti-money laundering and sanctions enforcement plans, including a programme to reward whistle-blowers. Labour’s other plans in this area also reportedly include a review of sentencing for public sector fraud and corruption, and a reform of public procurement rules.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dem’s 2019 Manifesto included two relevant points, the first was a plan to create “a new Online Crime Agency to effectively tackle illegal content and activity online”, including “personal fraud” which is less directly connected to fraud of the type businesses (and public sector agencies) will be concerned about. The second was to ensure that the UK championed “global anti-corruption initiatives” and set up publicly-accessible registers of beneficial ownership of companies.

After the launch of the government’s Fraud Strategy, the party’s Home Affairs Spokesperson released a brief statement criticising it for not going for enough, commenting that the Strategy “was simply not worth the wait.”

Meanwhile, at the recent party conference, there were a number of events and speeches which including reference to crime in general. One session, focused mainly on Ukraine, touched on wider economic crime issues in relation to stopping “the flow of dirty Russian money through the UK”. Nothing further appears to have been said about domestic fraud issues.

Green Party

Green Party policy in this area targets financial sector misconduct. This includes a promise to "legislate to provide for the proper and robust prosecution of those who commit financial sector and banking fraud and participate in the mis-selling of financial products”.

Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru

Nothing in the SNP’s party conference agenda touches on fraud, corruption or economic crime in general. The party’s policy statements mention tax evasion briefly, but no other areas of economic crime.

Plaid Cymru does not appear to have issued any relevant statements or policies.

Should we expect more?

It has been encouraging to see some visible action being taken this year towards tackling what are unprecedented levels of fraud in the UK. The government’s overarching strategy documents and the introduction of a new corporate criminal offence of failure to prevent fraud are a good start, and the Independant Review mentioned above has been widely welcomed, but so far there seems to have been little in the way of detailed implementation, and it will take some time for the effect of any new laws work through the system. In addition, as has been said before, the levels of proposed funding for the government’s “ambitious” plans appear inadequate.

It is less encouraging to see that few politicians have, so far, taken the opportunity to use the platform of party conference season to raise awareness of the UK’s fraud and corruption problem and set out exactly how it can be tackled and, possibly most importantly, how much resource is going to be provided to investigate, charge and prosecute these offences. This is not an issue which will go away on its own. Although some in the public sector have taken their own steps to fight fraud (for example, the banking-industry sponsored Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit was set up in 2002 and has since saved the industry around £750 million by preventing and disrupting fraud), robust and extensive government action will be needed in order to bring the problem properly under control.

Labour’s proposals to tackle Covid loan fraud are a step in the right direction, and should help move the conversation. However, it remains to be seen exactly how those proposals would be funded and how high up the agenda they would appear should the party gain power at the next General Election. There will be many other domestic and international issues to deal with, and in the justice sector alone, the availability of legal aid, court delays, prison overcrowding and policing levels will be vying for attention alongside economic crime and corruption – and arguably are more relatable issues for the general public.

It seems that fraud and corruption, however endemic, are not regarded as a vote winner.