The SFO’s Battle for Survival

28 Jul, 2016

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO), as Britain’s prosecutor of serious fraud, bribery and corruption cases, finds itself under attack from various angles if it ever missteps, particularly in high profile cases. One recurring source of pressure has been Theresa May’s long-held enmity towards the SFO, and her desire to incorporate it within the National Crime Agency (NCA). In February, it was announced by the then-Home Secretary’s spokesperson that the NCA would be given ‘power of direction’ over the SFO. Now that May is Prime Minister, the SFO will surely be worried for its future.

The SFO’s work has long been fraught with turbulence and controversy. One account of the first decade of its existence – 1988 to 1998 – documented a series of collapsed trials and failed prosecutions, a pattern which has continued in recent years, culminating with the botched investigation into the affairs of Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz, which dragged from 2011 to 2014 and led to a multi-million pound pay out.

More recently, the SFO has seen their long running ‘blockbuster’ investigation into Libor, fall prey to similar instability. Following on from the initial success of the conviction of Tom Hayes, currently appealing the 11 year sentence he received, the second trial represented a rude awakening. All six defendants were acquitted, leading many to question whether the SFO was fit for purpose.

The third Libor trial, however, marked more of a mixed bag for the SFO. While it resulted in four convictions, only one was a unanimous decision by the court, alongside two majority verdicts and a guilty plea. The other two cases resulted in no decision from the jury, and the SFO is currently preparing for a retrial. While this was heralded as a success, the SFO has currently achieved only five convictions out of 13 in their flagship investigation, at a present cost of £21,424,868.

Although David Green QC, the SFO’s present director, has worked to restore its battered reputation since his appointment in 2012, fundamental issues still remain. There is a high turnover of staff, especially problematic in investigations that often run for multiple years, and a difficulty in attracting high-calibre talent. In the Civil Service People Survey, only 23% of the SFO workforce felt their pay “adequately reflects” their performance. More damningly, just 18% felt they received reasonable pay when compared to those doing a similar job in other organisations.

It is unlikely that May’s opinions on the SFO will have changed since February, or that she will be willing, in these economically uncertain times, to provide the funding required for the SFO to remedy some of its fundamental issues. The simple fact is that, however effective the SFO may or may not be in dealing with specialised fraud, the NCA is simply cheaper to run. This could be the justification for May to finally dismantle the SFO, in spite of the recent Libor convictions and seizure of £20m in 2015 to 2016, during which time their spend was £58.9m according to their most recent accounts.

(Source: Steve Cochrane)

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