A vision on Elm Street

Profile: Rosalind Wright; The new chief of the SFO brings fresh ideas for fighting fraud. Paul Farrelly reports
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The Independent Online
She is certainly not a paid-up member of the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade. Colleagues say, privately, that she has no truck with Home Secretary Michael Howard's policy of filling prisons to overflowing. Hardly the qualifications for the new chief of the much-maligned Serious Fraud Office (SFO), one might think.

But for Rosalind Wright, the 54-year-old barrister appointed to the hot seat last week, it is a case of getting the right people off the street - and being handed the right tools to do the job.

Mrs Wright moves from the City watchdog, the Securities and Futures Authority (SFA), and she marked the announcement by calling for far shorter trials in fraud cases. Outwardly, she is now more cautious about demanding a thorough shake-up of Britain's slipshod system in fighting white-collar crime. "I'm keeping all my options open," she says.

This is understandable; she only takes up the pounds 108,000-a-year post as SFO director next month. In conversation, however, it is clear that this affable but quietly spoken lawyer is ruling nothing out. A serious look at taking juries out of baffling fraud trials, for starters, or bringing some cases to the civil courts, which require a lower burden of proof than their criminal counterparts. A proper plea-bargaining system would also help strip fraudsters of their gains - as would a more robust attitude from their Lordships.

"I think judges have problems in deciding what the right penalty is for white-collar crime," she says. "You just can't seem to persuade people that running off with someone's life savings is as serious as hitting them over the head with a crowbar."

Mrs Wright will be the SFO's fourth director since its inception in 1988 when she takes over from George Staple, who returns to the City after a five-year stint.

She arrives at a time when the caseload has never been higher. Peter Young's antics at Morgan Grenfell, the Sumitomo copper scandal, Stephen Hinchliffe's Facia collapse and now a look at NatWest's own "rogue trader" are just a few of the 80 or so cases on the go. But why apply for a post often described by insiders - after the SFO's London address off Gray's Inn Road - as "the nightmare on Elm Street"?

Actually, for all the flak Mr Staple took after Guinness, Polly Peck and the Maxwell fiasco, the SFO's record is not that bad. In 79 per cent of cases it has secured at least one conviction, despite the flaws in the system and chronic underfunding.

And, though she is reluctant to admit it, Mrs Wright has always coveted the job. She seemed almost destined for it, given her experience, despite the barriers to women reaching the top in the legal profession.

Mrs Wright qualified at the bar in 1964 after reading law at University College London. She was following in the family footsteps: her father was a solicitor, and met her mother at UCL. Her husband of 30 years, David, is a microbiologist at Charing Cross Hospital, and two of their three daughters have chosen to follow his lead, one into medicine, the other studying to be a vet.

It was to help bring up the family that, in 1969, she swapped the uncertainties of barrister's pupillage for the civil service stability of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Her first assignments could hardly have been more different from the later headline cases, from IRA terrorism to the big fraud cases - Johnson Matthey, Lloyd's of London, the Salem tanker scuttling.

In one, an old woman calling herself Lady Cadbury ripped off antique shops before being caught. " 'Send them round to my place,' she'd say, then she'd scarper when they came for the cash. She got a conditional discharge, but she was furious. She was hoping to go back to Holloway prison for Christmas," Mrs Wright recalls.

In another a Royal Mint veteran, just short of 65, caught stealing a pouch of half-crowns a week, turned up in court accompanied only by his blind daughter. As prosecutor, Mrs Wright ended up virtually defending. "I felt so sorry for him. He got an absolute discharge, which saved his pension."

But fraudsters beware: "My heart does not bleed so easily these days. I'm rather more hard-bitten now, though I do hope I would act the same in that sort of case again."

By the end of her 18 years at the DPP's office, Mrs Wright was heading the Fraud Investigation Group, the SFO's precursor, where she handled the Guinness affair before passing it on.

From 1987, as general counsel and an executive director of the SFA, Mrs Wright has been in charge of discipline and enforcement under the 1986 Financial Services Act, most recently in the Barings scandal. Insiders say this made her the natural choice from the six candidates for the SFO. "There is a real sense among lawyers at the SFO that we have a very senior legal figure coming in. Ros is very well respected," says one.

From April, her first task will be to boost morale among the SFO's multi- disciplinary staff - accountants and police officers, too - when a likely Labour government has hardly been flattering in its attitude.

But it remains the acquittals, rather than the successes, which make the headlines. Without new powers and more resources, Mrs Wright may be on a hiding to nothing, insiders say. It is a possibility of which she is only too aware. "The public relations challenge is a steep one. If you're doing a lousy job you deserve a lousy press. But the SFO is doing a very good job. There is not much balanced reporting. It is a very effective prosecuting body."