Outlook: Tinkering with the SFO is just what it doesn’t need

Now would be the worst possible time for Jack Regan’s shooter to jam

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The Independent Online

The Serious Fraud Office has made the Keystone Cops look like the Sherlock Holmes in recent years.

Secret pay-offs to former staffers, a fine from HM Revenue & Customs, the botched investigation into the Tchenguiz family, last year’s falling conviction rates. The list just goes on. And on.

David Green is widely seen as having injected new life into the stuttering agency when he took over the reins in 2012. Out went the close, even cosy, relationship with industry, along with the SFO’s reliance on firms self-reporting their failings. It was replaced by new, get-tough approach. Less Dixon of Dock Green, more The Sweeney.

If only. The reports swirling around the agency’s investigation into Barclays’ Middle Eastern fund raising aren’t at all encouraging. And having already gone cap in hand to the Treasury for funds to pursue the inquiry, the SFO can ill afford another bloody nose.

Now would be the worst possible time for Jack Regan’s shooter to jam.

It’s against this backdrop that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is apparently launching a renewed attempt to scrap the SFO and force its people into her National Crime Agency, Britain’s attempt at setting up something resembling the FBI.

With the biggest opponents of such a move, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, out of the way and the agency starved of a success that might swing public, and crucially, political support, now would seem an opportune time to strike.

A naked power grab it may be, but there are reasons for believing that such a move might actually improve this country’s pitiful record when it comes to putting thieves who wear suits behind bars.

Such a move would give Britain’s fraud busters a fresh start, and perhaps fresh funds, under management who would be under pressure to make sure it worked.

Set against that is the lamentable track record of the current Government’s tinkering with the justice system. Elected police commissioners, cack-handed reforms to legal aid, and the spectacularly crass plan to tear up the Human Rights Act. As with the SFO, the list goes on. And on.

Fraud is a uniquely difficult and complex crime to police and prosecute. Messrs Clarke and Greive had good reasons for their objections to bringing it under the NCA.

Moreover, while the SFO may need reform, now is the worst possible time to embark on such a merger with the Libor trials looming and more cases related to City scandals set to follow.

A restive and cynical public will not look at all kindly on anything which prevents bankers from being brought to book. Or on the person responsible. Ms May might care to reflect on that.