Will fraudsters celebrate the demise of the SFO?

The Conservatives plan to fold Britain's fraud busters into the National Crime Agency, but lawyers think that's a bad idea

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The Independent Online

How will Britain’s shiny suited crooks feel about Theresa May folding the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency? 

Quite good, in the view of a lot of lawyers. 

Britain’s top fraud busting agency has a chequered history. 

It sometimes faced accusations of being too soft. On other occasions it went in all guns blazing and got egg all over its face, notably with its handling of a case it tried to bring against property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz. It was thrown out and he won millions of pounds in damages and a public apology. 

Let’s not forget the sensitive documents lost in a case against defence giant BAE Systems that were found at a cannabis farm.

It’s true that “King Libor” Tom Hayes resides in prison after a successful prosecution, but the trials of those accused of helping him didn’t go so well. 

And yet the agency has recently shown signs of gaining some traction. It won a thumping settlement from Tesco, over the latter’s accounting scandal, and led an international probe into corruption at Rolls Royce that led to the company coughing up £671m in penalties (about the level of its 2016 profits).  

Getting any sort of conviction out of the Libor case could be cited as some sort of victory given how complex and arcane some of the material juries had to consider was. 

It is notable that the SFO passed on one of the biggest recent cases - the HBOS bank fraud that left a trail of devastation among small businesses in the Reading area - leaving it to Thames Valley Police to successfully run the investigation.

It was important that it did so, because it is only now that the victims may be compensated by HBOS’s owner Lloyds. 

Will we see more cases at risk of getting passed over if the SFO is disbanded? It has to be a risk. Thames Valley's police and crime commissioner Anthony Stansfeld wondered whether he could justify launching another such investigation, given the cost, and the manpower it diverted from the many other issues his force has to deal with. 

Serious white collar crime is difficult and expensive to investigate, let alone prosecute. Defendants typically have the means to call upon the best lawyers money can buy to befuddle juries during cases that can last months. 

That is why it is a job for specialists, which is one of the reasons why the SFO was set up, bringing together specialist investigators and prosecutors. 

The risk with folding it into another agency is that the difficult job of investigating white collar crime will take a back seat as bosses concentrate on lower hanging fruit. Why run the risk of the sort of embarrassments that the SFO sometimes suffered? 

Jonathan Pickworth, white collar crime partner at global law firm White & Case, had this to say on the subject: “What is the sense in rolling a 30 year old organisation, with all of its revenue generation, prosecutorial success and extensive experience, into an unproven sprawling agency that is in its infancy, and which has many different priorities?”

Quite. 

This is Theresa May’s play. She wanted to axe the SFO while at the Home Office, but cabinet colleagues baulked. As PM, assuming she retains that position, she can get her way. 

A country that works for everyone, not just the rich and the powerful. That’s what Ms May said she wanted.  

This looks like yet another case where the PM’s words will end up being contradicted by her actions. Rich and powerful crooks might very well have cause to celebrate a Conservative victory. 

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