Now the reprieved SFO will have to deliver

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The Independent Online
The Serious Fraud Office's record is probably a good deal better than it seems but it is remembered only for its high-profile failures and cock-ups. The temptation for the Government must have been to do away with it altogether. The arguments for a radical switch in approach to combating big white-collar crime appeared to be strong Although the SFO had many quiet successes, its credibility has been badly eroded by the failures. Confidence was sapped by public outcries over the cost and inordinate length of investigations and trials that failed to deliver results.

There is little doubt that the SFO brought many of these woes on itself. Some cases were badly mismanaged; the evidence was not good enough - a weakness that juries, for all their alleged inability to follow the complexities of fraud cases, are good at spotting. The SFO also appears to have been somewhat over-zealous in the handling of some cases, not always playing by the book. Its one notable high-profile success, Guinness, now seems to be crumbling, with allegations of withheld evidence and unfair procedures prompting a review by both the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights.

But while many of the criticisms were fair enough, none provided an adequate answer to the central question facing the Government - if not the SFO, then what replacement would better perform this vital task?

Yesterday, after two years of reflection, the Government finally conceded that there is probably no convincing alternative. Accepting lock, stock and barrel the Davie report recommendations, the Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, said the SFO had not just won a reprieve, but was to be strengthened. It is to be reinforced as the centre of expertise for all big fraud cases, with a larger specialised staff taking on a greater workload.

The Government was right to conclude that none of the alternative solutions proffered would have improved effectiveness. Folding the SFO into the Crown Prosecution Service would probably have made matters worse, by separating investigation from prosecution.

Instead, the Government has opted to give the SFO a more focused mission, trying to remove as far as possible the confusion between its role and that of the police and CPS. With more resources, the SFO should be better equipped to tackle the big cases, which will now be virtually its exclusive preserve. The Government's message is that it remains unflinchingly tough on fraud. But such messages, unless backed by results, tend to fade quickly away. The SFO has been given another chance, but only success in the cases that count will build it up into the fearsome deterrent it ought to be.

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