SFO head calls for new body to beat fraud

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The new head of the Serious Fraud Office called yesterday for the creation of a single investigative body to replace the current "fragmented and inefficient" structure. Rosalind Wright, director of the SFO since April, also called for the replacement of the jury system in complex financial fraud trials and the imposition of heavier fines to hit offenders "where it hurts them most - in their pockets."

In a letter to the Attorney General, Mrs Wright criticised the duplication of the current system for tackling fraud that sees responsibility split between the SFO, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Issuing her first annual report since taking the helm at the fraud office, Mrs Wright argued for heavier fines for convicted fraudsters and measures to recover funds that had been salted away in anticipation of conviction. She also recommended the creation of a new "fraud" offence to replace the confusing plethora of conspiracy and dishonesty offences in force now.

Under the current system, a group of alleged fraudsters can be charged with conspiracy to defraud, but an individual can only be charged with one of a number of statutory offences. "This is all very confusing for a jury and unnecessarily complex."

Of the system of trial by jury, Mrs Wright said: "In spite of the SFO's efforts to cut the number of charges, trials have still taken too long." She said she was hopeful the Law Commission would soon recommend a move towards a tribunal system.

While she welcomed the Government's recent decision to combine the various City regulators into a single watchdog based on the Securities and Investment Board, she said it did not go far enough. "Responsibility continues to be divided between public bodies and regulatory organisations, whose powers to gather evidence, procedures and punishments all differ," she said.

She said it was time to act on the recommendations of Lord Roskill 11 years ago which had led to the creation of the SFO. He had suggested the creation of a single body with responsibility for major fraud prosecutions. Currently the SFO is limited to the investigation and prosecution of those fraud cases which are "serious and complex".

Other recommendations included giving judges powers currently enjoyed by financial regulators, such as closing down or suspending businesses suspected of being fraudulently run. Mrs Wright said judges should be able to impose punitive fines and disqualify fraudsters from soliciting or managing investments by the public.

The need to strengthen anti-fraud legislation was underlined by figures in the SFO annual report showing an increase in the number of cases of suspected fraud against investors from 29 to 42 during the past year. The SFO said the buoyant economy was a big factor.

"We are disturbed that so many people are being defrauded. It is also noticeable that many of these cases concern investments which are not regulated under the Financial Services Act. Compensation is therefore not available."