SFO may retain independence

Ministers will give their verdict next month on whether the Serious Fraud Office should be left unchanged or even expanded, as a government working party is expected to recommend.

The working party was set up a year ago under Rex Davie, a senior civil servant, to decide the SFO's fate, following a series of highly embarrassing court fiascos. It will deliver its conclusions at the end of the month or soon afterwards.

Sources say the report is likely to recommend that the SFO be kept in its existing, independent form, rather than be taken over by the Crown Prosecution Service. There is also a strong possibility that the working party, which will report to Sir NicholasLyell, the Attorney-General, will suggest that the SFO take over the larger fraud cases now handled by the CPS.

Despite strong criticism of the SFO after the collapse of the second Guinness trial, the sentencing of the fraudster Roger Levitt to community service, and renewed doubts about the original Guinness convictions, morale at the top remains high for two reasons. First, ministers and investigators in the police and the legal profession agree setting up a better structure would be very difficult. Second, the Attorney- General is known to support the SFO under its present director, George Staple.

The biggest obstacle to a straight CPS takeover is the special nature of the SFO's powers under the Criminal Justice Act 1987, which allows the SFO to require people to provide information or documents, thus ending their right to silence. Transferring the SFO's work to the CPS would require legislation, something the Government is keen to avoid.