View from City Road: The case for a born-again SFO

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The Independent Online
Areview of the Serious Fraud Office's future, due to be delivered by the end of this month, has looked at every possible option. The SFO could be kept unchanged; it could shrink; it could expand by absorbing some or all of the Crown Prosecution Service's Fraud Investigation Group; or it could be swallowed by the CPS itself.

The concept of a specialist SFO might be abandoned altogether, and the replacement might be an expansion of the FIG or even an enlargement of the Department of Trade and Industry's investigation staff.

All of this sounds confusing, but there are some clues to which permutations are runners. First, there is strong political pressure for something to be done, given the SFO's bungling of high-profile cases. Simply doing nothing is not an option.

Second, there is little government enthusiasm for new legislation. The SFO's Section 2 powers - the ones that remove the right to silence - are regarded as worth keeping. The main use of them, in fact, is not to corner defendants but to give accountants and bankers a legal excuse to break their vows of professional silence and co-operate.

The powers are vested in the SFO's director and are not available to the police, the CPS or the FIG. Abandoning the multi-disciplinary SFO might therefore mean legislating to give its powers to another body, which makes the option less attractive.

One of the most serious SFO problems is weak management. So should it be put under the control of the CPS, run by Barbara Mills? The snag here is that she ran the office at the time some of its most embarrassing cases, such as Blue Arrow, were initiated. And absorption into the CPS would put a layer of extra bureaucracy between the SFO and the Attorney General.

The final consideration is that the SFO's workload of big fraud cases is falling. This trend could be offset if the SFO were to take on some of the FIG work, which would make Section 2 available to be used in more cases. But a thorough management shake-up may well be the price.

Since the SFO is so young, it would make sense to have another go at making it work.