Minister declares war on white-collar crime

Tax dodgers, City cheats and money launderers are to face tough prison sentences under a government offensive against white-collar criminals, the Attorney General announced yesterday.

Lord Goldsmith said he wanted to end the social injustice of imposing non-custodial sentences on City businessmen and professional people while at the same time sending benefit cheats to prison. He told an audience of lawyers and economists: "It is notable how often [white-collar] defendants receive non-custodial and suspended sentences despite committing serious economic crime."

Setting out government plans for a more "even-handed" approach to tackling fraud, he said: "Social equality requires that we bear down on white-collar crime as effectively as on blue-collar crime, such as fraud in obtaining social security." Lord Goldsmith said he intended to act against company directors and City professionals by using his power to refer cases of "undue leniency" to the Court of Appeal so that harsher punishments can be imposed.

As an illustration of the Government's commitment to tackling white-collar crime he said he had already referred the case of Stephen Hinchliffe, the former chairman of the Facia retail group. Last month the Court of Appeal accepted the Attorney General's argument that Hinchliffe's crime merited immediate custody and that his original 15-month suspended sentence had been too lenient. In April, Hinchliffe, 53, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to conspiracy to defraud Facia and admitted that he had made £1.75m from the fraud.In August the Court of Appeal jailed him for 18 months.

Lord Goldsmith, who was speaking in Cambridge at an international conference on economic crime, said: "It [the Hinchliffe case] highlighted the importance of maintaining high corporate standards and the need to deter directors from abusing company funds, which had affected shareholders and creditors alike."

He said that between 1997 and 2002 the number of prosecutions for benefit fraud rose from less than 12,000 to nearly 27,000. "We need to match this approach in white-collar crime. Justice must be evenhanded," the Attorney General added.