Tory manifesto: Theresa May reveals plans to scrap the SFO (again)

 
Catherine Neilan
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British Prime Minister Leaves Downing Street
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Theresa May has vowed to scrap the Serious Fraud Office as part of plans to improve the UK's handling of white collar crime if the Conservatives win next month's General Election.

The Prime Minister, who has had the SFO in her sights throughout her tenure as home secretary, revealed today plans to fold the body into the National Crime Agency as part of the Conservative manifesto.

"We will strengthen Britain’s response to white collar crime by incorporating the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency, improving intelligence sharing and bolstering the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime," the manifesto, published today, says.

This is not the first time May has attempted to abolish the SFO, threatening to roll it into the NCA back in 2011 and again in 2014.

It was also named as one of several agencies being reviewed by the Cabinet Office earlier this year, prompting the OECD to demand a funding boost and guarantee of its independence, amid concerns that London has become a centre for money laundering.

But the SFO has struggled to prove its worth, notching up a number of botched cases including an investigation into property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz, and the Libor rate-fixing scandal, prompting experts to say "serious questions" had to be asked.

Indeed, questions were asked about its investigation into Tesco's multi-million-pound accounting black hole, which concluded in a deferred prosecution agreement earlier this year. It is yet to report on its five-year investigation into Barclays over fees paid to the Qatar Investment Authority.

But not everyone saw May's plans as a positive step.

Jeremy Summers, head of business crime at Osborne Clarke, described it as "retrograde".

"The investigation and prosecution of serious fraud requires significant expertise, and it is less than clear that the NCA will have that capability," he added.

David McCluskey, partner in the corporate crime and fraud group at international law firm Taylor Wessing, agreed.

"Whatever criticisms may be made of the SFO, there is no doubt that the UK's reputation as a bastion of the rule of law will be seriously harmed by the demise of its only dedicated serious fraud investigator and prosecutor" he said. "Complex cross border business crime cases require specialised skills, resources and powers. New corporate crime offences are at best complicated and at worst almost impossible to prosecute. If these tasks are to be left to an agency which has many other priorities besides fraud, then the perception will be that this is no longer a priority for the UK."

Jonathan Pickworth, white collar crime partner at global law firm White & Case, added: "Just as the SFO is making real progress, the rug is being pulled from underneath it.”

The SFO model is a good one, and necessary. It does a difficult and sometimes impossible task well. It has even started to become quite focused and nimble. What is the sense in rolling a 30-year-old organisation, with all of its revenue generation, prosecutorial success and extensive experience, into an unproven sprawling agency that is in its infancy, and which has many different priorities?”

"Who is to say that the NCA is equipped to do it any better? It is a gamble.”

A spokesman for the SFO said: “This is a political pledge and we cannot comment. The organisation of law enforcement is a matter for ministers.”

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