Thursday 6 December 2018 4:08 pm

Tesco fraud fiasco leaves new SFO boss with serious questions to answer

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has had more ups and downs than Thomas Cook’s share price. When it scores a big success, like the near £500m deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with Rolls-Royce, it gets cheered to the rafters, while failures such as the Tchenguiz brothers debacle sees it dubbed the Serious Farce Office by critics.

Its latest let-down was today's collapse of the trial of former senior Tesco executives for fraud. A High Court judge slammed the SFO’s £10m case, saying it was so weak in certain areas it should not have been brought before a jury.

The Tesco fiasco follows closely behind the SFO’s failed pursuit of Barclays over its financial crisis-era Qatar fundraising in a one-two punch for new SFO director Lisa Osofsky.

Osofsky’s predecessor, Sir David Green QC, scored some notable successes with the latest tool in the SFO’s armoury, the DPA, which allows companies to pay a fine in exchange for not being prosecuted, but still admit no liability.

However, the SFO’s recent setbacks raise big questions for Osofsky to answer.

In recent evidence to parliament Osofsky argued authorities were “hamstrung” in their pursuit of corporate wrongdoing by the current law.

Osofksy called for the introduction of a “failure to prevent” corporate crime standard, where a company would be held to account if it could not prove it had done enough to prevent crime committed on its watch.

She argued that the current need to identify a “controlling mind” at fault made the SFO’s job pursuing major corporations much more difficult.

If it is a problem with the law that is holding back the SFO, Osofsky must go into bat to have it changed.

If it is, however, organisational problems that are hampering the SFO’s efforts, she must clean house.

Osofsky has not yet announced decisions on whether or not to prosecute a raft of cases on the SFO’s books, including Airbus, Rolls-Royce and GlaxoSmithKline.

As incoming director, that pause looks sensible, as she takes time to get to grips with her brief.

However, the New Year is just around the corner, and while it would be unfair to lay the blame for the SFO’s latest failings at Osofsky's feet, 2019 will demand some serious resolutions.