Tinkering with the SFO

The Conservative Party yesterday launched their manifesto, unveiling plans, if elected in June, to incorporate the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) into the National Crime Agency (NCA). The stated aim is to ‘strengthen Britain’s response to white collar crime’ and ‘bolster the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime’. Other than citing an improvement in intelligence sharing, no other perceived benefits are evident.

So is this a good idea? I am the first to admit that the SFO is not perfect. It certainly has a public image problem and has seen more than its fair share of well-publicised failures. However, the cases it undertakes are large and complex and are getting more so, requiring evermore skilled and well-trained investigators, sharp accountants and keen, intelligent lawyers. It also needs strong management who are independent of the government of the day. Yet, because of the way the SFO is funded (a mixture of ‘core’ and ‘blockbuster’ funding), many SFO staff are temporary, brought in for a particular case and laid off when the case is over. This makes it very difficult to attract and retain the high calibre, committed staff required to work on these long, difficult cases.

There is nothing in the manifesto about how the SFO or its successor department within the NCA will be funded. At present, the NCA’s focus appears to be on tackling paedophilia and organised crime, the eradication of which will always play better to voters than locking up a few businessmen suspected of having their fingers in the till. Therefore, the role of the former SFO will be diminished within the much larger NCA and the ability to take on complex white collar crime could be damaged for years.

It will not be forever, though. Inevitably, at some point in the future, the government of the day will decide to reorganise the NCA and it will go the same way of its predecessors (SOCA, NCIS and Regional Crime Squads). This will probably be triggered by a collapse in public confidence after a massive failure in a particularly newsworthy case and then someone will have a bright idea: ‘Let’s have a dedicated, well-resourced agency that specialises in combatting serious fraud. Now, what shall we call it?’  

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