New UK anticorruption champion pledges to back fraud agency, plans to 'chase' government
2 February 2018. By Martin Coyle
The UK’s new anticorruption champion, John Penrose, has pledged to stick up for the Serious Fraud Office following the government reprieve it was handed late last year. In an interview with MLex, he also defended the agency’s ad hoc funding model and discussed the influence of hit TV crime drama McMafia.
The Conservative lawmaker, who was appointed in mid-December to drive the UK’s anticorruption strategy, promises to “shout loudly” if he feels the agency is being short-changed by the government.
After the SFO narrowly escaped being folded into the larger National Crime Agency last year, it’s “very important” that it has been put on a secure footing, Penrose said in one of his first face-to face interviews since his appointment. “It is a good thing, and it’s perceived as a good thing more widely.”
Penrose also defended the SFO's funding model, which has been criticized by campaigners and international bodies, whereby it approaches the government for ad hoc handouts to pursue specific large cases. On the day of the interview on Wednesday, the agency was given a 9.5 million-pound cash injection ($13.5 million).
“The important thing is: Does it work? And so far it has,” Penrose said. He would call for change in the funding model if it ever stopped working, he said.
Penrose insisted that work to combat corruption hasn’t slipped off the radar amid the government's focus on Brexit, though he acknowledged that preparations for leaving the EU had “overshadowed” other government work.
Penrose's appointment as anticorruption champion — he says he was “tapped on the shoulder” by Prime Minister Theresa May — ended a six-month gap since previous incumbent Eric Pickles stepped down last June. The long wait caused concern that the fight against corruption wasn’t being given the attention it deserved.
— Moving target —
His appointment coincided with publication of the UK’s long-awaited anticorruption strategy, which sets out government policy for the next four years. Penrose believes the strategy, which was a year late, might need to be revamped prior to its end date of 2022.
“Corruption doesn’t stand still. There will be parts of the strategy which will be out of date in 18 months’ time because the criminals will have moved on,” he said. “We will need to move on with them. At that point we will have to be light on our feet, we will have to change.”
Penrose has an unusual role in that besides driving strategy he is also tasked with testing the government's efforts to tackle corruption. It’s something he’s prepared to do. “There will be occasions when sometimes I need to challenge inside the tent and on occasions I might need to challenge more vocally,” he said. “On occasions you need to be a critical friend.”
He sees his role as “chasing” the government, “implementing strategy” and “biting people’s shins.”
— McMafia effect —
His job has developed a touch of glamor thanks to hit TV series McMafia, which is based on a non-fiction book and deals with organized criminals laundering illicit funds through the City of London. He recently attended a parliamentary briefing inspired by the show, suggesting it’s caught the imagination of policymakers as well as the public.
For Penrose, it shows that the UK — with its large financial services industry — can’t afford to be complacent in the fight against money laundering and corruption. “Maybe Britain is one of the cleaner countries, but nowhere is perfect and we certainly can’t claim to be. And there is an awful lot of stuff we need to fix,” he said.
Developments such as the Panama and Paradise Papers, as well as the corruption scandal at the world soccer body FIFA, will help to make his job “slightly easier,” helping people to realize that corruption is an urgent modern problem, he explained.
UK law enforcers have this week been handed tough new powers to target the proceeds of crime. Under the Criminal Finances Act 2017, on Jan. 31 prosecutors gained the ability to seize suspected criminal wealth if individuals are unable to explain where money or property originated.
The change is a big “big step,” said Penrose, but its effectiveness will have to be gauged over time. The government has estimated that these unexplained wealth orders could be used in 20 cases a year and bring in around 6 million pounds over a decade.
Critics reckon there is much more criminal cash out there to be seized. Campaign group Transparency International estimated this week that as much 4.4 billion pounds worth of London property could be targeted by the orders immediately.
“I would like [6 million pounds] to be a conservative assessment,” Penrose said. “We just have to go at it with energy and grip and see where we get to.”