UK sought to dampen praise for SFO in OECD bribery review

9 April 2018 11:54am
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5 April 2018. By Martin Coyle and Ben Lucas.

UK government officials tried to influence an international corruption-fighting body to tone down praise of its own fraud agency, the Serious Fraud Office, ahead of announcing plans last year to incorporate it into the National Crime Agency, MLex has learned.

The intervention at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris came two months before Prime Minister Theresa May set out the planned merger — an idea the government has since abandoned.

At a meeting in March 2017, UK government officials suggested the OECD’s corruption working group should alter the wording in a draft report on the SFO’s performance in combatting corruption, MLex understands.

It is unclear whether the OECD took the suggestions on board. The final version of the report, published on March 23, said the SFO had been instrumental in boosting enforcement against bribery since 2012.

“Foreign bribery enforcement in the UK has increased significantly since 2012 notably thanks to the pragmatic and effective approach taken by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to investigate and resolve foreign bribery cases,” a statement published alongside the report said.

Diplomatic horse trading is commonplace to influence the final outcome of OECD working-group reviews. But it is unusual for a country to seek to dampen positive feedback.

The Paris meeting came after the UK government quietly started a review of the UK’s defenses against money laundering and corruption in December 2016. The review resurrected concerns that the government would merge the SFO with the NCA, following two previous failed attempts.

In December 2017, the government confirmed the SFO would remain an independent agency but it granted the NCA more powers, meaning it could in theory dictate the SFO’s workload.

The SFO and OECD declined to comment. The UK government didn’t respond to a request to comment.

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