Serious Fraud Office could face uncertain future with May as prime minister

31 January 2017 9:55am

4 July 16. Martin Coyle.           

The resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron following the vote has opened the door to a Conservative leadership battle, which will likely see his replacement named in September. The current frontrunner for the job is Home Secretary Theresa May, who has made concerted efforts to grab control of the SFO over the past few years.

May’s appointment as prime minister could reignite this focus and force the SFO to come under the umbrella of the National Crime Agency, which is controlled by her current government department, the Home Office. The uncertainty comes at a time when the SFO found some much-needed stability following the February reappointment of its director, David Green, on a two-year contract, as well as a number of important case wins.

The agency has also been boosted by government plans that could enhance its ability to prosecute companies for failing to stop white-collar crime. The last thing the SFO needs in this period of relative calm is another battle to preserve its independence.

The SFO operates under the so-called “Roskill Model,” where investigators and prosecutors work together under one roof to bring serious fraud cases. The model guarantees the SFO’s independence. Shifting the agency to become part of a larger organization could jeopardize this.

Green has previously made robust defenses of the current model and has said there is no evidence that the change would lead to the SFO getting better results. He added that any changes could destabilize the agency.

In February reports suggested the NCA would be handed new powers that would enable it to direct the SFO to start investigations. The proposals could lead to the SFO having to appoint an NCA representative to its board to oversee its finances. This caused concern that such oversight could hamper the SFO’s independence.

The move, which is still under government consultation, follows previous attempts by May to roll the SFO into the NCA, following a number of botched SFO investigations. This included the 4.5 million pound ($5.97 million at today’s rates) settlement it reached with property tycoons Robert and Victor Tchenguiz in 2014, following their high-profile arrests in 2011.

Green’s 2012 appointment has put the SFO on a relatively even keel, barring a couple of mishaps, and it has a long roster of investigations on its books, as well as the UK’s first convictions under the Bribery Act. It has pledged to keep up the fight against bribery, and has said it will take decisive action where it finds wrongdoing.

If May does take the top job, the SFO might hope she will have a lot on her plate, leaving the regulator to quietly and effectively get on with its job.

An SFO spokesman said it was too early to comment on “hypothetical situations.”

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