Questions have begun percolating over the state of the United Kingdom’s anti-corruption efforts, with a reported plan to break up its national fraud-fighting office and speculation over the whereabouts of the U.K.’s promised national plan to combat corruption.
While the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office had cause for celebration this week with its first victory in the major fraud case involving benchmark rate rigging, the office was faced with reports that the agency is being threatened anew by a plan to abolish it. The Financial Times reported Sunday that U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May is pushing a plan to eliminate the SFO and roll its functions under the National Crime Agency.
That plan is not a new one. May previously tried to get rid of the SFO and transfer its powers to the NCA three years ago, which would have given her control over both the budget and oversight of white-collar crime cases. May’s efforts were blocked by former attorney general Dominic Grieve and then justice secretary Ken Clarke, the Financial Times reported. Both Grieve and Clarke were removed from the Cabinet this summer, the newspaper said, leaving May’s path seemingly unblocked.
When her attempts were previously rebuffed in parliament, May said the government would review “the appropriate relationship” between the two crime-fighting agencies in due course, the Financial Times said.
Legal experts said the previous move against the SFO cost the agency some senior members of its staff, and questioned the timing of the move in the middle of one its biggest cases. The SFO’s probe into the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) led to charges against a dozen bankers, stemming from a long-running investigation that also involved the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority and the U.S. Justice Department.
The SFO announced this week that a senior banker from “a leading British bank” pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court on 3 October for conspiracy to defraud in connection with LIBOR manipulation. The agency said it could not release further details at this point, including the convicted banker’s name, for legal reasons. Eleven other individuals are awaiting trial on LIBOR-related charges, with the first jury trial in the case slated for May.
“This is a good result for the SFO but it underlines the recklessness of ministers speculating once again about its survival at a time when it is undertaking some of its most important work in years,” Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, told the Financial Times after the announcement. “Morale at the SFO has only just recovered from the last bout of open speculation about its future.”
Last month at the Cambridge Symposium on Economic Crime, SFO Director David Green told attendees that the agency is focused on “the top tier of fraud and bribery work” and seemed to lay the rationale for an independent agency to hold that job.
“That is what the SFO does, and that is what it is for. Their complexity demands the use of the SFO’s unique Roskill model, in which investigators, prosecutors, sector specialists, forensic accountants, computer experts, and trial counsel work together from the outset in dedicated case teams under a case controller, shaping and driving the investigation,” said Green, who took over the SFO’s helm in 2012. “And of course top level fraud, including bribery, is the singular priority to which the SFO is dedicated. We have no competing priorities.”
Also stemming from the U.K. Home Office this week were concerns about the office’s much-anticipated, first of its kind national anti-corruption plan. In June then-solicitor general Oliver Heald announced at the C5 conference that the plan would aim to speed coordination among various law enforcement agencies and better tackle illicit money flows and corruption. Heald said that plan would be released within a few weeks.
But as the authors of the briberyact.com blog pointed out this week, Heald is nowhere to be found, ousted in this summer’s government reshuffle, and neither is the plan.
Blog authors and attorneys Barry Vitou and Richard Kovalevsky said the Home Office is now saying the report will be released sometime this year. They wrote that the delay, especially one without explanation, is a cause for serious concern along with the departure of government officials who were championing the report.
“The government talks a good game on fighting corruption and economic crime but actions speak louder than words,” Vitou and Kovalevsky wrote. They added that new anti-corruption laws need to be backed by adequate funds, and the officials overseeing enforcement also need to be supported.
“The anti-corruption plan should be published without delay. Otherwise, the U.K. risks creating the perception of being all hat and no cows when it comes to economic crime,” they wrote.