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Serious Fraud Office

Volume 507: debated on Thursday 11 March 2010

11. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office in deterring and prosecuting economic crime. (321515)

I am reasonably pleased with the significant progress that the SFO has made over the past two years. It has reduced the time taken to deal with referrals from the public to 20 working days on average, and reduced the time by an average of nine months to investigate and prosecute crime. It has a 91 per cent. conviction rate, achieved its first ever serious crime prevention order this year, and recovered assets valued at more than £8 million—progress in the right direction.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but when Jessica de Grazia looked at the SFO and produced her report back in June 2008, she identified a number of serious failings and deficiencies. What steps has the Solicitor-General taken to deal with those failings and deficiencies?

There was, of course, a whole transformation programme flowing from the de Grazia report, and there was a new director in the form of Richard Alderman and a good deal of change in the higher management echelons of the SFO. The progress made was independently evaluated by the Cabinet Office capability review team in December 2009, and it regarded the SFO as having made very significant strides and improvements since that transformation programme came into play.

I am sure the Solicitor-General will agree that it is important that the SFO has sufficient resources to carry out its functions on economic crime, but can she confirm that the SFO has not received any specific funding for its anti-corruption work for at least 12 months?

Yes, that is right, as I understand it, but none the less a good deal of work is going on in that direction. I think that there is a question later on this, but probably about 9 per cent. of the funding has, I think, gone into that area, and two specific sections of its work force are dealing with it. Clearly, any specific funding comes through a different kind of funding stream for particular cases. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the SFO has always been funded in that way, and clearly any such demands will be treated sympathetically.

Fraud is now costing the United Kingdom about £30 billion a year compared with an estimated £13 billion only three years ago. It seems that the SFO is increasingly using plea bargaining as a tactic to move its cases along. Does the Solicitor-General accept that our current statutory framework is in need of reform to accommodate that?

I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman thinks that the statutory framework needs to be amended to cope with plea bargaining. A new framework set up by the Law Officers has been accepted and taken forward by the SFO, and is currently very much in play. I do not think that he should take the view that fraud increased from £13 billion to £30 billion between the two assessments, because they were done on wholly different bases—the second one postdated the setting up of the National Fraud Authority, which has done a far more thorough job because it has had the resources to do so.

Fraud is a real problem in this country today. Plea bargaining has a role to play in the quick dispatch of cases, but it always has to be made clear that people who commit fraud will be punished severely by the courts and will not be able to buy their way out of trouble.

We are actually receiving independent reports that the framework is not fit for purpose. What assurances can the Solicitor-General provide that the SFO is developing its flexible case criteria to minimise growing concern about overlap with other counter-fraud organisations, and has she considered a unified agency?

I am not sure what input the hon. Gentleman is getting, but I would be pleased if he could forward to me the comments that he says back up his question. It does not seem to me that the plea bargaining structures, which is the point he started with, impinge very strongly on any statutory framework, but, as I said, I would be pleased to hear. The various agencies tackling fraud—the SFO, the CPS fraud section and the NFA—work together very closely, and where there is evidence of potential or historical overlap, they work consistently and as quickly as they can to remove it and ensure a streamlined approach.