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Fraud and Economic Crime

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

5. What steps he is taking to maintain the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and prosecute economic crime during the comprehensive spending review period. (56993)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure the effective prosecution of cases involving fraud and economic crime. (56994)

7. What steps he is taking to maintain the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and prosecute economic crime during the comprehensive spending review period. (56995)

The Serious Fraud Office will meet the requirements of the comprehensive spending review by making efficiency savings in all areas of its business and ensuring that its budget is focused on its core activities of investigating and prosecuting crime. The Crown Prosecution Service also recognises the need to ensure that fraud and economic crime are prosecuted effectively and efficiently. Its structure ensures that cases requiring input and direction by specialist prosecutors are dealt with rigorously.

The director of the Serious Fraud Office has said:

“My concern has always been if investigations and prosecution powers…are split, the fight against complex economic crime will be damaged.”

Does the Minister share those concerns? If so, why are this Government insistent on letting dodgy bankers off?

I am not quite sure that I see the direct correlation between the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question and the first. On the structure of the Serious Fraud Office, it is certainly my opinion that the present structure has been successful in delivering growing effectiveness in dealing with serious and complex fraud. The director has an important point to make. The Government are discussing how they can achieve the best structures for dealing with serious and complex crimes of all kinds, and discussions are taking place on how the Serious Fraud Office will fit into that structure. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the point that he has raised is very much in the Government’s mind.

Nevertheless, the director of the Serious Fraud Office has major concerns. If the Attorney-General is determined to pursue this route, what assurance can he give the House that the impact of the change on complex crime prosecutions will be monitored, so that it does not have the effect that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is concerned about?

The hon. Gentleman pre-judges a decision that has not been made. It is sensible within government for discussion to take place on how to improve the services, including prosecution, that the Government deliver. My point in reply to the earlier question was that the director has an important role in contributing to that debate, and I am sure that his views will be listened to very carefully. I certainly listen to them very carefully indeed.

In his previous question session, the Solicitor-General told the House that the UK’s international reputation on tackling corruption would be safeguarded by his getting on with his job. Will he therefore explain how he expects staff at the SFO to get on with their crucial jobs in the face of 50% budget cuts and the separation of its investigation and prosecution functions?

The first point to make is that the Serious Fraud Office is getting on with the job very effectively indeed. During 2010-11, it took 17 complex cases to trial with at least one conviction in every case; 31 defendants, both corporate and individual, went to trial, of whom 26 were found guilty, giving a conviction rate of 84%. That is an extremely good rate, and I wish to see it continued and built on. I have every confidence in the professionalism of the Serious Fraud Office and in its dedicated staff in delivering its service. I have every confidence that they will be able to do so in the future as well.

As The Times reports today, the Government’s proposals on serious fraud and international corruption are in total disarray. First, there was dilly-dallying over the Bribery Act 2010 and now there are trailed press reports on dismantling the SFO. Are the Government following the trend and going soft on economic crime? When will a statement on the SFO’s future be made, and will the Attorney-General confirm that it will be made first on the Floor of the House?

I have no doubt at all that it will be made first on the Floor of the House, but I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady’s premises. The position is very straightforward. The SFO is doing a good job, but I think everybody agrees that we need to see ways of improving the fight against economic crime. To take the hon. Lady’s point to its logical conclusion, there should be no discussion in government or anywhere else about such structures because doing so might raise some uncertainty. I simply do not share that view. I am confident that we will come out with the correct outcomes and that they will enhance our capacity to deal with economic crime generally. [Interruption.]

Order. I was trying to indicate gently that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) must not leave before the question has been concluded. I am sure that he is enjoying the exchanges.

In parts of the United Kingdom, there is widespread organised criminal activity. During the comprehensive spending review, what assurance can the Minister give us that those involved will not be able to gain yet more from their illegal and ill-gotten deeds and activities?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, perhaps missed by other questioners —that there are different kinds of economic crimes, some of which move into serious organised crime as well. That is why it is so important for the Government to give this matter a high priority. As I said to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), that is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others, as well as me, have been focusing on how to deliver the best outcome to cover the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has spoken about, while also ensuring that the financial end of serious crime is tackled correctly. I am very confident that we are going to come up with the right solutions.

Will the Attorney-General assure us that the Serious Fraud Office will not be swallowed up by the national crime agency, relegating fraud and corruption to third place after terrorism and organised crime?

I am absolutely confident—because of my own commitment and that of my fellow Ministers to this matter—that the area of crime the right hon. Gentleman identifies is of the highest priority to the Government. That is precisely why it is being discussed. I can reassure him—and I will stand by it when the time comes for announcements—that the outcome will commend itself, I hope, widely across the House.