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Serious Fraud Office

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012

Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has been asked to carry out an inspection of the Serious Fraud Office. It is intended that the inspection should assist the new director, and it has been timed accordingly. In my superintendent’s role, I have regular meetings with the director and other senior officials.

The Attorney-General has said that he does not plan to publish the results of the current review into the operation of the Serious Fraud Office. Will he give his reasons for that and reconsider his current plan to keep us and the public in the dark on this issue?

It is not accurate to say that I have indicated that the report will not be published. The position is that such reports are not normally published, but due to the unusual and understandable level of interest, I think it important that as much as possible should be put into the public domain. I will make it my business to ensure that that happens. I should explain that the reason it may not be possible to publish all of it is that there have to be safeguards to prevent prejudice to ongoing investigations, but subject to that, I would wish to see the results made available.

Having spoken to my constituents at the weekend, I know that there is no doubt that they would have preferred a judge-led inquiry into the banks. During last Thursday’s debate, the Attorney-General told us that a quick inquiry would clash with ongoing criminal investigations by the Serious Fraud Office. What assurances can he give us that the Select Committee inquiry, which will be wrapped up by Christmas, will not create the very clash that he warned us about last week?

Provided that the Select Committee conducts its business in the best traditions of the way in which I would expect a Committee of this House to do so, any difficulties that may arise in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation ought to be surmountable, and indeed I made that clear during last week’s debate. The difficulty that I identified with part of the motion that had been tabled on behalf of the shadow Chancellor was that it was quite prescriptive in terms of what it wanted the judicial inquiry to do. I foresaw that that could cause particular extra problems.

Would the Attorney-General consider making arrangements to enable people to move in and out of the SFO on a more regular basis, so that the experience of working for the organisation could be more widely spread throughout the private sector?

To-ing and fro-ing between prosecutors and the private sector is always desirable. The SFO does a great deal of work in trying to recruit from the private sector, encouraging individuals to work there for a period and then return. That is a very good way of acquiring expertise, and I know that the current director will have it very much in mind.

In examining the wider performance of the SFO, will the Attorney-General consider the relationship that will exist between the role of the National Crime Agency and its economic crime unit and the activities of the SFO?

It is clear that there will be close co-operation between the SFO and the National Crime Agency and its economic crime command. However, in setting up the agency we gave careful consideration to whether there was any point in moving the SFO into it, and the conclusion reached was that the SFO’s work was so distinctive that it did not fit naturally into the agency’s work, and so important that it should be maintained as a separate entity.

The Americans spend massive amounts of money on prosecuting fraud. Indeed, the increase in their budget this year is more than the total amount that we spend on the SFO. On this side of the Atlantic, we are cutting our budget by 25%. No wonder the bankers laugh at us. Too many people in the City believe that the rules apply only to little people and not to them.

While we welcome the additional £3 million for the prosecution of LIBOR offences which was announced in the Financial Times and which has been hastily gathered from the crumbs that have fallen from the Treasury’s table, we ought to note that it amounts to only 5% of the Barclays LIBOR fine. Is it not too little too late? Will the Attorney-General take account of the call this week from the Leader of the Opposition for the establishment within the SFO of a properly funded, dedicated banking and financial crime unit, recruiting the best and headed by a high-profile prosecutor, so that those fraudulent, thieving bankers can be sent to prison like the common criminals they are?

As the hon. Lady will know, the SFO and its directors have indicated that they have initiated a criminal investigation. At no point during the time for which I have had superintendence has it been suggested to me by any director of the SFO that they were not able to take on a case that they considered that they should be able to take on because they did not have enough funds to do so.

What happened last summer was that the perfectly sensible decision was made that the Financial Services Authority should initiate its regulatory inquiry, and should liaise with the SFO while it was being carried out until the regulatory investigation was finished. When it was finished, the SFO considered the matter, and has initiated a criminal inquiry.

That said, I fully accept the hon. Lady’s point: it is possible that we could spend more money on the SFO. I should also point out, however, that within the totality of funding for prosecutorial functions in England and Wales, the level of funding for the SFO is similar to that which prevailed under the last Government—and it is not, of course, the only prosecutor of fraud.

I am sure that we are now much better informed, but anybody would think that these lawyers are paid by the word.