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Serious Fraud Office

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

4. What recent discussions he has had with Her Majesty’s Treasury on the funding of the Serious Fraud Office. (157232)

The 2015-16 spending round is in progress. I wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in April and discussions are continuing. The SFO’s funding settlement for 2015-16 is on track to be agreed by 26 June.

The Serious Fraud Office is reviewing whether it should investigate allegations that UK-based oil companies were engaged in a LIBOR-style rigging of oil prices. If the SFO does decide to investigate, will it be able to do so within its budget this year of just £30 million?

The Government have made it clear that the director of the SFO should never have to turn down a case on the basis of cost. Any allegations of the type described, if brought to the SFO’s attention, are assessed within the context of its remit to investigate fraud, bribery and corruption. If there were a need for further resources outside the envelope in which the SFO is currently operating, then the director could come to me and I could go to the Treasury to seek the necessary funding.

Will the Attorney-General consider the possibility of returning to the victims of such fraud, corruption and crime any proceeds that the Serious Fraud Office is able to extract?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, but ultimately it is rather outside my remit. There are circumstances in which compensation can be paid to victims of crime, including from assets that may have been recovered. The Crown Prosecution Service and the SFO will operate according to the rules that are laid down.

The new director of the Serious Fraud Office has said that we should have a sensible debate about the introduction of the new offence of corporate criminal liability, so that companies could be prosecuted for fraud, as they are under the Bribery Act 2010. Does the Attorney-General agree that it is a good idea to have such a debate, or does he agree with some of his colleagues that instead of being built on, the Bribery Act should be watered down?

If I may say first, there is no question, as far as I am concerned, of the Bribery Act being watered down. It is true that the interpretation of the Act has at times given rise to difficulties, including unnecessary ones for businesses in understanding what it requires of them, so an educational process may be required.

On changing the rules on criminal liability, I am the first to recognise that it is an important issue and one that will obviously require major debate and consideration in this House. There are compelling arguments for why that should happen, but equally perfectly sound arguments have also been made about why it should not happen.

Has the Serious Fraud Office maintained close and effective working relationships with the fraud departments of the Home Office so that those smaller cases reported to Action Fraud that highlight more widespread and more serious frauds can be prosecuted on behalf of the individuals concerned?

I think there is widespread recognition that smaller fraud, which falls outside the SFO’s remit entirely, has long been a Cinderella area for law enforcement. The economic crime command was set up in the National Crime Agency precisely to try to ensure that smaller fraud is dealt with better at a regional policing level and in order to put in place structures to enable that to happen more effectively. It is a subject of legitimate anxiety across the House that fraud problems faced by constituents often cannot be dealt with adequately. The SFO is involved with the economic crime command and sits on the economic crime co-ordination board, so it can provide its professional input.