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Financial Crime

Volume 708: debated on Thursday 10 February 2022

8. What steps she is taking to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) CPS in tackling fraud and economic crime. (905581)

In 2020-21, the CPS prosecuted over 6,500 defendants for fraud, with an 85.6% conviction rate. Meanwhile, in the last five years, the Serious Fraud Office have secured court orders requiring the payment of over £1.3 billion from defendants to the taxpayer. We are determined to build on that to make the United Kingdom a more hostile environment for all forms of economic crime, including fraud.

But the truth is that the scandal of the bounce back loans is enormous. We know now that financial crime is being driven by very sophisticated crime syndicates. My constituents want to know when the Government are going to get serious about this. Where is the economic crime Bill? Where is the real focus on trying to get these billions of pounds back? They have been stripped from the Government, under the most incompetent Chancellor of the Exchequer I have seen in my 40 years in Parliament.

To deal with that last point, I find that an extraordinary point to make. It was this Chancellor who ensured in the hon. Member’s constituency that the money was rolled out to save jobs in Huddersfield and we make absolutely no apology for that—millions of pounds to save lives.

Where the hon. Member is right is that fraud shatters lives and destroys trust. We are determined to deal with that. That is why this Government put £400 million in the spending review to support the National Economic Crime Centre and the National Crime Agency to ensure we crack down on fraud. He will see an awful lot more prosecutions, I assure him.

I thank the Minister for that response. However, overall, reports of fraud went up by 33% from 2020-21 but the number of police officers dealing with economic crime has increased by just over 6%. What is he doing to ensure the police and the prosecuting authorities are properly resourced to deal with the country’s rising tide of criminal fraud?

At the 2019 spending review, the CPS received over £80 million. At this spending review, the Government awarded an additional 12% to boost the number of prosecutors and the capability. In addition, as I indicated, £400 million is to be allocated to the NECC and the NCA. That is over and above the funding that has gone into the taxpayer protection taskforce: £100 million and 1,200 staff. This Government are serious about cracking down on economic crime and we are delighted to support those efforts.

Might I say, Mr Speaker, that the Law Officers are entitled to perhaps a good half an hour of the House’s time as well?

The Solicitor General probably has more experience of prosecuting serious fraud hands on than anyone else in this House. From my own experience at the Bar, I know he is right when he says that fraud is not a victimless crime. Does he agree that we need a joined-up approach across Government to tackle this effectively, not just the excellent work that is being done to improve the Crime Prosecution Service’s results, but support from the Home Office to ensure that Action Fraud is not the black hole it is at the moment for many people who lose money in what are termed small-scale, lower-value frauds, but are massively important to them? At the other end of the scale, we need to look at tightening up our laws on corporate criminal responsibility, so we can catch the high-level fraudsters as well. We need approaches on all those fronts.

As so often, my hon. Friend speaks authoritatively. He is absolutely right that fraud shatters lives and can destroy people’s future in the process. He is right that we need to ensure that the most serious frauds are properly prosecuted—which is why the Serious Fraud Office has received additional funding in the spending review—but also that so-called lower-level crimes are properly resourced. That is why the special crime division of the CPS is doing important work, and why it is increasingly getting the resources it needs to ramp up its capability to take the fight to fraudsters.

This is hard to believe, but on 4 February this year Peter Swailes junior was sentenced for a crime that involved financial fraud. A person was kept in his shed for up to 40 years. The CPS managed to get a conviction, but he was not sentenced to any time in prison. I wonder whether the Attorney General would look at the case to see if it was unduly lenient.

I must admit, I would like an answer but we have to be careful that supplementaries really are linked to the question, which was about financial crime. I think the person mentioned in the hon. Gentleman’s question will have suffered financially as well so I am sure the Minister can answer accordingly.

We will of course look into that case. Sentencing is a matter for the independent courts, but there is a power to refer cases if they are unduly lenient. I am happy to give that case close attention.

Lord Agnew resigned as a Government Minister because the Treasury

“appears to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20.]

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should resign for saying that fraud is not a crime people experience in their day-to-day lives, but what about the Law Officers’ culpability? Will the Solicitor General tell us why, according to the latest figures we have obtained from his Department, the Crown Prosecution Service has cut the number of specialist fraud prosecutors by more than a quarter in the past six years, from 224 at the end of 2015 to 167 at the end of 2021?

I send our best wishes to the shadow Attorney General as she recovers.

The hon. Gentleman is not right in the way he characterises the Government’s approach. He did not mention, as I respectfully suggest he ought to have, the £100 million that was invested in the taxpayer protection taskforce. That is 1,200 staff who have dealt with 13,000 inquiries in respect of fraud and recovered £500 million already and expect to recover significantly more. It is not just about the CPS; what about the National Cyber Security Centre, which took down 73,000 scams last year? I am pleased to note that the CPS has received an additional 12% in funding over the course of this spending review period. It is ramping up its capability and taking the fight to fraudsters.