I have been contacted by constituents who have been victims of financial scams carried out by large organised criminal gangs, which often target the more vulnerable in our communities. What steps is the Solicitor General taking to end the scourge of these frauds and scams, and will it be a priority for the new director of the SFO?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the SFO announced a criminal investigation just last week into a suspected fraud at Safe Hands Plans, a funeral plan provider with 46,000 plan holders before its collapse last year. My hon. Friend has raised this very point during an earlier debate, and I am grateful to him for that. I am sure that he will agree that the announcement of the SFO’s investigation is a significant and welcome step.
Will the new head of the SFO take the job very seriously and look again at some of the big fraudsters and at the penalties? Will the Solicitor General ask the new director why Bernie Ecclestone did not go to prison for massive fraud against the tax system?
The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the new director. He is the right candidate for the job. He brings a wealth of experience. He will listen to what the hon. Gentleman says and to what we all say in this Chamber. He has expertise in leading large, complex and multidisciplinary law enforcement organisations, and we look forward to supporting him in his work.
His Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate inspects not only the CPS, but the SFO, so it was remiss of me earlier not to pay tribute to the inspectorate and to the chief inspector for his work.
I join the Solicitor General in welcoming Nick Ephgrave as he takes on one of the most difficult jobs in law enforcement. His arrival in post was announced by the SFO abandoning the three long-running and expensive prosecutions of Rio Tinto, Eurasian Natural Resources, and the Alpha and Green Park group. That follows a chain of failed cases, from G4S and Serco to Unaoil. With permanent staff vacancies of around 25%, and a case load that has fallen by half in recent years, why should the new director think that this lame duck Government will make the SFO a hawk in the world of financial crime?
I will ignore the snide comment at the end but I will address the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which he is right to ask. It is also right to say that it is always disappointing when cases are closed, but criminal investigations that no longer meet the public interest test, as he well knows, simply cannot continue. That is the code that Crown prosecutors take, and he will understand why that is the case. It is right to trumpet the SFO’s achievements; it is also right to challenge it. I know that staff recruitment and retention will be one of the priorities for the new director.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Question Time, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that air quality in our country was improving. There is no evidence for that statement and, although I do not believe that she meant to, she misled the House.