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Serious Fraud Office

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Statement by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 11 December (HLWS325) announcing plans for a new National Economic Crime Centre hosted in the National Crime Agency, how they intend to safeguard the independence of the Serious Fraud Office.

My Lords, first I welcome the noble Baroness to her first Question at the Dispatch Box. The Serious Fraud Office will remain independent and will continue to undertake its own investigations and prosecutions. The new powers will give the National Crime Agency the ability to task the Serious Fraud Office with opening a specific investigation, but only with the agreement of the Attorney-General and the Home Secretary. The Serious Fraud Office will be a key partner in the National Economic Crime Centre.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. She will understand my rationale as the Conservative manifesto pledged to scrap the SFO by folding it into the National Crime Agency. Therefore, my concern is that the announcement this week is in no way the same policy by stealth, and that the SFO will remain independent and protected so that it cannot be untasked as well as tasked by Ministers and will remain independent from political interference.

I think I made it clear in my first Answer that it will remain independent. In terms of the manifesto, we need to continue to look at all options to improve our response to tackling economic crime—but, yes, the SFO will remain independent.

My Lords, the ability of this new body to tackle broader economic crime would be greatly enhanced if we could extend the concept of corporate criminal liability, particularly to issues such as money laundering—and the mechanism for that is failure to prevent. Will the Minister include failure-to-prevent clauses in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill going through this House?

My Lords, I am not involved in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill—unlike every other piece of legislation, which I do seem to be involved in. However, I take the noble Baroness’s point. I think the broader point here is that there will be a multiagency response to different types of fraud and that they can perhaps do more good as a partnership than they can as a series of isolated bodies.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that one of the most effective crime-fighting agencies is the British Transport Police? Would it not be a travesty if the Scottish Government were allowed to incorporate the northern part of the British Transport Police into the chaos that is Police Scotland?

I wish I had listened in more depth to the statutory instrument that the noble Lord discussed the other day instead of looking at the notes for my own statutory instrument. I understand that transport is devolved and therefore that this would be a matter for the Scottish Government. However, I will look into that more closely for the noble Lord because it is not precisely my area.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in policing—in particular that I chair the independent reference group for the National Crime Agency. Can the noble Baroness explain to us why the National Crime Agency has been given these particular responsibilities and why the task has not been passed to the City of London Police, which has the lead responsibility for fraud matters? I do not suggest that the City of London Police should take on these additional responsibilities, but will the noble Baroness explain whether there is any incoherence in government policy with regard to two different agencies, an authority and forces being given responsibilities in the fraud area. Will that not be rather confusing for people?

I hope that I can satisfy the noble Lord when I say that the National Economic Crime Centre will be hosted by the NCA but will be staffed by partners from across the law enforcement community: for example, the NCA, the FCA, HMRC and the City of London Police, as well as the Serious Fraud Office and the private sector. So a multifaceted approach will be taken to this, rather than the fragmented one that he suggests.

Further to the question from my noble friend Lord Foulkes, is the Minister aware that the Scottish Conservative Party in its manifesto expressed its opposition to the devolution of the British Transport Police to Scottish police, and will her colleagues in Scotland therefore do their best to reverse this ill-judged and very dangerous move?

I am aware of what the Scottish Conservatives are saying. Nevertheless, the desire for devolution, not only in Scotland and Wales, has been strong. Therefore, because this is a devolved matter, it is probably beyond my remit today. Of course, the Scottish Government have been strongly in favour of devolution.

My Lords, I point out to the noble Baroness that of course transport is not just a Scottish matter; some transport crosses the border and comes into England as well. I travel down here every week by train; does that mean that the transport police will now stop at Carlisle and a new police force will have to take over thereafter?

I take the noble Lord’s point. I never realised that this Question would go down the transport line—otherwise, as I say, I would have listened more carefully to the noble Lord’s points in debate.

In the light of this line of questioning, which is separate from the one I developed earlier, can the noble Baroness tell us what has happened to the Government’s national infrastructure policing review, which of course could have an impact on transport? Alternatively, you could argue that infrastructure is part of the economic system and therefore may be impacted on by the move. Where is that review?

I will have to write to the noble Lord on that point, because we have now gone down another avenue that is not about fraud.