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Serious Fraud

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 26 May 2016

2. What steps the Serious Fraud Office is taking to help prevent serious fraud and other economic crimes. (905093)

Over the past 18 months the Serious Fraud Office has secured, for example, its first contested conviction for rate rigging, its first conviction of a corporation for offences involving bribery of foreign officials and its first deferred prosecution agreement.

But in 2015, as a result of the 3,000 cases reported to the dedicated fraud line, the SFO opened only three cases. What is the reality of why the SFO does so much less than the Government’s rhetoric suggests?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I am sure, that there is more than one body in the system that prosecutes fraud. The Serious Fraud Office deals only with the most complex and difficult cases, so it is not surprising that of all the cases reported, not all of which will be prosecuted by anyone, it deals with only a small proportion. It is set up to deal with the most difficult and complex cases, and that is what it does.

14. Is it not important that not only the Serious Fraud Office but all other Government agencies have access to communications data in order to ensure convictions? (905132)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Communications data are important in the prosecution of all types of offending. For example, the vast majority of prosecutions in terrorism cases involve such data, but they are also used in relation to fraud. That is why the Investigatory Powers Bill currently before the House is so important.

Is the Attorney General conscious of the fact that there is a deep problem in the Serious Fraud Office, in that it is underfunded and under-resourced and cannot attract the greatest talent for complex cases? Is he aware that it is believed that £400 million of British taxpayers’ money is still affected by the disaster with the Icelandic banks and should be retrieved? Will he look at the close relationship that the SFO has with the big accountancy firms, which do not have the necessary expertise in-house, and will he look particularly at Grant Thornton in that respect?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I am not going to comment on specific cases. He will understand that it is the responsibility of the director of the Serious Fraud Office to decide whether to open investigations and prosecutions. In fact, the core funding for the Serious Fraud Office has increased, not decreased. It also has access to so-called blockbuster funding to enable it to take on very large and substantial cases when the need arises. Were it to retain that core capability throughout a given period, it would sometimes not be using it to its fullest extent when such cases were not on its books, which is an appropriate way to proceed. We will always make sure that the Serious Fraud Office has the funding it needs to prosecute the cases it ought to prosecute.

I listened carefully to that response from the Attorney General, because this week’s report from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate into the Government’s arrangements for the SFO found that the blockbuster funding model does not represent value for money and is incompatible with long-term strategy for building prosecutorial capability and capacity in-house for future investigations and prosecutions. Will he look at alternative funding models to ensure that the SFO is on a sustainable footing and not, in effect, subject to a Treasury veto?

The hon. Lady will recognise that the report from the chief inspector, which I asked him to produce in order to look at the way in which the Serious Fraud Office is governed, was a very balanced report that also put forward some very positive points about the way in which the Serious Fraud Office has improved under the direction of the current director. She is right, however, that questions were asked about the funding model. There is a balance to be struck, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). We have to make sure that the Serious Fraud Office has the money it needs, and we will. The director will never refuse to proceed in a case for lack of funding, so there is no Treasury veto as she suggests. However, we have to balance the need for that money with the need not to have unused capacity that is being paid for by the taxpayer. The blockbuster funding model has so far been considered to strike that balance correctly, but I will of course look carefully at what the chief inspector says, and we will consider whether further change is appropriate.