Money laundering also poses threat to UK’s standing, says SFO’s Richard Alderman
By Frederika Whitehead | 24 April 2012
“The damage that was done by what happened was great and will last for a very long time” – Richard Alderman, director, Serious Fraud Office
Britain tarnished its reputation by halting a bribery investigation into defence sales to Saudi Arabia, the outgoing Serious Fraud Office director admitted to Exaro.
Richard Alderman, the UK’s most senior fraud investigator until he retired last week, said that the country’s reputation around the world suffered great and lasting damage from the decision by Tony Blair’s Labour government to force the Serious Fraud Office (SFO)’s then director, Robert Wardle, to shut down the case.
In an interview with Exaro to mark the end of his four-year term at the SFO, Alderman also warned that the UK’s reputation was threatened by the flow of money being laundered through UK banks and property market.
One of the UK’s most senior law-enforcement officials spoke frankly about the damage done to the country by the fallout from the ‘Al Yamamah’ deal.
Britain sold military jets, including Tornados and Hawks, missiles and other defence equipment worth billions of pounds to Saudi Arabia in return for oil since the mid-1980’s under Al Yamamah. BAE Systems was the lead supplier.
But the decision in 2006 to drop the SFO investigation has dogged the agency, according to Alderman. He said: “Let me give you a story about how frustrating BAE and Saudi Arabia can be.
“I gave a presentation to some judges in another jurisdiction in another part of the world about the UK’s tough approach to bribery. They listened. They smiled. And, at the end of it, they said, ‘And now, Richard, tell us about BAE and Saudi Arabia.’”
The SFO was investigating the alleged payments of huge bribes to members of the Saudi royal family to secure the sales. BAE denied the claims.
But pressure from the Blair government eventually led Wardle, Alderman’s predecessor at the SFO, to close the investigation. Blair insisted that national security was at stake.
Wardle said that he took the decision because of “the wider public interest”.
Alderman said that his four years at the SFO had been overshadowed by the Al Yamamah affair, often frustrating his anti-corruption work overseas.
“The damage that was done by what happened was great and will last for a very long time,” he said. “It was very regrettable and very unfortunate.”
The UK slipped down nine places in the ‘corruption perception’ index maintained by Transparency International, a non-governmental anti-corruption organisation.
In the wake of dropping the Al Yamamah investigation, the UK fell from 11th place in 2006 to 20th by 2010, although it rose to joint 16th last year.
Alderman said that the UK’s reputation will only improve when it cracks down on “people who pay bribes and the money that comes to this jurisdiction as a result of bribery.”
He also believes that urgent action is needed to stem the flow of money being laundered through UK banks and property market.
He said that he repeatedly heard the same common complaint during meetings with overseas enforcement authorities: “Where does the money end up? It ends up in the city of London. What is it invested in? It is invested in property in London. So, what is London doing about it?”
The government estimates that between £23 billion and £57 billion is laundered in the UK every year, although other estimates are higher.
Alderman added: “We need to be much more sensitive to the perception of people in those other jurisdictions about the reputation of London.”
He was speaking to Exaro as he spent his final days in office. In the first part of his exit interview with Exaro, Alderman launched a blistering attack on judges for giving soft sentences to white-collar criminals. He called on the judiciary to sentence criminals regardless of their background.
As Alderman was preparing to depart from the SFO’s headquarters in London’s Elm Street last week, the agency was thrown into turmoil by the shock announcement that his effective number two, Phillippa Williamson, the agency’s chief executive, was resigning immediately.
Coming soon on Exaro: Richard Alderman on his vision for tackling financial and economic crime in the UK.