MPs criticise SFO as rate of successful prosecutions falls from 92% to 71% in four years
The SFO’s annual report for 2012-13, expected to be released by July, will say that it has fallen to around 71 per cent. This is down from 91.7 per cent in 2009-10, falling to 84 per cent in 2010-11, and down further to 73 per cent last year.
This week marks the end of the first year in office for the SFO’s director, David Green.
The disclosure of the figure comes as the SFO prepares to drop its investigation into allegations of bribery surrounding a contract to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s military communications.
The SFO, based in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square, says officially that the investigation “remains ongoing,” although insiders say that it has failed to investigate the case properly. The SFO faces accusations that it is failing to take bribery in overseas trade seriously.
The SFO’s falling rate of conviction was confirmed by Dominic Grieve, attorney general, in answer to a question from Kevin Brennan, a Labour MP, in the House of Commons.
Grieve said that as the financial year was coming to a close the conviction rate was 71 per cent.
Grieve said: “It prosecutes highly specialised cases, the number of which is small, so year-on-year change in the rate is not a particularly good indicator of trends.
“Although there is always room for improvement, I am broadly pleased with the SFO’s conviction rate.”
Set against the falling conviction rate, the SFO has seen a sharp rise in the number of prosecutions since 2009. It has more than doubled in the three years since 2009 from 24 to 52.
It also saw the amount recovered from fraudsters rise from £10.3 million to £50.2 million in the same period.
The SFO was yet to provide equivalent figures for last year by the time of publication.
But Brennan was unconvinced, saying: “SFO investigations have increased in duration to 28.8 months on average, success rates are down… and its previous director handed out £1 million to departing staff without authorisation.”
A Conservative MP, Stephen Mosley, said: “The SFO received 2,731 tip-offs from members of the public last year but launched only three investigations into information supplied by the public. If members of the public report something to the SFO, can they have confidence that it will be investigated?”
Grieve, a fellow Conservative, replied: “Yes, they can be confident that the reports will be looked at. Indeed, there are other routes by which reports might come to the SFO.”
“There is clearly a requirement for prioritisation, but the SFO will examine and consider any reports it receives.”
Green has spent much of his first year as head of the SFO erasing the legacy of his predecessor, Richard Alderman.
Alderman favoured self-reporting, and encouraged companies to turn themselves in to the SFO when they realised that they had committed fraud.
He backed this up with the threat of stricter penalties for any companies that concealed wrongdoing when it came to their attention.
Alderman encouraged such companies to investigate themselves or commission firms of auditors to do so. He believed that this would save public resources.
Green favours a more aggressive prosecutorial stance, and has been openly critical of Alderman’s time in charge.
He told a recent gathering of lawyers: “The previous SFO regime spent blood and treasure with cosy off-record chats, judicious leaks and a media consultant, trying to improve its media coverage. A fat lot of good that did them.”
There was a perception that the SFO had “dumbed down” to reduce risk and shorten the time that an investigation took, he added.