Former anti-fraud head asks: what is point of SFO after NCA’s launch later this year?

By Frederika Whitehead | 25 June 2013

SFO will soon have no purpose, says agency’s ex-fraud chiefOne of the Serious Fraud Office’s most senior former officers predicts that the agency will “serve no purpose” by the end of the year.

Kathleen Harris, a barrister who was the SFO’s head of fraud business group and head of policy between 2008 and 2011, told Exaro that the authority would effectively become redundant following the launch of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK.

The NCA’s responsibilities will include tackling organised crime and fighting fraud. It is due to be fully operational by December.

Harris said: “When you look at it practically, what is the purpose of having the SFO if it is almost identical in what the NCA is doing?”

“If you look closely at the function of the NCA for the SFO, one has to ask oneself, ‘What is its role really going to be?’ And if it is just going to be effectively a prosecutorial arm that does not exactly have control over its own strategic direction, it serves no purpose by itself.”

Harris, who left the SFO to join Arnold & Porter, the law firm, said: “If you were going to keep the SFO in its current shape and format, you have to ask yourself why the NCA has been given the ability to task the SFO.”

She added: “The NCA will be a different type of agency. But if it can control the type of cases that the SFO take on, then it will erode the SFO’s independence.” Harris was one of the SFO’s top officers, after working in the attorney general’s office as senior strategic policy advisor from 2007 to 2008.

The attorney general oversees the SFO, which investigates and prosecutes major fraud.

Well-placed sources also revealed that David Cameron, prime minister, backed plans at one point to scrap the SFO.

Theresa May, home secretary, was behind an audacious move soon after the Conservative-led coalition government came to power in 2010 for the police to take over the SFO’s duties.

But Dominic Grieve, attorney general, George Osborne, chancellor, and other cabinet ministers persuaded Cameron to drop the idea. They argued that the SFO should retain its independence.

Another SFO source described the extraordinary turf war between ministers over how the UK should tackle economic and financial crime.

Cameron’s initial support for May’s plan underlines continuing doubts about the SFO’s future.

The disclosures come after Exaro revealed in April how the SFO is planning to drop a key bribery case.

Nicholas Gilby, a long-time campaigner against the arms trade, challenged the SFO’s director, David Green, over the direction of the bribery investigation.

The SFO’s case controller responded by writing: “There is no truth whatsoever in the suggestion that we are looking to drop this case, which remains very much a live and active investigation.”

The SFO is also having to explain a fall in its conviction rate for the fourth year in a row.

The government announced in the Queen’s Speech in May an independent inspection of the SFO by the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate.

It follows an inspection in 2012, which reported that there was “clear room for improvement”, and that “much needs to be addressed.”

If the new inspection – due next year – is just as damning, the cabinet might swing back in May’s favour over the SFO’s future.

The main factor that is stopping another public body taking over the troubled agency, according to one SFO source, is the potential liability of hundreds of millions of pounds from damages claims that have arisen from the disastrous investigation into Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz, the property tycoons.

Other senior fraud lawyers give the SFO a higher chance of surviving. Stephen Parkinson, who heads criminal litigation at Kingsley Napley, the law firm, and was formerly deputy head of the attorney general’s office said: “I do not think that the NCA will threaten the SFO, at least not any time soon,” he said. “The NCA is a different kind of beast.”

Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International UK, the anti-corruption organisation, said: “It is our feeling that if corruption was wrapped in with lots of other issues, it would simply be downgraded as a priority.”

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