What future for the Serious Fraud Office?

By Pascale Palmer
May 26, 2011

There are whispers in Whitehall that a decision on the future of the Serious Fraud Office is imminent. The Home Office is considering rolling the Serious Fraud Office’s lawyers into the Crown Prosecution Service, while its investigators would be hived off into a new FBI-esque crime agency. And all this against the advice of most experts in the field.

Corruption has devastating effects on developing economies and their citizens’ quality of life. Its cost in Africa alone has been estimated at US$148 billion-a-year, representing 25 per cent of the continent’s GDP.

Corruption undermines economic growth and cripples public services, it is harmful to both developing countries and responsible business. Rather than being just a “poor-country-problem”, in fact bribes paid by international companies to gain business advantages overseas play an important part in perpetuating corrupt regimes.

If unscrupulous companies continue business as usual, responsible UK businesses – which our government expects to play such an important role in development abroad – will continue to face unfair competition.

The Bribery Act might have meant one step forward in the fight against corruption, but dismantling the SFO without an adequate replacement means two giant steps back.

Without a dedicated anti-fraud and anti-corruption body where investigators and prosecutors work closely together, the UK’s reputation as an international centre for finance and business with sound anti-corruption credentials will be seriously undermined.

Home Secretary Theresa May has said there is no “gold standard” model for tackling fraud and corruption, but when it comes to successfully taking serious foreign bribery cases to court, the US model on which the Serious Fraud Office approach is based, is by far the most successful.

The wrong decision on the SFO risks undermining the whole purpose of the Bribery Act: fighting unscrupulous businesses that use bribery to gain unfair advantage over their competitors and allowing corruption to continue in the world’s poorest countries.

To quote journalist Caroline Binham in the Financial Times newspaper: "While the manoeuvring goes on, criminals continue to defraud the economy out of £38 billion a year and fraud experts continue to leave the lead prosecutor, taking their expertise with them."


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Media Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for CAFOD. www.cafod.org.uk

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