RegulationJun 20 2018

Cracking down on financial crime

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Cracking down on financial crime

I have made no secret of my view that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is unfit for purpose.

The SFO has sat back and watched during a golden age for fraudsters, who often use simple techniques to steal identities and empty the bank accounts of ordinary people. Up and down the country countless thousands of consumers have seen their lives destroyed by fraud, committed on an industrial scale.

In this unprecedented period of expansion, for the criminals, we might have expected an explosion of enforcement activity from the agency whose name suggests that serious fraud is its target.

For most people, serious means affecting the most people and doing the most harm. If you lose your life savings or cannot pay your rent because someone emptied your bank account, that is about as serious as it gets.

Instead, the SFO has chosen to open countless sprawling investigations that either went nowhere or, worse, landed them in court for unlawful activity and abuse of power.

The fiasco over the illegal raids of Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz, which lost the taxpayer millions in costs and damages, is but one of many examples of poor SFO decision-making in cases with high-profile targets.

In recent weeks, the prosecution of Barclays, for conspiracy to commit fraud over the Qatar funding round in 2008, collapsed after a judge ruled that the bank had no case to answer before the case even reached trial.

A merger would not only mean more efficiency, in investigating the most serious offences, but would for the first time lead to a joined up approach to organised and financial crime.

With an operating budget of well over £50m and access to an almost limitless further pot of money for special “blockbuster” cases, you might think the prisons would be full of white-collar crooks stripped of their assets and acting as a real deterrent to anyone thinking of taking that path.

In fact the SFO’s annual contribution to the prison population barely reaches double figures and, in many cases, those locked up serve months rather than years. and pay back little or nothing from the proceeds of their crimes.

With the news that Lisa Osofsky, a former FBI prosecutor, is to take over as director of the SFO in September 2018, will there be a sea change in the organisation’s approach to serious fraud investigations? Will the SFO finally wake up to the reality of what serious fraud means to ordinary people and the untold misery it creates?