SFO seeks a further £19m on top of £32m budget to fund its operations
In a Written Ministerial Statement delivered to the House of Commons yesterday (30th January 2014) Oliver Heald, the Solicitor General, revealed that the Serious Fraud office was seeking an additional £19million of funding for its work, and that it required £11m of that as an immediate advance pending Parliamentary approval of the larger sum.
Investigating and prosecuting fraud is an expensive pursuit. The SFO is involved in several high-profile international investigations into the business practices of some of UK plc’s biggest companies. In December 2013, aerospace and defence giant Rolls-Royce revealed that it was being investigated by the SFO over allegations of possible bribery and corruption in Indonesia, China, and other emerging markets. In July 2013 the agency was told it would receive an additional £2m from HM Treasury to assist with its investigations into fundraising activities by Barclays involving the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. In addition, the SFO is defending a £300m claim from the Tchenguiz brothers who were unlawfully arrested in 2011. On top of all of that, investigations into Libor fixing are ongoing, with three defendants due to stand trial next year.
The SFO is not without its critics, though, and this latest request for additional funding is made during a difficult economic climate, at a time when the agency’s reputation remains tarnished by some seriously problematic PR. It doesn’t help that the same MPs asked to approve this additional £19m are the same MPs who criticised the former Director, Richard Alderman, for awarding £1m in severance payments to three managers without first having sought official approval.
But if serious fraud is to be tackled in any way effectively, it surely needs to be properly resourced, and thorough investigations and fair trials cost money. As part of general cost-cutting measures across Government the SFO’s budget has been slashed to £32m for this financial year; by contrast it was £52m in 2008. In a judgment of the Court of Appeal involving the Tchenguiz litigation, delivered on Thursday of last week (30th January), Lord Justice Thomas urged more funding for the SFO. The Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, has also said “This is not a government that takes economic crime seriously, which is why it is allowing the SFO to stagger from crisis to crisis and providing temporary sticking plasters where what is needed is a long-term plan to put it on a sustainable footing. The scale and pace of budget cuts inflicted on the SFO will make prosecuting its caseload impossible.”
Let’s not forget, though, that it is not just prosecuting authorities who face a funding crisis. The government also seeks to slash £220m from the legal aid budget which will, in due course, surely lead to a less able profession capable of properly defending serious and complex prosecutions such as those brought by the SFO.
Are we, then, witnessing the death of entire criminal justice system, both prosecution and defence?
A death by a thousand cuts?