A single line in the Conservative’s manifesto, offered with no plan or explanation, could upend the way corporate fraud and corruption are tackled in the UK. The commitment to incorporating the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) into the National Crime Agency (NCA), innocuous on its face, is framed as being about improving intelligence sharing and bolstering investigations. While these intentions are good, what this move will actually do, in effect, is introduce politicisation into the process of investigating and prosecuting corporate corruption. White collar criminals, particularly those with the coffers to make a political donations, could catch a break.
The Serious Fraud Office has the vital job of investigating and prosecuting serious and complex cases of fraud. Currently, it stands as an independent body. Under the Conservative’s proposals, the SFO would be brought under the responsibility of the Home Office. The City Editor of the Times has gone as far as to describe these changes as effectively axing the agency, and this change could fatally undermine the body’s independence by incentivising the politicisation of investigations.
Incorporating the SFO into the NCA is not an original proposition, and has been floated on a number of occasions in the past. In 2014, Transparency International highlighted a number of problems with such proposals, including the fact that tackling corruption is not a key focus of the NCA, and without combined teams of prosecutors and investigators white collar crime may be not given the attention or resources required.
It is plain as day to see that conflicts of interest could arise as the result of the Home Office taking ultimate responsibility for corporate fraud investigations. The first batch of party donations published by the Electoral Commission this week featured Ayman Asfari, the CEO of oil company Petrofac. Asfari, who is also the prime minister’s business ambassador, dug deep into his pockets to hand out £50,000 to the Conservative’s election campaign, a donation which was matched by his wife. Together, the Asfari’s have given £819,350 to the Conservatives since 2009. Asfari has also recently been interviewed under caution by the SFO over suspected bribery, corruption, and money laundering by the company.
If the Conservative’s proposals went through then ministers would have a vested interest in protecting high profile donors like Asfari. The value of an agency to tackle fraud and corruption lies in its independence - which includes independence from the reaches of government. If the Conservatives are serious about tackling corruption they must reconsider this proposal and commit to properly funding an independent watchdog. The SFO is certainly not an organisation without flaws. However the principle remains that to effectively tackle corporate fraud and corruption in the UK we require an independent body that is unquestionably free from government interference and influence.
The Conservative manifesto contained a bold promise, that “rather than pursue an agenda based on the supposed centre ground defined and established by elites in Westminster, we will govern in the interests of the mainstream of the British public.” But this proposal is one obvious example of a sweetheart deal for corporations and wealthy donors. It is business-as-usual for establishment forces, who are empowered by this kind of policy that may be of interest to some Conservative Party donors, but which is certainly not in the interest of our democracy.