U.K. SFO Gets Reprieve as Government Drops Plan to Kill It

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. government u-turned on campaign promises to disband the Serious Fraud Office, with the white-collar prosecutor remaining independent under the Conservative Party’s newest plans for tackling economic crime.

The decision will be announced Monday by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, according to a statement from the Home Office. The National Crime Agency, which the government signaled in it’s May election manifesto would subsume the SFO, will instead be given greater powers to directly task the prosecutor to investigate cases, Rudd will say.

Prime Minister Theresa May was widely criticized by defense lawyers when the Conservative Party outlined plans to incorporate the SFO into the National Crime Agency in its election platform. The pledge was even more surprising given the government was in the middle of an economic crime review, looking at all U.K. agencies involved in Britain’s response to financial fraud. As Home Secretary, May had tried and failed to combine the two bodies when she set up the NCA in 2013.

Under the new plans, a new National Economic Crime Centre will be created within the NCA with "greater intelligence and analytical capabilities" and tasked with coordinating the national response to financial fraud, according to Rudd.

"On paper, this is an ambitious strategy," said Andrew Smith, a London lawyer at Corker Binning. "But the recent political past is littered with such strategies. Whether the NECC can achieve its lofty ambitions is ultimately a question of funding and expertise."

The government will also publish an anti-corruption strategy setting out its priorities for tackling economic crime up to the end of May’s term in 2022, which includes reducing corruption in public procurement and grants. Lawmaker John Penrose has been appointed as the country’s new Anti-Corruption Champion.

The SFO has repeatedly faced-down plans to disband it during its 30-year history. While the prosecutor has come in for criticism over a number of debacles its has broadly been seen as a more successful agency under current Director David Green.

Two Deferred Prosecution Agreements against Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc for bribery and Tesco Plc over mis-stated accounts, which included fines of 500 million-pounds ($670 million) and 129 million pounds respectively, are among Green’s key achievements. He’s also been praised for securing convictions in the Libor investigations.

Green is scheduled to appear before the Justice Committee Wednesday to face questions on the work of the prosecutor. He’s due to step down from his post in April with a search for his successor expected to officially start this week.

One question the government has been vague on in the new anti-corruption strategy is the proposed extension of corporate criminal liability laws. Under current U.K. laws, a company can only be charged if prosecutors can demonstrate senior executives -- or the so-called controlling mind -- of a company were involved, leading to few corporate charges. The government said it will "consider the findings" from the January call for evidence.

"The government has been reviewing the need for reform for three years now," said Susan Hawley, policy director at Corruption Watch. "The government must stop kicking this issue into the long grass."

Money laundering in the U.K. is estimated to exceed 90 billion pounds annually, according to statistics published by the Home Office Monday, while the World Bank estimates more than $1 trillion is paid in bribes globally every year.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.