Today the government has published its National Anti-Corruption Strategy. There will be much to digest – the implications for Money Laundering enforcement; the creation of a public register for foreign owners of UK property; the absence of concrete proposals relating to British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. But one thing that is immediately clear, if not exactly shouted from the rooftops, is that the UK Serious Fraud Office is here to stay.
Debate about the SFO’s future has rumbled on for years. In many ways it has become part of business as usual for the defence community, but the lack of certainty has been unhelpful on both sides - for those trying to enforce the law and those trying to comply with it. The response to that existential threat from most quarters has been consistent, with many pointing to the improved performance of the SFO under David Green CB QC, as well as its positive international reputation, as reasons to keep the SFO as an independent agency.
With her announcement today Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary has brought welcome clarity to the position. We can now expect:
- The SFO to remain in its current form;
- A National Economic Crime Centre to be based in the National Crime Agency – what appears to be a tasking and coordination function, as opposed to an operational one, to address both top tier economic crime and “everyday economic crime”; and
- Greater ministerial focus on economic crime – the creation of the role of “Minister for Economic Crime”, and confirmation of the latest Anti-Corruption Champion, John Penrose MP.
This assists those trying to understand and comply with the UK economic crime enforcement regime. It also brings certainty to existing and would be staff at the SFO, meaning it is well placed to consolidate and build on the re-statement of its purpose that has been the hallmark of its recent history. Meanwhile, the detrimental effect of the announcement on the SFO appears to be minimal. A multi-agency threat analysis and coordination function hosted at the NCA seems uncontroversial, while the announcement of a power for the NCA to “directly task” the SFO is nothing new. It is a power that already exists, has never been used and is hard to reconcile with the statutory discretion of the Director of the SFO to open investigations that meet that office’s criteria.
Much will now depend on who the new Director is, as the tone is set for a new chapter in the SFO's story. The recruitment campaign to select that person, to take office in April 2018 and rumoured to be a term of 5 years, must surely follow imminently. Speculation over potential candidates ranges widely, but if there is a common theme among the business community it seems to be a hope for continuity in some form. The rules of the game under the current Director were re-cast, and are now understood. The SFO is here to stay, and remains big-business’ primary interlocutor on matters of economic criminal risk. At a time of significant broader uncertainty, the opportunity for a period of stability (in this space at least) exists. Positive news for all with an interest in understanding and navigating the UK economic crime landscape.