Lawyers have criticised a pledge by the Conservative Party to merge the Serious Fraud Office with the National Crime Agency if it wins the 8 June general election.
In its manifesto published today the party confirms reports that the government is considering merging the two crime busting organisations.
The manifesto states: ‘We will strengthen Britain’s response to white collar crime by incorporating the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency, improving intelligence sharing and bolstering the investigation of serious fraud, money laundering and financial crime.’
During her tenure home secretary Theresa May was reported to be considering merging the SFO, set up in 1987 to fight white collar crime, with the NCA. The NCA itself was created only in 2013, and tackles other forms of crime including trafficking and cyber attacks.
Last year, the SFO’s director David Green, said it was crucial for the office to retain its independence and spoke out against a potential merger.
Jonathan Pickworth, partner at international law firm White & Case, criticised today's announcement, which he said has ‘long been an obsession of Theresa May’s’.
Stephen Parkinson, head of criminal litigation at Kingsley Napley, said the ’dreadful’ decision, marked a ‘step back’ from the UK’s commitment to tackle economic crime.
’The NCA does not have the capability or the expertise to investigate complex, serious fraud, nor, I suspect, the desire,’ he added.
The SFO, although criticised in the past, has restored its reputation recently. Earlier this year, Members of Parliament, including former Solicitor General Edward Garnier, praised its work and called for the Roskill model it operates under to be retained. The model allows prosecutors and investigators work together.
Pickworth agrees, saying: ‘The SFO has made real progress recently with its assault on privilege, and in securing some significant resolutions – Tesco and Rolls Royce in particular. Just as the SFO is making real progress, the rug is being pulled from underneath it.
He added: ‘The SFO model is a good one and necessary. It does a difficult and sometimes impossible task well. What is the sense in rolling a 30 year old organisation, with all of its revenue generation, prosecutorial success and extensive experience, into an unproven sprawling agency that is in its infancy, and which has many different priorities?’
Alison Geary, counsel at international firm WilmerHale, said: ’Regardless of whether this actually comes to pass, it will be a huge blow to those at the SFO that the incumbent government has made a manifesto pledge for it to be scrapped should they win June’s general election. It is difficult to say with any certainty what a reformed NCA would look like. However, at least in the short term one would assume the SFO would sit in its current form under the umbrella of the NCA.’
Ben Rose, founding partner at law firm Hickman & Rose, said successive governments had deprived the SFO of adequate resource and political backing.
He added: ‘In the last few years the SFO has won a series of hard fought battles in the courts and has made a significant contribution to developing policy on corporate crime. The need for specialist investigators and prosecutors to continue this work quickly and efficiently is greater now than ever. This is all the more so as Brexit weakens UK participation in well-established European wide law enforcement agreements.
‘It is difficult to see the rationale for moving the SFO under the umbrella of the NCA when the next government will have a very long list of institutions to reorganise.’
A spokesperson for the SFO said: 'This is a political pledge and we cannot comment. The organisation of law enforcement is a matter for ministers.'