The solicitor general has defended the way the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is funded amid concerns over its perceived independence and need to ask for emergency funds.
Responding to questions from MPs today, Robert Buckland QC insisted that a ‘degree of flexibility’ is needed to ensure the SFO is able to complete its investigations.
Last month the SFO asked the Treasury for £15.5m for ‘significant investigations’ – prompting today’s debate at Westminster Hall. Buckland also submitted a written statement today confirming that the SFO would be seeking a cash advance of £5.5m.
One sticking point for MPs was the disparity between the office’s core funding, which forms its overall budget, and what is referred to as ‘blockbuster funding’ – special payouts approved for certain investigations.
Labour MP Stephen Timms, who called the debate, said the SFO needed to be seen as being independent. ‘Making it dependent on the Treasury on a case-by-case basis does not help with that,’ he said, adding that making more core funding available could help.
According to Timms, the office’s core funding slipped from £52m in 2008 to £34m in 2016.
He added that this also creates concerns about a reliance on temporary and part-time staff.
Edward Garnier, the Conservative MP for Harborough, who said he had ‘fallen out’ with prime minister Theresa May over the SFO while she was home secretary, criticised a ‘misunderstanding’ from the government about its work.
Garnier, amid rumours that the SFO could merge with the National Crime Agency, urged Whitehall not to ‘pursue its fascination with destroying or distracting’ from the vital work being done.
‘Any threat to an organisation caused by change is distracting and destabilising. The one thing that the SFO does not need when building for success is to be subjected to further interference,’ he said.
Garnier added that he would be proposing amendments to the forthcoming Criminal Finances Bill to extend the scope of the 'failure to prevent' clause.
Mark Field, MP for the City of London and a solicitor specialising in mediation, added to the perception that the SFO ‘lacks full and proper independence’.
He said the need for ‘cap in hand funding’ could fuel a belief that the government can close it down. ‘An inherent conflict of interest could persist unless funding is more sustainable and at arms length,’ he said.
But Buckland, who explained that blockbuster funding is applied for when costs are expected to exceed 5% of the SFO’s investigation, denied that the Treasury was a ‘gatekeeper’.
‘The Treasury’s function is to make sure the case is sound and that there is evidence. I should add that they have never refused to give us funding,’ he said.
Buckland conceded that the method was slightly ‘inelegant’ but that it was a price worth paying as it is often difficult to predict the cases that will arise.