With its very existence hanging in the balance, the SFO is demanding the powers necessary for it to do its job so that it can then be taken seriously
The SFO, like many government agencies, is facing an uncertain future under a hung parliament. The agency has seen its budget cut by more than 10 per cent, from £51.5m in 2008-09 to £44.6m in 2009-10. This comes as experts report a rise in white-collar crime, which has been linked directly to the recession.
The agency is not without its critics either. While the number of prosecutions brought by the SFO has risen, some would suggest that the outcome of far too many investigations have been lenient.
Under a Conservative government the SFO would have been swept away. In its manifesto the party proposed to replace it with an Economic Crime Agency, which would combine the powers of all of the country’s white-collar crime investigation institutions.
SFO general counsel Vivian Robinson QC insists that the agency has made significant progress over the past two years, but acknowledges that it is criticised regularly.
“Our major challenge is to educate the public and those who’ve constantly used us as a whipping post to start appreciating us,” he says.
To do that the SFO has to start producing some top-notch results. And fast.
This year the agency has brought to an end some significant global cases, including its investigation into BAE Systems, which sat at the centre of some major corruption allegations.
BAE agreed to pay the US Department of Justice a $400m (£255.5m) fine and pled guilty to one charge of conspiracy to make false statements to the US government.
The SFO, by contrast, managed to secure a £30m fine and have the company plead guilty of failing to keep “reasonably accurate accounting records” in relation to its sale of a radar system to Tanzania.
Robinson refuses to comment directly on cases that are ongoing (the agency is still awaiting court approval for the settlement), but he is understood to have been furious at being forced into making a deal.
It is clear he is frustrated by the constraints thrust upon the agency by the legislative framework it is forced to work within.
“We have little control over the regime under which we have to operate,” he insists. “If there are criticisms, they shouldn’t be left with us.”
It is widely accepted among lawyers that the SFO is woefully under-resourced, although things are said to be getting better.
Robinson’s appointment came after a report commissioned by the agency damned it for lacking clarity, focus and management.
As a top-flight criminal fraud barrister with more than 40 years’ experience it was anticipated that Robinson would add some bite to the SFO’s bark. Unlike traditional general counsel positions, Robinson is there to support and advise chief executive Richard Alderman rather than head the legal function. “Our roles are complementary,” he explains.
He describes himself as being the “link between the senior part of the SFO and the lawyers involved in cases on the ground”. He is a point of contact for defendants under investigation; the man who, like Alderman, will go out and meet corporates to discuss fraud issues.
“Our wish is to play our part in facilitating the business community, to develop a culture in which fraud is less likely to exist,” he says in a polished soundbite.
So far this culture appears to work by appealing to companies to disclose fraudulent behaviour voluntarily.
City lawyers, however, argue that this works only to limited extent and that the agency needs to adopt a tougher stance and shrug off its reputation for being what one terms a “soft touch”.
Robinson rejects this notion. “It must be of benefit to the business community that, when a company discovers something’s gone wrong, rather than sweeping it under the carpet they should be able to speak to us,” he insists.
One City fraud lawyer claims this gives the SFO the added advantage of being able to top up its coffers rather than spending taxpayers’ money on lengthy court cases that may not succeed.
One City lawyer suggests that Attorney General Baroness Scotland selected Alderman above more suitable candidates because of his work at HM Revenue & Customs. “Scotland had her eye on the money,” says the lawyer, “and Alderman’s the money man.”
The lawyer describes Robinson as being “one of the best in his heyday, he makes a significant contribution at the SFO and has an open mind”, although adding that “he doesn’t put the fear of God into defendants”.
The SFO is standing on shifting sands while fighting on all fronts for a more secure future. At its helm Alderman and Robinson are trying to bat off critics while working with defendants. The agency is lacking a decent legislative framework, which would help it achieve convictions and money to fund investigations.
What it needs more than anything right now is to be told its future is certain.