When bigger really can prove to be better
14 October 1997
What is wrong with the idea of a "super-SFO"? asks Monty Raphael. Director Rosalind Wright should set her sights higher and build a fraud-busting empire to be reckoned with. Lord Roskill and his colleagues had a big idea. Form an organisation of all the "talents" to combat serious and complex fraud: heighten the skills of the police, lawyers, accountants and other government investigators, then harness them together and endow them with draconian but, as they saw it, necessary powers.
Rosalind Wright needs no pointers from me on how to run the SFO, but will she forgive me if I say her horizons are far too low. Roskill reported in 1986. We still have 43 separate police forces. Only one of those forces, the City of London, places fraud as an operational priority. The CPS still prosecutes most sizeable fraud cases, quite apart from those pursued exclusively by the DTI, Customs & Excise and the Inland Revenue.
What we are not told is how many cases have a legitimate inter-agency interest and how efficiently that interest is safeguarded in the present regime. That there is inter-agency contact is well known. How much information is passed is secret, as is any assessment of whether the correct agency takes the lead and how the public interest is served.
Roskill's proposed unified fraud office did not come to pass. Was it Treasury meanness, or inter-agency jealousies that saw it stillborn? I doubt that the reason was a lack of enthusiasm on the part of those first directing its activities.
That the SFO now investigates four times the number of cases it did 10 years ago is, by itself, a meaningless statistic, unless we are told how many it can take but does not. Nor is it particularly helpful to set out criteria devised by the agency itself and by the Government, and then justify the limited intake by reference to those criteria. Are they, themselves, not in need of urgent critical review?
Section 2 powers are an investigative shortcut that needs to be harmonised with the similar powers exercised by the other prosecuting agencies. Given that draconian powers are deemed necessary for the investigation of fraud, and that other agencies have even more oppressive weapons, how can a case be made for not using them?
Of the other hurdles a candidate case must jump, many SFO cases have no international dimension. Neither have they engendered widespread concern nor, indeed, is there a requirement for specialist knowledge. As for the £1m threshold, this was once £5m and is purely an arbitrary figure.
Lastly, to say that the SFO is resource-limited adds nothing to the power of the director's argument, as there is no evidence that SFO enquiries are more expensive than those pursued elsewhere, and so it would simply be a question of diverting available resources into the SFO budget, rather than increasing public expenditure overall.
The director claims that the effectiveness of the SFO is due to its "small size and focus". Are we to assume, therefore, that it is less effective now with 82 cases than it was with 62 or, indeed, with its start-up number of 20?
Whether or not this agency is effective cannot be judged simply by accepting or rejecting the assertions of those in charge. Neither is the holy grail of conviction rates an acceptable guide. Roskill understood that because "of the fragmentation of the present system it is essential... that there should come into being an independent monitoring body which has the responsibility for studying and advising from year to year on the efficiency... with which fraud cases are conducted". His proposed fraud commission was even more of a dead letter than a united fraud office.
Almost 10 years on, the public has no idea whether it is getting value for money. If it is not to be told what performance criteria the SFO sets for itself and its staff and how these criteria are met year on year, let us at least have our fraud commission. Only then can the public acquire for the first time publicly-available conclusions, based on empirical evidence.
In the meantime, far from applauding Rosalind Wright's reluctance to build an empire, I would wish that she had the ambitions of a very Alexander.