Serious Fraud Office

Attorney General – in the House of Commons on 4th February 2021.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

What steps she is taking to ensure the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

I regularly meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office and her senior leadership team to discuss the SFO’s progress in tackling the top level of serious and complex fraud, bribery and corruption. The SFO takes on some of the most complex and difficult cases, and it has delivered significant successes. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, the SFO’s successful judicial outcomes rate was 95% by case and 62% by defendant. To date in this financial year, the SFO has agreed two deferred prosecution agreements, making a contribution to Her Majesty’s Treasury thereby of over £44 million, including its costs, demonstrating significant value for money.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

May I remind the Minister that many people believe that the Serious Fraud Office is seriously underfunded and under-resourced? It has just abandoned its inquiry into British American Tobacco. It is not able to take on the big boys and girls that cause the real trouble here, including serious financial misdeeds. When is he going to start again, look at the Serious Fraud Office, and give it the resources it needs to go after these real problems?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the interest he takes in the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Serious Fraud Office in particular. I know that he has a history of doing so, and we are grateful for it.

The reality is that the SFO has proper funding. The Attorney General and I meet the leaders of the Serious Fraud Office on a regular basis, and they know that this Government support them in what they do. They have, after all, obtained guilty pleas for bribery offences in the Petrofac case. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one other matter, but the reality is that they have secured convictions and guilty pleas in the Unaoil case, and agreed deferred prosecution agreements with Airbus and Airline Services. In a whole litany of cases they have secured very good results. Although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point that there are always more resources that could be utilised, we will continue to support the Serious Fraud Office in its very good work.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

May I start by asking the Solicitor General to convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General the good wishes of myself and the members of the Select Committee on Justice, as I know she is due to start her maternity leave before we have the next session of questions to the Law Officers?

Does the Solicitor General recognise that it is not just a matter of resources? Both the current and previous directors of the Serious Fraud Office have pointed out that they are handicapped in dealing with some of the most significant corporate crime, because the United Kingdom’s law on corporate criminal responsibility—in particular, the need to identify those who are the “directing mind” of the company—does not reflect well modern corporate practice. Will he confirm that there will be swift action once the Law Commission, which the Government have asked to look at this matter, reports at the end of the year, so that we come up to speed and be able to tackle serious corporate crime more effectively, in much the same way as the United States can because it has a more modern and effective legal test?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his remarks. I will convey his remarks—in fact, I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will have heard them—wishing her well.

As far as the ability of the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute matters is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, these issues are kept under constant review. They are very complex cases, and it is right that the law must keep up with issues at hand to enable the Serious Fraud Office and, where appropriate, the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct those services effectively. Those matters are always kept under close review.