The change of Directorship at the SFO is a critical moment for the future of the agency, which has started to show real teeth as a robust prosecutor and to gain a serious international reputation. What the SFO desperately needs now, after a year of political uncertainty over its future, is continuity and a commitment to build on and improve its current philosophy and modus operandi.
Today’s announcement that current chief operating officer Mark Thompson has been appointed interim director means the Attorney General Office has selected an external candidate, who must now serve notice on their current employer.
Corruption Watch is concerned that the long delay in announcing the new Director suggests the process for appointing a new Director of the SFO is not as independent as it should be. The fact that the confirmation was held up for several weeks in the Prime Minister’s office despite the imminent departure of the outgoing Director is deeply worrying. The Attorney General should now review the appointment process for the role to ensure it is managed in a way that is fully independent and without potential for political interference.
It is essential that any new Director maintains a critical distance from companies the SFO prosecutes, focuses on negotiating more funding for the agency to make it a competitive employer, and retains a high bar for using Deferred Prosecution Agreements which should not become a default option. Companies that don’t cooperate with the agency must be prosecuted. The new Director must show that the agency can resist political pressure and take on the cases involving big politically connected companies without fear or favour. He or she must also show they are willing to advocate for necessary reforms to improve the system for fighting economic crime, particularly reforms to the UK’s corporate liability regime.
The Serious Fraud Office has slowly but surely gained an international reputation over the past 6 years as an enforcement body that means business. It has brought in fines to the public purse of well over £650 million on an annual budget averaging £32 million during that time. It has shown it means business when it says it will prosecute companies that do not cooperate and self-report their wrong-doing. It has been praised by the OECD for its ‘pragmatic and effective’ approach to enforcement that has significantly improved the UK’s record on fighting bribery. And the government’s own inspectorate, the HMCSPSI, found in 2016 that there had been a ‘positive transformational change to the direction and purpose of the SFO’ under its current leadership. In its case against Barclays, the SFO is also bringing the first-ever prosecution in the UK of a major bank and its executives over misconduct related to the 2008 financial crisis.
Corruption Watch is a UK based anti-corruption organisation that monitors the UK’s effectiveness at combating corruption and bribery.
Susan Hawley (Policy Director): 07940 827605
Rahul Rose (Senior Researcher): 07852 815017