Time to give more money to the Serious Fraud Office?
David Green, its boss, has told the BBC that he is in talks with the Treasury about the way the fraud busting agency is funded.
Right now the basic annual budget stands at a fairly pitiful £31m.
Mr Green says the Treasury has always coughed up when extra is needed for blockbuster cases like the investigation into Tesco’s accounting scandal (a retrial is currently being sought in that case).
What they are discussing, however, is whether the “relationship between basic and blockbuster funding is the right one”.
One would imagine that the SFO would like a little more flexibility, a little more control over its purse strings, as opposed to continually having to go cap in hand to the Treasury, despite Mr Green’s contention that it has never wanted for the cash to pursue a big case.
Trouble is, the SFO’s reputation has taken a number of hits down the years and sometimes its wounds have been entirely self-inflicted, for example, the botched investigation into the property magnate Tchenguiz brothers that led to their receiving substantial settlements.
Prime Minister Theresa May has also long held a jaundiced view of the agency.
But its existence is necessary. Britain ought to take fighting white collar crime seriously. The reputation of the country in some quarters as a haven for dirty money does not serve it well.
The public, meanwhile, is both unimpressed and restive over the perception that those with sufficient funds are able to “get away with” defrauding, say, banks when those who hold them up (admittedly rare these days) are jailed for years.
Fraud is both difficult and complex to investigate and prosecute. It’s a specialist area that requires a specialist agency, and one with the necessary funding to do its job.
On the flip side, the SFO, under Mr Green, still has to prove that the SFO can be that agency.
It’s not just a question of winning cases. The nature of fraud means that high profile reverses are inevitable, and while the SFO should reflect on its failures, that needs to be understood by those it is accountable to.
It has to take the cases in the first place.
A notable example of where it was found wanting was over the £245m HBOS bank fraud.
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The corrupt scheme, put together by a group of bankers and consultants, left hundreds of small business owners “cheated, defenceless and penniless” while the crooks lived the high life.
The victims are now being compensated, but not through the efforts of the SFO. The case was left to Thames Valley Police, which spent millions of pounds, and thousands of man hours, in successfully investigating it, resources that could have been utilised elsewhere.
If the SFO is to be given more of a free rein – and it should be – it cannot be seen to be leaving cases like that to local police forces that are under severe budgetary pressures themselves.