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Is a new centre for tackling economic crime just a case of Whitehall musical chairs?

21 December 2017
The Times (subscription required)
Earlier this month the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP, announced the UK's anti-corruption strategy for the period 2017 – 2022. This is, by its nature, an aspirational document setting out the government's aims in combating corruption over the next 5 years. However it has already generated headlines due to the plans for a new "national economic crime centre" ("NECC") to "plan, task and coordinate operational responses" across government agencies "to tackle economic crime more effectively".

The NECC will be based in the National Crime Agency ("NCA"), which reports to the Home Secretary, and will include representatives from the City of London Police, Serious Fraud Office ("SFO"), Financial Conduct Authority, the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service and HM Revenue & Customs. A comprehensive anti-corruption plan, robustly implemented with strong support from all levels of government, is to be welcomed, the better to strengthen and co-ordinate the fight against corruption. But a desire for greater coordination should not – inadvertently or otherwise – cause confusion amongst those governmental bodies on the front line of the fight.

As has been widely commented upon, it is proposed that amongst its powers the NECC will be able to "directly task" the SFO in the fight against economic crime, once the relevant legislative amendments have been passed. Whilst the NECC will be located in the NCA and therefore will report to the Home Secretary, the SFO is superintended by the Attorney General. It is also for the Director of the SFO to decide whether to accept a case for investigation.

Proposing to allow the NECC to "directly task" the SFO to investigate a case of economic crime runs the risk of muddying the lines of accountability and responsibility. Is the Director of the SFO in fact responsible for deciding whether or not the SFO accepts a case for investigation when the NECC has "directly tasked" the SFO to investigate? And to whom would the Director be accountable for any decision on whether or not to accept such a case – the Home Secretary or the Attorney General?

It is to be hoped that these and other issues will be ironed out once further details are published. The broader concern is whether the establishment of the NECC with powers to direct the SFO is an attempt by the back door to merge the SFO with the NCA – a proposal which was in the Conservative party manifesto for the 2017 General Election but which seemed to have disappeared after the Election itself.

This proposal caused controversy at the time, as it seemed an odd move to seek to merge with the NCA what has become over the past few years under its current Director, David Green, an increasingly successful and effective SFO. People are, perhaps understandably, wary in case the proposed NECC is an attempt at musical chairs in Whitehall rather than ensuring those at the front line of combating fraud and corruption have all the support they need.

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