Plans for a new national crime agency would strip Britain’s specialist fraud investigators of their independence, lawyers have warned.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, laid out proposals yesterday for a National Economic Crime Centre (NECC) to tackle money laundering and corruption.
It will oversee the police response to financial crimes and build closer links with the private sector. In addition, a new anti-corruption strategy will seek to deal with the insider threat in ports, prisons, policing and defence as well as reducing corruption in public procurement and grants.
It had been speculated that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) would be subsumed into the much younger National Crime Agency (NCA). When at the Home Office, Theresa May was understood to be pushing for a merger, although the threat to the SFO had seemed to have receded.
However, specialist lawyers sounded a word of caution yesterday.
Jeremy Summers, a partner at the law firm Osborne Clarke, said that the new centre “will now task the SFO to investigate the worst cases of fraud”, which he said would partially strip the SFO of its independence, with its operations effectively brought within the control of the Home Office for the first time.
“The SFO may not be being abolished but there is a risk that the Home Office may be seeking to take control by the back door,” he said.
Alison Geary, a lawyer at the London office of the US law firm Wilmerhale, agreed. “No doubt there will be relief at the SFO that plans to roll it into the NCA are off the table … However, it’s not entirely clear how different this latest proposal is.
“Had it been incorporated into the NCA, the SFO would have always needed to function as a distinct and separate department. Now it will remain independent but be required to work at the instruction of the newly announced National Economic Crime Centre.”
Lawyers also pointed out that the government had failed to outline how the new centre would be funded and how that might affect money for the SFO.
“On paper this is an ambitious strategy,” Andrew Smith, a partner at the London law firm Corker Binning, said. “But the recent political past is littered with such strategies. Whether the NECC can achieve its lofty ambitions is ultimately a question of funding and expertise.”