No one could accuse the Serious Fraud Office of living a charmed life.  It is regularly accused of stupidity and inefficiency by a hostile press, and not infrequently the government weighs in with destabilising tactics, either by slashing its paltry budget, or by planning to redesign the counter fraud landscape.

A report this week in the Financial Times suggested that the Home Secretary is revisiting plans to dismantle the SFO, either by rolling it into the National Crime Agency, or by some other merger of fraud investigators.  These plans first surfaced in about 2010, at a time when proposals for the NCA were being fleshed out.  The NCA, which took over from the Serious Organised Crime Agency last year, has a division devoted to economic crime – the Economic Crime Command.  In its current form the ECC has more of a coordinating and prioritising function than an investigating capacity.  For example, it scans the fraud horizon, assesses which type of fraudulent activity most needs to be addressed, and works with fraud investigators to put together a team to tackle the problem.  It focuses on intelligence, seeking to create an intelligence ‘hub of hubs’ drawing on the various separate hubs which both public authorities and private enterprise maintain.  A core aim is to work with the private sector to prevent fraud, and to identify ‘key nominals’ and ‘facilitators’ who operate in the world of economic crime.

One of the guiding principles of the NCA, and the ECC, is to identify and attack organised crime groups (OCGs).  The ECC recently estimated that of the 7500 identified OCGs in the UK, about 1350 operate in the fraud sphere.  Whether this emphasis on OCGs in relation to fraud assists in the prevention and detection of fraud in general is a moot point.  It may well be argued that boiler rooms, for example, and other forms of investment scams, are closely linked to organised crime. Applying investigative techniques that assist in breaking up OCGs may usefully underpin such fraud investigations.  However, City fraud of the kind that the SFO is currently tackling is not organised crime, and trying to treat it as such will not add value to any investigation.

It is of course possible that if there were to be a merger between the ECC and the SFO, a separate specialist ‘City fraud’ unit would be set up to concentrate on City malpractice like Libor and Forex rate rigging, and that this unit would not be fixated on OCG issues.  However, that would surely be an uncomfortable fit.  One wonders whether the complications of such a merger would be worth the trouble.  Either it would entail simply shifting the SFO’s investigators and support staff over to the ECC, in which case it is difficult to see what the point of the merger would be, or it would involve a wholesale rethinking of fraud investigation structures.  Either way this would involve a major change from the SFO model, in that prosecutors and investigators would no longer be working alongside each other in unified teams.

There are alternatives to the ECC option.  All serious City fraud (including possibly that currently prosecuted by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Competition and Markets Authority) could be delegated to the City of London Police, with the CPS prosecuting the cases.  This would also involve a separating prosecutors and investigators. At the same time it runs the risk of losing some complex specialist knowledge and back-up.

Perhaps Mrs May’s reputed plans will have the benefit of stirring up a useful debate.  Nearly thirty years on, can it be said that the Roskill model, as adapted by the Criminal Justice Act 1987, has worked?  Should we start again?  What other options are there for tackling serious fraud?  However, they could also have the effect, as other commentators, including former Solicitor General, Edward Garnier, have stated, of providing a very unwelcome distraction at a time when the SFO needs as much support and stability as it can get.