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The Law's Not So Long Arm and LIBOR Criminals

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Only a financial elite that thinks it is above the law could have thought it could get away with rigging a key interest rate for years on end. It is clear that too many bankers think that laws are for the little people. Sadly, they have been encouraged in this belief by the inability of our law enforcement agencies to take a tough approach in fighting white collar crime.

This was shown in the decision last summer by the Serious Fraud Office not to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that a number of major British banks have been rigging Libor - although of course, we welcome their belated change of heart. Labour wants to strengthen the hand of our fraud investigators so that a financial centre the scale of the City has the law enforcement agencies to match.

White collar crime must be taken as seriously as any other crime. If stealing a bottle of water from Lidl during the London riots can land you behind bars, then so should dishonestly conspiring to manipulate an interest rate on a massive scale. If not, it cannot be said that the law applies equally to all.

It is not 'banker bashing' to say so. The UK's reputation as a business destination will suffer if its authorities cannot be relied on to enforce the law. International businesses will think twice about running major operations in the UK if there is a lack of proper oversight.

The Tories have played politics with the Libor scandal from the start. They initially tried to blame Labour for not legislating to make it a crime.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with the existing criminal law. The Fraud Act 2006 makes it perfectly clear that Libor rigging is prosecutable as a criminal offence.

The problem is not with the law, but with the ability and willingness to enforce it. Unlike the Financial Services Authority, which receives hundreds of millions of pounds every year from the financial services industry, the SFO's budget is being slashed by 25% over the course of this parliament to under £30m. No wonder the SFO's first reaction was pass it on.

Although the FSA investigated effectively and levied a fine on Barclays, it does not have the power to bring criminal charges on this. In other words, the Barclays case has so far fallen between two stools.

This happens all too easily with fraud cases in the UK, where the responsibility for tackling white collar crooks is strung out over disparate agencies, meaning no one agency takes charge.
That is why, over the longer term, we should give serious thought to rolling-up our myriad fraud-fighting organisations into a single, powerful economic crime agency.

More pressingly, we need to address three key problems with the UK's approach to financial crime if we are to restore the public's confidence that we are serious: resources, top-quality talent and deterrence. Firstly, resources. The Treasury has just had a £60 million windfall from the Barclays fine, and it is only right that we use some of this money to beef up our enforcement agencies.

The government should consider diverting £10m of that money to enable the SFO to do its job, creating a specialist Banking Crime Unit to investigate and prosecute complex financial crime.

Over the years, limited financial resources at the SFO has led directly to its second biggest problem, a serious shortage of top-quality staff with the expertise to tackle complex cases against deep-pocketed defendants.

The additional funding we are proposing will help the agency attract individuals capable of taking on these cases: legal and financial high flyers who have a calling to public service. The SFO needs to be able to hire the best and the brightest - because those it investigates certainly will.

Our chronically low detection and conviction rates are a meagre deterrent to fraudsters and we must also make the punishment fit the crime. For example, at the moment someone convicted of money laundering faces up to 14 years in prison, whereas fraudsters a maximum of 10 years. This is just not right.

White collar criminals need to know that if they are caught, they will be sent to Wormwood Scrubs like any other criminal and do the time their crime deserves.

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