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Barclays And The SFO: The Importance Of Independence

23/06/2017 11:05
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The Serious Fraud Office investigation into Barclays has rumbled on for some years, and it has now finally been announced that charges have been brought against both the bank and senior executives for how they handled capital raising after the financial crisis in 2008/9.

The deal in question involved Qatar, itself associated with past misdeeds at Barclays when an 'elephant deal' (huge transaction with lucrative fees) was judged to be so tempting that a procedure was created to by-pass the anti-money laundering systems that would probably have killed the deal. The FCA fined Barclays a record £72 million.

We will know more about this present case as the details come out in court. For now, it perhaps tells us more than anything about the SFO.

Barely a month ago, the Conservative Party manifesto threatened to abolish the SFO and wrap it into the National Crime Agency - a bizarre prospect given their respective track records in tackling white collar crime. Cue an outcry from eminent legal experts who maintained that the SFO's independence from political interference, the Roskill model of combining teams of investigators and prosecutors and the prioritising of fraud and corruption cases, would all be put at risk.

The Barclays case illustrates precisely why the SFO is important in its current form, and why we should so highly prize the insulation it has against political interference. Barclays is a huge company; a national champion; systemically important; key to the City's sense of itself and the UK's projection of itself to the outside world. We are entering an era when, post-Brexit, governments of all shades are likely to want to defend national champions and the national reputation at all costs. That can be very destructive to the fight against corruption, as the Blair government so clearly demonstrated in the BAE Systems case a decade ago.

How likely is it that the government would have permitted the prosecution of Barclays if it had a direct line of political control over the investigation and prosecution - at any time, let alone in the current environment?

It is always disappointing, indeed sad, to see a great British company brought low by wrongdoing. But this actually sends a very positive message to the outside world: that even at a time of great national challenges, the UK has the self-confidence to uphold the rule of law and to live up to its global commitments. We may spare a thought for all the honest employees at Barclays who will feel personally tainted by those who - it is alleged - have done wrong; we may welcome the idea that those who thought they could act with impunity are held to account; but above all, we should feel a sense of relief that the Serious Fraud Office remains intact to uphold the values that Britain has for so long proclaimed to the wider world.

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