Theresa May, the home secretary, has announced a new crackdown on economic crime including bogus share dealing, but she has rowed back from plans to split the agency that prosecutes white-collar crime.
Ms May wants to target fraud worth less than £1m, such as the sale of fake event tickets and fraudulent property rentals, along with internet-based con outfits.
“A lot of people feel that there hasn’t been enough emphasis on what one call middle-level, financial fraud taking place,” she said.
The drive comes as the home secretary appeared to back away from plans for a controversial split of the Serious Fraud Office after meeting widespread resistance from lawyers, fraud experts and colleagues within government.
Ms May will push through plans to create a new “FBI-style” National Crime Agency but will defer any proposal to split up the Serious Fraud Office, she says in what appears to be a last-minute reprieve.
Uncertainty over the agency’s future has prompted the departure of some of its most high-profile staff members in recent months. Some 49 of the 300 jobs at the SFO stand vacant.
“What we’re doing in a number of areas is setting up the sort of arrangements that start to move us towards the NCA, the NCA structure, and then review in due course what the appropriate relationship is with the SFO and the NCA,” she said.
Under the proposal to split the SFO, its investigators would head to the new NCA while its prosecutors would be rolled into the Crown Prosecution Service.
The coalition government has pledged to tackle economic crime and cut regulatory overlap following Britain’s deepest recession since the second world war.
Plans for the NCA are part of a wider regulatory shake-up that will also involve changes to the structure of the Financial Services Authority and the Competition Commission – overseen by other government departments.
The SFO said of the apparent retreat: “It’s a step in the right direction but we need further clarification. We need more certainty than a nuance.”
Ms May said there had been “some reservations” about the potential split. “One of the key concerns some people have had is seeing the NCA purely as a policing body and therefore feeling there were some issues around the model that the SFO has built up,” she said. “Of course, the NCA is going to be a crime-fighting body but it will have within it elements that are not strictly policing.”
During the interview, the home secretary also appeared implicitly to criticise Ken Clarke, justice secretary, who suggested earlier this month that accused rapists should receive a maximum 50 per cent sentence discount in return for entering an early guilty plea.
“I think rape’s an abhorrent crime, and I think it should be punished properly and punished with long sentences,” Mrs May said.
One of her most pressing concerns is how to carry out her promise to introduce directly elected police commissioners in the face of a Liberal Democrat revolt in the Lords.
Ms May said she expected to be able to reverse the decision when the bill is reintroduced in the Commons, noting that the majority of Lib Dem peers voted with the government on the issue.
Her difficulties were compounded this week by the announcement that net migration into the UK has reached a five-year high of 242,000. This makes it increasingly unlikely that Ms May will be able to deliver on the Tory manifesto pledge to reduce the figure to “tens of thousands” by the 2015 general election.
She is adamant, however, that public appetite remains strong for bringing net migration down. “[Immigration] was an issue that was there in the election campaign and I think what people wanted to see is a government that was willing to take some action in this area, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
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