UK fraud office secures hike in core funding

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s top financial crime fighting agency said on Thursday its core funding would rise by around 50 percent this year - a move that lawyers said would give it more independence as it tackles the most serious fraud and corruption.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said the new funding model would rebalance and simplify a system in which it was increasingly having to go to the government for “blockbuster” supplementary payments to fund its biggest investigations.

The SFO has investigated a series of high-profile cases, including benchmark interest rate rigging and Barclays BARC.L payments to Qatari investors during emergency fundraising in 2008.

Currently, it can request extra funding when it launches a case that is projected to cost more than five percent of its core budget.

But in a move welcomed by lawyers, the SFO said on Thursday its core budget would rise to 52.7 million pounds from a planned 34.3 million in the 2018-2019 financial year, returning it to a level last seen a decade ago.

“This is good news for the SFO,” said Alison Geary, a lawyer at WilmerHale in London. “An increase in core funding is necessary to allow the SFO to invest in the resources and infrastructure needed to prosecute serious financial crime.”

The agency which investigates and prosecutes complex fraud, bribery and corruption, has been in talks with the government about simplifying its funding model.

SFO director David Green, who is stepping down on Friday after a six-year stint, has been keen to keep access to extra government funding for unexpected cases. But he has said it would be “self evidently ridiculous” if the agency received more in blockbuster funding than in core funding in a year.

The SFO’s average annual core budget has stood at around 33 million pounds, although when bolstered by blockbuster reserves, annual funding has ranged from around 38 million to 61 million pounds over the last six years, according to its website.

Under the new scheme, the agency will still be able to request special blockbuster funding. But this cash will no longer be ringfenced around specific cases, allowing the agency to re-allocate staff between cases. Those resources will be limited to cover costs of more than 2.5 million pounds on any single case in a year.

Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Huw Jones and Andrew Heavens