The SFO has come under intense scrutiny after a series of high-profile setbacks, with recent reviews by Brian Altman KC and Sir David Calvert-Smith KC providing forensic insight into the disclosure failures that caused the collapse of the Serco and Unaoil cases. The lack of resourcing, outdated technology and poor management has resulted in overstretched case teams, poor quality assurance and disclosure failures, leaving the SFO with exorbitant legal bills that could have been avoided if these challenges facing the SFO had been addressed sooner.
The recommendations arising from the two reviews must be implemented swiftly, and attention turned to strengthening the capacity and confidence of the SFO. This will require:
- Urgent reform and resourcing of disclosure;
- Stronger oversight, accountability and support of SFO senior management;
- Measures to boost and protect SFO resources;
- Reformed rules on corporate criminal liability; and
- Bolder ambition to tackle serious economic crime and corruption.
There is a widespread feeling that the current rules and bodies for regulating the ethical standards in government are not fit for purpose, and that this creates a chronic regulatory failure which undermines trust in government and politicians more generally, damages the health of our democracy and even has negative consequences for the economy.
The creation of a UK Ethics Commission was first proposed by the Public Administration Select Committee in 2012. In early 2021, the Labour Party announced that, if it were elected, it would establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission, later explaining that this body would be removed from politicians and have the powers to launch investigations without ministerial approval, collective evidence and decide sanctions.
The idea of a national ethics commission has been around for some time. Canada’s first Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, which oversees conflict of interest rules for public office holders, was appointed in 2007. But the idea has been gaining traction, with the President of the USA, Joe Biden, committing to the creation of a Federal Ethics Commission in his Plan to Guarantee Government Works for the People. A federal Integrity Commission has been long debated in Australia, and the new Labor government has committed to legislate for a National Anti-Corruption Commission by the end of 2022.
This briefing looks at how an Integrity and Ethics Commission could work in the UK and what the options are for this. We find that an Integrity and Ethics Commission is a viable solution for upgrading the UK’s standards framework and that it must be formulated around a series of core principles, including independence, accountability and transparency.