The Labour government has been criticised widely for the huge raft of legislation it has introduced in its 12 or so years of reign. Much of it has been lengthy and often arguably unnecessary. The burden of regulation on any business attempting to obtain business loans and trying to struggle through the current down turn has increased and is significant.
However, there must be credit in the attempts being made to improve the anti-fraud and white collar crime framework within the UK. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 introduced what some say are draconian powers of confiscation for the authorities to use. Draconian they may be but that is fair enough when they are used against the ones they were designed for – the organised criminals with the obvious trappings of unearned income. There can be some criticism when the letter of the law is used to attempt to obtain large sums from petty criminals with default sentences when they can’t be paid.
One bit of legislation that makes you wonder who is actually writing these laws is the Fraud Act 2006. I know that many of the regulatory authorities that I work with are a bit dubious about this Act. Those police officers and prosecuting lawyers tell me that they were happy with the Theft Acts and the Common Law offence of conspiracy to defraud. The Fraud Act was meant to codify these and other areas - and it may be that using it will require a few more years of testing through the courts.
I did note in the Fraud Act that some Companies Act style amendments were contained within it, whereby the prohibition on directors loans, quasi loans, credit transactions and related transactions had been abolished and replaced by a requirement for shareholder approval. Breaches are no longer criminal offences and the de minimis level for needing shareholder approval has increased from £5,000 to £10,000.
My first impression is that this will lead to a huge increase of petty frauds in the £5 to £10,000 range.
New legislation, Fraud Reporting Centres and Strategic Fraud Authorities are fine and to be admired. However, it is no substitute for investment at the sharp end. We need stronger regional police economic crime units who all have access to fraud investigation and experienced forensic accounting resources. This is really where a public and private sector liaison would work, and was one of the ideas behind the various regional fraud fora that have been established around the UK.
If a person is defrauded he or she must present a clear cut case to the authorities. It is no good shouting “fraud” – it needs investigating and presenting clearly. Of course this is a hurdle that many victims fall at and the fraudster escapes to ply his trade again somewhere else. Those that do investigate, even employ their own forensic accountants to build a financial case to present to the authorities, can be equally at a disadvantage if they get the investigation wrong.
Say for instance a company decides to investigate a £9,000 director loan that is thought to be defalcation by the director. The director is not committing a crime under the Fraud Act - the matter will likely be civil. Therefore the police will not be interested and it will be hard to recover such unauthorised borrowing. There are still difficulties with more substantial “borrowings”. Say £50,000 is missing and this time it is fraud. The culprit is not presenting a defence of taking the money as a loan – he is simply denying the matter. The Defendant may argue that he was simply seeking tax relief by exploiting timing differences in respect of any payments received, and that he was planning to pay the money back next fiscal year!
Any accusations made during an investigation will not help, the director may simply leave citing constructive dismissal and the business may end up paying out as much and more than it had already lost in compensation awarded by an employment tribunal.
The point is that if the police are to enlist the help of the private sector in the fight against fraud, funded by the victims, then they should have sufficient resources employed to monitor and assist with the private sector enquiries. This will enable them to be carried out properly and in a way that will result in a successful prosecution for the authorities, civil asset recovery for the victims and/or justified and successful confiscation proceedings that will help to fund both the authorities and the out of pocket victim.