2023v14, Sunday: A little. Late.

It's nice to see a government at least pretend to take fraud seriously. It'd be nicer for them actually to do so.

2023v14, Sunday: A little. Late.
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

It’s almost 20 years ago that a senior police officer handed me a sheet of paper. On it was a table showing the number of specialist fraud officers in every police force in England and Wales.

Adding up the columns, the total force strength of fraud investigators didn’t even break four figures. Out of 100,000-plus officers, not even a single percentage point.

I remember writing about it for the BBC at the time. And then about the Fraud Act and Fraud Review, two years later. I left the BBC in 2007, but stayed involved in investigating and preventing fraud first at the Financial Services Authority and then in two international banks. And now, of course, as a barrister dealing both with civil and criminal fraud is still part of my daily life.

Throughout those two decades, fraud’s only got bigger. More common. Easier for fraudsters. More damaging for individuals. More prevalent. More endemic. More expensive.

One thing hasn’t changed, though.

We - that is, the UK government - still doesn’t take it seriously.

Grand plans

I’m writing this now a week or so after the very, very long-awaited Fraud Strategy was published.

It talks tough. Several hundred new officers, in a new National Fraud Squad. Making fraud an official policing priority. Using the intelligence community. Leading the world. New reporting mechanisms.

Great. Big stuff.

The scale of it

But let’s put it in context.

Some half of reported crime is fraud.

The latest Economic Crime Survey fraud and corruption review (I’ll resist the urge to comment on the fact that this in fact dates back from 2020 - published this month with no word as to why we’ve had to wait three years, although of course the numbers are starkly embarrassing) says one in five businesses had suffered from fraud in the previous three years - and that’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of individuals who’ve lost sums ranging from small but painful, to life-changing and catastrophic. (The ECS notes that fraud accounted for 41% of recorded crime in the year ending September 2022, with 6% of adults being a victim. UK Finance’s fraud report gives a further small flavour of this.)

Not to mention what is to my mind one of the greatest harms caused by rampant fraud: the wholesale destruction of the trust on which any properly-functioning economy rests. The faith - let’s call it that - that on the whole, when you do business with someone, you don’t have to assume they’re going to try to rip you off.

So even with these new numbers - and ignoring the parlous state of the criminal justice system, which gets no new resources here to enable anyone investigated actually to be successfully prosecuted amid crumbling courts, staff worked to tears, and lawyers often paid less (when you count up the hours and then honestly account for expenses) than minimum wage - we’re still staring at something which barely exceeds that single percentage point. If it exceeds it at all.

This isn’t taking fraud seriously. This is doing the bare minimum. It’s buzzword bingo. Not real solutions.

If not now, then

I’m not saying this isn’t worth doing. It is. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the “at least it’s something”. If the alternative is nothing, I’ll take this.

But it’s astonishingly uncreative. Unambitious. People have been talking, shouting even, about the effective decriminalisation of fraud for two decades. There are lots of ideas, from better prosecution techniques, to public-private partnerships, to incentivising private sector asset recovery, to … well, many more. Lip service is paid in the Strategy, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s scarce sign that anyone’s been listening.

And worst of all: it’s hard to see anything here (other than the stuff about online harms - because, of course, those didn’t exist in the same way in 2004) that couldn’t have been done at any point during these past two decades or so. If only someone had had the will. If only someone had cared.

Had fraud started being taken seriously back then, as it is in many other countries, we’d be in a very different place. Instead, we’ve had inertia, spinning wheels, - no, worse: neglect. While fraudsters have had 20 years to get better. To learn. To evolve.

We’re starting now, perhaps. At long, long last. But from way behind the line.

Who cares?

And that’s deliberate political neglect.

Starting with Labour, to be sure: I remember sitting round a table in the Law Officers’ Department as the Fraud Review was launched, a seat or two along from the great Joshua Rozenberg, as he and I and others hammered away at the abject lack of meaningful resources being offered to confront what, even then, was clearly a grossly metastasizing problem. But the past 13 years of neglect has been the Tories. Ignoring the problem. Even when the crime figures finally showed just how huge it really was.

I don’t know why this has been such an also-ran. It always seemed to me like an open goal, popularity-wise: after all, who doesn’t have a relative, or a friend, or a neighbour, who’s been left with empty pockets, or cleaned-out bank accounts, or a gaping hole in their pension - and, even worse, that mortifying (and I stress wholly unfair) sense that since nobody’s taking it seriously, and since they must have been a mug to get taken in, somehow it must be partly their fault?

So I’ll take what’s on offer. But I’d love to see someone make this an issue when the next election rolls round. Surely it’s a vote-winner?

But then, what do I know. I’m just a lawyer.