Efforts to tackle oligarchs ‘dead on arrival’ after crime fighting agencies asked to cut jobs
The hunt for Russian kleptocrats’ cash and assets in Britain will be “dead on arrival” if anti-corruption agencies are forced to slash their staff numbers, campaigners have warned.
As part of a cross-Whitehall cost cutting exercise, The National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) have both been asked to model the impact of cutting their headcounts by up to 40pc.
Experts and anti-corruption campaigners have warned that even modest cuts will deal a huge blow to efforts by the already-stretched crime-fighting agencies to uncover assets hidden by oligarchs.
The NCA in particular is just months into setting up a “combatting kleptocracy cell”, announced by Boris Johnson in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. It has been tasked by ministers with pursuing “sanctions evasion and corrupt Russian assets hidden in the UK”.
However, the NCA confirmed it has since been asked “to model a range of workforce reduction scenarios” — including cuts of 20pc, 30pc and 40pc — “and the impact these will have on the agency’s ability to protect the public from the UK’s highest risk and most complex crime threats.”
The SFO, which reports to the Attorney General’s office, has also been asked to model similar cuts, it is understood. Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, warned that cutting manpower at the agencies would hamper efforts to crack down on corrupt Russian funds.
In a report earlier this year, the charity warned the UK is “losing the fight against economic crime” and that agencies including the NCA are “out-gunned” by an army of “enabler” lawyers, accountants and estate agents hired by corrupt individuals.
Ms Hawley said: “The NCA and SFO are completely overstretched already despite the vital work they do.
“If the Government were to force through these cuts, it would completely undermine the UK’s ability to fight economic crime and send a message that we are not serious about tackling dirty money or sanctions evasion.
“The NCA’s efforts to tackle Russian kleptocracy would be dead on arrival.”
Rachel Davies Teka, advocacy director at Transparency International, said: “Those tasked with investigating the country’s £100bn a year dirty money problem already find themselves outgunned by criminals and kleptocrats, and overwhelmed by a mountain of potential cases.
“The UK cannot hope to get on top of this criminality by cutting budgets.
“It’s patently clear these agencies need more funding, not less. You can’t counter Putin and his cronies on a shoestring.”
Professor John Heathershaw, an expert on money laundering and Central Asia at Exeter University, added that funding cuts to the NCA would “be tantamount to an admission that the Government is not serious about tackling the UK’s kleptocracy problem and that Britain is open to dirty money”.
A spokesman for the Home Office did not deny that the NCA had been asked to model staff cuts but insisted there were “no plans” to cut the agency’s funding.
He added: “The National Crime Agency has seen its funding rise every year since 2019-20 and, as part of the 2021 spending review, it was allocated a settlement of more than £810m.
“This represents an increase of approximately 14pc (£100m) in the agency’s budget.”
The moves come after Boris Johnson demanded a 20pc reduction to the number of civil servants across the Government, or roughly 90,000 jobs.
Whitehall mandarins have been asked to model a range of cuts because some departments may be able to cut more than 20pc while others will be able to push through more, according to Sky News.
As households see their incomes squeezed by the cost of living crisis, ministers have previously insisted that taxpayers expect the Government to “lead by example and to run as efficiently as possible”.