Solicitor General's Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime speech
The Solicitor General Michael Tomlinson KC MP delivers an opening address at the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime on 4 September 2023
It is a pleasure to be speaking to you today – in this wonderful setting – at what is my first Symposium since being appointed Solicitor General last year.
It is right to say that this event is held in high regard – and indeed, the fact that the Symposium is celebrating its fortieth birthday is a testament to its enduring value in considering the ever-evolving threat we face from economic crime.
And I know that Professor Rider has been at the heart of the Symposium since its foundation. I would like to thank him, and his team, for their work in bringing together such a comprehensive and thought-provoking programme.
I would also like to mention Daniel Zeichner, MP, who spoke about the symposium in parliament recently - and to thank him for his warm welcome to me and his parliamentary colleagues.
The Law Officers’ role
Let me start by saying a little more about my own role, which can be something of a mystery – even, on occasion, to my ministerial colleagues!
As Solicitor General for England and Wales, I am one of the UK Government’s three Law Officers. The others are the Attorney General for England and Wales – who is also the Advocate General for Northern Ireland – and the Advocate General for Scotland.
Put broadly, the Attorney General and I have three main roles.
Firstly, we are the Governments’ chief legal advisers.
Secondly, we are responsible for superintending the work of several public bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
And thirdly, we have several public interest functions that we carry out independently of government. This includes, for example, considering whether to refer sentences to the Court of Appeal as unduly lenient; or granting consent to prosecute certain offences, such as cross-border conspiracies or under the Official Secrets Act, applying the established principles of evidential sufficiency and the public interest.
The role the Law Officers is, in many respects, unique. While we are politicians drawn from the ruling party, and are government ministers, we are of course firstly lawyers.
This dual politician-lawyer role has, over the years, given rise to questions related to the focus of this year’s Symposium: “integrity.”
As a Law Officer, much of my role is acting quasi judicially and independently of Government – politics simply does not come into it. When considering whether consent should be granted for a prosecution; whether a sentence is unduly lenient; whether a charitable gift in a will is valid; or whether to institute proceedings for contempt of court.
The public interest function is just that.
But some have questioned, given our commitment to the political objectives of the Government, whether the Law Officers can maintain the integrity that is required to deliver independent, impartial – and potentially unwelcomed – advice to their colleagues.
In fact, a number of previous Attorneys have felt challenged by the role. Sir Patrick Hastings said it was his ‘idea of hell’. Francis Bacon ‘described it as the painfullest task in the realm’
The provision of frank advice, without fear or favour, is fundamental to our role – and that there is enormous value in having at the heart of Government independent lawyers who are trusted by those that they advise – precisely because they are one of them.
Indeed, this is well captured in the very mission of the Attorney General’s Office which sets itself the task of “making law and politics work together at the heart of the UK constitution”.
Perhaps a flipside of integrity is corruption.
While there is no universally accepted definition, it is clear that corruption, in all its forms, has a corrosive effect. It threatens our national security and prosperity – and unchecked, it erodes public confidence in domestic and international institutions – including the rule of law.
And one just needs to look to the international stage and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine - fuelled by a kleptocratic regime – to see just how devastating its effects can be.
Promoting integrity and fighting corruption
The UK has long been seen as a world leader in dealing with corruption, and we are continuing to take action – for example with economic crimes linked to corruption such as fraud and money laundering.
I know that my noble friend Baroness Penn may expand upon this theme, but let me just mention the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which we will be debating and voting on later today in the House of Commons.
This will bear down even further on kleptocrats, criminals, and terrorists who target our economy and will help prevent our corporate structures being abused by corrupt actors.
Let me also mention integrity in the context of our prosecution system and disclosure.
As we all know, effective disclosure is critical to a fair trial and supports public confidence in the administration of justice.
At the same time, the volume of digital material generated in complex case work continues to grow exponentially – particularly in economic crime cases.
This is posing significant challenges for law enforcement.
Indeed, we are now dealing with petabytes – that’s a thousand terabytes – of data in some of our cases.
This highlights the critical importance of ensuring we have a modern disclosure regime, which reflects the realities of our digital age.
And this is why I have personally been working with colleagues across Government to ensure that the current regime supports effective disclosure in complex cases – whether prosecuted by the CPS or the SFO.
This includes looking at the Attorney General’s Guidelines on Disclosure to find ways to reduce the scheduling burden on investigators and prosecutors.
We also announced - as part of the Fraud Strategy we published in May – an independent review of the disclosure regime for cases with large volumes of digital material.
I look forward to continuing this work with many in this room and the independent reviewer on this important piece of work.
The work of the prosecutors
It would be remiss of me not to highlight some of the pivotal successes of the SFO and CPS in our fight against corruption.
Just last year, the SFO secured the conviction of Glencore Energy UK Ltd, - and the company was sentenced to pay £280m – the largest corporate sentence imposed in the UK to date.
And I never tire of mentioning SFO’s returns to the taxpayer - especially in front of a Treasury Minister – the SFO brought in nearly 4 times its cost to the taxpayer between 2019/20 and 2022/23, bringing in over £1bn into the Treasury against vote funding of around £280m.
And I would like to take this opportunity to give particular thanks to Lisa Osofsky, the outgoing Director of the SFO, who leaves post at the end of this month. Over her five-year tenure, she has led the charge in delivering some outstanding outcomes and I wish her the all of the best for the future.
The CPS has likewise responded robustly in cases of corruption and illicit finance.
And I know that Adrian Foster, Chief Crown Prosecutor in the CPS Proceeds of Crime Division, will be talking more about this later.
In conclusion, I know there will be much lively discussion and debate this week - and there is much in this impressive programme - and I am grateful to have been invited to be a part of it.