Four years ago today the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, told a shocked House of Commons that he had discovered that for years SERCO and G4S had been billing his Department for work they had not done, to the tune of £200m, and that he was referring them to the Serious Fraud Office for possible prosecution.
Today, the SFO enters the fifth year of its investigation into the case, with still no decision on whether to bring charges or not.
Now, the SFO is not known for its turn of speed. It is the Land that Time Forgot. Investigations start, and geological eras pass before anything happens. Its motto is surely taken from Psalms, 90:
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday
Of course, complex fraud can take much time to unpick. When it involves thousands of victims, for example; or highly complex financial instruments; or labyrinthine networks of companies; or movements of money to and fro across jurisdictions, with conflicting legal frameworks; or records that have been destroyed or altered; or culprits on the run, or in countries that resist extradition.
Except that none of that applies here. The case turns on a couple of contracts, which are readily available; the companies are fully cooperative; there is only one victim, the Government; one legal system; no-one is on the run. There can rarely, perhaps never, been a case before the SFO which is so lacking in complexity.
Why then the delay? Has the SFO been subject to savage cuts? Hardly; its spend on staffing has increased considerably since the referral. It can't possibly be – surely not! – the wish of certain politicians to bury uncomfortable news, say by announcing the decision on the day Parliament rises. No, I think the explanation must simply be cultural: if you are accustomed to taking years, years is what you take.
Does it matter? It does. People are under suspicion, or fear they might be under suspicion, for years on end. That is extremely stressful, for them, their families, and presumably makes employment impossible. To hold people in such a state for years is oppressive. It is, in fact, unjust.
It is also against our interest. Outsourcing is hugely unpopular, the polls consistently show. But the Tories persist with it, despite the remarkable lack of evidence, in most cases, that it benefits the tax payer, or service users. Now here is the worst ever scandal of wrong doing by outsourcers – and the equal scandal of Government's ability to properly control or sanction them. So much so, that the Ministry of Justice has just seen fit to re-award the same contact to G4S, even while the investigation continues that might charge with with a colossal fraud.
And yet, we, the public, do not have the facts. We do not know what happened. Who did what, when. And that ignorance is precisely because of the SFO inquiry. Because of the sub judice rules, no-one is allowed to know anything: the auditors themselves, the NAO, had to truncate their inquiry, though what they did reveal is damning enough. And if the SFO decide against charges, and there are not court proceedings, we may never know, because of the lapse of time. That, of course, would suit both the companies and MoJ, whose interests are very closely aligned, if indeed distinguishable at all.
So, come on SFO: wake up, order in some strong coffee, do your duty and reach a decision. Some time before the 5th anniversary comes round.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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