ALEX BRUMMER: Britain’s flawed white collar justice system

Flawed white collar justice: No wonder the World’s financial miscreants want their cases to be heard in the UK, says ALEX BRUMMER

The wheels of financial justice turn slowly in Britain and successful and durable convictions are very rare.

High-profile defendants to be cleared of wrongdoing include former Barclays chief executive John Varley over payments made to Middle East potentates in the financial crisis. Tesco executives walked free after a black hole opened up in the supermarket accounts.

So it is naturally satisfying for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), with its long mixed record, when it wins a conviction for business figures discovered to have their hands in the till. 

The SFO heralds the conviction of the former chief executive of London Capital & Finance (LCF), Michael Thomson.

Cleared: Former Barclays chief executive John Varley (pictured) was cleared over payments made to Middle East potentates in the financial crisis

As part of its investigation into suspected fraud and money laundering at LCF, Thomson’s assets were frozen.

This did not stop him hiding £95,000 after the order was imposed later to be partly spent on a holiday in Italy and a spa trip. He has been given a ten-month sentence for his dishonesty. It comes at no great pain as it has been suspended for two years.

The lightness of sentencing and the difficulty in winning fraud convictions as result of the timidity of judges, botched SFO prosecutions and juries bamboozled by complexity and a misplaced British sense of fairness are among the reasons that financial miscreants want cases to be heard in the UK. 

The NatWest Three, who ended up in American prisons after convictions over the collapse of US energy giant Enron in 2002, still feel aggrieved.

It is not surprising that the billionaire founder of tech firm Autonomy, Mike Lynch, fought so hard to avoid extradition to the US where he could face up to 20 years in jail for allegedly selling US computer giant Hewlett Packard an £8.8billion dud.

Much of the focus of this case has been on the legal niceties of asymmetrical US-UK extradition laws which saw Lynch led off in handcuffs but American Anne Sacoolas walk free in spite of a 2022 conviction for killing 19-year-old Harry Dunn by dangerous driving.

The comparison is ridiculous since the circumstances are so different. Lynch’s fight had little to do with the finer points of the law and a great deal more to do with the recognition of what might happen if the US authorities, which take a dim view of those who mess with investor money, were to bring him to justice.

The outcome of a Lynch trial is, of course, unknown. The portents for the alleged fraudster do not look promising. 

In 2022, Hewlett Packard won a six-year civil fraud case against Lynch in the UK courts after a high court judge ruled that he defrauded the American buyer by manipulating Autonomy’s accounts.

Lynch’s former associate at Autonomy, Sushovan Hussain was sentenced to five years in prison and fined heavily in 2019 on 16 charges.

The idea that Lynch could avoid extradition on technical legal grounds while his colleague paid a high price for similar alleged wrongdoing is disturbing on moral grounds. 

Hewlett Packard shareholders and executives were the victims of the alleged fraud.

Given that the company is based in the US and most of those who suffered are based there, it is only right he should stand trial in California. Americans, thank goodness, do not regard white-collar crimes as lesser offences.

Up and running

The departure of larger-than-life chief executive Peter Cowgill from trainers champion JD Sports was viewed by some investors with dread. 

In spite of his governance shortfalls, he delivered handsomely. Shareholders need not have worried.

The hold which fashionable sports shoes, Lycra and hoodies have over young shoppers is not to be under-estimated.

Outside the grocery sector, Britain has very few £1billion-a-year retailers. This was a target retaken by Stuart Rose at Marks & Spencer way back in 2008. JD Sports and its biggest investors, the Rubin family, are heading for an exclusive club.

Greased lightning

Labour, the Lib Dems and climate change activists crudely regard big oil as the devil incarnate and to have engaged in greenwashing. 

At a moment when the UK’s failings in battery production are only too obvious, BP is throwing its weight behind bio-fuels, using the waste from feedstock producers, to build five biofuel plants by 2030.

These will play a central role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Credit where credit is due.