How Cameron is misleading over prosecutions for price fixing

The real obstacle is not an absence of applicable law, but the woeful underfunding of fraud investigation and prosecution.

Downing Street is trying to persuade us that if oil traders deliberately distort the price of petrol they cannot be prosecuted under existing criminal laws. This assertion is deeply misleading. If there is substance to the allegations against the oil companies said to be involved, there is now a very real danger that perpetrators will escape justice.

It has been reported that the government is in the process of drafting a new law targeting the manipulation of energy prices. However, because laws don't work retrospectively, wrongdoing prior to the law getting royal assent will not be captured. A Number 10 spokesman has said as much: "The law is the law so it will apply at the point it comes in. A change in the law that makes something illegal takes effect from the moment it takes effect."

If you accept the government's line that passing a new law is necessary, the resulting legislation will not bring anyone to justice or get to the bottom of what has been going on. It will do the opposite. It will draw a line under it and allow the sector to move on quickly and largely unruffled. That Number 10 is so quick to give up on the prospect of prosecuting under current law once again reflects the desire of Cameron, Osborne and company to let the City off the hook.

If people have been deliberately fixing prices to benefit themselves then it is already against the law. This has always has been the case. A scam is a scam. A fraud is a fraud. Different rules don't apply in the City than they do for you and me. There are some very plain, very simple offences in the Fraud Act 2006 that can be applied to price manipulation. For example, there's fraud by false representation. This is aimed at people who say something misleading to line their pockets or cause financial harm to someone else. There is also fraud by abuse of position for those who scheme against those whose interests they are not supposed to harm. And then there is good old fashioned common law conspiracy to defraud.

These are very broad offences and that is deliberate. The principles that underpin these offences are supposed to be applicable whoever is perpetrating the fraud, whoever they are defrauding and by whatever means they are doing it. The law must be interpreted this way otherwise criminals will always be ahead of the game. What a nightmare it would be if we individually had to criminalise every single abuse of every single commodity, market or financial product. There are thousands of these and new ones being invented every day. Such an approach would have disastrous implications for regulation and policy-making. Any slide towards it must be resisted.

The reason why City criminals are not in jail is not an absence of applicable law. The law is there for prosecutors who are front-footed and creative enough to apply it when the opportunity arises.

The real obstacle here is that fraud investigation and prosecution is woefully underfunded. The budget of the Serious Fraud Office is being slashed by 25 per cent. It has already had to ask for extra money to investigate the Libor scandal. If the director of the SFO does decide to investigate the energy market allegations, he is unlikely to be able to do so within the agency's current budget. A system has been established whereby he has to go to the Treasury and ask for the funds, giving that department an effective veto on high-value investigations. He will almost certainly have to go cap-in-hand to George Osborne and ask his permission. He has already had to do this for the Libor investigation.

In the US, the government easily recoups the money it spends on serious fraud investigations because its laws make it easier to fix liability on to companies and imposes much higher penalties. If reform is needed, surely that's where we should look.

So, in the event that there is something to these allegations, if there is no criminal investigation it will be down to two things: a lack of will and a lack of resources. It will not be down to a lack of applicable criminal law. The financial elite do not need special laws for themselves. This is one nation and there is one criminal law.

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow attorney general

Shell is among oil companies being investigated by European competition authorities. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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