In the Conservative Party manifesto, the Prime Minister said she would fold the organisation into the National Crime Agency (NCA) if she wins the general election.
The pledge follows a string of clashes between the SFO and May, who as Home Secretary in David Cameron’s government had argued that it should be part of the NCA, which fights organised crime.
But the move dismayed lawyers and anti-corruption groups.
The SFO is currently investigating claims of fraud at Barclays over a Qatari fundraising in the financial crisis, whether senior Bank of England staff sought to rig Libor rates, and allegations about drug maker GlaxoSmithKline. ‘This is a political pledge and we cannot comment,’ it said in a statement.
Stephen Parkinson, a partner at law firm Kingsley Napley, said it was ‘dreadful news’.
He said: ‘I have two main concerns. Firstly, that there will be organisational paralysis; people will leave the SFO in droves so it will lose expertise. Secondly, I fear momentum will be lost and there will be a failure to open cases that should be taken up.’
David Corker, a partner at law firm Corker Binning, said: ‘The NCA has not yet proved its effectiveness and there is a great danger that the fight against fraud would be compromised if the SFO’s work was absorbed into its broad remit.’
Naomi Hirst, senior campaigner at Global Witness, said: ‘It is absolutely vital that the SFO remains independent from Government interference. Rolling the SFO into the NCA could seriously jeopardise the integrity of Britain’s response to white collar crime, not strengthen it.’ The SFO thought it had removed the cloud over its future with a landmark victory over Rolls-Royce.
In January, the engine maker agreed to hand over £497.3m to settle bribery claims and avoid a prosecution. Insiders said it showed the agency’s approach was working and that it was able to take on big businesses.
Another key victory came last month when Tesco handed over £129m following an investigation into an accounting scandal.
But the organisation has been plagued by failures. In 2006, it abandoned a corruption probe into BAE Systems after pressure from Saudi Arabi. It also had to pay damages to the entrepreneur Tchenguiz brothers.
The SFO has had chronic problems with funding, relying on £34m a year, less than the sum many of its targets might be prepared to spend.
Tory donor fraud quiz
The Conservatives have received a £50,000 donation from a Syrian-born businessman recently questioned by the Serious Fraud Office.
Ayman Asfari, 58, chief executive of oil services group Petrofac, made the donation this month. His wife Sawsan donated £50,000 to the Tories at the same time.
Asfari was quizzed by the SFO as part of a probe of Unaoil, a Monaco-based firm accused of corruptly securing contracts. Petrofac used Unaoil for consultancy work in Kazakhstan between 2002 and 2009.
Source: This is Money