The announcement of the UK’s largest ever deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for corporate wrongdoing has prompted accusations of political interference. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) confirmed today that it had agreed in principle a DPA with aerospace giant Airbus ‘as part of a global solution’. It follows probe into allegations of corruption involving sales to Saudi Arabia.
Under the deal, French-headquartered Airbus is expected to pay fines totalling some €3bn (£2.54bn). This would be the largest fine imposed under a DPA in the UK, dwarfing the £671m penalty agreed with Rolls-Royce in 2017.
A public hearing into the agreement will take place before Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, on Friday.
Deferred prosecution agreements allow a prosecution to be suspended for a defined period provided the organisation under investigation meets specified conditions. They were introduced to the UK under the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Although half a dozen such deals have revealed corporate law-breaking, no individual identified in the DPAs has been subsequently convicted.
The SFO opened its investigation into ‘allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption in the civil aviation business of Airbus Group’ in 2016. A separate probe dating from 2012 involves a defence subsidiary, GPT Special Projects Management, and a £2bn contract to equip the Saudi Arabian National Guard. It is unclear whether the DPA will cover both cases.
Aziz Rahman, senior partner at specialist fraud firm Rahman Ravelli, said of the announcement: ‘This has been a major investigation into the workings of a huge organisation. But it is hard to ignore the possibility that this deal – and the timing of it – is political.
‘Airbus is a European aerospace giant and anything that happens to it has an effect on both the European economy and on defence. The length of time that it has taken to conclude these investigations while the prospect of Brexit has loomed large may indicate there has been political pressure for a particular outcome to be carefully timed.
‘Cynics may say that today’s agreement will be viewed by Airbus as little more than the cost of doing business.’
Robert Barrington, professor of anti-corruption practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex, said that the attorney general has sat on the case for more than a year. ‘This politically expedient decision gives a glimpse into how the UK will be approaching the issue of bribery and corruption in a post-Brexit era. If the company is not to be prosecuted, the next best outcome in the interests of justice is that those responsible should be held to account – unlike the Rolls-Royce case where nobody was prosecuted.’
The SFO declined to comment further on the case.