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Pay whistleblowers to speed up white-collar probes, UK fraud chief says

By Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain should allow law enforcement authorities to pay for key evidence to incentivise whistleblowing and speed up white-collar crime probes, the head of the UK's fraud watchdog said on Tuesday.

Nick Ephgrave, the director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), said he wanted the agency to deal with cases more quickly under his leadership.

The SFO, which investigates and prosecutes major bribery and corruption cases, has long been criticised for investigations which have taken several years and sometimes ended without charges being brought.

Weeks before Ephgrave took up the role in September, the SFO dropped two long-running corruption probes into Kazakh miner ENRC and Australian-British miner Rio Tinto, after investigations lasting 10 and six years respectively.

Speaking at an event in London on Tuesday, Ephgrave said the SFO would work on investigations – which often involve dealing with millions of documents – more quickly under his leadership.

He suggested that paying corporate insiders to provide "smoking gun evidence" could significantly increase the speed of investigations.

"Where it does happen, the evidence suggests the benefits you get outweigh the disadvantages," Ephgrave said.

He added that the perceived risk of people lying as a result was not a serious concern as a "robust investigation" would quickly determine the information was incorrect.

Ephgrave stressed the personal impact on whistleblowers, who he said were often torn between identifying wrongdoing and ensuring they were not harmed.

"It's not easy to do this even if it is morally the right thing," Ephgrave said. He added that the possibility of payment "gives a bit more incentive" to potential whistleblowers.

Ephgrave also said he was not calling for legislation imminently. "I'm just saying this is something that's worthy of consideration ... I just can't see why you wouldn't do it."

(Reporting by Sam Tobin, Editing by William Maclean)