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Attorney-General

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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Company Fraud

25.

To ask the Attorney-General when he next expects to meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss company fraud; and if he will make a statement.

I shall meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office shortly to discuss matters of departmental interest.

Will the Attorney-General discuss with the director the Ferranti case and the fact that the directors allowed a £250 million sting to take place right under their noses? Does the Attorney-General expect us to believe that that happened without any fraud being involved?

Will the Attorney-General also discuss with the director the £4,000 that went through the checkout that resulted in a young mother and her baby finishing up in prison for six months? If the Attorney-General wants some equality in Britain, why does he not take Judge Pickles off cases involving young black women and their babies and stick him on City cases and let him loose there?

With his well-known concern not to anticipate any inquiry by jumping to a conclusion, the hon. Gentleman would not want me to anticipate the result of an investigation that has been put in train by the director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions into matters which, among other things, are connected with Ferranti, to which the hon. Gentleman's question relates.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend at all concerned about the rather extraordinary delay in the inquiries being made by the Serious Fraud Office into matters raised by the House of Fraser report?

Is he worried about the Department of Trade and Industry's decision not to refer that unpublished report to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which means that even if serious fraud is identified and proved, there is nothing that he or anyone else can do about that company's assets?

The previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told the other place that he was very anxious to publish the report. I am certain that exactly the same is true of his successor. Equally, however, my hon. Friend will know of the affidavit evidence sworn by the two directors of the Serious Fraud Office and the Director of Public Prosecution to the effect that they believed that the interests of justice required that publication of the report should be held up pending investigations which are in train. The investigations have not been limited to this country but have had to take place overseas. It is my earnest hope that they will be completed shortly and a decision taken as to their publication.

Is the Attorney-General aware that if a small-time punter provides false information to obtain a loan or a job, a charge of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception will often result? What is the difference in principle between that and giving false information to the European Commission to get a merger clearance for BL, except that the pecuniary advantage is much greater and will he be asking the director of the Serious Fraud Office to look into that?

I am afraid that most uncharacteristically the hon. Gentleman is jumping to conclusions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that he and his Department will be happy to answer any questions from the Commission about the sale of the Government shareholding in the Rover group. Discussions at an official level are continuing.

Legal Aid

27.

To ask the Attorney-General what estimate he has made of legal aid payments in the current financial year; and how much was paid (a) five and (b) 10 years ago.

The provision for all legal aid expenditure in the current Supply Estimates is £557 million. Five years ago expenditure was £273 million and 10 years ago it was £99 million.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and his Department on that substantial increase. Can he confirm that many more poor people are covered in legal cases by that increased expenditure, and can he explain why solicitors' and lawyers' charges are so high? Why did the cost of the Aldington case come to £1 million?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his recognition, which deserved to be more widely understood, of the large increases in the money made available for legal aid in the past 10 years. Referring to the costs in legal aid cases, the fees paid to solicitors and lawyers vary on a scale appropriate to the weight and experience necessary for the lawyer or lawyers dealing with the case in question. The Aldington case, which was an unusual case, was a libel case and legal aid is not available for libel. However, the number of people receiving help from legal aid in the past 10 years, judged by the number of legal aid applications granted, has risen from fewer than 200,000 in 1979–80 to some 259,000 this year.

Notwithstanding the figures that the Solicitor-General has just given, compared with 10 years ago legal aid is now available to 14 million fewer people. Poor people have been discriminated against. The less money they have the less chance they have of obtaining justice. That is the situation we are facing in 1990.

No. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's assumptions are correct, although I know where they come from. He will also have recognised and no doubt welcomed the announcement by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor providing extra availability of legal aid, particularly in personal injury cases and cases involving children and pensioners which are likely to increase the numbers by up to 10 million people.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is also considerable disquiet about the working of the scheme among the legal profession—in which of course I declare an interest—particularly about the rate of remuneration for legal aid? The delays in payment and the circumstances in which it is granted are resulting in a reduction in the number of solicitors who are willing to carry out legal aid work. Will he consider what effect that is likely to have on the Government's commitment to improved access to the legal system for poorer people in society?

Over the past year and a half, I have been made well aware of the concerns about the matters that my hon. and learned Friend raised. He will recognise that considerable advances have been made in improving rates of remuneration. The Legal Aid Board is urgently tackling the question of promptness of payment and the other administrative matters which are important if legal aid is to be given effectively.

Security Services

28.

To ask the Attorney-General if he was consulted over the publication of the book relating to the security services written by Mr. John Day.

I understand that Mr. Day, in accordance with his duty, sought and obtained authority to publish his book.

Will not Mr. John Day, who is a former senior official of M15, recommend in his book independent oversight of the security services along lines that have been repeatedly rejected by the Government? Is the Attorney-General aware that we should at least be pleased that, unlike the Wright farce, there will be no objection to Mr. Day publishing his book, and that hence there will be a considerable saving to public funds?

I have not read Mr. Day's book, but any question on the oversight of the security services should be put to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I take issue with the hon. Gentleman's description of the proceedings brought by the Government on the publication of Mr. Wright's book, "Spycatcher". I recommend that he reads a note written by Professor Birks of Oxford university in the current edition of the Law Quarterly Review, in which he describes the "battle", as he put it, to suppress the book as one in which the Government were victorious on all points of principle.

Serious Fraud Office

29.

To ask the Attorney-General when he next meets the director of the Serious Fraud Office, what matters he will discuss.

I thank the Attorney-General for his most courteous letter in answer to my request that Law Officers might help hon. Members serving on the Property Services Agency and Crown Suppliers Bill. Will he reflect on the position of Coopers and Lybrand and discuss with the Serious Fraud Office whether some of those who have been commissioned to write a report for the Government should become involved in a potential management buy-out of the Crown Suppliers? Is that not terribly near to insider trading, and should not the Attorney-General's Office consider the ethics involved?

I am grateful for the kind words with which the hon. Gentleman began his supplementary question. Matters concerning insider dealing are, in the first instance, for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, whose Department is the prosecuting Department for the offence known as insider dealing. I shall consider the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised and draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.