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Solicitor-General

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Mortgage Fraud

In November, the National Fraud Strategic Authority published an action plan to bring together public and private efforts to target mortgage fraud, and it intends to review the plan in a year. In support of that programme, about a tenth of the Serious Fraud Office’s current caseload is about mortgage fraud.

I thank the Solicitor-General for her reply. My constituents, like those in other areas, are having difficulty in obtaining mortgage finance for the purchase of homes in the current economic climate. Given the difficulties in obtaining funds, can she assure me that she will do everything she can, working with the legal profession, to ensure that the funds that are available are used for legitimate house purchases and not by profiteering fraudsters?

As ever, my hon. Friend has the interests of his constituents closely in mind. The SFO has recently produced best practice guidance both for lenders and for lawyers who deal with mortgages. The intention of that is, in part, to make it crystal clear when something odd is beginning to happen in a mortgage transaction so that a broader range of people than has been the case historically are able to spot it before things go too wrong. An important part of the whole fraud strategy is turning resources towards protection and prevention and, as the Director of Public Prosecutions said recently, as one would expect the prosecution and investigation authorities are taking on board what is happening in the economy and assessing its impact on crime patterns. I hope that gives my hon. Friend some of the reassurance that he seeks.

The SFO and the Financial Services Authority seem to have been asleep at the wheel in recent years in respect of mortgage fraud and near-fraud, which appears to have been carried out by some financial services companies themselves. Can the Solicitor-General tell me what steps she proposes to take, with her ministerial colleagues, to improve the rather poor performance of the SFO and FSA in recent years?

My hon. Friend’s point is unarguable really, although it was not all bad in the SFO and there were some very commendable results. He will know that a review of its functioning was carried out by Jessica de Grazia, which reported in 2008, and that a fresh director, Richard Alderman, was appointed around the same time. He has instituted quite a large number of the changes that Ms de Grazia proposed and some further ones; they are designed primarily to strengthen the leadership team, improve staff training and shorten the time that it takes to get cases to court. Quite a sizeable transformation programme is in process, and I shall send my hon. Friend more detail of that if he so wishes.

National Fraud Strategic Authority

2. By what means the new National Fraud Strategic Authority is intended to improve protection for businesses and the public against fraud. (247656)

The NFSA is developing its first national fraud strategy, which follows an extensive consultation with public and private sector bodies. The strategy is intended to bring together Government, enforcement and private sector activity to tackle and prevent fraud. The strategy will be published in the next few months.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer and commend her for coming in when she is obviously quite poorly—I hope that she will soon be on the mend. The formation of the NFSA is welcome, but will its role include fraud prevention? If the NFSA is to be at all strategic, its role surely must include fraud prevention.

My hon. Friend has got exactly to the point identified by the review: although agencies are in place to prosecute, to sentence and to seize assets, a focus must be on spotting fraud early so that the public can be protected from it before it starts, and it can be prevented and disrupted. It was with that aim in mind that the NFSA was set up to co-ordinate and fill in the gaps of our national effort against fraud. The NFSA is working closely with Lothian and Borders police in particular in leading the development of a comprehensive Scottish fraud strategy to match this one.

Serious Fraud Office

Once again, this is about the Serious Fraud Office and our efforts to combat fraud. Since publication of the de Grazia report, to which I have referred, the director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, has made many changes to the leadership team, improved staff training, and introduced measures to shorten the time taken to get SFO cases to court. He has reorganised the operational divisions and introduced a case management reform programme. The hon. Gentleman has probably read that a new general counsel, Vivian Robinson QC, with whom I am acquainted from my practice and who is an excellent choice, was recently appointed to sharpen up that end of the SFO’s work.

That is a more detailed explanation, but is the Attorney-General confident that the recent number of failed cases will be turned round by that?

I am sure that my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be as confident as I am of what I am about to say. There have been early successes, bearing in mind that Mr. Alderman has been in post less than a year. In October, the SFO obtained its first ever civil recovery order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 in a case in which Balfour Beatty was required to return £2.25 million of resources that it had progressed with. There are currently six specific mortgage fraud cases on the SFO’s stocks, and much has been done to sharpen its procedures up front so that it spots and evaluates more quickly which cases it should pursue and which it should leave. I hope that its conviction rate will follow that of the American models that the de Grazia review used.

Will the Solicitor-General agree to meet me and the former director of Excel Engineering, which was involved in one of those cases and had the largest number of people prosecuted for fraud? The company, which was the main victim of that fraud, has not been properly compensated, although other complainants who were involved in the fraud have been.

My hon. Friend has previously raised that matter with me in general. I am not sufficiently apprised of the details to comment, but I will gladly meet her as soon as practicable.

May I suggest that the Government are too complacent in their approach? We have correctly identified that the de Grazia report showed a significantly poor SFO performance, relative to US prosecutors, in cost per case, staffing per case and conviction rates. One third of the SFO’s management then left the service, and on top of that, only two days ago, the Solicitor-General made a written statement requesting an extra £15 million, but giving no reason whatever. Is it not increasingly looking as though the SFO is an organisation in crisis? The Solicitor-General needs to explain urgently what is going on with the SFO’s management.

The hon. Gentleman could not be wronger—[Interruption.] Well, he tries hard, but he could not be wronger. It is not unexpected that when reports such as de Grazia’s are produced and a new head comes into the SFO with different ideas about how it should be run, there is movement in the senior management. Richard Alderman seems to me from his presentations to be confident that the new people in post are likely to improve matters enormously. There is absolutely nothing odd, strange or overly demanding about the funding that has recently been given to the SFO. The hon. Gentleman should not be led astray by a Liberal Democrat piece of nonsense that was fed to the press. The Daily Mail reported that a spokesman for the SFO had said:

“This additional funding is the anticipated and agreed amount for this financial year.”

May I explain, in case the hon. Gentleman does not know, that funding for the SFO is based on blockbuster cases, which need the replenishment of funds as they are inquired into? The procedure that has taken place just recently is a very normal one.

I am glad that the Solicitor-General has come to that topic. Last year, the SFO came to Parliament to ask for £17 million extra, and Parliament was told that nearly £7 million of that was purely to cover administrative costs. This year, the SFO is coming to Parliament to ask for £20 million, which is more than half of its base budget, but we are not being told how much of that will be spent on purely administrative costs. In fact, the format of the estimates has been changed so that it is now impossible to tell how much the SFO is spending on administrative costs. Will the Solicitor-General tell the House what the £20 million is being spent on? How much is being spent on administrative costs and how much on cases? Will she also explain why the format of the estimates was changed?

I know of no important change in the format of the estimates. There is no figure of £20 million of which I am aware—I think there has been a little bit of exaggeration. The SFO has an additional £18.81 million, made up of £15.45 million and £3.36 million. That money is largely for the normal accrual of blockbuster cases. In addition, of course, the transformation programme to which I have alluded also requires replenishment. They are perfectly normal bits of funding. A contingency payment has been made and formal parliamentary approval will come in the spring supplementary estimates. If the hon. Gentleman wants any more detail, I invite him to write to me rather than simply getting it wrong and assuming something sinister when there is nothing sinister at all.

Sexual Abuse Victims (Court Proceedings)

4. What plans she has to make it easier for those who have undergone sexual abuse to give evidence in court proceedings. (247658)

The Coroners and Justice Bill, which was introduced to the House yesterday, will allow into evidence as of right, as it were, records of first interviews with complainants of serious sexual offences. That will avoid their having to go through the whole story again from the start in court. It will also allow in evidence from the first time that they complain of an alleged offence. Historically, complaints have only been allowed in when they have been made quickly after the incident, but now the courts recognise that it often takes time before complainants can bring themselves to complain. We have also increased the number of sexual assault referral centres and the number of independent sexual violence advisers, who, in their different ways, befriend and support rape complainants.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that response and congratulate the Government on what they are doing in this field. In Cardiff, we have benefited from the recent opening of a sexual abuse referral centre based in the Cardiff royal infirmary and from an independent sexual violence adviser who helps victims in the courts. What more can be done to help those women, whose experiences are so traumatic, so that when they go to court they feel that they will have a fair hearing and will be able to get justice?

An important aspect of sustaining people who complain—the British crime survey shows that about a third of people who are sexually assaulted never tell anyone about it, except presumably the British crime survey interviewers many years later—is sustaining their confidence to go to court. We can do that with sexual assault referral centres such the one my hon. Friend mentioned, Safe Island in Cardiff, with better trained police who interview in a more appropriate way and with better trained prosecutors. One hopes that from making a complaint to getting to court a complainant will be sustained and supported so she will have the confidence to get through. It seems to us that that is probably the most important factor in ensuring that women—and men—who have suffered sexual assault get justice.

Bribery

The Government are currently actively considering the Law Commission’s report on bribery, published in November 2008. We are committed to reforming that area of the law, and have announced that we will bring forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny this Session.

Of course, the UK has been committed, by treaty, to reform in that area for some time, but has not yet made those reforms. The Government were not interested in taking forward proposals for legislation in previous Sessions. Now that we have very clear proposals from the Law Commission, why on earth can we not go ahead with them with the greatest possible urgency?

Because although it is important that we act quickly, it is very important that we get it right. It is a complex issue and it merits pre-legislative scrutiny. Usually, the hon. Gentleman would welcome pre-legislative scrutiny as providing appropriate exposure of the law. There will be pre-legislative scrutiny in this case. I add that the OECD has recognised that our current law now meets the requirements of the convention, that we are in the top 10 per cent. of countries when it comes to ongoing investigations, that we are in the top third for convictions for bribery, and that we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International.