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Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

The Attorney-General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office (Senior Staff)

1. What steps he is taking to recover payments made to former senior staff at the Serious Fraud Office that were not properly authorised. (135612)

3. What steps he is taking to recover payments made to former senior staff at the Serious Fraud Office which were not authorised by the Cabinet Office or Her Majesty’s Treasury. (135616)

As set out in my statement to the House on 4 December 2012, on learning of these agreements and payments, the new director of the Serious Fraud Office sought legal advice on whether the arrangements might be reopened and on whether money might be recovered. The advice he received is that the agreements, although entered into without the necessary approvals, are binding on the Serious Fraud Office.

If one of our constituents is overpaid on tax credits, or on their housing or council tax benefits, which often occurs through no fault of their own, the state claws the overpayment back, yet the Serious Fraud Office has made unauthorised redundancy payments to bureaucrat fat cats—some of nearly £500,000—but seems to be doing nothing to recover them. What, therefore, will the Attorney-General do to get the money back? Perhaps he could get a new lawyer, but he could also take action against those responsible for irresponsibly giving away public money.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s disquiet about what has happened. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the director of the Serious Fraud Office, who is the accounting officer in this context, to take legal advice and to observe it when he receives it, and the legal advice he has received is quite clear. It is perhaps worth making one further point. The vast majority of the sums paid out would have been in line with the civil service compensation scheme. In my judgment, some payments may well not have been in line with the scheme, but the majority were—I would stress the totality of the sums involved. Should there be any further developments, I will inform the House of them. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I do not consider the matter to be satisfactory—it causes me disquiet, and the Public Accounts Committee may well wish to look into it.

I thank the Attorney-General for his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). In that spirit of openness, will he publish the findings of the independent investigation into the payouts commissioned by the current director of the Serious Fraud Office? Will he also indicate whether any legal or disciplinary action will be taken against the individuals responsible?

On the first point, my office and the Serious Fraud Office have received requests for this information, and we are currently considering whether any further information can be released. I would like to see as much of the information released as possible.

On the second point, it is right to make it clear that the person responsible for making these payments is no longer working in the civil service.

Does the Attorney-General realise that this is merely a symptom of something seriously wrong with the Serious Fraud Office in terms of its leadership, culture and record over recent years?

May I recommend that the hon. Gentleman look at the report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate on the Serious Fraud Office, as he will see that it has many laudatory things to say about the way in which the SFO has operated and sees it as capable of achieving significant outcomes in challenging cases? That is not to say that I do not think that there is room for improvement—I certainly do. A new director, David Green, has been appointed, and I have every confidence that he will be able to make the necessary changes. For example, he will be implementing the changes that the inspectorate recommended, and it will of course make a follow-up report to track that progress.

While we are on the subject of the efficiency of the Serious Fraud Office, may I ask the Attorney-General how it is that, despite the appalling behaviour of some bank staff in some British banks and the enormous fines that have been imposed on those banks by the regulatory authorities in both New York and London, no senior banker in this country has yet been prosecuted for complicity in serious criminal banking offences?

I know that in respect of this question the right hon. Gentleman will have in mind fraud in particular, which properly concerns the Serious Fraud Office. He did not say it, but I know that is what he meant.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, in whichever context. The Serious Fraud Office is carrying out a major inquiry and investigation into the LIBOR scandal. The conduct of the investigation is obviously a matter for the SFO, but the matter has not been ignored.

The Attorney-General has referred to the report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. I have read it, and it says that the Serious Fraud Office needs to improve its performance and appears to be suffering considerable resourcing problems. Will he consider the suggestion by the director of the SFO that the agency be allowed to retain more of the proceeds of crime that it confiscates? Might that be a way in which it could increase its funding?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting question which may turn out to be a good subject for debate in this House at some point. There is clearly potential for changing the rules on the retention of the proceeds of crime by prosecuting agencies, but it is equally right to point out that it is not an uncontroversial subject. Disquiet is expressed about prosecutors being dependent on asset seizure for the way in which they operate, and that also raises some profoundly difficult ethical issues. For those reasons, I would counsel caution about whether that is necessarily the right way forward, although I am open-minded about any improvements that can be made on funding.

Tax Evasion

2. How many successful prosecutions for tax evasion the Serious Fraud Office has completed in each of the last five years. (135615)

It is the Crown Prosecution Service rather than the Serious Fraud Office that prosecutes tax evasion cases. The records of the Crown Prosecution Service show that in 2008-09 there were 226 convictions, and the latest figures, up to November 2012, show 349.

We had a major debate on tax avoidance yesterday, and I think the country and Parliament want us to be very tough on tax evasion. Can the Solicitor-General assure us that the Government and the Crown Prosecution Service will concentrate on large national and international companies, and not on the small fish, so that ordinary people realise that they are not being singled out when much bigger prizes are available from much naughtier people?

I can certainly give my right hon. Friend the assurance that from top to bottom the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has given us a target of increasing prosecutions fivefold, and all parts of Government will tackle this issue hard. From the point of view of the Attorney-General’s office, my right hon. Friend may be interested to know that we have been referring cases where sentences are unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal. It has recently been established that seven years’ imprisonment should be the starting point for significant tax fraud cases.

Tax fraud is estimated to cost the Government £3.3 billion. What steps are the Serious Fraud Office and the Department taking to address that?

The Crown Prosecution Service, with the police, is working extremely hard on tax evasion cases to ensure that as many as possible are brought to court. As I mentioned, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has set the target of a fivefold increase in cases. The figures I read out show that since 2008-09, there has been a major increase in the number of convictions.

Child Abuse Victims

The Crown Prosecution Service takes all allegations of child abuse very seriously. Supporting victims of child abuse is vital to successful prosecutions. The CPS works closely with the police and voluntary sector agencies to ensure that proper support is provided to victims at all stages.

In the past two years, reports of child abuse have shocked the entire country. Currently, at least 13 inquiries are taking place, including three BBC inquiries into Jimmy Savile, a Department of Health investigation into Broadmoor, a CPS inquiry, and inquiries into child protection in Rotherham and Rochdale. What discussions has the Minister had with other ministerial colleagues to ensure all that work is pulled together, and to ensure that all victims of child abuse receive the support and protection they deserve?

The Director of Public Prosecutions is working closely with all other authorities and took a personal lead in September by holding a round-table to consider how child sexual exploitation offences can be tackled. Witness care units are important and new Crown Prosecution Service guidance on child sexual exploitation is due in the new year. A great deal is being done, and special measures are being put in place to help witnesses give evidence.

My hon. Friend is probably aware that a small team is looking into the history of cases of child abuse complaints in Northern Ireland. One member of the team is an ex-senior inspector in the Metropolitan police who explained to me that, looking back at cases from 1920, believe it or not, one stark fact is the astonishing lack of support for victims, including from the Crown Prosecution Service. Would my hon. Friend be interested in meeting him at the right time to consider whether there is anything from his expertise and research that would be of help?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that offer, which I will certainly take up. He is right to say that support for witnesses is crucial to enable them to give their evidence in a confident and effective way. That is why the witness care units, the use of the voluntary sector supporters and the other work going into special measures at court to make it easier for witnesses to give evidence are all important. I look forward to the meeting.

I welcome the steps taken by Keir Starmer and Nazir Afzal to try to reorganise how the Crown Prosecution Service deals with these matters. However, the fact remains that in relation to Rotherham there have been no prosecutions this year in the whole of south Yorkshire, despite 600 victims having been identified in the past few years. Does the Solicitor-General share my concern? Can we please see more prosecutions of the perpetrators?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, it depends on the police investigating cases thoroughly and then on the Crown Prosecution Service reviewing them to see what evidence is needed. A full review was carried out after the Rochdale case, which was particularly concerning. That was last autumn, since when the CPS has been working on the new guidance, which I hope will lead to more prosecutions. I accept the need for more prosecutions in this area, but we want to establish best practice, and that guidance will be out soon.

On another form of child abuse—female genital mutilation—there have been no prosecutions whatsoever in this country since it became illegal. Does the Solicitor-General share my hope that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ robust new action plan will lead to more progress in this area?

Yes, I certainly do. I have personally raised and discussed this subject with the DPP and was delighted that he held the round-table last September, which led to the robust action plan that my hon. Friend mentions. That is about improving the evidence available, identifying what is hindering investigations and prosecutions, exploring how other jurisdictions deal with these cases and ensuring that the police and prosecution work together closely on what are very difficult cases.

Human Trafficking

5. How many prosecutions for human trafficking there have been in the most recent period for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. (135618)

The Crown Prosecution Service charged and prosecuted 64 cases where human trafficking was the main offence between 1 April 2012 and 2 January this year, and has prosecuted other human trafficking cases using other legislation. The CPS is working with law enforcement and other agencies to improve investigation and prosecution and to encourage victims.

Those figures sound a little better than the ones previously published that suggested to me that out of 25 European countries Britain had fewer prosecutions for human trafficking specifically than all bar Malta, Slovakia, Estonia and Finland. What effect does the Solicitor-General believe the relatively low level of prosecution for specific human trafficking offences has on the potential for future human traffickers?

Of course, it is very important that we prosecute cases of this kind, but I make the point to the hon. Lady that the figures I read out and which are often quoted relate to cases where human trafficking was the main offence, but quite often with human trafficking, as she will know, the main offence is a violent assault or a rape, and it is the more serious offences that are flagged. In another 111 cases, in addition to the 64 I mentioned, human trafficking was one of the offences, but the main offence was a rape or major conspiracy.

There have been relatively few prosecutions for human trafficking involving forced labour, compared with, say, sexual exploitation, although there have been major successes in my own county of Bedfordshire and, just before Christmas, in Gloucestershire. These forced labour exploiters often earn enormous sums of money. What can we do to take some of that money to help the police fund these complex and difficult investigations?

My hon. Friend will know of the Connors case, which was finally concluded yesterday —an appalling case involving vulnerable people being forced to work by the criminals concerned. It is important that we tackle these cases, but the main offence was introduced only in 2010 and related to events that occurred after that date, so we are very much at the early stage of bringing these cases to court. The Connors case is one of the first. An agreement has been reached with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, however, to refer cases to the police, and other steps are being taken to toughen up on internal trafficking.

Has the Solicitor-General had any indication of the number of cases where files were submitted and the decision was taken not to prosecute, or of the number of decisions that were based on concerns about the witness capacity of the victims?

I will look into that and am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, because I do not have the information here. The Crown Prosecution Service is anxious to prosecute in this area if the evidence is available. All too often it is difficult to obtain the quality of evidence from overseas that one would want in order to prosecute effectively. There is also the problem that victims need a great deal of support and encouragement. All these matters are being addressed, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman on his point.

I welcome what the Government are doing in this field—they are being very proactive—but does the Solicitor-General share my concern that there is a temptation for the Crown Prosecution Service to choose lesser charges for which it is easier to secure a conviction, such as immigration offences, which results in traffickers getting a lower sentence than if they had been prosecuted for human trafficking?

I would dispute that. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), many human trafficking cases involve other offences, which are often more serious. With sexual exploitation cases, where there are continual rapes and serious offences of that sort, it is right to charge for rape as the principal offence because it is more serious in some ways. I therefore do not accept that the Crown Prosecution Service is going for lower charges. This is a matter that we in the Attorney-General’s office keep under review.

Law of Contempt

6. Whether implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson report will affect the enforcement of laws of contempt. (135619)

Lord Justice Leveson has provided detailed recommendations on how best the press might be regulated in future. Those recommendations and their implementation will be considered by the Government and Parliament. Whichever regulatory model is finally chosen, the law of contempt remains applicable. When appropriate, I will continue to bring proceedings against publications that create a substantial risk that the course of justice in proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.

What consideration has the Attorney-General given to Lord Leveson’s view that further guidance is needed on press coverage of police investigations and that

“save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances…the names…of those…arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press or the public”?

I have noted what Lord Justice Leveson has said and it may be something to be incorporated in press regulation. The current position on the law of contempt is that proceedings are active from the time of arrest. Those considerations are not identical to those that Lord Justice Leveson was considering, but they raise the issue that after arrest the press has to have in mind the possible impact on the fairness of the trial process thereafter. That could include naming a suspect; equally, it might be perfectly acceptable to do that.

There is continuing concern, nevertheless, about the almost habitual naming of suspects after arrest, which in the minds of many of us has the potential to cause real prejudice. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all he can to monitor the current situation and ensure that the law is prosecuted to its full effect?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am certainly mindful that in many of the contempt matters brought to my attention the problem has arisen in the period between arrest and charge. Of course, if the House were minded to change the law on anonymity, which has been floated previously in private Members’ business, that could be done by enacting legislation. However, let me make it quite clear that this would need a legislative solution, not one that I can in some way “magic up”. The law of contempt has to be applied free of all political considerations, and that is what I try to do as best I can.

I would not want the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) to feel socially excluded, so we will accommodate him, but he needs to be very brief.

Serious Fraud Office

8. What recent assessment he has made of the Serious Fraud Office’s ability to conduct a succession of large-scale inquiries. (135621)

The recent report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate demonstrates that the Serious Fraud Office has the ability to conduct large-scale inquiries, although there is scope for improvement. Funding for the Serious Fraud Office is kept under constant review. There is a set budget for the SFO, but as the Prime Minister has previously made clear in relation to the LIBOR investigation, if the SFO needs more resources, they will be provided.

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that none of the additional funding promised for the LIBOR investigation has been received by the Serious Fraud Office, and will he explain why? It is envisaged that the investigation will take three years. Why so long?

The undertaking is for up to £3.5 million for each of the next three years to be made available as and when required. When the SFO requires it, it will be made available.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General. I remind the House that, in addition to the two urgent questions granted today, there is a statement followed by a very heavily subscribed Second Reading debate on the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill. The UQs will therefore be run strictly to time, but depending on the level of interest, it might not be possible to accommodate all colleagues who are interested. I shall do my best, and I invite the House to do the same.