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Volume 689: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

rose to call attention to the responsibilities of the Attorney-General, other members of the Government and the Serious Fraud Office for compliance with the United Kingdom’s treaty obligations and the rule of law regarding the alleged bribery and corruption of foreign officials; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I begin this important debate with a short, true story. I apologise in advance to the House for being likely to consult my notes more frequently than I usually do, because it is also a very complicated story.

On 14 December last year, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General came to this House just before it rose for the weekend to report the decision of the Serious Fraud Office to discontinue its investigations into BAE Systems Plc, concerning payments made in relation to the Al Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia. He said that,

“it has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest”.—[Official Report, 14/12/06; col. 1715.]

He told the House that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary had been consulted. Continuation of the investigation, in their view, would cause serious damage to UK-Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic co-operation. I quote him again:

“The heads of our security and intelligence agencies and Her Majesty’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia share that assessment”.

The Serious Fraud Office believed also that there was no guarantee that its investigation, which would need to continue for a further 18 months, would lead to prosecution. The Solicitor-General said that it had decided that,

“the potential damage to the public interest which such a further period of investigation would cause is such that it should discontinue that investigation now”.—[Official Report, Commons,14/12/06; col. 1119-20.]

The Attorney-General agreed and indeed thought that the obstacles to a successful prosecution were such that,

“it is likely that it would not in the end go ahead”.—[Official Report, 14/12/06; col. 1712.]

In today’s Guardian, it is alleged that the Attorney-General was satisfied that the evidence was sufficient for a prosecution but was overridden, unconstitutionally, by the Prime Minister. In a long interview yesterday with the Financial Times, the Attorney-General reiterated that the decision was made by the Serious Fraud Office independently of his views.

In December 1998, the United Kingdom Government ratified the OECD Convention on Bribery, a key weapon in the global battle against corruption. The OECD recognised that corruption was not a one-way street, that those who offered bribes were as guilty of corruption as those who received them. Thirty-six countries, including all 30 members of the OECD, had agreed to the treaty. Under Article 5, signatories vowed that the investigation and prosecution of a foreign official would not be influenced by,

“considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved”.

It was unprecedented—or not unprecedented, but unusual—for the chairman of the OECD’s working group on bribery to write to a member Government but, shortly before Christmas, Professor Mark Pieth, the Swiss chairman of the group, did indeed write to ask for an explanation of the Attorney-General’s decision. The OECD had already criticised the United Kingdom for lax implementation of the bribery convention. Its March 2005 report pointed out that not even one individual or company had been indicted or tried for bribery of a foreign official by the United Kingdom since the convention had been ratified. That contrasts with a number of such prosecutions brought in France, one of the major competitors of the United Kingdom for defence contracts. Furthermore, resources made available by the Government for investigation of potential bribery cases were based on an explicit expectation that “few” foreign bribery cases would be investigated. The OECD examiners also urged the UK authorities to amend the code for Crown prosecutors to bring it in line with Article 5 of the convention. Nearly two years later that has still not been done.

Professor Pieth, whose recent letter has not been made public, was concerned that the Attorney-General’s decision in the BAE case was in breach of Article 5 and could undermine the effectiveness of the 1997 convention. He went further, raising doubts about the dual role of the Attorney-General. He said:

“The only explanation for dropping the case has been that there’s been very strong political pressure”.

In his interview yesterday with the Financial Times, the Attorney-General stoutly denied that there was any breach of the OECD convention. In that he was clearly at odds with the chairman of the working group on bribery of the OECD.

There were some strange anomalies in the Attorney-General’s original Statement to the House. He said that the security and intelligence services shared the assessment of the three Ministers consulted, one of whom was the Prime Minister but in his letter to the OECD, he referred only to the “benefit of their advice”, without disclosing exactly what that advice was. The Daily Telegraph reported on 19 January that John Scarlett, head of MI6, had refused to endorse the Government’s national security reasons for dropping the investigation. Although this was denied, no reference was made in the Attorney-General’s letter to the OECD to any such endorsement. Crucially, as far as we know, neither M15 nor M16 was ever asked for a risk assessment of the threat to national security mentioned by the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister.

Did the Serious Fraud Office decide to drop the investigation? On 18 January, in reply to a question from my noble friend Lord Garden, the Attorney-General declared:

“I repeat that it was the director’s decision, not mine”.—[Official Report, 18/1/07; col. 778.]

Maybe that was formally true, but the SFO had been vigorously pursuing the investigation for months. It had learned that BAE had two agencies to handle payments to foreign officials: Poseidon for Saudi Arabian officials and Red Diamond, based in Geneva, for other countries’ officials. Arrangements were made by a reputable British bank for the payments to go to personal Swiss or American bank accounts.

In September 2006, the SFO was granted access to the Swiss accounts for intelligence purposes only. The decision led to a hail of protests to No. 10 and the Attorney-General, from Saudi interests and from BAE. The payments, it was alleged, had been going on for many years, ever since the original Al Yamamah contract was signed in 1988, and the amounts were far from trivial. Indeed, that contract had led to an investigation by the National Audit Office, which reported in 1992. The Public Accounts Committee agreed not to publish its findings.

On 16 January, the working group on bribery met in Geneva. Feeling ran high among the members about the calling-off of the SFO investigation, especially among the American and French representatives, the main competitors for defence contracts with the United Kingdom. The other signatories to the convention expressed their serious concern about the Attorney-General’s decision, which was unusual for a body that works by consensus—and rightly so. The argument from national security threatens to destroy the OECD’s bribery convention by giving every member state a ready excuse for waiving its requirements.

If the UK was genuinely concerned about national security, the responsible way to address such concerns would have been for the company to go to the Serious Fraud Office and disclose precisely what had taken place, to pay the criminal penalties and help to identify the perceived security threats. The public interest in the rule of law would have been sustained and the public interest in national security protected. None of this happened.

What are the consequences of all this? First, the weakening of the battle against corruption, not just in the OECD area but in all those developing countries that we have been addressing in lofty tones about good governance. The double standards are glaring. Secondly, in an industry widely thought to pay huge bribes, where some companies have been working hard to improve their reputation, the Attorney-General’s announcement has done great damage. Thirdly, there are repercussions on the standards of our own Civil Service. It is hard to believe that senior officials at the Ministry of Defence and indeed at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were not aware of what was going on. I give them the benefit of the doubt, but with considerable doubt. As for the role of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, I leave that to my noble and learned friends to pursue. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has raised a very broad and important question for our consideration: in what way does and should our country deal with international corruption? That is so important a topic that it would be a great disappointment if this turned into a debate based on personal criticism of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General and, through him, the Government.

Clause 5 of the OECD convention makes it clear that general national interest shall not be the basis on which to excuse corruption. As I understand it, that was not the basis on which the decision about the Saudi Arabian investigation was taken; in fact, it was exactly the opposite, that of national security. I cannot imagine that a convention entered into using the phrase “national interest” must implicitly include national security in that phrase. I cannot imagine any ordinary citizen in this country thinking that it was irrelevant, or not vital, for a Government to consider national security in a situation like this.

If, as I understand it from recent material in the Financial Times, the director of the Serious Fraud Office not only took a decision based on his own judgment, having taken advice, but also consulted our ambassador in Saudi Arabia no fewer than three times, and if, as we know, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General in his Statement in the House said that this was a decision based on national security, on what basis is it to be questioned? If the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General exercises his office on the basis of principles such as honesty and objectivity, and so does the director of the Serious Fraud Office, that satisfies me without further evidence or material.

I cannot imagine any Attorney-General or director of the Serious Fraud Office treating those obligations to their country in a fashion that would enable them to serve some short-term political interest. The Attorney-General’s office is garbed with a dignity which would soon be in tatters if those principles of honesty and objectivity were not followed. I refuse to take part in debates about the office that do not take that into account but if such debates take place, we should have regard to whether those principles have been applied and, without convincing evidence to the contrary, accept that they have. The office is more important than the holder and the constitutional position is more important than any passing Government or their own interest.

On the wider question of corruption, this Motion, directed as it is at one aspect, begs a question. As corruption occurs before action by the Attorney-General or the Serious Fraud Office, what is our country doing about the prevention of corruption from the beginning? Last summer, the United Kingdom defence industry set up a working group to deal with the grave problem of corruption in its industry. A similar group was set up across Europe. As I understand it, a Member of your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, with a distinguished background, is closely involved in the work of those bodies. That is a great step forward. Why? Because, according to Transparency International, that industry is the second most corrupt industry in the world. So that is progress.

A short while ago, your Lordships’ House passed the Companies Act 2006, which is more progress. Under Section 172, a director must have regard in what he does for a company to how it affects the reputation for high business standards which that company should exercise. That is a novel change. It makes it extremely difficult for any director plausibly to suggest to his own board or to the world that engaging in corruption meets that statutory obligation. These are new steps. The Saudi Arabian question is over 20 years in the going. It is much more a concern, is it not, to make sure that we solve this problem for the future rather that pore over what went wrong in the past?

I have two other points about action. In the light of what has happened, surely it is necessary for the Attorney-General to establish a protocol with the Serious Fraud Office on the investigation of serious cases of corruption. There should be a system that he and the SFO can look to for guidance; a system that, for example, requires a national security assessment to be made when a prosecution or investigation is initially being considered, with further assessments as time goes by. There should be a protocol—faced with the actions of the industry, and faced with the Companies Act—that puts a heavy focus on the duty of British industry not to engage in corruption.

All of this debate raises the role of the Attorney-General in our constitution, our Parliament and our country. I cannot accept that, in 2007, he is simply a servant of government. Nor can I accept that his advice on matters of gravity should be private and not public. Times have changed. As for the Attorney-General’s role in Parliament, again, he has a responsibility to advise and guide us. But, above all, he has a duty to the nation. He represents the national officer of justice.

My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, in those sentiments, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, on raising an extremely important issue in Parliament. I emphasise the words “in Parliament” because this is where it ought to be raised. The key point that I am making in this debate concerns the Attorney’s position as the law officer of the Crown who is accountable to Parliament.

The Attorney came to us on 14 December and raised the position that the noble Baroness has correctly set out. Not surprisingly, it has come in for a good deal of criticism. It has been questioned by members of her party, and there have been interesting discussions. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, on the “Today” programme and on previous occasions. At some stage, a judicial review case is to be brought against the Attorney by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. The OECD has expressed concerns, as the noble Baroness indicated. African leaders have been raising the matter. It is a matter of huge and important public interest.

However, some suggest that the role of the Attorney should be changed in some way on account of this—and that is what I wish to resist very strongly indeed. A great strength of our constitution is that it is pyramidal in shape and that in the end, everything can be held to account in Parliament. That obviously does not apply to judgments that the Law Lords reach in their wisdom—until Parliament changes the law, that stands; but the question of the prosecuting authorities and the way that they are superintended by the Attorney-General, which is the issue raised immediately by this debate, most certainly should involve parliamentary accountability.

When he comes to consider any prosecution, the Attorney-General has to consider two questions, as do the prosecuting authorities in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors,. First, he has to consider whether there is sufficient evidence to give rise to a realistic prospect of conviction. Some commentators talk about the balance of probabilities on the criminal standard of proof before a British jury. The second question is whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. It is perfectly proper that that question should be considered and there is no doubt that questions of national security are of public interest—of very important public interest. In this case, doubt is thrown over whether this really is a matter of national security or of commercial convenience. It is entirely proper for that to be tested here and in public—indeed, as it is being tested.

The Attorney-General was right; and I have some sympathy for him, because he has been candid enough to tell us that his position in these circumstances was by no means comfortable—and that has been the position of Attorneys-General down the decades and centuries. It is one of the strengths of our constitution that the Attorney’s position should be uncomfortable from time to time and that he should have to answer. The Attorney-General is not the Prime Minister’s Attorney-General. He is Her Majesty’s Attorney-General, appointed under the Great Seal, just like a judge. He acts as guardian of the public interest, which is not the party-political interests of his party, but the interests of the public in the widest sense.

A balance had to be struck here. The matter needs to be and it is being questioned; but issues arise, such as the strength of the evidence. I must confess that I was struck, because the Attorney stated that he had spent two, three or even more days looking carefully into the evidential strength here. As I understand it, this case was not decided by the director of the SFO on evidential grounds—we have been told that it was decided quite clearly on public interest grounds; none the less, the fact that the evidence to the Attorney apparently seemed to be weak in regard to anything that happened after 2002, when the 2001 Act came into force, was a factor to be borne in mind. Then we have been told, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, reminded us, that there was consultation with Ministers, right up to the Prime Minister, and close consultation between the director of the Serious Fraud Office and our ambassador in Saudi Arabia.

Those consultations were perfectly proper, but I do comment on their manner. There has been a change. The Government and the Attorney should take note that there are dangers in “sofa government”, as it has been described. In my years as a law officer and when I was PPS to Sir Michael Havers previously, and when my noble friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden was Attorney-General, these consultations were carried out in an extremely strict and formal way. I have some worry that that has been relaxed. That may be said to be more modern, but great care and formality in these matters are extremely important. I would be interested to hear what the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has to say about that aspect.

My fundamental point is, as I say, that these matters can and should be answered in Parliament. The notion that you should pass the role of the Attorney-General off to some public official, be it the individual directors—the director of the Serious Fraud Office or the Director of Public Prosecutions—or some other public official, does not fit with our parliamentary system. It would reduce our accountability and the strength of our democracy, and we should resist that.

My Lords, the noble Baroness unfailingly brings to our attention urgent subjects that might otherwise be neglected. The Lib Dems are quite right to be infuriated by this case. I have been trying to think of the equivalent of “disgusted, Tunbridge Wells” for the Liberals, but I could only come up with “outraged, Orpington”. More seriously, this is a matter of widespread public interest, as has been said, and the Official Opposition’s silence has, to some extent, inhibited the parliamentary debate so far, at least in this House until today. It may well be that they support the Government’s line, but we shall hear.

There is a lot of moral high ground at stake and the SFO affair is a hurdle that the Government would like to jump quickly as they attempt to ride high in international diplomacy, as they do, before a new Prime Minister comes to power. As many NGOs have recently said, the decision to drop the SFO case has surely undermined DfID’s activities in the developing world. The World Development Movement said that,

“future efforts by the UK to prescribe governance standards for developing countries in receipt of aid and debt relief are likely to be viewed as nothing less than double standards”.

Given the impact of corruption on democracy, sustainable development, human rights and poverty, will the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General at least admit that the UK has lost face at the OECD and that DfID will have a lot of work to do to catch up? I welcome his statement that the UK’s,

“not … entirely comfortable decision … does not mean that we are backing off in any way from our commitment to tackling international corruption”.—[Official Report, 18/1/07; col. 779.]

But does he agree that the UK’s decision violates Article 5 of the OECD convention, which specifically states that the investigation and prosecution of foreign bribery,

“shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest”?

With what legal justification have the Government decided not to regard this article as integral to the convention? As Transparency International says, not only does the decision undermine progress made through the OECD anti-bribery convention, but it threatens the implementation of the more recent UN Convention against Corruption and damages the reputation of the UK as an international anti-corruption champion.

Let us not forget that DfID is held in very high esteem by the international aid community. Only last year, on the back of our dual chairmanship of the G8 and the EU in 2005, the UK was praised as,

“a powerful model for development co-operation”,

by the OECD’s DAC peer review. Governance and transparency were the major themes of DfID’s White Paper, which we discussed here on 11 January. The Government need no lectures on the close links that exist between the exploitation of minerals as a financial source for the arms trade and conflict financing, especially in the eastern DRC. It is essential that the UK maintains its position on this and on the important Kimberley process. Of course, other SFO investigations have been allowed to continue, such as the BAE contract for an air traffic control system in Tanzania, which has also rightly been under the spotlight because of the huge commissions paid.

I do not underestimate the importance of our national strategic interests and the role of intelligence, because I have always believed that the UK has played down the role of significant Arab neighbours both in anti-terrorism and during the Iraq war. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that the US, as our closest ally in the Middle East, is not impressed by the public interest argument that vital intelligence would not be shared if the investigation went ahead.

I also know the value of Saudi Arabia to our economic interests and the necessity of preserving our very close relationship. Equally, I am aware of the changes that are occurring in Saudi Arabia, which are often ignored by those who would foist democracy on the Arab world. Many Saudi Arabians today live by international norms and would recognise that huge commissions, such as were paid during the Al Yamamah contracts, have no place in either Islam or Christian philosophy. There is a lot more awareness of these issues in Saudi Arabia than our media, with their irrepressible desire for caricatures and stereotypes, would have us think. However, I support the Liberal Democrats’ call for the release to an appropriate Commons committee of the National Audit Office report on the deal, which would surely help to restore credibility.

The SFO is bound to pick up the Al Yamamah case at some stage, and the sooner there is transparency, the better. Everyone knows that there were sweeteners in the defence deals, and both BAE and the Saudi Government must come to terms with the new rules in due course.

I recognise the present political reality of the decision but it will not stick. Diplomats and officials must surely work harder with the companies involved in Al Yamamah to ensure that the contract is not seen as so outrageous that it is deemed beyond the pale and cannot bear investigation.

As the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell, have said, this is also about the role of the Attorney-General. As I think Lord Denning would have said, no one, be he ne’er so high, has the right to stop justice in its tracks. A Government who have sought to achieve the separation of powers and for whom the independence of the judiciary was a central plank of government policy expressed in the Constitutional Reform Act should agree with him.

My Lords, this is a very important debate and I welcome the opportunity given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to bring it before the House. This is not the only occasion on which the matter has been debated. I am very grateful that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell, started his comments almost with the words, “I feel your pain”. I remember well the Al Yamamah deal and the problems that it caused for the then Conservative Government. These are not easy matters. They bring into issue the interface between the rule of law and the problem of politics in an unlawful world. That is a part of the agenda which I do not think the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, addressed. I should like her to address it at some stage, because it is a very important part of this debate.

I agree very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord Brennan on the difference between national interest and national security. If I may simply identify myself with that difference, I need spend no further time on it. It is an important point and very relevant.

Other important matters have been raised by this issue, including the role of the Attorney-General. I have often wondered whether that role should be so heavily embedded in the Government. It is an interesting question. I do not feel expert enough to comment on it, although I note that, following all the constitutional changes that we have made, some people are now saying that we should take yet another step and make an even bigger change. Whether we should or not, I do not know, but I believe that it is a matter for significant debate.

The one area that I do not think is in any way justified is criticism of the integrity of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. His integrity on this and other issues is beyond question, but he has been presented with a profoundly difficult problem concerning the role of the political system and the role of the judicial system. Fortunately, in Britain we are all strongly signed up to the concept of the rule of law, and we operate in a country which places the rule of law on a pedestal. That is very good and it is one thing that we are admired for around the world. The problem, as I indicated earlier, is that we operate in an unlawful world. As with so many issues, we are trying to bring law to the wider world. In doing so, we must lecture people elsewhere on their behaviour and confront serious contradictions from time to time. This is not a new issue which has just emerged with the role of the United Nations and the rule of law.

It is not now well remembered but, in 1940, Sir Winston Churchill was challenged on the lawfulness of the occupation of Iceland; there was no legal basis for it, but everybody knew that it had to happen. No permission was given by the Icelandic Parliament; it was just done for reasons of national security of which everybody was aware. Issues like this have cropped up from time to time. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, might like to remember that, on the issue of whether Britain should intervene and invoke our treaty with Cyprus when Turkey invaded, we did not do so for two reasons: first, our defence ability was not good enough at the time and, secondly, national interest and security.

The way we are now trying to operate in the world is incredibly important. As we have this debate, the President of China, Hu Jintao, is going around Africa saying that China is not attaching any of the strings to aid or grants that are being attached by the western world. That should not lead any of us to conclude that we therefore give up and say that we cannot impose the rule of law on issues like bribery and corruption because the Chinese are giving money to Governments who we know will use it in a corrupt manner. I am not led to that conclusion, but it makes me aware of the struggle between the emergence of the rule of law and the political structures in which we must operate. Nothing could be more relevant to that than the country in the focus on this issue and the Al Yamamah deal.

Saudi Arabia has a crucial position in the Middle East as a whole. It is, and has been for many years, a pretty corrupt and authoritarian regime. There has been considerable pressure on the Saudi Arabian Government to reform, particularly since September 11 2001 and the invasion of Iraq. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, might regret the way we lecture countries, but the lecture is appropriate. Our problem with Saudi Arabia is not dissimilar to that with any other authoritarian regime trying to move into a more democratic and responsive role: if you push too hard, it goes the other way. That is the problem we face in the conflict between getting higher standards of the rule of law and democracy in other countries, while dealing with the conflict over national security. It would matter immensely to this country and, above all, to the stability of the whole region if Saudi Arabia went seriously pear-shaped.

I am not a lawyer, so I have an advantage in facing the political/legal interface. Many lawyers, perhaps inevitably, get trapped—because of their training, important though that is—into trying to analyse an issue detail by detail as though the law applies everywhere. I sometimes feel that part of a legal course ought to be a compulsory historical tour of this place, not least Westminster Hall where you can look at the plaques in the floor to see that some people were on trial for seven years whose charges were dismissed, while others were on trial for three days and then executed. At that time, we were developing the rule of law in the context of an emerging democracy.

These problems are not easy. Whether the Attorney-General’s role remains as it is, or is independent, or whether we publish certain evidence or advice he offers from time to time on important and relevant issues deserving pursuit, whatever we do, we will always be confronted with the conflict between exporting the rule of law and democracy and cutting our cloth to face the challenges of the day—be they the current situation in the Middle East or the invasion of Iceland. They will be there, and we must face that.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that these are not easy matters and I, too, welcome the opportunity that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has given us to discuss them today. We have rightly been reminded by my noble and learned friend Lord Lyell that in every jurisdiction in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland every prosecution has to meet a twofold test: whether there is a realistic prospect of a conviction, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest. It is on the second part that I shall speak briefly.

Whether something is in the public interest is an old and necessary test. It is of course in the public interest that a wrongdoer should be brought to justice, if that can be done fairly, but there may be rare cases where there is an over-riding public interest in not bringing a wrongdoer to trial, when it will not be sensible to cut off the public’s nose to spite the public’s face. Such a case can be visualised—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brennan—when grave damage to this country’s security were a prosecution to take place is seriously and insistently foreseen and warned against. It ought to be common ground that there must be provision for such a safeguard if we are going to deal with the real, dangerous world.

The essential issue is who shall determine the matter, which is one of the most difficult constitutional questions that we face. My starting point is that somebody, however unenviable, must be empowered to do it. Whoever that is, he must be accountable to Parliament, if there is to be maximum trust or at least minimum scepticism. He will always need to act upon information given to him, which it will be his duty to test as far as is practicable; much of that cannot be disclosed, so there will always be a measure of distrust and scepticism. The trick is to find the solution that will provide the least disadvantage of that character.

It is said that the Attorney-General cannot determine these matters, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will say, much more eloquently than I can, that to set aside all partisan considerations is more than can be asked of flesh and blood in the Attorney-General’s position. However, I disagree; I have seen it done, and I venture to claim that I have done it myself. I saw it done when Sir Michael Havers, as he was then, at the height of the Westland affair threatened to mount his own inquiry unless there was a proper inquiry into a certain troublesome matter. Such an inquiry was mounted, so he did not have to execute his threat. In my own time as Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, Brian Nelson was prosecuted for conspiracy to murder. He was a greatly valued Army informer who went wrong and conspired to facilitate that which it was his duty to obstruct. I had to ask where the public interest lay. I formally consulted Ministers who had an interest—as I was fully entitled constitutionally to do—about where they thought the public interest lay, and they, very properly, told me. However, the DPP concluded that a prosecution was essential in the public interest, and I fully agreed with him. Brian Nelson got 10 years. It can go the other way, and I experienced that too. There was a case in Northern Ireland where there was sufficient admissible evidence to prosecute for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, but it was made clear to me, and through me to the DPP for Northern Ireland, that serious security considerations militated strongly against a prosecution. The director himself concluded, and again I agreed, that the over-riding public interest required no prosecution.

I was able to go the next day to the House of Commons to volunteer a statement before one was demanded of me, which it certainly would have been. I told it all that I properly could, and it was clear to everybody that there was much that I could not. I had an arduous grill—very properly—but then the House moved on, and the matter never came back. I believed then and continue to believe that I am entitled to suppose that natural anxieties about the matter had been allayed; it could have come back so easily by any number of means before the House of Commons, but it never did.

I hope that these illustrations are more relevant than egotistic. If accountability to Parliament is essential, how can some official, however immaculately untainted by political interest, achieve it? To explain any controversial decision the presence of a Minister will always be demanded in the Chamber. If not the Attorney-General, who should it be? If all the wretched Minister could say had to be prefaced with, “I am informed that it was because of this, that or the other”, he would be eaten alive. There would be talk of organ-grinders, monkeys and so forth.

Time presses; I wish only to say in conclusion that as to the BAE decision I have heard nothing to establish in my mind that the Attorney-General acted improperly, unconstitutionally or that his office should be stripped of its historic and very relevant role as guardian of the public interest.

My Lords, it is excellent that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General is here to answer the debate. Nothing that I say is an attack on his personal integrity; he has been put in an impossible position.

When the noble and learned Lord became Attorney-General I tried to convince him that he should make his office less political and more constitutionally independent, as happens elsewhere in the Commonwealth, Israel and Ireland. I did so because I was convinced that the Attorney-General, like the Lord Chancellor before the Constitutional Reform Act, wears too many hats.

I did not persuade him. On the contrary, his office has become more political, no doubt because he believes that the Attorney-General should be at the heart of government and be politically influential. I respect that view, shared, as we have heard today, by previous holders of his ancient office, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Lyell and Lord Mayhew.

I believe, however, that the events of the past five years illustrate the need to reform the present arrangements so as to restore public trust in government and to strengthen the rule of law. Good governance under the rule of law depends not only on the courts but on the proper working of the constitutional rules and conventions, and the political will to make them work.

The constitutional rules and conventions were stretched to breaking point over the invasion of Iraq, and now they have been broken in halting the criminal investigation into the BAE Systems affair. It was wrong for the Cabinet to be kept in the dark about the noble and learned Lord’s written opinion when it considered whether it would be lawful to invade Iraq without a UN Security Council resolution. It was wrong for it to have to rely only on what he told them on the eve of the invasion. It was also wrong for Parliament to be given only a facile Downing Street précis of his conclusions without the benefit of his sophisticated advice and the reason for his change of opinion. When we debated the legality of the invasion, we were kept in the dark. It was only because his advice was leaked to the press that we learnt part of the truth.

I agree with almost all public international lawyers that the invasion was unlawful. To her great credit, the deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, promptly resigned because she did not agree that the use of force was lawful. She considered that the noble and learned Lord had changed his view on the matter. Then in December we learnt that the law officers were kept in the dark about the attack on Egypt in 1956. Eden and his Cabinet bypassed them, presumably because they knew what they were planning was plainly illegal. That is another example of why reform is needed.

The Attorney-General also has important responsibilities for the enforcement of the criminal law in the courts. There are a number of offences for which a prosecution cannot be brought without the fiat of the Attorney-General. That was meant to provide a safeguard against the risk of prosecutions being an abuse of proceedings or contrary to the public interest. Surely a member of the Government and a politician should not be able to decide whether to prosecute for a highly political offence involving alleged corruption. The Attorney-General is a member of the Government, their most senior legal adviser and independent law guardian of the public interest. How can he claim credibly to act quasi-judicially when he plays a highly political role at the heart of government? That is the dilemma.

The manner in which the criminal investigation of alleged corruption in relation to BAE Systems was halted shows how fragile and inadequate are our present constitutional arrangements for protecting the rule of law and good governance. It has eroded public confidence in the Government's integrity. In halting the investigation, the Government have acted in clear breach of their obligations under the OECD convention against corruption, as my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby pointed out. It has stained the international reputation of this country and set a bad example here and abroad. It has weakened the battle against corruption in international trade.

The weaving and ducking, buck-passing and hand-wringing involving the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, the SFO and the intelligence and security services as to why, how and at whose behest the pending criminal investigation was halted are a shambles, harming the Government's reputation as well as the reputations of BAE Systems and the Saudis and adding to widespread public distrust and cynicism about standards in public life. If I may say so, the noble and learned Lord's insistence that he has no choice but to decide whether anyone should be prosecuted in the cash for honours affair is also unwise and unsustainable.

I was delighted to read in last Sunday's Observer that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has suggested that the Attorney-General's role is to be changed as part of further constitutional reform and that Gordon Brown is considering radical reform of the role to restore public trust. As elsewhere in the Commonwealth, parliamentary accountability for the Attorney and the DPP could easily be secured by having an elected Cabinet Minister of justice. The sooner that that happens, the better it will be for the good governance of this country under the supreme law of the British constitution—or what should be our supreme constitutional law.

My Lords, as always, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lester, especially as I agree wholeheartedly with what he said.

I speak in this debate only to draw attention to a particular phrase that passed the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General's lips in the debate on 14 December, when he cited the following statement of the Serious Fraud Office:

“It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest”.

Does the Attorney-General accept that formulation? He has certainly not repudiated it. Indeed, he has endorsed the idea of a balance. In the same debate, he said:

“The short statement from the SFO makes that clear by saying that it has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest”.—[Official Report, 14/12/06; cols. 1712-15.]

I find the proposition about the need to balance the rule of law against the wider public interest unacceptable. In my simple understanding, you either have a rule of law or you do not. It cannot be left to the discretion of government or a statutory agency to decide the circumstances under which a particular law applies. That gives the Government licence to break the law whenever they want. I am not convinced by the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that government’s accountability to Parliament gives sufficient protection for the rule of law, for the reasons stated by the noble Lord, Lord Lester: Parliament will never be given enough information to decide the matter. If a Government feel that they need greater powers to protect the national interest or to defend national security, their proper course is to apply to Parliament for those powers, which could include the specific right to take the public interest into account in applying the law in that particular case.

The OECD convention against corruption, as accepted by the United Kingdom, did not allow the UK to vary the law to take into account either,

“the national economic interest or the potential effect upon relations with another state”.

I therefore repeat my question: does the Attorney-General accept the doctrine that the rule of law needs to be balanced against the wider national security? If not, I ask him to repudiate it. If he does, I suggest that there is an ominous and dangerous future for the rule of law in this country.

My Lords, Governments are always susceptible to allegations of double standards—it goes with the business—and I am only too aware of how difficult it is for them to find themselves between a rock and a hard place in deciding on prosecutions when it may mean offending people whose friendship may matter. However, the Serious Fraud Office’s announcement that it was calling off its investigation into alleged corruption involving BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia has caused us serious concern.

I declare an interest as a member of the advisory council to the World Bank Institute. For a number of years, we have been actively seeking to deal with corruption around the world and the establishment of the rule of law and human rights standards, and it has been a source of great despondency to many that this investigation has been abandoned. It would have been one thing if it had been abandoned because it was unlikely to succeed, but abandoning it in these circumstances was a source of alarm. I recently spoke to Eva Joly, the French judge who dealt with the Elf corruption case with great courage. She, too, is still working on the eradication of corruption, and feels that this decision has undermined so much of the good work that has been done in recent years.

The explanations given have already been spelt out today. It was said that there was a balance to be struck between the rule of law and the wider public interest. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, has just said. The rule of law really is at the heart of everything. Adherence to the rule of law is fundamental if we are to talk to the world about what matters and how to prevent conflict. It was maintained that the decision was nothing to do with commercial concerns, and that it was based on diplomacy and security. Well, not much evidence has been provided to support the suggestion that it was about security. It seems that we were anxious not to offend the Saudi princes, given the mess of Iraq. Let us be clear: the problem is not really BAE Systems. Arms companies sell arms; that is what they do. They sell them around the world, and the job of politicians is to ensure that economic activity is consistent with law and morality. Jobs are important, as are good relations with other countries, but preserving them should not supersede the law.

There is a long history of Governments doing business with odious Governments. Back in 1977, bribes were paid to the Shah of Iran to secure arms deals. We should have learnt that those business arrangements rarely pay dividends in security and intelligence. I accept what previous Attorneys-General have said; sometimes one can imagine the extreme circumstances in which security was of such an order that one might decide that one cannot proceed with a prosecution. However, those circumstances would be rare, and there is no suggestion that that is the situation here. Such a decision gives rise to the question: who would decide that balance? The answer has been an Attorney-General. It would have to be an Attorney-General who had the public’s confidence that he was completely independent of the political processes.

When my party came into government in 1997, we pledged to be different, and I feel very proud that that was our pledge. Robin Cook’s mission statement that year on 12 May, my birthday, is worth remembering. I remember it very well, because he spoke of our foreign policy having an ethical dimension. It was laughed at in some quarters, but I thought it was a proud consideration. Now it seems as though we can be pushed up against the wall by dictators and by other Governments, and we are prepared to do what it takes to stay on good terms with them. This whole episode of stopping this investigation really was a sad moment for us.

The office of the Attorney-General has existed for 500 years, as others have said. The Attorney-General is a member of the legislature and the Executive, and he attends the Cabinet at the request of the Prime Minister. In recent times, however, this Attorney-General has been inclined to attend every Cabinet meeting. He is also a member of various Cabinet committees. The public’s perception is therefore that the traditional role of previous Attorneys-General has been evolving into something different. It is in the rich mix of the Attorney-General’s diverse responsibilities, which straddle the various limbs of government, that we are becoming increasingly concerned that the checks and balances in our constitution are getting out of kilter on many fronts, and this is one of them.

As a member of the legislature and the Executive, as an increasingly active participant in the Government’s tri-lateral approach to criminal justice, the Attorney-General is seen more obviously as a politician. In that capacity, he acts as any other Minister, and he is politically accountable to the Prime Minister and to Parliament as a member of the Government. Yet as the Government’s chief legal adviser, he is also called on to advise the Prime Minister and other Ministers on the legality of their actions and policy initiatives. He does so, we claim, independently, but his growing association in the public mind with daily political imperatives leads to widespread public scepticism. We have seen that in the way in which the advice was provided on the Iraq war, the current issue about the Attorney-General’s role in relation to loans for honours, and his role in relation to the investigation into BAE Systems and corruption.

The public now have a different perception and different expectations, because they are much better informed. The nature of our media tells us more, so our world has moved on. Our constitutional arrangements must adjust to deal with that. It is clear that the recent development of the Attorney-General’s ministerial role has made it more difficult for the public to distinguish between his political and legal functions. In this context, the Government have already recognised the dangers inherent in multi-functional ministerial portfolios. That is why the role of the Lord Chancellor was reformed. I do not advocate that we follow the manner of the reform of the Lord Chancellor’s role, as that left a lot to be desired. However, we should now look at the role of the Attorney-General and decide whether it is suitable in the 21st century for someone who is clearly a politician to decide on matters of such legal importance. The question then arises: whose lawyer is the Attorney-General? He is not the Prime Minister’s counsel, although many of the public think he is; he is the public’s counsel. He is supposed to be protecting the public interest, and I am afraid that that has become fudged in the minds of the general public.

Let us look at what we can do. The Attorney-General could return to the role that his predecessors traditionally undertook as the Government’s chief legal adviser, but with a powerful role in protecting the public interest. As one of our previous Attorneys-General said, he should be likened to a judge. He has a quasi-judicial role. In returning to that traditional position, he should cease to superintend prosecutors, such as the head of the SFO or the Director of Public Prosecutions, and should not promote the Government’s criminal justice policy or attend Cabinet, except by exceptional invitation.

Those things can be done very easily. Some would say that there is a difficulty with that approach in that the process has gone too far and in the public’s mind this position is perceived to be too political. I argue that you could reform the role of the Attorney-General in a way that keeps it pure and away from contamination and the suspicion that the Attorney-General may be doing the bidding of political masters.

I say that with sensitivity to the feelings of the current incumbent, but it is about the way in which our world has changed. The way in which that role is evolving makes it more political and, therefore, challengeable as to whether it is suitably independent. I, too, support the suggestion of my colleague in the law the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that this is a constitutional moment when we should look again at some of these key roles in government to see whether they can be established on a different footing.

I urge that, after this debate, at some point leaders of our political parties should look at our constitution.

My Lords, some sort of constitutional assembly should look at key issues to bring back appropriate checks and balances.

My Lords, these are grave matters that we are debating. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for giving us the opportunity for this debate. I am not a lawyer. I will not try to define the position of the Attorney-General—whether it is right or wrong, or should be extended or not. I approach this from a rather different angle. For 20 years, before I went into politics, I worked for an international firm trading commodities around the world. From 1984 to 1987, I was at the Foreign Office with responsibility for the Middle East under my noble and learned friend Lord Howe and, of course, I visited Saudi on several occasions. It is against that background that I would like to speak for a few minutes today.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, gave us a very pleasant quotation from Lord Denning. I should like to quote from last Sunday’s Collect—the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany—which says,

“by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright”.

That is at the heart of our business today, other than the position of the Attorney-General.

I visited Sir Stephen Egerton in Riyadh, who was our much-praised ambassador from 1986 until 1989. He had a very pleasant obituary in the Telegraph when he died last September, which stated:

“In 1986 he was appointed ambassador to Riyadh, where he was involved in negotiating the £20 billion Al Yamamah Project, involving the sale to Saudi Arabia of numerous aircraft together with their weapons, support and associated infrastructure—one of Britain’s largest long-term arms deals”.

Subsequently, Stephen broke away from the Government’s view. He did not think that we should have gone into Iraq, which he said publicly and made himself rather unpopular. I knew Stephen Egerton from when he was a schoolboy, and he was a strong and intelligent man.

We have also to consider today, although we have not yet, the fact that—let us face it—nations pursue objectives that will benefit the nation in terms of employment, growth of technology and alliances with foreign states that may be useful or, indeed, vital in the future. That is what working in foreign affairs is about. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, in a very good speech told us not to look back too much, but to look forward. But, in all fairness, we have to ask whether we prefer to have won the Al Yamamah project even if there were some—I will use my words tactfully—off-balance activities that should not have happened or whether it would have been preferable not to have won it but to have seen it go to the French, the Americans or today perhaps the Chinese and ourselves to have remained squeaky clean. It is a fair question to ask. In a sense, it can be answered only by individuals with reference to their own consciences.

Of course, the world is changing, as we were reminded very much by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. Perhaps one should say, “Thank goodness for that”. As has been said already, we signed the OECD anti-bribery convention in December 1997. Every country that signed that convention promised to back it up with an active, effective Act, which we have totally failed to do in this country. We have failed to legislate. Noble Lords will remember the documents that I have here with me. In March 2003, the Home Office brought forward a draft Bill. A very long report by a joint pre-legislative scrutiny committee on the draft Bill said that the definitions were wrong and that it had to be changed. The Home Office produced a reply to the legislative committee and two years later it produced a consultation document. That was in 2005: how many years therefore have passed since we signed the treaty? If my maths is right, it is eight or nine years. Other countries have signed it. France, which we criticise so much, started action in three days. Germany started action in three months. Australia and Canada have taken this matter very seriously. But we have marked time, stamping our heels, saying that the definitions are so difficult. It is that that I find totally unacceptable.

In order for us to follow up, for example, the commitments to African countries that the Secretary of State for International Development is making and the fact that obviously the OECD is tackling difficult countries where there is now corruption—but the UK cannot now be quoted as a good example—it is necessary for us to do two things. First, publicly, we need the fullest-possible explanation to defend the British Aerospace decision. It is not for me to argue what is national interest or national security. But I think that the statement made so far by the Attorney-General asks many more questions than it answers. It surely should be a duty for us, who basically understand what the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have to do, to try to obtain a much clearer explanation, which is as wide and as large as possible.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Government must produce a new corruption Bill. Having produced it, they must find the time to take it through Parliament and then commit real resources to the policy of eradicating international corruption wherever it is manifest, as Transparency International, which has sent some very good papers to many of us, has said. How do we do that? We promote good governance. It is a long and difficult job, but it is infinitely worth while.

My Lords, I was very impressed by the previous speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, particularly because Stephen Egerton, to whom he made several references, was my closest friend. I very much regret that he is not alive now because I would have had great interest in talking to him about the subject of this debate. At about 5 pm on 14 December, I was sitting at my desk in the attics of your Lordships’ House when the annunciator told me that the Attorney-General would make a Statement in a few minutes. Ironically, I was here only because I was waiting to go to the Attorney-General’s Christmas party. However, I thought that I should listen to the Statement, and what I heard frankly horrified me. It became apparent that the United Kingdom was submitting to Saudi Arabian blackmail by discontinuing the investigation into the possible bribery of Saudi officials by BAE Systems. Since then it has become apparent to me that that discontinuance was in all probability a breach of Article 5 of the OECD convention. Here I should perhaps declare an interest as a member of the advisory committee of the United Kingdom branch of Transparency International.

Corruption poisons. It is a poison that does immense damage to developing states. Funds which should and could have been available to help people out of poverty are creamed off by their rulers and end up in Swiss bank accounts. The developed countries, particularly the members of the OECD, are working to cut back on corruption. That is why we have the convention, and it is why the United Kingdom became a party to it. That is also why we enacted Part 12 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. So what do we do when the Saudis object to an investigation? We give in and terminate it.

There are some curious aspects of the decision to terminate. The Prime Minister claimed publicly that it was his responsibility. If so, that was unconstitutional. The Prime Minister should never interfere in decisions on prosecutions. The Attorney-General says that the Prime Minister did not take that decision. Under our present constitutional arrangements, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, pointed out, it is the Attorney-General himself as the independent head of the prosecution service who is the right person to take the decision to stop investigations on the grounds of public interest. That is because he must be in a far better position than the head of the Serious Fraud Office to decide that question. But the Attorney-General did not take that decision. He left it to the director of the Serious Fraud Office, the unfortunate Mr Wardle.

Why did we give in? According to the Attorney-General, it was on the grounds of national security. There is a suspicion that the real grounds, in the mind of the Prime Minister if not of the Attorney-General, were to protect the commercial interests of BAE Systems. There is a suspicion that the alleged danger to our security is based on evidence no more reliable than the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Those are suspicions—no more than that—but they are not unrealistic suspicions, and if we are to dispel them we need answers to many questions. I shall outline six of them.

First, we want to know what pressure BAE Systems put on the Government to end the investigation. Secondly, what did the Saudis say to BAE Systems or the Government would be the likely consequences of continuing the investigation? Did they make specific references to the removal of co-operation on intelligence? Thirdly, what advice or information did our security services give to the Government, and did that include any form of risk assessment? Fourthly, what advice or information did the ambassador to Riyadh give to the Government or to the SFO? Fifthly, what did the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary say to the Attorney-General when they were trying to persuade him to end the investigation? Lastly, what did the Attorney-General say to the head of the SFO, and why did he not take the decision himself?

What has been done has done severe damage to the worldwide battle against corruption and to the international standing of this country. I believe it is important enough to need a thorough and dispassionate inquiry into the circumstances leading to the termination of this investigation. This is more serious than the events which gave rise some 15 years ago to the Arms to Iraq inquiry. The question is: was there a threat to national security so severe as to justify overriding the rule of law, and to justify breaking the obligations of this country under both our domestic and international law? Or was it the case that the Government were guilty of obstructing the course of justice by blocking further investigations? We need and must have an inquiry into these circumstances.

My Lords, this Government place great emphasis on international development. When they chaired the G8 and held the presidency of the EU, that was their theme. The Make Poverty History campaign reinforced that. At the G8 in Gleneagles, they emphasised not only what the West could do, but what developing countries might do themselves. High on that agenda was tackling corruption. So when DfID published its White Paper last summer, following on from Gleneagles, its overarching theme was good governance, and the Secretary of State for International Development was made the Minister for tackling corruption.

Introducing the DfID White Paper in the Commons last October, Hilary Benn said that,

“one thing is clear beyond doubt—without good governance we will not be able to defeat poverty, or climate change, or war, or famine”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/10/06; col. 1737.]

He was in no doubt that corruption went both ways—the givers as well as the recipients of bribes. Again I quote:

“Bad governance can be caused or made worse by the actions of rich countries and their companies. For every bribe taken, there has to be a bribe giver; for every stolen dollar that is spirited out of a developing country, there has to be a bank account somewhere for it to go into”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/10/06; col. 1739.]

The UK, he pledged, would renew its admittedly poor efforts in tackling this. Yet on 14 December the Attorney-General stated his desire to,

“balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest”.—[Official Report, 14/12/06; col. 1712.]

That balance was seemingly struck by abandoning the SFO investigation into BAE Systems. Surely the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, is right about the absolute nature of the rule of law. What is the British interest here? Succumbing to foreign pressure? British companies having the reputation for bribery?

The Attorney-General stated that he had consulted the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, or was it the other way around? Did the Prime Minister approach him first? But if he felt it was appropriate to consult his political colleagues, did he consult the Minister tasked with fighting international corruption? It seems that he did not. On Tuesday, I had an Answer to my Written Question on that. DfID’s response stated that Hilary Benn’s role,

“as Minister leading on the fight against international corruption does not include being involved in decisions on individual law enforcement matters; and nor should it. This is properly a matter for the relevant investigatory and/or prosecuting authorities—the SFO in this case”.—[Official Report, 30/1/07; col. WA 29.]

Hilary Benn said in a reply to my colleague Alistair Carmichael in the Commons on 24 January that:

“It would be improper for me to be consulted because that is an operational decision and quite properly that responsibility rests with the director of the SFO and the Attorney-General. Indeed, if I had been consulted on an operational decision, the hon. Gentleman might have been the first person to complain about it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/01/07; col. 1410.]

So do we understand from that that the SFO is to be at arm’s length from politicians on operational matters? What of the other Ministers, even the Prime Minister? The Written Answer to me concludes by saying:

“As the Attorney-General explained, he obtained the views of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries as to the public interest considerations raised by this investigation and conveyed them to the director of the SFO”.—[Official Report, 30/1/07; col. WA 29.]

We have heard that one of the public interest considerations related to information on terrorists. If so, and if it was appropriate to consult these Ministers, why was the Home Office not asked, or the Department of Trade and Industry on whether this decision would jeopardise the reputation of the City? Here I note that Hermes, Britain’s biggest pension fund, has said that it threatens the country’s reputation as a leading financial centre and would have a high long-term cost for business and markets. Can the Minister let us know whether he did consult the Department of Trade and Industry, and if so, what advice he received? What did the Foreign Secretary say about precedents? What will happen on Tanzania or South Africa? Might we decide to call off the SFO inquiries there because we suddenly need Tanzania’s or South Africa’s vote at the UN, perhaps on an invasion somewhere because we feel that that is in our national interest, and maybe they are siding with China, tied in with it over trade.

The Saudi ambassador to the UK says that corruption must not be condoned. So is this about preserving BAE? We do not know.

What does the Attorney-General think Hilary Benn should report to the Prime Minister this month on his new area of responsibility? Should he report the concern expressed by the OECD secretary-general about,

“the political will of our members”?

The Prime Minister wrote in the foreword to the DfID White Paper that,

“there will need to be an effort right across Government to put our pledges into practice”.


“Good governance”,

said Hilary Benn,

“is about ensuring the rule of law … Corruption hurts poor people and it undermines the accountability of political leaders and officials to their citizens”.


The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke of double standards. If we are not to assume that this is what we are facing, could the Attorney-General explain to the House how the actions that he took just before Christmas in relation to BAE and Saudi Arabia can possibly square with the apparent sentiments so clearly expressed by his colleagues?

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on bringing this matter before the House today. Like other noble Lords and many other people, I was very worried about the intervention of the Prime Minister into this matter and I tabled a number of Written Questions. Perhaps I may summarise them. I asked:

“Under what statutory authority the Prime Minister used his executive power to order the termination of investigations of possible corruption in dealings between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia”,

and what were the precedents. Secondly, I asked:

“What legal or other advice the Prime Minister sought before the decision was taken”;

and, thirdly,

“Whether the Cabinet was consulted before the decision was taken”.

I received the following reply from the Attorney-General:

“The Prime Minister did not order the termination of the investigation. The decision to terminate the investigation was taken by the director of the Serious Fraud Office. The Cabinet was not consulted about that decision but, as explained in my Statement of 14 December 2006, the views of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary were obtained as to the public interest considerations raised by the investigation. This was done in accordance with the well established procedure known as a Shawcross exercise”.—[Official Report, 22/1/07; col. WA 200.]

Because I thought I must have heard wrongly, I looked at the transcript of the Prime Minister’s monthly press conference on 16 January. I fear I shall have to quote extensively from it. It states:


Prime Minister, you mentioned you are unveiling a Serious and Organised Crime Bill tomorrow. People inside the SFO would say that they were very hot on the heels of serious and organised crime involving the Saudi Royal Family and British Aerospace and that they were actually extremely close to prosecutable evidence when you drove a coach and horses through the case. Secondly, there are very few people when you really press them that believe the Saudis would ever have severed cooperation on security matters, that they in fact need us really rather more than we need them.


I would not agree with that assessment. Look these are difficult decisions that you have to take as Prime Minister … I think that had we proceeded with this investigation it would have significantly materially damaged our relationship with Saudi Arabia, that that relationship is of vital importance for us fighting terrorism … and as I say all of that leaves aside the fact that we would have lost thousands of UK jobs. So you know I don’t know who you are talking to when they tell you that we don’t need the Saudis as much as they need us on counter-terrorism.


And the message to the developing world in terms of anti-corruption, when you know that you had to use your executive position to override the rule of law?


Look we have done, as you rightly point out, we have done more than any other country probably in recent years to push this forward and things like the Extractive Industries Initiative and so on in relation to Africa. But I have to take judgments, I mean I don’t accept what you say, and I think the Attorney General made some mention of this at the time actually about the likelihood of prosecution. I don’t actually accept what you say, but I have got to take a judgment about the national interest and that is my job, and you know when you come to views like this you expect it, and I knew I would be heavily criticised for it, but I believe it to be the right judgment, and you know this isn’t just a personal whim of mine, it was the judgment of our entire system and I can assure you from everything that I know it was extremely soundly based”.

Yet the Attorney-General said that the Prime Minister did not take the decision. It is quite clear from the Prime Minister’s own mouth that he did take the decision. He mentioned the Attorney-General only once in the whole of that questioning. So I have to come to the conclusion that the Prime Minister improperly used his influence and, in doing so, has undermined the good name of this country abroad.

My other point relates to the Shawcross letter. As I understand it, Sir Hartley, who was an Attorney-General in the first post-war Labour Government, devised a list of criteria that he felt should apply to a prosecution. He decreed that political colleagues should be consulted to obtain all the relevant facts, including the effect of any prosecution, successful or not, on public order or morale. He also insisted the decision must not be influenced by political considerations or pressure from colleagues. Clearly he did not believe that political considerations should come into it and, certainly, he would not have believed that his doctrine or his letter should allow a cover-up of commercial and political chicanery. That is what has happened in this case.

I hope the Attorney-General will have another look at the Answer he gave to my very relevant Question, if I may say so, and correct any mistake that he may have made in giving such a reply.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships of my participation in the Transparency International project on the prevention of corruption in the official arms trade.

Corruption is corrosive to both society and the individuals engaged in it. It takes two parties to engage in corrupt practices: those who do the bribing and those who modify their actions having received the bribes. Once corrupt practices become accepted at any level of any Government, they are extraordinarily difficult to eliminate. Corruption undermines the relationship between officialdom and the citizen, and is an attack on democracy. Thus, when we claim a role in promoting democratic values around the world, we have a special responsibility to prevent corruption.

When I look at the security aspects that are central to the Attorney-General’s arguments, I have deep concerns. The European Union recognised the real security threat corruption poses when, in the global strategy document of December 2003, the member states, including the United Kingdom, said:

“The best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states. Spreading good governance, supporting social and political reform, dealing with corruption and abuse of power, establishing the rule of law and protecting human rights are the best means of strengthening the international order”.

That EU strategy was all about dealing with the threats we face in the years ahead, including terrorism. It was therefore astonishing to me, as it obviously was to other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, when on 14 December—when, again fortuitously, I was in the Chamber—the noble and learned Lord came to argue the reverse case. He told us that the national interest with respect to security from the terrorist threat outweighed concerns about the rule of law.

Whether or not the allegations against BAE Systems ultimately would have proved well founded, the suspension of the investigation on the grounds of national security interests raises for me deep concerns about our long-term strategy for combating terrorism. There are a number of adverse effects in this case. First, we know that the extreme form of Islamic militancy that has led to al-Qaeda has its roots in Saudi Arabia. One of the methods of gaining support among the wider population is to bring to the notice of the people the claim that the Saudi leadership is corrupt. The way that this investigation has been stopped will reinforce those perceptions, whether they are right or wrong.

Secondly, it is suggested that the Saudi Government have threatened to withdraw intelligence support to help us combat terrorism. If that were the case, would it not in effect mean that they were threatening us with terrorism? That allegation is hardly conducive to good UK-Saudi relations. In any case, many of those close to the intelligence world would argue that Saudi Arabia is a net gainer in terms of intelligence exchanges about terrorist threats. It needs our support in order to meet its very real terrorist problem.

Thirdly, there is the question of the lesson other countries will take from all of this. They can presumably now assume that they can demand from the British Government illegal concessions in totally unrelated areas by squeezing the intelligence flow. Does that not put us at greater risk as well?

Fourthly, around the world corruption will increase, as our example of claiming national security interest is followed by others. That corruption in turn will undermine the development of democracy, lead to more conflict and, in the longer term, rebound on us through terrorism.

I would argue that it cannot be in the national security interest to appear to turn a blind eye to the possibility of corruption. We explored the issue at some length in the debate on the DfID White Paper on 11 January. I asked some questions that were not answered, and I will repeat one of them, which I hope the noble and learned Lord will be able to answer. What now is the position for British companies operating in Saudi Arabia today? Can they confidently bribe with the blessing of the British Government? They need to know what their position is in the light of this decision.

Many in the defence field believe, rightly or wrongly, that it was not primarily a security issue, but a question of the continuation of the lucrative Al Yamamah project. If commercial interests were a factor in the decision, the reaction in the City of London, the United States and South Africa—and it is spreading further—now indicates that British business may be the loser in the long term rather than the winner. Not only that; think about BAE Systems. Our major aerospace company is left tainted by allegations that have not been resolved. We find ourselves criticised by the OECD, and I do not doubt that when the Global Corruption Index is next published we will find ourselves rather lower in the pecking order.

The British Government are the prime customer for the UK defence industry. They can and must use that power to enforce the necessary anti-corruption measures. A letter dated 17 January from an extraordinary range of international non-governmental organisations to the Prime Minister concluded by saying:

“Given the devastating impacts of corruption on democracy, sustainable development, human rights and poverty, we call upon the UK Government to re-open the investigation of the [Al Yamamah] case”.

I have a final question for the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. In the light of all that has happened since his Statement on 14 December, is it not time to think again where the national interest lies? The national interest is to promote the rule of law and re-establish the United Kingdom’s international reputation.

My Lords, it is good to hear a former very senior member of the British Armed Forces, as well as a colleague on this side of the House, talking in those terms. I reflect with some sadness that in the debate so far the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has been helped in the arguments he has deployed by only two colleagues, the noble Lords, Lord Brennan and Lord Soley. That is a pretty vivid illustration of the way the House feels about this very disturbing matter.

I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby on her initiative and skill in putting down this Motion to ask the Government to give some important answers to some very serious questions. Although he is not in the Chamber at the moment, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, for making some very wise points indeed.

Corruption of any kind—even the thorny problem of finding a definition of it that will stand up to searching analysis—is a hard item for parliamentarians to deal with. I recall that I made my own maiden speech in this House on 16 July 2004 on the very themes encapsulated in the Joint Committee on the draft Corruption Bill. If time allowed, it would be useful to go into all those matters now, but I shall spare the House from that. I am delighted that our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, is launching his own Corruption Bill soon, which will assist our progress in this complex field. However, it is mainly corruption at home that is in people’s minds when they think of legislation like that; it is when corruption involves overseas that the stark issues we are discussing today arise.

Coming back to the matter in hand, I begin by solemnly asking the Attorney-General to take a deep breath and reconsider his recent decision in respect of the SFO inquiry into BAE Systems—and indeed his future role, as has been enunciated by other speakers in this debate. In all the 27 years I spent in the House of Commons, and in the short period that I have been a Member of this House, I cannot recall a time when I felt more shocked and disturbed than I did at the noble and learned Lord’s announcement on 14 December, a bleak day indeed in the history of our modern Parliament, of modern governance and indeed of a Government more beleaguered and discredited than ever before, for all sorts of reasons.

We are now told on good authority that the SFO personnel have suffered a collapse in morale and self-confidence as a result of this intervention that will take a long time to repair. I do not accept the Written Answer given to me on 31 January by the noble and learned Lord on that matter. Incidentally, on the same day the Prime Minister was being grilled by the cops—as they say in the soaps—in Downing Street on the cash-for-peerages affair. There is now some reason for assuming that Scotland Yard, undaunted by some pretty nasty pressurising from foolish Ministers and others, is insisting on asking awkward questions and persisting with the inquiry; maybe even closing in on certain highly placed people, I do not know. That is nothing to do with this particular issue, but is gives a flavour of the atmosphere at the moment in this country and the way the public feel so disturbed about many of these things that are happening, when no proper explanations are being given. I cannot think of recent precedents for a principal inquiry by the SFO, a body which knows how hard it is to get the evidence to make the charges real and fit for court scrutiny and proper legal inquiry, being literally stopped in its tracks on the most artificial and spurious of arguments that would have made former South American dictators proud of their skills.

At least the Attorney-General had a smidgen of grace in saying that he felt uncomfortable with the decision. That is one the greatest understatements in recent parliamentary declarations. This key investigation by the SFO had already gone on for a very long time, so hard had it been to gather evidence. Ominously, as the SFO began to get closer to the real facts and the truth behind secret bank accounts and the like, the arrogance of the Saudi rulers and princes came out in full force.

Why is it so important for this Labour—yes, Labour—Government to give such succour to a pretty dubious regime, to say the least? I do not want to offend any Members of this House, but the idea that the Saudi Arabian regime is regarded as popular in the West or in most Arabian countries would be laughable. No one seems to ask for democracy in that country with the same intensity as did the Americans in Iraq. It is a country with an entrenched and reactionary monarchy which does not let people vote properly, although it is pretending to have discussions about it. It forces women into medieval dress codes and forbids them to drive cars. Even in Arabian countries, that is regarded as unattractive in a modern society.

I do not believe that the Saudis would have discontinued security co-operation with the West or with this country if the investigation had continued. The survival of their own unappetising regime depends on such contacts anyway—it is two-way traffic in intelligence services as we know—and if the Saudi Government and various individuals were innocent of the charges to which the SFO investigation was leading, they had nothing to fear from this inquiry proceeding to its proper conclusion in line with international law.

Thus has our own formerly distinguished nation in this context, with a long history of trying to reach probity and accountability both at home and abroad, prostrated itself with explanations which are so flimsy as to be laughable. I do not believe the preposterous notion that no weight has been given to commercial interests or the national economic interest.

How on earth can the SFO credibly carry on the inquiries into slush funds in other countries? This is one of the more ludicrous fall-out effects of all. Presumably, the elected leaders of Romania, Chile, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Tanzania, who, unlike those in Saudi Arabia, are elected, can ask for the same exemptions, some of them with a much stronger claim on providing regular reliable security information to this country on a reciprocal basis. What a grotesque farce as well as an utter disgrace.

It is no surprise to recall the origins of this deal—they go back to the mid-1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was keen on the president of Chile, Prince Sultan and King Fahd—and the huge commercial importance of this order. It is said that even Mr Mark Thatcher may have been involved at the margins, but I know nothing about the details of that.

The Attorney-General has a legitimate responsibility to determine the genuine public interest of Britain. He is not required to give first place to the public and private interests of questionable characters in a Government of a foreign country with a doubtful reputation, as many people would agree.

We also now know from people here being prepared to be both brave and indiscreet that the chiefs of our security services had grave doubts over this sordid tampering directly by No. 10. There was even a suggestion that the British Government had seized on the argument of security co-operation before even the Saudis had begun to say the same things. We do not know; we are scrambling around for genuine and legitimate information on this matter. We ask the Attorney-General to think again.

At the heart of this monumental disgrace is a dual role which is no longer valid in the modern world, with our complex need for full information and open government. The Attorney-General needs to think seriously about these matters and decide what he has to do.

My Lords, in March 2006, the Africa all-party parliamentary group, of which I happen to be the vice-chairman, published its report, The Other Side of the Coin: the United Kingdom and Corruption in Africa. The report followed on in part from the United Kingdom Government’s endorsement of recommendations by the Commission for Africa on how western Governments can support Africa's battle against corruption. It followed on from the UK's role in chairing the 2005 G8 summit, which committed G8 countries to take action on corruption.

The group’s report urged the Government rigorously to enforce existing laws and sanctions against international bribery and corruption. It urged the Government to bring to Parliament, before the end of 2006, a new anti-corruption Bill, which would address the concerns raised about the 2003 draft Bill by the Joint Parliamentary Committee and the OECD phase 2 review.

In June 2006, Downing Street endorsed our report’s conclusions that the Government should take a proactive approach to combating international corruption and support African leaders who were trying to crack down on corruption in their own countries. Downing Street agreed to implement most of the recommendations. The Prime Minister appointed Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, as the “anti-corruption champion across Whitehall”. The Government's response was welcomed. It was a signal that they were sincerely focused on how Britain could help fight corruption in Africa.

However, less than six months later, the decision in December 2006 by the Attorney-General to drop the investigation into the Saudi arms deal ran totally counter to the spirit and letter of the Government's promises in June. The decision to drop the investigation has risked comprehensively undermining Britain's credibility in the battle against corruption in Africa and elsewhere. Dropping the investigation has damaged the painstakingly established confidence won by British exporters in trade, in commerce and in the service industries. Dropping the investigation has attracted puzzlement, followed, frankly, by scorn from the international institutions charged with exposing and eliminating corruption, institutions of which Britain is supposed to be a foremost member.

Is it any wonder, for example, that President Mbeki of South Africa accused the Prime Minster at the Davos summit of double standards? He claimed the decision to drop the corruption investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia, but not its relationship with South Africa, left his country tainted. According to the Times of 27 January, President Mbeki said:

“It does puzzle me why a strategic interest with regard to the work of BAE, there should be a strategic interest that would arise in one country and does not arise in other countries”.

I understand that the Attorney-General has insisted that Serious Fraud Office investigations into BAE Systems’ activities in Romania, the Czech Republic, Tanzania, and Chile, as well as South Africa, are all to be pursued “vigorously”.

It would be little short of amazing if Britain did not have strategic interests in any of these countries. After all, international terrorism is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon: it is an international war. It would be puzzling if, in some of these countries, the interests were not so strategic as to be vulnerable to the sort of pressure which has apparently been exerted by Saudi Arabia. When we look at strategic interests, we must think about international terrorists and the traffic in drugs and people, which is happening in many of the countries which appear to be on the hit list.

All of this begs the question whether the threat to halt the exchange of intelligence material with Britain emanated from the Saudi Government at all, particularly given the huge risks of cutting of one’s nose to spite one’s face in such an action, as has been eloquently stressed by noble Lords in earlier comments.

In reaction to the Serious Fraud Office’s decision to terminate the investigation into the UK-Saudi arms deal, the secretary-general of the OECD stressed the important role of Governments in preserving the integrity of the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention. He made it clear that the political will of members, individually and collectively, to support and enforce the convention was of critical importance, but the Working Group on Bribery had serious concerns as to whether the UK's decision to drop the investigation into the Saudi arms deal was consistent with the convention, to which the UK is a signatory.

It is a sad day for any claim that the UK might have had to be leading the fight against corruption in the world when 35 out of 36 of the signatories to the OECD convention have serious concerns about the UK being committed to complying with its terms. Will the Attorney-General tell us how the Government intend to dispel the perception of double standards when in March they next meet the Working Group on Bribery?

In that context, one of the issues that surely should be addressed—it has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords in this debate—is the requirement of the consent of the Attorney-General for the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute a corruption offence.

There is no doubt that the UK would advocate that in developing countries, decisions of criminal investigation and prosecution authorities should be wholly independent of government. If the Government had brought forward a corruption Bill by the end of last year, as promised, this issue could have been already resolved. Nevertheless, Ministers will be aware from the comments made by my noble friend Lord Dykes that a draft Bill is readily available. It has had its First Reading in your Lordships' House. Ministers will have noted the Private Member’s Bill published in my name, entitled the Corruption Bill, does not require the consent of Attorney-General for the SFO to prosecute a corruption offence. This Bill began life as a 10-Minute Rule Bill in another place, drafted with the support of Transparency International and presented by Hugh Bayley MP with cross-party support from senior Members, led by John Bercow MP and Malcolm Bruce MP.

The Government should be concerned with re-establishing the UK's integrity and reputation with the OECD in tackling bribery and corruption. By supporting the Private Members’ Corruption Bill at its Second Reading, due this month, they can, at their meeting in March, demonstrate to the OECD Working Group on Bribery that their concern is genuine and their commitment deep—something that they have so far failed to do.

My Lords, I must first congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on initiating this debate. I want to follow up some of the points that she specifically raised at the beginning. But I start by saying that we should all welcome the fact that we are now discussing this issue in a totally different context and climate to any comparable debate 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. An awful lot has changed; in those days, the general attitude throughout the world was to keep quiet whenever possible about issues of bribery and corruption and to assume that it was right to turn a blind eye and that even if anyone wanted to take action nothing could be done. Thankfully, in the UK and the world generally, some progress has been made and these issues are now being discussed in a totally different context—that of discussing what possible action should be taken with the different presumption that action should be taken whenever possible. That is a very different backdrop to what we would have had even 10 years ago.

The Government deserve credit for the role that they have played in that both in publishing criteria for assessing licensing decisions, which goes back 10 years, but also the legislation of 2001. But I remind the House that although we have a different climate in which to discuss these issues, it does not mean that bribery and corruption is an easy problem to tackle or to deal with. We have to be realistic in any case, with any prosecution that involves these issues in a foreign country, that they will be difficult to clarify and not easy to prove. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has made it clear in the BAE case that he did not think that a successful prosecution was a likely outcome, and I think that we should all accept his word. I certainly do.

Even had the situation been different, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, was saying, and the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General had been convinced that a successful prosecution was likely, he would still have had a duty to consider the consequences of any such prosecution and, in particular, a duty and responsibility to consider national security interests.

Like one or two other noble Lords who have spoken today I am not a lawyer. It is strange that we always want to make that clear! I am not sure that I understand all these procedures precisely. However, as I understand it, the Serious Fraud Office has to abide by certain principles which are set out in the code for Crown prosecutors, which is why there are two stages to the decision: first, whether there is sufficient evidence and, secondly, if there is sufficient evidence, whether it is in the public interest to pursue the case. To my simple mind, that means that the procedures that are laid down anticipate that there will be cases in which the national interest takes precedence—otherwise, why would we have that kind of two-tier procedure? In the case of BAE Systems or any other case the basic questions are whether there is sufficient evidence and whether public interest takes precedence.

We have heard again today demands to know who gave advice on what was in the national interest and, in particular, what was the role of our intelligence and security services and whether the decision was made on political or economic grounds. The fact that the SFO is pursuing other cases involving, among others, BAE in other circumstances, leads me to believe that it is serious in its intent in examining all these cases carefully and that we should not simply write off all those cases as an earlier speaker did.

When the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, on 18 January—a letter that has been used by noble Lords several times today—he said that the decision,

“was based on potential damage to the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, and ultimately on the risk to the lives of our citizens and service people if the case had gone ahead. The judgment was that UK co-operation with Saudi Arabia in the counter-terrorism field is of crucial importance; that Saudi Arabia is a source of valuable streams of intelligence on Al Qa’ida and other terrorism activity”.

We all know that those threats are real.

To some, that statement simply provokes demands for making the information public. I remind the House that demands of that nature for more information in the public domain led to the publication of the dossier on Iraq in September 2002 and the whole debate about the nature of intelligence and levels of understanding about the limits of intelligence. I was close to that issue at that time and do not want to say too much about it, but any public statements by agency heads on issues of this kind will lead either to demands for more and more information or to accusations that they have been leant on, or both. I urge some realism about the necessary caution that must be exercised in these matters.

We have heard also demands for proof of what would have followed had there been a successful prosecution in the BAE case. I do not think that we can pretend that anyone knows with certainty. Would the Saudis have withheld co-operation or been less willing to share vital information? Would they have been less willing to take risks themselves? My answer is that I do not know for sure—and I doubt whether anyone in this House knows for sure, including Ministers. But Ministers have to make decisions; they have to consult agency heads, diplomats, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and, yes, the Prime Minister who is closely involved in receiving information on intelligence assessments. At the end of the day, Ministers have to make a decision, which involves national security and therefore cannot be taken lightly—otherwise Ministers will be accused of dereliction of duty if they did not give protection of the citizens of this country absolute priority.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Soley, invited us to take a historical perspective of the problems that are before us. I am sure that the late lamented Lord Russell would have taken up the challenge and referred to Francis North, who was the Attorney-General during the troubled Restoration period under Charles II. Lord Macaulay rather shrewdly observed that a lawyer who after many years devoted to professional labours engages in politics for the first time at an advanced period of life seldom distinguishes himself as a statesman. I have to declare an interest in that regard.

Francis North lived in dangerous times. His brother wrote of him that as Attorney-General he was continually tormented with rascally projects and the unreasonable importunities of great men at the heels of them. While Crown Court judges and members of administrative tribunals cannot be removed, save for inability or misbehaviour, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General is in a very different position. The weakness of his appointment is that the Prime Minister can sweep him away at will at any time. He has no tenure. This was the case a long time ago. In 1810 Sir Francis Burdett pointed out that the Attorney-General was entirely dependent on the Administration. He said that he was the creation of its breath and that his official existence expired with the frown of the Minister.

The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General is tied to the Prime Minister and to his legacy, and there are plenty of rascally projects about. If Mr Blair will be remembered as the Prime Minister who took us into the Iraq war, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, will be remembered as the man who changed his mind on its legality. If today’s Guardian is right—we wait to hear from the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General in due course—he will be remembered as the man who was prepared to sanction the prosecution of the chief of British Aerospace on lesser charges and to seek a plea bargain in order to put an end to an uncomfortable investigation, but that under pressure from the Prime Minister he changed his mind. He said that it was not his decision.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, rightly crystallised the two legal issues, although she tells us that she is not a lawyer. First, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General says that on his investigation there was no case. All we have heard so far is that the prosecution could not call a witness from the Saudi Government to prove that it was wrong for the person receiving money from British Aerospace to receive the bribe at all. If there is plenty of evidence that a bribe has been given to a foreign agent, that is enough for a prosecution in this country. It is like saying about a football manager who takes a bung that you cannot prosecute him for bribery unless you call the chairman of the football club to say that he should not have had it. It is totally unnecessary to prosecution. Of the reasons that we have heard so far that there is no case, there is nothing that satisfies lawyers.

The second reason is national security. The interview with my noble friend Lord Goodhart published in yesterday’s Financial Times was very helpful on how this decision was taken. He said in terms that the Saudi threats are not being made to the intelligence service; they are being made to the Government. He was asked directly whether the security services ever offered specific intelligence about whether they thought the action threatened by the Saudis was likely to happen if the investigation continued. My noble friend replied that they certainly did not disagree that the Saudi threats were real.

Therefore, this threat to national security does not come from the intelligence services. That, indeed, is what has been said by the SIS itself. As one takes apart and deconstructs what the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said yesterday, the matter appears to have started with the ambassador because he told the SFO what his judgment on the consequences was. The SFO was taken to the ambassador so that it could hear directly from him what the consequences would be if the investigation continued. According to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, the matter went from the ambassador to the Prime Minister. He said that it was clear from the Prime Minister and the other senior Ministers what the national security concerns were. The judgment was reached by the Prime Minister and senior Ministers as to what the consequences would be. When asked whether there was a national security issue, he said that there was no doubt at all that that was the judgment of the Prime Minister and of senior Ministers. That was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart—it is the judgment of the Prime Minister that is in issue. From the Prime Minister it goes to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, who carries it to the SFO, which goes back to the ambassador to find out what he is saying. Is it a matter of national security? It is not intelligence; it is what somebody has said to the ambassador in Riyadh. That is as far as it goes. There are no hidden secrets about it, save in so far as there were no doubt discussions on an ambassadorial level.

My noble friend Lord Goodhart reminded me of the afternoon of Thursday 14 December. I was engaged in Grand Committee on the tribunals Bill. At about 3.30 pm I received an urgent message that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General wanted to see me at a meeting at five o’clock. The Grand Committee adjourned. I turned up at five o’clock at the office of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. Nobody was there. The noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Kingsland, turned up. We thought that we must be in the wrong place, but at about seven minutes past five the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General arrived with his retinue and produced the Statement. I will not go into what was discussed but within seven or eight minutes we were in the Chamber. The only time I had to discuss the matter with Simon Hughes, who was there, was walking down the Not-content Lobby to this door. By the time I reached the door, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General was on his feet and I was required to respond straightaway.

I protested that the public interest in the prosecution of international corruption was of the highest order and said that if we permitted international corruption to continue in any way or seemed in any way to give a go-ahead to a large British industry, however much that might be in the economic interests of this country, we damaged international relations in the broadest sense. I had strong support from my noble friend Lord Goodhart. He was so passionate and coherent about it that I assumed somebody had told him but not me. I consider that was an unworthy attempt, late on a Thursday afternoon at the end of the Session and in an empty House, to bounce the Opposition into an unguarded assent to the decision that had been taken. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General told us that he had considered the matter for days, but not a hint of that was passed on.

What about the future? What does it mean? First, I entirely support the suggestion of an inquiry made by my noble friend Lord Goodhart. There are serious questions to answer which affect the integrity and reputation of this country. Secondly, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General must realise that his position will be impossible to defend if he involves himself in the decision to prosecute in the loans-for-peerages scandal. The public perception is that he bends principle to political pressure. He is caught either way. Sanctioning prosecution will be perceived as an assertion of his independence; stopping prosecutions will be perceived as an expression of his dependence. This may be unfair but I have to tell your Lordships that I have myself strongly defended the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General against vituperative attacks on his integrity from members of the legal profession who were Labour supporters.

Thirdly, it is essential that the office of the Attorney-General be cut loose from the Government of the day. As in other countries, the Attorney-General should be seen to be utterly independent in making decisions about prosecutions with political consequences. The role as legal adviser to the Government must be fulfilled in other ways, perhaps through a ministry of justice, but that role of deciding on prosecution must come away from government. This Government have not hesitated to throw away the Lord Chancellor, wig and breeches and all the rest of it, and they should not hesitate to take the step of dividing up the functions of the Attorney-General.

I end with the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky; you either have a rule of law or you don’t. If we allow this situation to continue, we do not have the rule of law in this country.

My Lords, we near the end, and we look forward in due course to hearing the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General take up this opportunity to show the accountability to Parliament of his office. I start by offering my congratulations and thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on introducing this debate and for securing so many learned and important speakers. I offer my thanks particularly to my noble and learned friends Lord Lyell of Markyate and Lord Mayhew, both former holders of the office of Attorney-General. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will be grateful for the contributions that they have made.

I offer my commiserations to the noble and learned Lord for having to respond to this debate. He will accept that there have been contributions from a large number of noble Lords who have experience of ministerial life and of the difficult decisions that have to be made and then brought before Parliament. There have been a whole host of other speakers, all of whom have brought their experience. Three former Chief Whips from this place and another place have spoken; but we have not heard much about their dark arts. He has also had to listen to some seven senior members of the Bar. I hope that he will look forward to answering all the points that have been put to him in the debate.

There are one or two points that I want to make fairly briefly from the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Opposition. First, I go back to the Statement that the Attorney-General made on 14 December, to which my noble friend Lord Kingsland responded and my honourable friend the shadow Attorney-General responded in another place. I make it clear, as we made it clear then, that on the basis of the comments that the Attorney-General made about the highly speculative nature of the inquiry and that any final prosecution was unlikely, the decision to discontinue the investigation, in view of the potential damage to our national security, was inevitable and was the only sensible course of action. Having said that, there is a very clear need for the Government to provide greater guidance on the operation of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 in terms of its impact on payment to individuals abroad, particularly since BAE Systems and its executives have always—it is important to remember this—denied any wrongdoing. Thirdly, as Parliament has enacted law criminalising the bribery of foreign officials, that law must be enforced wherever such crime occurs wherever possible.

I now turn to the role of the Attorney-General. We make it clear from this side of the House that, unlike the Liberal Democrats, we wish to see the Attorney-General in Parliament and accountable to Parliament. I would be very grateful if the noble and learned Lord could tell us what the Government’s attitude to this question is. I look at today’s Guardian, and I see an article about Ms Harriet Harman, Member of another place, entitled, “Harman breaks ministerial ranks over loss of public trust in attorney general”. It goes on to say that she, and possibly the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, would like to see the Attorney-General’s role changed. Having seen that headline, one feels a faint whiff of rats leaving sinking ships. I would be grateful if the noble and learned Lord could confirm that he and the Department for Constitutional Affairs—which I now see represented on the Benches opposite—have no particular desire to change the role of the Attorney-General, and will leave him in this House or in another place.

The Attorney-General is now in this House rather than the House of Commons, as was his predecessor, the much lamented Lord Williams of Mostyn. I remember Lord Williams of Mostyn taking up his role as Attorney-General in this House. He reminded us that he was the first Attorney-General in this House for 400 years. Certainly, in this House we thought it was a great honour to be represented by having the Attorney-General here. It might be a mistake; it is possibly a reflection on the lack of necessarily legally qualified Members in the other place of the party opposite. Many would agree that if the Attorney-General is to be in Parliament, as we think is right and proper, it would be better that the Attorney-General was in another place—in the Commons, in the House where all the action is.

I move on to one or two other points about the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General and how he has exercised his functions. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, referred to the fact that he was attending Cabinet on a very regular basis, whereas I have been advised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew that in the past the Attorney-General attended only by invitation and where necessary. I wonder whether he could address that fact and whether it is necessarily desirable for him to be there the whole time, or whether it might be better to revert to the old system. Again, this might be a reflection of the fact that the Cabinet has much less function than it used to have and is of considerably less importance. Certainly, many of us would feel happier were the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General to be attending Cabinet only as and when asked to, rather than attending on a regular basis.

As we have made clear, the Attorney-General should be in Parliament. The idea that he could be taken out of Parliament puts into question the whole idea that he can make a rational, objective and impartial decision while he is a politician. We make it clear that we believe that politicians, whether lawyers or otherwise, can make rational, objective and impartial decisions, just as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, did when she was Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection or Secretary of State for Education in the 1970s. We see no reason why it should not be proper for the Attorney-General to be in exactly the same position, making what I describe as rational, objective and impartial decisions in his role as Attorney-General.

The noble and learned Lord has had a large number of questions put to him from all sides of the House. He now has 20 minutes, or possibly more if he wishes to take it, to answer them. He is, as we have made clear, still accountable to Parliament. If the Liberal Democrats got their way, this debate would not be taking place. All of us look forward to hearing the noble and learned Lord respond to those points, and we await that response with interest.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for providing the opportunity to debate these issues, and I hope to clear some of the air. It is not the first time that I have come to the House to deal with these issues. I came here immediately that the SFO reached its decision. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, at least, welcomed the fact that I did so, even though the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, takes a different view. I answered a Question on this matter in the House on 18 January. It was also raised on 11 January in a debate on poverty and governance, to which my noble friend the Leader of the House responded and referred to this matter.

I am very happy to be here today and will do the best I can to answer the many questions. I thank all noble Lords for having spoken; it has been a wide-ranging debate. I want to come back to the issues surrounding the BAE case, because a number of misconceptions and inaccuracies, and worse, have been expressed about it and it has touched on the issue of my role. That is an entirely legitimate matter of public debate, and one sees from the newspapers that I am getting a lot of helpful advice from my ministerial colleagues, for which I am extremely grateful, and other Members of this House.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, in his final remark, was absolutely right and I will come back to that. It is only because I am a Member of this House that I am accountable to Parliament for what I do, that I am here answering these questions, that I answered the questions put previously and that I have answered—together with my deputy, the Solicitor-General—something like 20 parliamentary Questions and we have corresponded with some 30 Members of both Houses on this matter. That would not have happened if the role of Attorney-General were fulfilled by an independent civil servant. I very much commend to this House the wisdom and experience of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Lyell of Markyate and Lord Mayhew of Twysden, who, between them, if my arithmetic is right, have 19 years of experience as law officers—far more than I have. When they point to the importance of accountability and the way that prosecution decisions are taken, to which I shall return, the House should, I respectfully suggest, take strong note. I have always paid strong note to what they have said.

I start with a point on which I think there is agreement: the strong commitment of this Government to tackling international corruption. The decision of the SFO director to stop the BAE Systems case in relation to the Al Yamamah contract emphatically does not mean that we are backing off from that commitment. On the contrary, I am clear that we need to redouble our efforts. So the SFO is actively pursuing a number of investigations into suspected international corruption, including some involving BAE Systems. I have told the SFO that it should pursue those cases vigorously. It is important to send out a clear message, and I have tried to do so, that no company or individual is above the law. I shall explain in a moment the other steps that we have taken.

I want to repeat some basic facts about the SFO decision. The decision to halt the case was taken by the director of the Serious Fraud Office, not by me, let alone by the Prime Minister. What the Prime Minister said was that he took responsibility for the advice given about national security. I shall return to that issue, but I can assure this House that the decision was not taken by the Prime Minister. I would never have allowed that to happen. The director of the SFO has been very clear in what he has said. The noble Lord smiles at that, but that is the fact. I would not stand at the Dispatch Box and say that if it were not the case. The director and the assistant-director of the SFO, who attended the recent meeting of the OECD working party, have made that plain.

Secondly, the decision was based on the risk to national and international security, and ultimately the risk to UK lives, if the investigation had continued. I suggest respectfully that those who expressed concern about the director’s decision need to be clear about what they are saying. Are they saying that there was no risk to national security? That is the view of the noble Lords, Lord Garden and Lord Dykes. If so, they should say why their judgment and knowledge on these issues is better than that of those whose job it is to deal with them, including the Prime Minister, senior Ministers, our intelligence agencies and our ambassador. The director and I would value the co-operation of those people, if advice came about the risk, above the opinions expressed by either of the noble Lords, despite their distinction and background. If the noble Lords are not saying that, do they accept that there was a risk to national security but that the SFO should have continued with the investigation regardless, potentially and ultimately putting at risk the lives of our citizens? That is what national security is about. Is that what they are saying? You cannot get away from answering those questions. We cannot wring our hands. We had to reach a decision. The director had to reach a decision. He did so on the basis of advice he received about the risks to national and international security. I agreed with that decision but took into account my own view that the case was unlikely to lead to a successful prosecution in any event.

It was not a decision taken lightly. Of course, there are countervailing considerations, many referred to by noble Lords today—the reputation of this country, our commitment to tackling corruption, the message that we might give to others—but, at the end of the day, sometimes hard decisions have to be made; one has to grasp the nettle, and the facts were that there was a real threat that had to be considered properly.

We also take very seriously our international obligations, and I shall come to that, but let me say a little more about what the SFO and Government are doing to combat international corruption. The thrust of the noble Baroness’s Motion is what we are doing to commit ourselves to that task. The SFO is pursuing other ongoing and active investigations in relation to BAE Systems and to other countries. This week, arrests and search warrants were executed in relation to one of those cases. The SFO is investigating part of the subject matter into suspected corruption in the UN Oil for Food programme concerning alleged fraud involving contracts to supply humanitarian goods to the Iraqi Government. I am very happy to be able to tell the House that the Treasury has recognised the importance of the SFO investigation into the humanitarian aid aspect of Oil for Food, and today I have been told that we have been provided for that purpose with approximately £22 million additional funding. That indicates the commitment. I have told the director of the SFO that I expect him to pursue these investigations vigorously and that, if more resources are needed, every effort will be made to find them. I want it to be clear that neither BAE nor any other company or individual is above the law or somehow immune from action in this area.

In addition, the Government are taking other action to combat international corruption. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised this matter, and I have discussed it with the right honourable Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development. There is a four-point plan to investigate and prosecute bribery overseas, to eliminate money laundering and to recover stolen assets, promote responsible business conduct and support international efforts to fight corruption. It is not just a plan, action has taken place: things have been happening; we have more investigative capacity; there is a new international corruption group, staffed by City of London and Metropolitan Police officers. It is that group, I think, that dealt with the arrests this week. If I said that the case was a BAE one—I do not think that I did—I stand corrected; it was a non-BAE case.

There is also the new SFO vetting standards and overseas corruption unit. We have played an important part at the inaugural conference of states parties to the UN Convention against Corruption. We are working closely with our international partners to agree guidelines for technical assistance and are providing that technical assistance. For example, the SFO recently provided training to prosecutors from Nigeria.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, mentioned the importance of prevention. A good example of the work that this country is doing in prevention is our promotion of the extractive industries transparency initiative, which supports improved governance in resource-rich countries through the full publication and validation of company payments and government revenues. There have been other results, too. Moneys have been stopped, having been brought from Nigeria, and the High Court has ordered the return of other moneys to Nigeria.

Let me turn to the issue of the legal decision taken and the OECD convention. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Lyell and Lord Mayhew, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, made it clear that, under the system that we have operated for many years—it is set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, which was laid before Parliament and to which I consistently refer in this House and in correspondence—there are two tests for prosecution. The public interest test is nothing new; it is consistently applied. Nothing could be a stronger example of public interest than where national security is involved. It happens that decisions have to be made about prosecutions the result of which might be that we would have to reveal information that would be damaging to national security. If so, we do not go ahead. We think about it very carefully, but we do not go ahead. That is the norm.

What, then, is the position of the OECD convention? The critical words are:

“Investigation and prosecution … shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest”—

I underline the words “economic interest”—

“the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved”.

The director of the SFO and I are firmly of the view that the decision taken was compatible with Article 5 of the OECD convention. I do not believe that the convention does, or was ever intended to, prevent national authorities from taking decisions on the basis of such fundamental considerations of national and international security. I do not believe that we would have signed up to it if we had thought that we were abandoning any ability to have regard to something as fundamental as national security, and I do not believe that any other country would have signed up, either.

Two points make this case very special. The decision was not based on commercial interests; it was based on national security. A key point is the crucial importance of Saudi Arabia as a partner in the UK’s fight against terrorism. I set this out in some detail in the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, which has been placed in the Library. Saudi Arabia is a source of valuable streams of intelligence on al-Qaeda and other terrorist activity that may represent a threat to the UK, to our citizens here and abroad and to our Armed Forces. Saudi Arabia also plays a key role in the Government’s efforts to promote peace and stability in the Middle East. This is important not only in relation to international tension but in reducing a sense of grievance in the Muslim world, which has an impact here at home. The question was asked whether this applies to other countries. I do not see how it does, because of the particular position of Saudi Arabia as a partner. Having been advised of the risk, the director concluded that it was not one that could properly be run in the public interest.

The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, suggested that 35 out of 36 members of the OECD working group took the view that there was a problem. That is not what I am told happened at the meeting, which I did not attend. But let there be an inquiry; let the working group consider it, if that is what it wants to do. That is fine. We have responded fully and explained it. I do not have a difficulty with this. I believe that the group was grateful for what we said. Equally, it has continuing questions about our law. The noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to the prospects for an anti-corruption law. These are proper questions, which will need to be debated.

I need to deal with one or two matters specifically. First, the position of SIS, the secret intelligence agency, was raised. I have dealt with this in the House and I want to say something about it again. SIS has made it clear publicly that it shared the concerns of others in government over the possible consequences for the public interest of the SFO investigation. It considered that there was a threat to the UK’s national security interests from pursuing the Al Yamamah investigation and it had been informed of the threat to curtail co-operation directly. Neither SIS nor anyone else who was consulted disagreed with the overall assessment that the Saudi threats were real. SIS agreed that, while it did not know whether this threat would be carried out, it had to be taken seriously. As I said on 18 January, before the SFO decision was taken, I discussed the matter directly with the chief of SIS. The SIS has authorised me to say that it is clear about the importance of the Saudi counterterrorist effort to the UK. Its view is that it would not be possible to replicate the level of counter-terrorism effort that had been achieved with the Saudis on UK/Saudi aspects of the problem if it were necessary to work at one remove, via the USA, for example.

I turn briefly, as time is short, to my own position. An interesting thing about the debate, given that the director and I have made it clear that he took the decision, is quite why there is such a lot of focus on my role, but I am perfectly happy to deal with that and, in due course, to respond and to debate the issues. Accountability seems to me an absolutely critical issue, which must be put into the balance in any case.

I have to say something about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, which appeared to me to be very much his article in today’s Guardian—none the worse for hearing it twice. He said that I have argued that the Attorney-General should be at the heart of government so that he may be politically influential. I do not recall ever having said that. It is not my position. Indeed, I have taken some care to ensure that my involvement in political affairs has been very limited. No one has ever seen me on “Question Time”. No one has ever heard me speak at a party conference. If I dare to say it in the presence of two distinguished former Attorneys-General who were members of the House of Commons, I have not been round the country canvassing for my own seat, let alone anybody else’s.

However, I believe that there is real value in being a member of the Government. For example, I would like to think that one of the achievements of my time here has been the strengthening of the position of prosecutors. The Crown Prosecution Service has gone from being, to some extent, a demoralised, undervalued service to being a forward-looking service serving the interests of the community and helping to bring offenders to justice. I do not believe that that could have been achieved if I had not been in this position in government, with the ability to talk directly to other Ministers.

Let me deal with the story in this morning’s Guardian. It is the case that at one stage the SFO contemplated inviting BAE and certain BAE executives to plead guilty to certain charges. No charges had been laid. Counsel had been consulted on that course and I did not object to it, although it is of course entirely a matter of speculation whether anyone would have been prepared to plead guilty. It is quite untrue that I changed my mind about the case. I was sceptical about the evidential basis of the case for quite some time, but I allowed the SFO to seek to deal with the problems. After it became apparent quite how dangerous the issues of public interest were, I cleared my diary and spent three days, I think, on this. I called in the SFO investigators and asked them to take me through all the detail, which I had not been able to do before.

I took the advice of very experienced leading counsel and formed the conclusion that, ultimately, this case was not going to succeed. I have stood at this Dispatch Box often enough on failed prosecutions, concerning the Jubilee Line, the Burrell prosecution and the case of Trooper Williams, when noble Lords have looked at me and, even if they have not said it, in their eyes I have seen the question, “Didn’t you see this coming?”, to which the answer has always been, “Well, yes”. The question is then, “So what did you do about it?”, and the answer is, “I let them get on with it”. I am sorry but if, after 18 months of investigation, damage had been done to this country, I would have stood at this Dispatch Box trying to answer the question, “Why did you allow this to go on?”, but I would not have had an answer. I do not think that it is in the interests of this country to allow that sort of risk to occur.

The SFO took the decision that, in the public interest because of national security risks, the investigation should not go on. I agreed but I had that additional important consideration in my mind. As I said, I cannot believe that we would ever have agreed not to take that sort of national security consideration into account, still less that we should not take it into account in a case which was, at best, doubtful and, in my view, would never have got anywhere.

What advice should be given to those who are doing business in Saudi Arabia? It would be: do not commit criminal offences. The whole issue of bribery and corruption is difficult but we are determined to tackle it; we do not condone involvement in corrupt practices anywhere.

If noble Lords will permit me to take a moment or two longer, I shall respond to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, who raised a very important point. He said that the phrase “balancing the rule of law against the wider public interest” could lead to misunderstanding, yet he rightly identified, unlike one or two other noble Lords, that those words were from the SFO press release. I read it out in the House but they were not my words. On reflection, I think that there is a risk of misunderstanding in those words. I understood that the SFO was seeking to say that the desirability of bringing a criminal prosecution needed to be balanced against national security. That is a perfectly proper balance to bring, but I am very happy to make it clear from this Dispatch Box—if this is repudiating the statement, I am happy to do so—that there is no question of saying that the rule of law in general should be set aside for wider interests of expediency or political or national interest. I hope that that at least clarifies the issue.

If the House will permit me, I shall conclude by dealing with the six questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. What pressure was put on the Government by BAE? So far as I was concerned, and as I answered in a question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whom I see in his place, representations came from BAE to me about the public interest in November 2005, but I forwarded those to the SFO and did not engage with BAE at all. What did the Saudis say were the likely consequences? Neither I nor the SFO had any direct contact with the Saudis, but it was made clear by the Prime Minister that they had threatened to withdraw counter-terrorism co-operation if the investigation went ahead. The ambassador said that those threats were real; the Saudis were not bluffing.

What advice was there from SIS? I have now given that answer. What advice came from the ambassador? The Solicitor-General has answered a parliamentary Question explaining that Mr Wardle met the ambassador three times. He confirmed the risks of damaging counter-terrorism co-operation with Saudi Arabia if the investigation went ahead. What did the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary say to me? I set out the basis of the national security interest in the Statement of 14 December and in the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Garden. I obviously cannot go into the precise details, as that would involve disclosing information about our counter-terrorism arrangements.

The final question was: why did the Attorney-General not take the decision? I said that I agreed with it, but I have to say that the House cannot have it both ways. If it is an investigation being carried out by the SFO, one side says, “You should not interfere”, and the other side says, “You should take the decision”. I have done the best that I can.

We have a strong commitment. We intend to send a very clear message. I hope that noble Lords who agree with us about the importance of the anti-corruption fight will now help us to send out that message strongly to the world. I shall answer any questions that I can and I will continue to be accountable, but let us now recognise that the BAE case and Al Yamamah was a special instance. Our commitment is there; let us now work together to demonstrate that Britain will lead the world in fighting corruption.

My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this important debate and I thank the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General for his very full response to the many questions raised. I shall reflect on just three matters.

The first is that there is real incompatibility between the definition of the public interest as set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors and the indications clearly laid out in the OECD convention about the grounds that cannot be taken into account in making a decision on whether to go ahead with a prosecution. I ask the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General to devote his considerable mind to the question of how to make compatible our commitment to the convention, the Code for Crown Prosecutors and what has actually happened. There is a real problem here.

Secondly, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General rested heavily on national security, but no one can question him about that and he knows it. But a very serious problem with the argument for national security is that, if it is undefined, it is not clear whether national security considerations are laid out in any greater detail or whether any signatory to the OECD bribery convention could be covered by arguing that national security means that they cannot conform to the requirements of the convention. That is serious, because it blows the convention to pieces.

Thirdly and finally—I put this as strongly as I can to the Attorney-General—are the points raised most significantly by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. He was right to say that the record of this country in the field of corruption has been poor. Incidentally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, said, it is important to note that this issue goes back a very long way and that, at a much later stage, inquiries about the Al Yamamah contract in 1988 were buried; they were never brought to public attention or put before Parliament. She was right to say that, in that respect, the atmosphere has changed remarkably. For that very reason, we have a great deal to prove.

The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said that the Government were not backing off from their commitment to the fight against corruption. There are three ways in which he can prove that to be true. The first is to address, as I have already said, the incompatibility between our ratification of the convention and our own Code for Crown Prosecutors. The second is to give full government support and time to the Bill brought forward by my noble friend Lord Chidgey, which will come to this House on 16 March, because that will be proof of whether the Government mean what they say about the battle against corruption. The third—the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has given us some commitments in this respect—is to confirm that all other instances of corruption and bribery where no major national security consideration is to be borne in mind should be prosecuted clearly and strongly. Bluntly, the fact that there has not been a prosecution in a single case since we ratified the convention raises very large questions about the credibility of our commitment—questions which I believe the noble and learned Lord and his Government now have to address. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.