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UK-US Mutual Legal Assistance

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What requests they have received from the authorities of the United States of America for documents held by the Serious Fraud Office on alleged offences committed in connection with sales of military aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, I can confirm that the Home Office has received a request for assistance from the United States of America in respect of corruption allegations concerning BAE Systems. The request is being dealt with in accordance with the bilateral treaty on mutual legal assistance between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

My Lords, considering that after five months’ procrastination on this request the Government have now finally refused to give the US Department of Justice the information it sought, and also bearing in mind the comments of Lord Justice Moses in the case for judicial review of the decision to halt the SFO investigation, that the case involved,

“matters of public concern and public importance”,

and that the challenge,

“cries out for a hearing”,

do not the same arguments apply to the refusal of a reasonable request for information by the Department of Justice? Is not the refusal a breach of our obligations under the OECD convention on bribery, notwithstanding the fact that the requests were made under mutual legal assistance of the bilateral treaty? Do not the arguments of the convention apply pari passu to requests made under the bilateral treaty?

My Lords, I am somewhat confused by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The Home Secretary has not refused this. She is in the process of giving this request the detailed consideration that it requires. About 5,000 of these requests come in annually and some of them are highly complicated and have complex investigative and criminal aspects to them. It is not unusual for one to take this long; many take longer than this.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that rather than being a bilateral agreement it is a unilateral agreement? It seems—and I think President Bush confirmed this the other day—that the United States believes that it has the right to go into any country and remove anybody it believes has committed a crime in the US. Is it not about time we got equal balance both ways?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an issue but we have these mutual legal assistance treaties with many countries, not just the United States, so it is not a one-way street. These things are very sensitive; we have to be very careful when talking about them. It is highly unusual for the fact that one has been requested to come into the public arena. This is an extremely unusual circumstance.

My Lords, the OECD convention is a convention which we ratified in 1998 for combating the bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions. That requires this country to the fullest extent possible under its laws and relevant treaties and arrangements to provide prompt and effective legal assistance to another party for the purpose of criminal investigations. How is it that this request has been hanging around for six months in the Home Office without being properly replied to? Why has the Home Office objected to the Americans taking evidence from a Mr Peter Gardner, who has taken the invoices relating to these transactions over to America for their purposes?

My Lords, I thought I had already answered the noble Lord’s question. As I said, there are about 5,000 of these requests annually. Some of them are highly complicated and they very often take a very long time to deal with. This one is very complicated. There are a number of issues. The Home Secretary is in the process of giving very detailed consideration to this request and looking at all the ramifications and complications.

My Lords, this is not a mundane day-to-day request such as the 5,000 that are received, as the noble Lord has explained. It is a matter of vital importance, not only because of the presence of BAE in the United States and its recent multibillion takeover of the Armor Corporation but of the right of BAE to continue doing business in the United States and not to be under the cloud of investigation that it is in breach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which is US law? Does not the noble Lord consider that it is a matter of importance to give a prompt reply to the Department of Justice?

My Lords, we are in no doubt about how important this is, and there are a number of issues and a number of complications within it. That is why the Home Secretary is considering it so carefully. As I said, it is not unusual for something like this to take a length of time. Many such requests have taken much longer than this. We are looking at it very closely. It is a very important issue and the fact that it is taking time, if anything, shows how important we believe it is.

My Lords, have the Government given any assistance to the American authorities? Has anything happened as a result of that, or is it just going to be quietly thought about for the next 12 months in the Home Office? Cannot the Home Office give the issue some priority?

My Lords, the fact that this has taken time does not mean that the Home Office has not given it priority. I am unable to talk in any detail about the matter because of the need for confidentiality. As with all treaties with nations to do with mutual legal assistance, it is part of the treaty that we do not talk about it. It is very unusual that this matter has come to light. It came to light because of a Statement made in another place. It is very unusual and something that we cannot talk about in detail because it involves criminal action.