HC Deb 22 May 1974 vol 874 cc374-6
61. Mr. George Cunningham

asked the Minister of Overseas Development what role has been played by the Crown Agents in the affairs of the Lyon Group of Companies and Stern Holdings; and if she will make a statement.

Mrs. Hart

I understand that the Crown Agents are among those who have lent money to these companies and that they are participating in confidential discussions with the banks concerned.

Mr. Cunningham

One understands that there are aspects of the Crown Agents' activities which should remain confidential because of the sensitive nature of the Crown Agents' relations with independent principals overseas, but will my right hon. Friend also accept that there is deep disquiet, increasingly widely felt, about the extent to which the Crown Agents are using money belonging to British dependent territories, which they have raised in their own right on the market, to support property speculating companies, in London in particular, contrary to the policy of the last Conservative Government and even more contrary to the policy of the present Government? Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that she will give all the assistance in her power to any Select Committee that might continue to investigate these matters so that the traditional role of the Crown Agents, which is of great value to developing countries everywhere, can be safeguarded?

Mrs. Hart

As one of its members, I am very much aware of the valuable work the last Select Committee was doing on the subject. I think my hon. Friend will know that I am considering the question of the Crown Agents' investment policy and hope to reach decisions very soon. Following on the work of the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), who preceded me as Minister, I am looking at the whole question of the relationship between the Crown Agents and the Government.

Mr. Dykes

Does not the Minister agree that this is just another of the rather "phoney" campaigns started by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), and that the Crown Agents are fully entitled and legally empowered to place investable surplus funds wherever they see fit, and that property investments are just one of the small parts of the total of Crown Agents' investments?

Mrs. Hart

The hon. Gentleman's question of how far the Crown Agents should invest in property companies is a matter the House will probably want to discuss when I have reached my own conclusions, and perhaps after the Select Committee has reported, if it produces a report on the subject. It is important to get the matter in proportion. About 1,600 of the Crown Agents' staff are engaged in the normal procedures of supply and the other orthodox procedures of the Crown Agents, and only 200 are engaged on finance and investment.

Mr. Lee

It is surely not the number of persons involved that matters. What is the total capital value of the investments of overseas companies, distributed in the rather questionable way referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham)?

Mrs. Hart

There are some figures in the annual report of the Crown Agents. Beyond what is published it is not proper for me to reveal this kind of information, which is confidential to the overseas principals. That is the problem.

Sir Bernard Braine

The right hon. Lady will know that I was the chairman of the Select Committee in the last Parliament that began an investigation. The Committee's work was not completed at the time of the dissolution of Parliament. To help the new Select Committee come to a conclusion about how it might tackle the matter, will the right hon. Lady give a more detailed indication of when she will come to her conclusions? That will enable the Committee to make up its mind when or if it resumes its investigation.

Mrs. Hart

I hope to have reached my conclusions and to have made them public by the time that the House rises for the Summer Recess, and possibly a little earlier.