HC Deb 25 June 1979 vol 969 cc23-5
37. Mr. Greville Janner

asked the Attorney-General if he will list those kinds of prosecutions for which his consent is required.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

My consent to criminal proceedings is required under 41 statutes. The full list is given in a booklet entitled "The Prosecution of Offences Regulations 1978" published by the Director of Public Prosecutions. A copy has been laid in the Library of the House.

Mr. Janner

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe that the time has come to extend the area of prosecu- tions in which his consent is required to cover those in which important matters of public policy arise, such as those which arose in the case of Mr. Thorpe, where a witness has any financial stake in the outcome of the proceedings? In such a case the Attorney-General should be answerable for the institution of the prosecution, so that he is answerable to this House.

The Attorney-General

It is not always easy to identify cases in which inducements may have been offered. The first reason why my predecessor did not take part in any decision in the case to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred was that the case involved a colleague in the House. Secondly, it had serious political significance. Whichever way my predecessor had decided, he would have been open to criticism that he was influenced by political motives. He agreed to leave the matter with the Director of Public Prosecutions. I support his decision entirely.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Speaking generally, when the Attorney-General considers whether his consent is necessary in a particular case, will he consider the question whether contingency fees have been offered to the chief witnesses? Does he agree that this is a deplorable practice and that the payment appears to be dependent upon a conviction? Will he take immediate steps either to ban the practice or, if necessary, to prosecute under the existing law for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice?

The Attorney-General

If the evidence supports either contempt or an attempt to pervert the course of justice, the matter will be considered. At the moment there is insufficient evidence in the case to which we have referred to ask the Director to give further consideration to that. The evidence in that case has come from what the judge described as very tainted sources.

Mr. Ginsburg

Nevertheless, will the Attorney-General confirm that it is his function to decide when immunities should be granted to witnesses in respect of prosecution? Does he consider, in the case referred to, that, looking back, it is a pity that his predecessor did not intervene and that the matter was left to the Director of Public Prosecutions? It is now admitted by the newspaper concerned that it cancelled the contract on the ground that the witness concerned told untruths.

The Attorney-General

The case that we are speaking about is quite exceptional. The Director of Public Prosecutions asked the Attorney-General whether he wished to be consulted and the Attorney-General took the view—which I have already said I agree with entirely—that it would be quite wrong for him to have to take that decision. Fortunately, we have a skilled, experienced and competent Director of Public Prosecutions who, in the comparatively short time that he has been in office, has done his job with great ability. Most hon. Members would support me in saying that the difficult decision that my predecessor took was the correct one.

Identifying tainted cases is difficult, because a defendant knows a great deal more about witnesses, who may be close friends, than does the Crown. I agree with those who deplore what happened concerning contingent payments being offered to witnesses. I shall examine the matter and, as I said yesterday on the radio, it may be that the body concerned would be better off putting its own house in order by giving the Press Council more power to deal with breaches as obvious as those.

Mr. John Morris

I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General is to look into the issue of contingent payments. Whatever the Press Council does, there is widespread public concern about the matter. If necessary, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider whether legislation is required to eradicate at its root this fungus of payment by results?

The Attorney-General

It is a matter that I am considering. The evil is two-fold, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows. First, a man may be prepared to lie in order to receive the much larger payment and it may never be known to the jury that that offer exists. On the other side of the coin, a man may tell the truth and maintain that throughout his evidence but, because there is a contingent offer to him, the jury may take no account of his evidence. Either way, it is a pernicious practice and I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, by one method or another, it should be stopped.