HC Deb 02 December 1985 vol 88 cc12-3
45. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Attorney-General, in the light of the findings of the disciplinary committee at Lloyd's in the Peter Cameron Webb syndicate case, what steps are being taken to prosecute those involved.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

A strong fraud investigation group is vigorously engaged in seeking the required evidence, but any criminal prosecution must be founded on evidence that is both available and admissible in criminal proceedings in this country. Serious delay has been imposed by the location of certain evidence in a foreign jurisdiction. I hope that that difficulty can be overcome.

Mr. Ross

Is the Solicitor-General aware that at least two of my constituents have lost, or are likely to lose, as much as £200,000 due to the activities of Mr. Peter Cameron Webb and his associates? If it is possible for Lloyd's disciplinary committee to adjudicate on those people and to impose substantial fines and penalties, why is it not possible for the hon. and learned Gentleman's Department and the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring the guilty people before the courts?

The Solicitor-General

I naturally sympathise with all who have lost as a result of the transactions with which the investigations are concerned, but in order to bring proceedings to a successful conclusion in the criminal jurisdiction of this country evidence must be available not only in a form that is admissible in those proceedings but from witnesses who are prepared to attend. That is the distinction.

Mr. Stanbrook

In view of its success in this and other cases, is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that the fraud investigation group has sufficient funds to continue its good work in these respects?

The Solicitor-General

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern. When the group was set up, it was resourced on a basis sufficient for its expected work load. Those resources are now seriously stretched and are under review.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Whether the fraud investigation squad is big enough and has the right resources is an important question, but can the Solicitor-General assure the House that Lloyd's is co-operating with the investigation group?

The Solicitor-General

Lloyd's is governed by its own legislation in the form of byelaws. The Director of Public Prosecutions is in renewed discussion with Lloyd's as to ways in which Lloyd's can make available transcripts of its disciplinary proceedings without infringing its obligations under its own legislation. The fact that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act comes into force in its material particulars on 1 January next year may well be helpful.

Mr. Dykes

In view of the significant answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), will my hon. and learned Friend now reassure the House, as is logical in the light of what he has said, that the staff of this vital department will be increased to deal adequately with the growing number of fraud cases?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend will know that the issue of resources does not rest exclusively with me. With his long experience in the House, he will appreciate where my hopes lie from the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook).

Mr. Gould

Was the Solicitor-General implying in his answer to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) that the Lloyd's byelaws somehow impinge upon the obligation of Lloyd's to disclose information that might be relevant to the commission of a criminal offence? If so, does he accept that that is a powerful reinforcement of the argument that Lloyd's cannot be allowed to remain in that position for much longer?

The Solicitor-General

I do not think that the conclusion to the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is justified by the premise. As I understand it, there are difficulties about the power of Lloyd's to make available a transcript in circumstances in which criminal proceedings are not on foot. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Director of Public Prosecutions may wish to see transcripts as an aid to his investigation, but he cannot as yet say that proceedings are on foot.

Mr. McCrindle

Has my hon. and learned Friend heard the proposition that even if there is a marginal risk that a prosecution might not succeed, it is sometimes considered to be of sufficient importance to justify some risk being taken?

The Solicitor-General

The DPP's critics are extremely versatile. The Director is criticised when a prosecution ends in an acquittal, on the basis that the evidence could never have been sufficient. He is also criticised for not venturing prosecutions, even though there is a less than 50 per cent. chance of conviction. The guidelines laid down by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, a copy of which is deposited in the Library, make it clear that there should be a better than 50 per cent. chance. I believe that that is in the interests of justice.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

The Solicitor-General must be aware that 324 serious frauds were reported in the United Kingdom in 1983 and that only 37 led to prosecutions. Does he accept that the allocation of only 16 senior legal assistants to the new fraud investigation group in the Crown Prosecution Service to cover the entire United Kingdom is totally inadequate and will give the general public the impression that the only Act under which fraud will be prosecuted is the old pals' act?

The Solicitor-General

I think that the hon. Gentleman's joke deserved a better laugh than it received. There were 26 persons awaiting trial on indictment in November 1984 and there are 77 now. The principal assistant director drew attention to that in The Times last Saturday. That shows sufficiently the Director's determination to prosecute fraud whenever sufficient admissible evidence is available. It shows also that, with the resources presently available to him, he has been getting on with the job. As to whether he needs more resources, I have said to the House what I want to say.