HC Deb 12 March 1990 vol 169 cc13-5
57. Mr Skinner

To ask the Attorney-General what meetings he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions; and if he will make a statement.

The Attorney-General

I frequently meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss matters of departmental interest; our last meeting was on 26 February this year.

Mr. Skinner

When the Attorney-General next meets the Director of Public Prosecutions, will he draw his attention to the House of Fraser report and ask him when the Al-Fayed brothers are to be brought before the British law courts? In view of the document that every Member of Parliament now has, surely those men should be treated with the same kind of justice as other people. Is he aware that millions of our electors are asking, "Why should we pay the poll tax and observe the law of the land when the City crooks can get away with it?" Is there one law for the Al-Fayed brothers and for big busness men and another for the millions of people who have to pay the poll tax?

The Attorney-General

There is no need for me to draw the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the director of the Serious Fraud Office to the report on House of Fraser as they considered it for more than 18 months, having instigated a thorough police investigation. They instigated that investigation to secure the best chance of investigating matters with a view to prosecuting, if appropriate, to a successful conclusion. That was why they established the police investigation and why they asked the Secretary of State to withhold publication of the report.

Of course I agree that the same law should apply to the Al-Fayed brothers as to everyone else. [Interruption.] It is perhaps naive, but if the hon. Gentleman asks a question I assume, in his favour, that he wants an answer rather than merely to interrupt the whole time. The same law should and does apply, but there is one very important distinction that I wish to make clear. Whereas it was open to the inspectors to take account of hearsay evidence if they thought that it was reliable—and of course it was open to them to reach the conclusion that they did—it would not have been open to a jury in a criminal case to convict upon evidence of the same character. The inspectors are entitled to take account of evidence covering a wider scope than that available in criminal proceedings in an English court.

Mr. Lawrence

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, unsatisfactory though this whole matter is, taking action which is totally ineffectual and useless is worse than taking no action at all? He has made the point, which bears repeating, that what the inspectors saw to be completely clear and unarguable would not stand up in a court of law because it was based on hearsay evidence which would not have been admissible.

The Attorney-General

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Inquiries were pursued in every part of the world indicated by the inspectors' report, but the directors had to conclude, as they said in their joint statement issued on 1 March that there was insufficient evidence available for use in an English court in English criminal proceedings on any matter of substance raised in the inspectors' report to warrant the bringing of criminal proceedings. Exactly the same criterion has been applied in this case as has been applied in every other criminal case, and as was required under the code for prosecutors which has the approval of the House of Commons.

Mr. Fraser

What was the offence for which there was prima facie evidence? Can the Attorney-General confirm whether, if section 151 of the Companies Act 1989 had been in force, the conduct described in the Harrods case and in the British Aerospace and British Leyland case would give rise to prima facie evidence for offences under that Act? Will he have a word with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ensure that that section is brought into force as soon as possible?

The Attorney-General

I will not deal with the effect of that section in this context, but I will draw the attention of the House—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter—to the substantial extra precautions that can be taken in the light of that legislation. We have substantially improved the means by which conduct can be monitored in connection with company activities and that is a matter which is supplemented by the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Bill currently before Parliament, which will make it easier for a court to issue a letter of request for evidence from overseas. Those provisions represent some tightening up in the available legislation, and I believe that that is desirable.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Can my right hon. and learned Friend, with his comprehensive legal knowledge, say whether there might have been sufficient rather than insufficient evidence if the Government had been able earlier to implement section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which gave powers to obtain information from other countries, rather than implementing it last week, as he kindly explained in the letter that he sent to me?

The Attorney-General

It might have been of some assistance—it is very difficult to tell. As I have just said, these matters will be easier under the Bill now before Parliament. However, a commission rogatoire was issued to one country, and investigations have been pursued in every part of the world in which the inspectors' report showed that such investigations would be desirable.