HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1303-5
29. Mr. Mike O'Brien

To ask the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee by the director of the Serious Fraud Office that he did not authorise plea bargaining in the Roger Levitt case. [32753]

The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

The director of the Serious Fraud Office gave oral evidence to the Select Committee on 12 June and again on 11 July. The extent of his involvement in the discussion of possible pleas in the Levitt case has now been fully explained by him to the Committee.

Mr. O'Brien

Surely the Attorney-General cannot expect to get away with that reply. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, of which I am a member, has received damaging evidence from senior QCs that the Serious Fraud Office and its counsel misled the Attorney-General; that, in turn, he inadvertently misled the House; that the prosecution of Levitt was bungled and that a cover-up was instituted, which involved attacks upon the judge in that case. They are serious allegations, which cannot be left unheard, and we need an independent inquiry into the facts. If confidence is to be restored in the Serious Fraud Office, I believe that the director of it, George Staple, must go.

The Attorney-General

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is being at all just to the director of the Serious Fraud Office. I do not believe that an independent inquiry of that type is called for, as I shall explain. First of all, the hearing in the case was in public and the matters which took place before the judge were all recorded by a shorthand writer.

The hon. Gentleman, and other members of the Select Committee will know that there is an unhappy background to the case in that it gave rise to a complaint by leading counsel for the Crown against leading counsel for the defence. It is the subject of disciplinary hearings that are still to take place before the disciplinary committee of the Bar Council, which will comprehend, in one form or another, most of the matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised in his question today.

Finally, the Select Committee has its own proper interest in questions such as the interplay between the Serious Fraud Office and the regulators and the wider question of plea bargaining in the American sense, if that were ever to be appropriate here. I believe that we have quite enough public inquiries as it is.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that in his answers of December 1993 he quite unwittingly misled the House? Can he tell the House who saw those draft answers before he put his signature to them? Does he also agree that the head of the Serious Fraud Office should resign because of the botched nature of the prosecution of Roger Levitt and the fact that, subsequently, he appeared not to be in command of his brief?

The Attorney-General

With respect, I do not agree with my hon. Friend, but I shall answer his question. I think that I have given the fullest series of answers on any criminal case about the detailed history in relation to this case, including answers to my hon. Friend. I shall be perfectly clear with the House. I know a great deal more about the case today than I knew about it when I was first answering in December 1993. The substance of my answer, and one point in particular which I think that my hon. Friend has in mind, is correct. But if I had known everything that I know today, I would have phrased it somewhat differently. I have made that perfectly clear in answers which I have hitherto given and which I am giving to the House today.

Mr. Donald Anderson

The Attorney-General must surely realise that there is a sense of public outrage. When bank clerks and postal workers misappropriate trivial sums of money, they immediately go to prison, yet when Mr. Levitt decided that he did not want to go to prison, the system seemed to conspire to meet his wish. Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman feel a similar sense of outrage that he clearly, personally was misled by his own advisers and that, as a result, inadvertently—we totally concede—he misled the House? What he has said today will not end this matter. It will not go away as he would want. Unless and until an independent inquiry looks into the conflict between the several counsel in this case and the background of the misleading of the Attorney-General, it will go on and on.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman raised two points. The first was about the sense of public disquiet as to the outcome of the Levitt case. The later stages of the case were not happy. What went on is very much in the public domain and I do not think that anyone is particularly happy about that. In part, that has given rise, rightly or wrongly, to the disciplinary proceedings which are to be heard before the disciplinary committee of the Bar Council, at which—I repeat this to the hon. Gentleman—these matters will no doubt be fully explored by a tribunal which will have to decide very difficult issues. Frankly, those issues are not for this House. I have given very full and candid answers to the House. I have corrected my earliest answer on one particular, which should not, I respectfully say, be exaggerated.

The nub of the question suggested that the Crown was trying to throw in the towel from an early stage. That is not correct, I am satisfied of that. But I have expanded my answer to make it clear that there was a to-ing and fro-ing between counsel. This could have been described as a "suggestion", so long as it was not understood in the way that I have explained and made clear since.