HC Deb 22 January 1996 vol 270 cc16-7
30. Mr. Tony Banks

To ask the Attorney-General if he will make a statement about prosecutions for serious fraud.[8861]

The Attorney-General

The Serious Fraud Office has so far brought to trial and concluded some 145 cases of serious and complex fraud involving some 325 defendants. That has led to the conviction of at least one defendant in more than 75 per cent. of those cases. Where there has been only one conviction, it has usually been of the principal defendant.

Mr. Banks

I do not think that the country will be particularly satisfied with that answer because the spectacular prosecutions are going down very badly. I think that the House is entitled to ask the Attorney-General what is going on inside the Serious Fraud Office. Is it harassing honest business men, is it incompetent, or are white collar crooks simply getting away with it? My gut feeling is that the Maxwell brothers are about as innocent as O.J. Simpson. Is not the real problem self-regulation in the City? There might be a case for getting rid of the jury system in complex fraud cases, but, quite frankly, self-regulation for crooks will never work.

Madam Speaker

Order. Before the Attorney-General replies, I must point out that there are a number of other charges pending involving the Maxwell brothers and the House's sub judice rule prevents any further discussion of those matters. Of course, general references to the work of the Serious Fraud Office are entirely permissible, but I hope that the House will be cautious about these matters.

The Attorney-General

I take fully on board the points that you have made, Madam Speaker, and I think that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman may regret the observations that he has just made.

The case was investigated with what independent commentators regard generally as great skill, it was prosecuted entirely fairly with great professionalism, the court handled it in an exemplary fashion and the jury considered the matter and reached its decision. That is British justice. We keep under careful review how we should proceed in future, but we should not distort the position.

Mr. Dykes

Is not this a moment when the whole House, the Government and everyone else should defend and support the Serious Fraud Office, and not attack it for irrational reasons, bearing in mind the fact that that institution is crucial to the future of the country in tackling serious fraud cases, that it needs more resources and more staff in future and that it has a very good record? Is not it important also for the Government to consider further, without excessive delay, the need to have a professional panel of assessors instead of an amateur jury in the trial of such cases?

The Attorney-General

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the Serious Fraud Office has proved its worth during its seven years. Very complex cases are now being brought to trial with a professionalism and skill that cannot be compared with what went before. If we did not have the Serious Fraud Office in its present form, we would need to invent it.

The whole House will acknowledge that trial by jury is a very important part of our liberties, from which it and the country would never move lightly, but that does not mean that it is necessarily the only way to conduct a trial. When the Maxwell case is over, we shall consider calmly, carefully and thoughtfully whether there is a way in which similar cases might be tried better than by jury. We should certainly make no change unless we were confident that it would be an improvement.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with Lord Devlin that the object of any tyrant would be to overthrow trial by jury? Does he believe that that applies as much to fraud cases, where there are judgments of honesty and dishonesty to be made, as to any other case in which dishonesty is charged? Will he reflect on the effect of his remarks following the verdict in the Maxwell trial, which have given the impression of criticism of a jury that listened for 131 days to evidence and argument, and returned a verdict on the basis of that evidence and argument?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that no one who has listened to my comments in the round will have received that impression. I have been studiously careful to be very balanced on the subject.

The hon. and learned Gentleman refers to Lord Devlin, who was head of my chambers and a greatly respected Law Lord, but other greatly respected Law Lords take different views and it is a subject on which very experienced people hold different views. When we come to consider the issue, we shall certainly consider it extremely carefully before we make any change—and I am not saying whether we shall make any change.

Mr. John Morris

Will the Attorney-General reject recent criticism of the jury system in fraud trials—there is no evidence that it has failed, and I know so far of no better way of assessing dishonesty—and of the SFO, changes in both of which have been rejected by Parliament in recent years?

Will the Government, instead of considering the matter internally, as the Attorney-General appeared to suggest at the weekend, appoint a senior judicial figure of the calibre of Lord Roskill to examine, with the assistance of financial experts, the system of prevention, investigation, prosecution and trial of alleged large-scale financial wrongdoing?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the support that he has rightly given to the SFO. He, like me, recognises the enormous advances that it has made in the seven years of its existence. I can assure him that, in keeping under review the best way of trying even the most complex and difficult cases, we shall bear his words, among others, in mind.