HL Deb 17 October 1984 vol 455 cc981-3

2.50 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will explain the continued delay in bringing criminal actions against those insurers who have made secret profits in offshore insurance companies; and whether they will indicate what course of action they now propose to take.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, before I answer this Question, perhaps I should say that I am a name at Lloyd's. I am advised that that does not involve a disclosable interest, but I had better say it just the same.

The decision whether or not to prosecute does not rest with the Government but with the Director of Public Prosecutions, who works under the superintendence of my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General in his capacity as Law Officer. In this matter they both act in a quasi-judicial capacity and with total independence from the Executive. But I know that my right honourabe and learned friend is taking a close personal interest in these matters.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in thanking the noble and learned Lord for his reply, may I ask him whether he and the Government are aware that it is now well over two years since the irregularities at Lloyd's were first discovered, and they cover sums up to a figure of about £50 million, and that there is very great anxiety not only in the City of London but outside that it has taken rather a long time to determine proceedings in this matter? I accept the fact that the responsibility lies with the noble and learned Lord's right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General, but may I ask him about a matter that concerns the competence of Parliament itself? Can he give the House an assurance that the Government have brought the staffing of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and of the Fraud Squad, in so far as it relates to the engagement of people who are skilled in accountancy and investigative matters, up to the strength that is required to investigate matters of this complexity and to ensure that any criminals are brought to justice?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, perhaps I had better be a little cautious about the first part of the question. I was not aware that any staffing difficulties arose in connection with that matter, but if the noble Lord would like to put down a Question, I have no doubt that he will receive a full and accurate answer. As regards the middle part of the question, he will no doubt have seen the published correspondence between my right honourable and learned friend and a Member of Parliament; I think his name is Mr. Grist. In the course of that correspondence my right honourable and learned friend said: I can assure you that both the Director and I are anxious that large-scale fraud should not go undetected or unprosecuted. There is nothing more distressing for the reputation of British justice than the sophisticated white collar criminal who escapes prosecution for frauds involving huge amounts of money. Both the Director and I are anxious that those involved in cases such as these should be brought to book in the same way as any other criminal if the evidence is available.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that such delays give grounds for believing—or at any rate give the impression—that the Government are very anxious to enforce the law against the poor, but unconcerned to enforce it against the rich?

The Lord Chancellor

I really think, my Lords, that the noble Lord would have been wise to have had a word with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, my predecessor, before he put that supplementary question. In the standard work on this subject by Professor Edwards it is clearly stated: Care, however, must be taken to distinguish between two separate aspects of the Attorney-General's and Solicitor-General's criminal law responsibilities, since failure to do so may unwittingly result in a weakening of the doctrine of independence. First, it is now well recognised that any practice savouring of political pressure, either by the Executive or Parliament, being brought to bear upon the Law Officers when engaged in reaching a decision in any particular case, is unconstitutional and is to be avoided at all costs.

I do not think that the noble Lord has wholly avoided that pitfall.

Lord Nugent of Guilford

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that it would be very much in the interests of the great reputation of Lloyd's if these suspected wrongdoers could either be brought to book or their reputations cleared?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is not for me to speak on behalf of Lloyd's, but I think that the words of my right honourable and learned friend, which I quoted in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, would indicate that the view of my right honourable and learned friend is not far apart from that of my noble friend.