HL Deb 04 March 1992 vol 536 cc841-2

3.2 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the cost to public funds of the prosecution of four persons connected with Blue Arrow; and whether expenditure of this order is, in their view, in the public interest.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, the cost to public funds of criminal proceedings arising out of the Blue Arrow flotation is £2,870,118.61. This includes the costs of the Serious Fraud Office, court time and also some provision for the costs of acquitted defendants. The final costs are not yet known.

It is not possible to separate out the proportion of those costs of four defendants alone.

Where investigation reveals criminal misconduct such that in the opinion of the prosecuting authority the circumstances, including the costs involved in the prosecution, are such that public interest requires the institution of proceedings, it would be wrong to refrain from prosecuting solely on the grounds of costs.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that Answer. Does it include a suggestion on his part, which I think it does, that it would be right to secure reductions in the costs of court proceedings so that proceedings of this kind can be instituted without imposing a very heavy burden indeed on the taxpayer?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, certainly I would welcome any effective steps that could be taken to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of such proceedings.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, arising from the course of the recent trials, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that the defence of stress or premature senility is now available in all criminal trials and is not confined simply to these very lengthy trials for fraud?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I doubt whether either of those is a defence in any case.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, is it not a fact that, since the Serious Fraud Office became operational with all-party support in 1988, it has brought 63 cases to trial involving 137 defendants, 94 of whom have been convicted? Is that not on any view a reasonable success rate for the Serious Fraud Office in these serious City fraud cases which must, in the public interest, be prosecuted?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as sometimes happens with figures, there is a possibility of a number of different figures. But I think we are probably agreed that the success of the Serious Fraud Office in its prosecutions has well justified it being set up. I of course would be the last to judge the propriety of prosecution by the success rate of the prosecutor. The job of the prosecutor is to prepare a case and present it fairly. Therefore that must be taken into account. But I believe that with that safeguard, as it were, the figures that the noble Lord gave, which are not very different from the figures I have, justify the conclusion that he stated at the end of his question.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is it not a question of procedures which lead possibly at times to excessive costs? Is the noble and learned Lord aware of the concluding remarks of Mr. Justice McKinnon in the case that was cited by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter? He said: What is beyond all doubt is that all involved in this case have had to endure what no one in our country should be called upon to cope with. That includes defendants, their families, the jury and me". Taken together with the letter which the lady foreman in the Guinness No. 2 trial wrote to the Financial Times, are not our procedures which lead to these heavy costs in question, not the justice of a prosecution being brought? In these circumstances, and because of the urgency of the matter, can the noble and learned Lord tell us when the Royal Commission is likely to report?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, of course I am aware of the words of Mr. Justice McKinnon at the conclusion of the case cited by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. It is fair to say that it is easier to see the problem than to diagnose a satisfactory solution to it. So far as concerns the Royal Commission report, the time suggested when it was set up was of the order of two years. I have no reason to suppose that it will not report within the original timespan.

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