HL Deb 08 February 1996 vol 569 cc332-3

3.12 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the Serious Fraud Office has a useful future.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, yes. The Government are confident that the Serious Fraud Office plays and will continue to play a significant role in deterring fraud. In the 147 cases brought to trial by the Serious Fraud Office to date, convictions have been recorded against 62.3 per cent. of all defendants. In over 75 per cent. of the 147 cases, at least one defendant, usually the principal defendant, has been convicted.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. Is he aware that a major structural fault as regards the Serious Fraud Office is the decision to allow it both to prosecute and investigate? As a result, it finds great difficulty in seeing the wood for the trees and what is in the public interest. That may be witnessed by the decision to prosecute the Maxwells a second time compared with the failure to prosecute anyone in Lloyd's, as we heard yesterday. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that there have been more suicides caused by distress among names of Lloyd's than pensioners of Robert Maxwell?

Is the noble and learned Lord further aware that an article today in Private Eye states that far from prosecution of the Maxwells being in the public interest, it was decided to be in the self-interest of the Serious Fraud Office and its preservation?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the purpose of the Serious Fraud Office is to prosecute fraud. The fact, if it be a sad fact, that there have been a number of suicides in connection with financial responsibilities in Lloyd's does not appear to me to be evidence of fraud.

As regards the noble Lord's first point, in a subject as complex as this it is important that there should be a close relationship between the investigation and the prosecution. One of the difficulties in this area is that the investigation can become so broad and diffuse that it is difficult to bring a case forward for prosecution. Those judgments are made, within the structure that has been suggested and used by the Serious Fraud Office, in a way which seeks to bring those various considerations together.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that many of the SFO prosecutions are launched on the basis of evidence received from inquisitorial inquiries; and that such inquisitorial inquiries were condemned by the commission under Lord Salmon many years ago as giving rise to many injustices?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, before a prosecution of this kind can proceed there has to be an investigation by someone who acts as an investigator. If one calls that inquisitorial, I am content to use that description. Indeed, every prosecution has to be preceded by some degree of investigation. I do not think that the late Lord Salmon was thinking of that specific type of investigation in the passage to which my noble friend referred.