HL Deb 10 July 2000 vol 615 cc9-11

3 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect the report of the inspectors into the affairs of the business dealing of the late Robert Maxwell and Mirror Group Newspapers to be published.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the two independent inspectors, Raymond Turner FCA and Sir John Thomas, were appointed on 8th June 1992 to investigate and report on the affairs and membership of the Mirror Group Newspapers plc. The inspectors have not yet submitted their report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. A decision on publication will be taken when the report has been received and fully considered.

Her Majesty's Government are hopeful that the inspectors' inquiry will be completed shortly, but the inspectors are independent of government and are, masters of their own procedure".

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am not sure whether anyone will be happy with that Answer. Is it not true that after eight years the inquiry has cost £8 million? As one of the inspectors is now a judge, are the Government satisfied that he is able to give the inspection the top priority that is required? Furthermore, as he is now a judge, is there not a danger that the report might breach the European Convention on Human Rights?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the speed of the inquiry is a matter for Sir John Thomas. There are good reasons which relate to the activities of the Serious Fraud Office and the two cases which have taken place. At no time has the view been held that the amount of work necessary has delayed the inquiry. In fact, it has cost a little less than £8 million; £7.6 million to be precise. When Sir John Thomas was appointed a High Court judge, the then Lord Chancellor was aware of the situation and did not believe that it would make it impossible for Sir John to continue as an inspector.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the Government's resources for considering the report and passing judgment on it are adequate to the task?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am sure that after all this time adequate resources will be available so that we can consider and publish it as soon as possible.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does not the delay cause another injustice? Is the Minister aware—this is not intended as a rhetorical question—that the personal integrity of a number of Members of both Houses has been a matter of public and private debate for the past eight years? Their only redress—the only way they can defend themselves—lies in the publication of the report. Does the Minister believe that the delay is fair?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it would be naive to think that if the publication of the report were stopped—and that could be the only action which would have an effect—the concerns would go away.

The reasons the report has not been published are, first, the action of the Serious Fraud Office against Kevin Maxwell and others. The first criminal trial began in May 1995 and resulted in acquittals. A second trial was stayed in September 1996. Since then, the inspectors have had difficulty in obtaining evidence from Kevin Maxwell. They certified Kevin Maxwell's refusal to answer one of their questions in October 1998 and court proceedings ensued. At that point, the court decided that Kevin Maxwell had to answer the inspectors' questions, although substantial changes were made in the procedures. Those reasons, and not inaction on the part of the inspectors, have caused the delay.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, it is difficult to understand the reasons. I take the points mentioned by my noble friend today, but is there any need to pursue the matter further? Would it not be as well to publish what has been found so far and then see whether the Government or anyone else have it in mind to do anything about it?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I should have thought that publishing the report before the inquiries have been concluded would be the worst conceivable outcome because it would leave all the doubts and questions unanswered. After all this time, the only thing which will remove the uncertainties and suspicions is the completion and publication of the report.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, significant implications arise from the facts behind the report, in particular the need to protect the interests of pensioners. In view of that, can the Minister indicate that, notwithstanding the failure or inability to publish the report for the reasons set out, the legislation now passing through this House takes into account the inspectors' likely recommendations regarding the protection of pensioners' rights?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it would he foolish of me to anticipate what the inspectors may say about that matter. However, concerns about it have been reflected in legislation.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, where the Minister believes that the inspectors have been guilty of breaches, cannot he intervene informally?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the situation is clear. As was said by Lord Denning in a famous judgment, in this case, the inspectors are masters of their own procedure". There is little opportunity in the legislation for the Minister to intervene, and I believe that that is right.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the Minister did not answer my second question. Are the Government satisfied that the report will not fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, that question should arise when the report is published. I can see no reason why that should be so. The cases which refer to such activities relate to the use of evidence that has been acquired in an investigation rather than to the procedures of the investigation.