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10.22 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Phillip Oppenheim): I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for raising the issue of AGIP. I view with some admiration the terrier-like tenacity with which he has pursued it in the past few years.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, the plot is complex, with many twists and turns. It involves a murder and accusations that a Secretary of State has been involved with the mafia. In many respects, it resembles a Jacobean tragedy or perhaps the plot of a Grisham novel. That obviously suits the hon. Gentleman's mind bent.

I should like to relate the beginnings of the conspiracy. The fraud apparently began in 1976, as the hon. Gentleman stated, when AGIP (Africa) was apparently defrauded of $17 million by one of its Tunisian employees. The plot took a particularly dramatic turn with the assassination in court of a French lawyer, who was allegedly acting as a middle man in the affair.

As the hon. Gentleman correctly pointed out, there were even allegations that a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was involved in a "mafia-style protection racket". The Government face many accusations and many criticisms, but I am pleased to say that the accusation that we are involved in such protection rackets is, thankfully, uncommon and rare, and one that I hasten to deny.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise certain points that have important implications for the United Kingdom, bearing in mind that the laundering allegedly took place between a company based in the Channel Islands and Tunisia. It is important to consider the role of the lawyers and auditors based on the Channel Islands, and whether they facilitated, in an illegal manner, the laundering of the money.

I should say to the hon. Gentleman that the involvement of a solicitor or a firm of accountants in setting up a company or the transfer of money abroad could be quite legitimate and would not necessarily imply that it was complicit in any illegal activities. It does not necessarily follow that, because a firm of accountants or solicitors was involved in such activities, it must have known, or should have known, about the illegal purpose, especially bearing in mind the fact that it was dealing with a large, reputable company--one of the largest oil companies in Europe, the owner of which is an Italian nationalised institution.

It is important to the United Kingdom to note that the allegation that the professionals involved should or could have known about the illegal activities has been properly investigated twice. The Serious Fraud Office could not

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find sufficient evidence of fraudulent or illegal activity. As the hon. Gentleman quite rightly pointed out, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales also exhaustively investigated the audit firm and the allegations that it had facilitated the fraud. That lengthy investigation, which ran to 20,000 pages of evidence, concluded in 1994 that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate any investigation.

The institute has quite rightly said that if the hon. Gentleman can provide further evidence to change its conclusion, it will be happy to reconsider the case. If the hon. Gentleman has substantial evidence which he could put forward either to the SFO and the institute, they would be happy to reconsider the case. It is important to stress that there have been two full inquiries about the role of the auditors in the Channel Islands and no evidence has been found of complicity or wrongdoing. That is not to say that we should be complacent about the case. Although the affair started in 1976 and is now ancient history in some respects, it is important to ensure that, in future, there is only a minor possibility of such a case occurring again.

I should like to list the actions that we have taken in recent years to ensure that illegal money laundering does not take place. First, in terms of the scope of the UK money laundering legislation, the Criminal Justice Act 1993 introduced a number of new drug money laundering offences, which enabled the UK to implement fully the EC money laundering directive. The 1993 Act also extended a number of the previous drugs money laundering offences to the proceeds of other criminal activities. Under UK legislation, it is now an offence to acquire, possess or use the proceeds of crime in the knowledge that they are such proceeds.

It is important to note that it is also an offence to assist another person to retain or control the proceeds of crime by concealment, removal from the jurisdiction, transfer to nominees or otherwise. It is an offence to conceal and disguise one's own or another's property which is, or which represents, the proceeds of crime; to convert or transfer that property, or to remove it from the jurisdiction; to disclose anything likely to prejudice an investigation into money laundering; and to fail to report to a constable a knowledge or suspicion, in the course of one's trade that another person is engaged in money laundering.

It is therefore clear that the legislation has been significantly strengthened in the past few years. Failure to comply with the regulations constitutes an offence punishable by a maximum of two years' imprisonment or a fine, or both, irrespective of whether money laundering eventually took place. Those important changes have strengthened the legislation. They ensure that any offence of the type that might have happened in the AGIP (Africa) case in the 1970s will not be committed again.

The effect of that comprehensive legislation is to place requirements on all UK citizens, but systematically on all UK financial sector institutions, including accountancy, audit firms and any firms carrying out investment business under the Financial Services Act 1986, to report all suspicious transactions to the police or Customs and Excise. The National Criminal Intelligence Service will then pass on those reports to the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation.

Two further legislative strands also add to the prevention of money laundering: first, the powers of Customs to seize at the border cash that represents the

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proceeds of drug trafficking, or which is intended for use in drug trafficking; secondly, the powers now available to the courts to freeze the assets of suspected or convicted criminals which are the proceeds of crime, money laundering or other offences, and to confiscate them on conviction.

I do not want to minimise the strength of the case outlined by the hon. Gentleman or his role in pursuing it. He is right to raise the issues involved. However, unless he can produce further substantiated evidence that the SFO or the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales can investigate, it does not strike me that there is any cause for a Government inquiry. I should like to emphasise the extent to which the Government have significantly enhanced the laws against money laundering in the past few years through the Criminal Justice Act 1993 and other measures.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Order [7 May], till One o'clock.

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Disabled People (Transport)

On resuming--

1 pm

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of disablement and travel. I shall outline the problem in relation to three areas: the use of taxis and minicabs by people with guide dogs, the use of cars by disabled people, and the use of trains by disabled people.

The problem of disablement affects one person in 10. Therefore, one person in 10 finds conventional public transport difficult or impossible. Approximately 6.2 million people are disabled in this country, and almost half face major difficulties in the use of public transport. This is a huge problem, as has been recognised by hon. Members in a number of debates, and in legislation last year.

I have raised this matter again today because I have come across a number of issues that I hope the Minister for Railways and Roads will deal with. It is difficult to define the problems, but it is important to do so.

Without transport, people who are disabled are effectively imprisoned; with transport, they have freedom. Without transport, people who are disabled suffer a loss of self-esteem; with transport, they can become active citizens. Without transport, people who are disabled often suffer from clinical depression and isolation; with transport, they demonstrably have better health. Without transport, people who are disabled are a cost to the public because services are sent to individual homes; with transport, they can visit doctors and others who help them.

I owe thanks to a number of people: Scope, the Automobile Association, British Rail, Motability, Guide Dogs for the Blind and a number of constituents, including, Angus McKenzie, Godfrey Faulkner, and also Bill Buchanan. Guide Dogs for the Blind is 65 years old this year, and, rather than retiring, it is going from strength to strength. It has trained 17,600 dogs--it is currently training 800 dogs a year, and that number is rising. I remind hon. Members that it costs £25,500 to train a guide dog.

One would think that guide dogs--which are valuable and essential for disabled people--would be allowed into taxis and minicabs. However, there is overwhelming evidence that minicab and taxi drivers often refuse to let blind or partially sighted people accompanied by dogs into their vehicles. That is a scandal, and it is nonsense. The dogs are trained to sit on the floor. Some taxi drivers fear that a few dog hairs will appear on their seats, which is erroneous.

Mr. Faulkner has said that he has frequently had to wait for two and a half hours for a minicab because others have refused to come to him. Mr. McKenzie several times waited in the rain for 20 minutes for a taxi, and when it arrived, it left again because he had a dog. This is scandalous, and Parliament should rectify it.

The people involved describe the hurt, the annoyance and the inconvenience of this situation. I hope that the Minister will say that the existing legislation will be brought into force to ensure that taxi drivers cannot refuse to take dogs--I refer to section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act--and that minicabs will also be covered by the legislation.

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It is not sufficient for the Minister to say that blind and sight-impaired people can phone for a taxi, which is an argument put by some people. It is not enough, because minicabs are half the price. In addition, taxi drivers often will not go to houses that do not have an account--how does one have an account if one is poor? The legislation must be extended to cover minicabs, and quickly. It will be a test of the good faith of the Government--I believe that they are well motivated and have good faith in this area. It will be a good test to see how they respond. I shall leave this to the Minister and refer to other forms of transport.

I commend dial-a-ride, which is a brilliant scheme that is active in Finchley. I commend Motability, which has provided 500,000 people with cars. It was formed under a royal charter in 1977, and it is still going strong. It receives Government money--a few years ago, it received £3 million a year and it now receives approximately £5 million a year. AA ShopMobility provides wheelchairs, scooters, walking aids and aids in shops.

The orange badge scheme--an excellent scheme--enables disabled people to park in places that they otherwise would not have access to. That scheme, introduced by Government legislation, is inadequate in London, because it does not cover Westminster, the City of London and Chelsea--it covers outer boroughs.

Despite adjustments in medical arrangements for our hospitals, there is a great concentration of hospitals in central London. It is perfectly obvious that disabled people need to visit central London hospitals regularly. However, this is precisely where the orange badge scheme--which would allow them to park near the hospitals--does not apply.

I call on the Minister to say that the orange badge scheme--or a similar scheme--will allow people to park outside these important hospitals. Many of my constituents have complained about, and have been horrified by, not being allowed to park near these hospitals. Indeed, one person was given a huge parking ticket and had no alternative but to borrow money to pay the fine.

The Government have a proud record on trains. The adviser to the board of British Rail has said that we are second to none in Europe in the adaptation of trains. That view is confirmed by many others.

Mr. Chirac is speaking in the other place at present. If he were physically disabled and had travelled from Gare du Nord to Waterloo, he would have discovered that, although there are facilities for the disabled at Waterloo, there are none at Gare du Nord. France and Belgium have copied our ideas for adapting train carriages to meet the needs of the disabled. The industry has earned some credit points in that area, and I give praise where it is due. Some 98 per cent. of our train network is equipped to carry people in wheelchairs. Disabled facilities at train stations, car parks and eateries are improving.

Nevertheless, many of the 2,600 railway stations up and down the country--particularly those that are unmanned--remain inaccessible to disabled people in wheelchairs. I call on the Government--and upon my hon. Friend the Minister, who is responsible for railway policy--to deal with that problem.

For instance, I ask that the Anglia Railway proposal to install an on-board ramp on local trains for use at all unmanned stations be extended nationally. Even with

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privatisation, I know that there are ways in which the Department of Transport can disseminate information about best practice, and embarrass companies into making further improvements. Conservative Members will understand that it is in interests of those companies to gain a good reputation when they are competing in a free market.

I call on the Government to examine the rail system and to use their best endeavours to ensure that trains--particularly those calling at unmanned stations--are accessible to disabled people. My constituent, Mr. Faulkner, has conducted a complete survey of London Underground stations, and has found that many are inaccessible to blind people. I had difficulty meeting someone at Westminster tube station his morning--although I appreciate that work is going on there at present.

I commend the good work that has been done in this area, but I come to the House with a shopping list--as you might expect, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have raised three important points: I ask that guide dogs and their disabled owners be allowed proper and immediate access to both taxis and minicabs; that disabled parking facilities be provided for those visiting hospitals in central London; and that there be improved access for blind people to unmanned British Rail and London Underground stations.

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