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Mr. Smith: In relation to the hon. Gentleman's point about the assistance fund, we are looking at these issues very carefully. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we shall do whatever we can to help. Of course, we understand that the rural economy is suffering very badly indeed.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's point about mixed messages, there is no mixed message. The message is very clear indeed. Some activities in rural areas are dangerous and cannot be permitted--activities that bring anyone into proximity with livestock, cross open land, enter fields, traverse agricultural land or go into farms. Those activities are rightly prohibited to halt the spread of the disease, but many other activities are perfectly legitimate and can be undertaken. The message that those activities are allowed is extremely important because if we do not give out that message, not only will we deprive large numbers of people of being able to enjoy themselves and take their recreation in the countryside, but we will also do yet further damage to the rural economy.

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Points of Order

4.34 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you notice. At 9.30 this morning the Department for Education and Employment launched its proposal to replace the costly, ineffective and bureaucratic new deal with an even more costly, ineffective and bureaucratic new deal mark 2. At that point, the document in question was available to the press, but it was not available in the Vote Office. When I asked the Vote Office when it expected to have it, I was told that it was making strenuous efforts to obtain copies of the Green Paper, but had been told that it would not be available until 4 pm. In the event, I gather that after heroic efforts it secured copies by lunch time.

Will you, Mr. Speaker, confirm that it is a gross discourtesy to the House if Ministers publish documents and give them to the press before they are made available to hon. Members, particularly if they are prepared to go ahead with a press conference when hon. Members cannot have sight of the document?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order, which has enabled me to investigate the circumstances.

I understand that the Command Paper in question was laid in the proper way this morning and that a written answer was given at the appropriate time. To that extent, parliamentary requirements were met. Copies of the Command Paper, however, were not available in the Vote Office until lunch time, although copies could be consulted in the Library of the House. In that regard, the expectations, and, indeed, the requirements, of Parliament, were not met.

I have received a letter of apology for this from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment which I shall cause to be printed in the Official Report. The essence of this is that the copies of the Command Paper intended for the Vote Office were inadvertently sent to the wrong destination. It is manifestly the responsibility of Ministers to make sure that such mistakes do not happen.

Following is the letter:

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you advise me what is appropriate conduct for a Department in replying to

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written parliamentary questions? I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what representations he had received from other Ministers on a planning matter concerning a business school in my constituency about the timing of his decision or its announcement.

I received a holding answer last Friday. On Monday, the local new Labour Millbank operative, who is also the prospective candidate for the constituency, received a copy of the substantive reply, which she lodged with local journalists that day, well before the answer appeared in Hansard on Tuesday morning and before I received the reply on Tuesday. The answer that I received yesterday was dated Monday and addressed to "Dr. Evan Harris, MP, House of Lords". I am not sure whether that was flattery or wishful thinking, but it was either incompetence or a deliberate attempt by the Department to deny the House and the questioning Member of Parliament rapid access to the Department's response, and stands in stark contrast to its rapid release and availability to a Labour party activist.

What advice, Mr. Speaker, can you give the Minister to ensure that departmental officials know that Members of Parliament are to be found in the House of Commons, not the House of Lords? Furthermore, what advice can you give me to ensure that Back Benchers are able, through parliamentary questions, to hold the Government to account, and that parliamentary answers are not released to Government party politicians by the Government before the House and the questioning Member are notified?

Mr. Speaker: I have already responded to the hon. Gentleman in writing on the matter. I have no grounds for intervening further.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the BSE crisis, there was justifiable criticism that food safety and agriculture were the responsibility of the same Ministry, and, at times, Ministers from the Department of Health came to the House to deal with public safety issues. Those responsibilities have now been separated, but we have yet to hear about the food safety aspects of foot and mouth disease. You kindly told the House that you expect the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to answer questions in the House tomorrow. Will you inquire about whether a Minister from the Department of Health will deal with the food safety issues? Everyone says that there are no human health risks with food and mouth disease, but we were told that about BSE, and it is important that we should have an opportunity to question a Health Minister on issues concerning the Food Standards Agency.

Mr. Speaker: That is up to the judgment of the Minister involved. The hon. Gentleman can, of course, table written or oral parliamentary questions.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would not expect any further points on that matter. I have given an answer and I do not wish to intervene further. The hon. Gentleman should ask the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) whether he can look at the letter that I sent.

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Bribery of Foreign Public Officials

4.40 pm

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): I beg to move,

This is a modest Bill. It addresses an urgent need for this country to comply with, and be seen to be in compliance with, the OECD anti-bribery convention of 1997. I hope that the measure will command all-party support. Its effect substantially accords with the declared policies of Her Majesty's Government to criminalise the bribery of foreign public officials and to make detection and prosecution of such bribery effective. Bribery of public officials to obtain or retain business is a two-way process. It may be driven from the demand or extortion side, or from the supply or bribing side. The convention addresses only the supply side, as does the Bill.

I am privileged to be a member of the Select Committee on International Development. We are just concluding an inquiry into corruption, during which the immensely damaging effects of bribery on economies and investment have become clear. Those who suffer most are usually the poorest in society. There is mounting anger among those who, through corruption, are denied the fundamental services that we take for granted.

The Government, and the previous Conservative Government, are to be commended for co-operating with the OECD states to bring forward the convention in record time. The OECD's original recommendations on corruption and on ending the deductibility of bribes for tax purposes were made in 1994 and 1996. The recommendation to proceed to a convention came in May 1997. The convention was signed in December 1997, was ratified by the UK in December 1998, and came into force in February 1999. The preamble states:

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in a foreword to the Home Office paper of June last year, said:

As chairman of the all-party group on socially responsible investment, and a member of the anti- corruption non-governmental organisation Transparency International (UK), which has numerous leading companies as corporate supporters, I can confirm that responsible and progressive companies in this country, operating internationally, have already appreciated the

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need to safeguard their corporate reputations in the area of corruption, as they do already in connection with the environment, health and safety and child labour. Through ethical business codes, compliance procedures and training, and in other practical ways, such companies are sending out a clear message that corruption is to be outlawed as a means of obtaining or retaining business. Again, legislation in this country must now catch up.

This matter is urgent. The OECD working group on corruption, in an evaluation issued in June 2000, concluded that UK laws were not in compliance with the convention and urged the enactment of appropriate legislation by the end of 2000. The Government accept the need for this legislation, but apparently they would prefer it to be part of a comprehensive measure reforming the general law of corruption, including the bribery of parliamentarians and other potentially controversial reforms. That measure will come before the House when parliamentary time allows.

Meanwhile, other leading G7 nations and most of the signatory states have taken steps to bring their laws into line with the convention. Some of them now view the UK's inaction with increasing frustration and irritation. While there is no clear offence of bribing foreign officials, offshore bribes, incredibly, remain tax deductible, as is confirmed by the Treasury's guidance to inspectors of taxes.

There is no compelling reason for this limited but vital reform of our criminal law to await a much wider Bill at some indeterminate future date. The offence stands alone. It needs to be dealt with urgently for the UK to maintain credibility in its determination to deal with international economic crime.

My Bill reads the offence into existing legislation. It therefore in no way prejudices a future comprehensive Bill which I am sure will come forward in due course. Also, at a single stroke, it cures the scandal of UK tax deductibility of foreign bribes. Mercifully, domestic corruption in this country is not too serious; when it is discovered, our existing legislation, although unchanged since 1916, has proved to be an adequate basis for prosecution.

The publication by the World Bank of its list of companies found to have behaved corruptly in regard to Bank-funded procurement reveals a significant number of British businesses. In no case has it been possible to prosecute in this country. The UK and the City of London must not be allowed to be corruption and money- laundering havens. The report last week of the Financial Services Authority showed that $1.3 billion, the proceeds of corruption and looted funds of the late President Abacha of Nigeria, had been laundered through London banks. Easy laundering of funds leads to greater extortion in corrupt regimes. The reputation of the City demands that we show the world that we are not soft on economic crime.

In addition to creating the offence of bribing foreign public officials, the Bill would enact the Government's proposals for expanding the jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales. It would include nationality based jurisdiction, so that even if all the components of an offence--offer, acceptance and payment--took place offshore, it could still be prosecuted here.

It will never be easy to detect and prosecute international bribery, but to give the authorities the greatest chance of success, the Bill proposes expressly to

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widen the powers of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and conduct criminal proceedings for serious and complex corruption in the same way as it does for fraud. The SFO has the advantage of exceptional compulsory powers of investigation and over the years has gained unique experience in dealing with such offences. However, the SFO investigates a case of corruption only if it includes fraud, which it frequently, but not always, does. The distinction is artificial and, I believe, unnecessary.

The Bill also proposes to remove the requirement for the consent of the Attorney-General to institute a prosecution for the new offence of bribing foreign public officials. The Law Commission, in its recent review of the law of corruption, recommended that. The OECD convention requires that to protect the independence of prosecution, the discretion whether or not to investigate and prosecute foreign bribery should be based solely on professional motives and is not to be subject to improper influence by concerns of a political nature. No one suggests that a Law Officer would exercise his or her powers improperly, but the Attorney-General is a member of the Government. For this reason, the OECD working group recommended that the UK should reconsider that requirement.

I should like to pay tribute to the Departments and organisations that are working hard to curb the damage wrought by corruption worldwide, but particularly in poor and emerging economies. The Department for International Development is at the forefront of UK initiatives in this area. Following the recent review of the Export Credits Guarantee Department, new business principles and practices have been introduced to ensure that publicly funded support does not go to business induced by bribery. The ECGD's policies now expressly include promotion of the full implementation of the OECD convention.

The World Bank has in recent years initiated an anti-corruption strategy. Transparency International never ceases to keep the issue at the forefront of world concern. There is much more to be done, but these and comparable initiatives are changing the way in which business is done. The enactment of the Bill is essential as a priority in any future commitment to legislation. I commend it to the House.

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