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24 Oct 2002 : Column 403—continued

Financial Crime

34. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): If she will make a statement on the prosecution of financial crime. [75302]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): We consider the effective prosecution of financial crime to be very important. We cannot allow white-collar criminals to escape justice. The Serious Fraud Office and

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the Crown Prosecution Service prosecute financial crime. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which comes into effect in February 2003, will mean not only that financial crime will be prosecuted, but that the proceeds of such crime can be prosecuted more effectively.

Mr. Bill O'Brien : Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my concern at the low number of prosecutions carried out by the Serious Fraud Office, especially given the additional resources that it received two years ago? Can something be done to ensure that more cases are brought to justice, in line with the comments that she made in her further response to the previous question?

The Solicitor-General: As my hon. Friend may know, the Serious Fraud Office prosecutes only those cases in which more than #1 million is at stake. The difference between the SFO and the CPS is that the former investigates a fraud as well as prosecuting it. Financial crime is linked with money laundering, terrorism, drugs and human trafficking, and it is very important that we recognise that the problem must be sorted out internationally as well as nationally. A working party involving all Departments has looked into improving the response to fraud. As international fraud grows, we must be sure that we improve our performance in tackling it.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I add my congratulations to the Solicitor-General on the 20th anniversary of her service in Parliament.

In the light of her answers to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) on the rather arbitrary limit on investigations by the SFO, will the right hon. and learned Lady say whether she proposes to encourage the SFO's excellent officers to make their skills available to other police forces? The SFO was set up by the previous Conservative Government, and such a move would enable its officers to share the expertise that they have developed over the years. The skills of SFO officers could then be used in smaller investigations. I hope that she will accept that even frauds below the limit of #1 million can have serious international implications, a point that was debated at length during the passage of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

The Solicitor-General: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and welcome him to the Dispatch Box in his new role. As I said, the SFO investigates fraud involving more than #1 million, and the CPS prosecutes frauds below that level. There is a close relationship between the CPS and the SFO. Other police forces that are investigating crimes involving less than #1 million certainly work closely with the Serious Fraud Office and draw on its expertise. It is not clear when they start the investigation whether the figure is more or less than #1 million. We are talking about large sums of money—about #14 billion is estimated to be lost through serious fraud, which affects victims both rich and not rich. It is not a victimless crime; it is also about poor people being ripped off. We feel very strongly about white-collar crime and not allowing fat cats to get away with it.

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Business of the House

12.30 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 28 October—Opposition Day [20th]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate on implications of the Human Rights Act for UK law followed by a debate entitled XThe Expulsion of Sinn Fein/IRA from the Palace of Westminster". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 29 October—Debate on motions relating to the Modernisation Committee Report on reforming the House of Commons and the Procedure Committee Report on Parliamentary questions.

Wednesday 30 October—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000 followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Enterprise Bill

Thursday 31 October—Debate on defence in the UK on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 1 November—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

Monday 4 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill.

Tuesday 5 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

Wednesday 6 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Animal Health Bill.

Thursday 7 November—The House will consider any Lords amendments which may be received.

The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

Mr. Forth: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for letting us have the future business. Will he give a firm undertaking that the forthcoming report on foot and mouth will be given a full day's debate in its own right in the House early in the new Session? The Leader of the House knows very well the importance that everybody attaches to the report and the House will have to be given every opportunity to examine it thoroughly and completely. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us that assurance so that we can look ahead with confidence to dealing with that matter in the proper way.

The Animal Health Bill, to be considered on 6 November, has been almost completely redrafted in another place. Therefore, it will come to us with a large number of new clauses and schedules. Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the House will be given adequate time to consider the measure? In fact, I would prefer an undertaking that there will be no time limit on its consideration at all. I would undertake that the official Opposition would treat it in a proper and responsible way. We would not want it to be the case—

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and neither would you, Mr. Speaker—that the large number of changes that have been made quite properly to this important Bill in another place were somehow not considered in this place and were ever to be sent back to another place, voted on in some peremptory way without having been properly considered or debated. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that our role in this House, complementary as it is to the other place, requires that we spend a proper amount of time on that Bill in these circumstances.

The Deputy Prime Minister said on 22 October with regard to the firefighters dispute:

Given the exchange between my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister yesterday and the almost complete confusion that seems to be emerging from various sources in the Labour party, the Government and elsewhere, when does the Leader of the House next expect the Deputy Prime Minister to report to the House on such matters as whether picket lines will be crossed, and military personnel or other temporary personnel given access to the most modern equipment in fire stations in the pursuance of fighting fires? Just as important is whether military personnel who are required to act as firefighters during any strike will be properly covered, insured and protected in every way from hazard and from liability claims when we ask them to do this most hazardous and difficult job.

Those are just some of the questions that I hope the Deputy Prime Minister will come to the House early—ideally, before any dispute even starts—to answer, to reassure us and the people of this country that these matters will be dealt with properly and not brushed under the carpet, which is what the Prime Minister tried rather ineptly to do yesterday.

On Monday evening, one of my colleagues found a little note on the Treasury Bench. It looks as though it was written by a Government Whip—their writing is very distinctive, Mr. Speaker, as you know. It says:

the Xat length" is underlined—

In the spirit of modernisation, I ask whether the Leader of the House believes that that is a proper way for the Government and Ministers to conduct themselves. Does the right hon. Gentleman take any responsibility for that note from one Government Minister to another? Is he prepared to plead guilty on behalf of the Government to wasting the time of the House? I can only assume—perhaps he can confirm this—that the aforesaid Hazel was none other than the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), who was dealing with the debate at the time and appears in Hansard at some modest length. I hope that we will receive assurances from the Leader of the House that he will get a grip on his Whips and on Ministers and stop wasting the time of the House.

Mr. Cook: May I first say what a delight it is to see the right hon. Gentleman back in his place. It was a source of great disappointment to Labour Members that he was not in his place for Prime Minister's questions

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yesterday. I want him to understand that a large part of the fun of those questions for us is watching his face while his leader is speaking. I hope that he will not deprive us of that treat on future occasions.

On foot and mouth, we fully understand the importance of that. We set up the inquiry, we want a result, we shall give a response and there will be a statement to the House as soon as the result is available. I understand the interest of the House in wishing to debate that matter and it will be considered for future scheduling. I stress, however, that immediately after the debate on the Queen's Speech we will have a busy period in the House, with Second Readings of the many excellent Bills that will be announced then.

On the Animal Health Bill, I am well aware of the importance of giving adequate consideration to the amendments carried in the other place and we will ensure that there is a full day of debate for consideration of that Bill. I do not think that it will be necessary or desirable to go late into the middle of the night. I have done so on many occasions in my time in the House and, by and large, the House does not do itself sufficient justice in passing important legislation in the middle of the night when sensible people are in bed.

The right hon. Gentleman was not in his place for Prime Minister's questions yesterday, as I said—[Interruption.] If he was here, he will be aware that my right hon. Friend more than adequately answered all the questions put to him by the Opposition. While I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety to ensure that he stays on the good side of his leader by repeating the questions that he asked yesterday, the answers are precisely the same. We will not want to inflame the dispute, but at the same time we will not let any doctrinaire ideology stand in the way of doing what is necessary to protect the public. The right hon. Gentleman cannot in one breath ask for consideration for the financial security of the service men by asking them to be clear of liability—of course we will ensure that they have no personal liability—and also that they should have access to the equipment and fire engines, without training in their use. Access without training would seriously endanger our service men and we are not prepared to engage in that sort of irresponsible act.

Lastly, as regards the note that an Opposition Member apparently retrieved, I am interested to know that someone from the Opposition crossed the Floor and wants to join us on the Treasury Bench. If he or she would like to make that application formally, we shall certainly consider it. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) cannot speak at too great length for my pleasure. She always does very well when she comes to the House and is well worth listening to, so I can fully understand why there may be demands from this side for her to speak at even greater length.

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