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28 Jun 2006 : Column 269

The benefits of section 43 are clear. The full criminality of an issue can be exposed. We should have shorter trials. The judges can read the papers, rather than them having to be presented orally before a jury. In that way, we should be able to expose the full criminality of such issues and ensure that criminals get their just desserts.

The hon. Gentleman referred in particular to count two, which deals with conspiracy to defraud, but that was not the only cause of the collapse of the trial. There were other causes, such as the illness of a defendant and the slow and disjointed nature of the proceedings. But the fact that from an early stage the investigation did not focus on collecting all the evidence necessary to prove count two was a matter of some concern. The prosecution’s failure to show in particular why London Underground Ltd was defrauded by the conspiracy referred to in count two caused a problem, but the judge did find on two occasions that it was a proper charge.

Let me also add that we have had general discussions about conspiracy to defraud in debates on the Fraud Bill. The report does not recommend the repeal of conspiracy to defraud. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in our consultation on the Fraud Bill the majority of respondents asked us to keep conspiracy to defraud. The Rose Committee of senior judges said that it would be a big mistake to revoke it. In respect of the Fraud Bill, there will be forms of behaviour that will not be considered fraud under statute—for example, where a defendant plays his part in committing a crime but is ignorant of the wider details of the fraud, and where the final crime was committed by someone outside the immediate conspiracy.

That said, let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we hope to be able in due course to repeal conspiracy to defraud. The Government propose to have a review on that in about three years. In the meantime, the Attorney-General has produced guidelines which we hope will reduce the use of conspiracy to defraud, so that it is employed only where necessary.

The hon. Gentleman asked about changes in respect of Crown prosecutions, and I assure him that we will continue to monitor the way in which they occur. The case management panels will have monthly reviews, and we hope that that will lead to an improvement in the standard of prosecutions. Recommendation six said that there should be a multidisciplinary approach, with investigators, prosecutors and accountants—and other experts where appropriate—working together as a team from the early stages of investigations. We want to see that that happens, too. However, I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks: we will continue to monitor such changes.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the recommendation on judges. I entirely agree that it is important that we maintain judicial independence—we must ensure that the independence of the judge in question, who quite properly decided not to engage in the inquiry, is maintained. However, we will also have appropriate discussions with the judiciary to see what steps it wishes to take in the light of these recommendations.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I thank the Solicitor-General for his statement and his courtesies yesterday. I impute no criticism to
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him for the way that events have turned out. There was a robust set of questions and exchanges involving the Attorney-General yesterday in the House Lords, and I want to refer to some of them.

I have a particular interest in this case as I am the MP for the constituency that was most affected by the Jubilee line extension. I join the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in congratulating Mr. Wooler and his team; they clearly did a good job, and it was right of the Attorney-General to commission that inspection by the new body set up just for that purpose.

The 11 recommendations raise many issues, but I hope that the Solicitor-General will agree that there abide three central issues, and I should add that much of what I say will reflect concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. There is the conspiracy to defraud issue; the issue that the failures were of the prosecution, not of the defence; and the issue that the principle of jury trial was not at fault. To paraphrase a much more famous selection from three, the greatest of these principles is that the principle of jury trial was not at fault.

The first and third issues relate to the fact that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General have, as it were, set themselves in opposition to the logic of the recommendations. I therefore join in encouraging Law Officers to retain their intention to get rid of the conspiracy to defraud charge at the earliest opportunity. More generally, when the Law Commission makes such recommendations, it should give both Houses the chance to debate them on the basis of a considered proposal put before us. Had it done so, we could have anticipated such issues and possibly prevented this serious and very expensive mistake.

On the second issue, I wonder whether the Solicitor-General can give an answer that the Attorney-General was unable to give yesterday. The latter has accepted the proposed setting up of a fraud prosecution division, which, in effect, would reinstate under another name the arrangement that applied until a few years ago. How far has that proposal got? Has it been set up, and is it in place? If so, how many cases are now being looked after by these specialists within the London Crown Prosecution Service? It is clear that the Attorney-General has accepted that we need a structure that not only contains specialists, but has senior management control over all such cases.

Thirdly, the Solicitor-General quoted the phrase used by the Attorney-General, who said that

Indeed it does, and the conclusion was that juries can cope. In the light of that, can the Solicitor-General confirm expressly that not until the Fraud Bill—this issue has been debated during consideration of that Bill—has been enacted and tested for some years, and not until the fraud review has had some years in which to be digested, will we have any suggestion from the Government that we need to look again at changes to the principle that juries deal with fraud cases? Having passed a significant Act through Parliament that deals with these issues, it would be nonsense then suddenly to say, “We need to change the law.”

Finally, recommendation 5 sets out some very practical suggestions on how jurors should be dealt
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with—more respectfully and carefully, and simply more considerately—particularly in longer cases. May I have an assurance that those lessons will be learned, and that judges and courts will in future make it clear that jurors—who clearly can do the job—are respected for the job that they are willing to do, want to do and can do competently? They must be treated as a very important part of our democratic and constitutional system—a system that we Liberal Democrats believe should be the principle for dealing with all serious cases in this country.

The Solicitor-General: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courteous reply, and particularly for what he said about the statement—or lack of it—yesterday. Let me deal first with his final point, about which he is quite right: we should improve the quality of our treatment of jurors. I have spoken to some people who have served on juries who were particularly concerned about the way in which they were dealt with. If we can find ways of making that experience a little easier for jurors, that would be very desirable. When a juror is dealing with an extremely long case, it is all the more important that any family and work-related issues that might arise are taken account of. That will always prove very difficult in long cases, and there will always be trials that last a long time, even if we bring into play section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It is right that, in those circumstances, we should make sure that we do the best by those citizens who have given up their time to deal with such cases.

Let me deal with what the hon. Gentleman said about jury trials. Mr. Justice Auld, in his report of 2001, made his views on this issue very clear:

He went on to say:

Mr. Justice McKinnon, who had to deal with the Blue Arrow case, said:

in terms of a very long trial. The Court of Appeal said that, in that case,

I have gone through the arguments about the way in which prosecutors ensure that cases can go on, and I shall not rehearse them. What we need to do now is to look seriously at how we can get a just outcome from these trials. I invite the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, all the Opposition parties—to engage in serious discussions on how we can best deal with these cases.

The Government want, in due course, to find circumstances in which we can repeal the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We want to review that, probably in 2009—we said that we will do so three years after the passage of the Fraud Bill, which, I assume, will go through this year—so that is the time scale that we are looking at.

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The hon. Gentleman also asked about the fraud prosecution service, which has indeed come into existence. It is a new fraud unit that will harness the skills and experience of specialist fraud prosecutors, and Mr. David Kirk, a top private sector lawyer, has been appointed as its head. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how many cases it has dealt with up to now. Given that its remit was established only recently, I suspect that it has yet to get many cases to trial; however, it will doubtless be investigating a number of such cases. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me, with that information.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I notice that, in their statements, the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General have somewhat quietly and carefully shifted the argument about jury trials: they are now talking about people being kept there too long, and the difficulty of sustaining such trials. May I take the Solicitor-General back to what happened at the collapse of the Jubilee line trial and the surrounding events? Previously, there had been a very strong implication that ordinary members of the public who make up juries in fraud cases could not be expected to understand the complexities involved. The issue was them and their abilities, and not so much the time that they spent in the pursuit of such trials.

This report is more than just a blocker in terms of the attacks on juries; it actually upholds the principle of jury trials. When the jurors were interviewed, I was astonished to discover the amount of information that they retained, and their understanding and grasp of these so-called complex issues. Why, when such difficulties arise, do we, in this country alone, blame those who are determined to seek the balance, rather than those who bring the case? In America, under the procedures that apply there, a case was brought against Enron in six months—with a jury.

The Solicitor-General: I invite the right hon. Gentleman to check the records, and if he does I think that he will find that the Government have never heavily relied on the Jubilee line case. Moreover, we have not argued the case that jurors are incapable of understanding such issues—the problem is the burden that a vast amount of complex information and exhibits, presented to a jury over a very long period, place on any juror. The process of oral presentation of evidence takes a very long time, but it could be dealt with by a judge very quickly; it could even be dealt with by a judge sitting with assessors, which is one suggestion that Lord Justice Auld looked at.

We must treat this issue with a great deal more seriousness. There is a tendency to fall back on the view that this is somehow an attack on juries, but it is not: it is an attempt to find a way to get justice, so that the full criminality of those who commit very complex fraud can be brought before a court and dealt with fully and properly.

The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the United States of America. We have been examining the circumstances there with a great deal of care. The US deals with cases, particularly complex fraud cases, in a very different way. Perhaps the most significant difference is the frequent use of plea
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bargaining. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will consider the range of lessons to be learned not only from the United States, but from Hong Kong and other countries and jurisdictions. That might form part of the wider fraud review that we hope will report by the summer and will be able to lead us towards better ways of dealing with complex fraud investigations, as well as prosecutions.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Reference has been made to the 11 recommendations in the report, 10 of which have been substantially accepted. Can the Solicitor-General give the House an assurance that measures will be put in place to ensure that those proposals are not only properly implemented, but monitored to see whether any alterations need to be made?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I can give that reassurance. We have already had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the director of the Serious Fraud Office is also aware of the full implications of the report. Its recommendations are important. We want them to be fully implemented, and we will monitor the situation to ensure that they are.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I find it hard to believe that the Government’s proposal to do
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without trials is due to the length of time that they take. The Solicitor-General let the cat of the bag a moment ago when he said that we are not getting enough convictions. Is not the truth of the matter that the CPS cannot present its cases well enough to get convictions, and that is why it wants to do away with juries?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the CPS. Certainly, the report made some criticisms of its handling of this case, but in many other trials it has handled fraud matters very well. There is a need for improvement. That is why certain reforms have been put in place, particularly since the statement made in 2003 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General about changing the way in which cases are considered. We want the prosecution of fraud to be carried out properly and effectively. That is not only about getting more convictions, but about securing justice, and justice requires that those who have committed an offence have the full extent of their culpability exposed before a court so that they can be properly dealt with by the criminal justice system. I am concerned that the way in which prosecutions occur at the moment, with indictments being split and the number of counts being reduced, sometimes means that there is not a full exposure of that level of culpability. We need to consider that seriously, as putting our heads in the sand and being blind to it has taken us nowhere.

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Points of Order

1.13 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I need your help and advice on this matter, Mr. Speaker. On 26 April, I asked the former Home Secretary whether foreign nationals due for deportation were placed on the sex offenders register if they had committed a serious sexual offence, and the answer was not quite as clear as I had hoped. With your indulgence, I raised a point of order on 2 May, but still did not get a clear answer. I tabled questions on 4 May seeking information, but I have not received a holding reply. I subsequently asked a named day question, to be answered on 19 June, about the delays in answering my questions. Again, I have not even received a holding response. Given this clearly unacceptable situation, can you give me any advice on how I can gain the information that I seek?

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order. As I have said on several occasions recently, it is important that Ministers give timely answers to parliamentary questions. I know that the Leader of the House shares that view, and I have no doubt that he will read what the hon. Lady has said on the record in tomorrow’s Hansard. I hope that he will pursue this matter. I would also say to the hon. Lady that in my experience perseverance is a very important thing in this House, and she should persevere.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I am sure that you are aware, on 11 December the largest explosion that Europe has seen since the second world war took place in my constituency. It not only had catastrophic effects on the environment, but put nearly 4,000 jobs at risk. On the following day, I praised the Deputy Prime Minister for coming to the House to make a statement, but since then, more than six months later, not one ministerial statement, oral or written, has been made to the House about the effects of Buncefield and the ongoing inquiry. May I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on how we can get a Minister of any Department to come here to tell us what is going on?

Mr. Speaker: I always say to hon. Members that if Ministers will not answer questions, the answer is to seek an Adjournment debate so that they are brought to the Floor of the House. I advise the hon. Gentleman to do that.

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Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment)

1.15 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I beg to move,

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