Previous Section Index Home Page

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1124

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he has already asked two questions, and other hon. Members wish to speak.

The Solicitor-General: The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is quite right to say that it was proper for the Serious Fraud Office to commence the investigation, because allegations had been made. I supported the decision that it made to initiate the investigation. To the best of my knowledge, it has been conducted properly. The team that has been looking into the matter has done so diligently and deserves our thanks. However, it was also right, at the appropriate stage, for the director to take a view about the continuation of the investigation.

The director, the Attorney-General and I have excluded commercial matters from our considerations. It was proper that we did that. I do not wish to make any comments about other contracts or whatever. Indeed, I deliberately took the view that we did not want to be informed about them in any detail because they should not have affected our decision—and they did not.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I am bound to say that I regard this whole episode as a sorry one. The Serious Fraud Office has been on a lengthy fishing expedition that has proved abortive. Although I accept entirely what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said about the director of the Serious Fraud Office, the office has had to restrain itself from extending the fishing expedition for an extra 18 months. That suggests that the most important point that the Government need to address is that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Will the Solicitor-General reiterate that we need a thorough review of the way in which this law is operating? If national security is to have a bearing on the activities of the Serious Fraud Office in this field, that should be much more clearly stated as such. The Serious Fraud Office should not be tempted to go on these fishing expeditions unless it is absolutely clear that prosecutions are both likely and in the national interest.

The Solicitor-General: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. When serious allegations are made, it is right that the prosecuting authorities undertake the appropriate investigations and make appropriate decisions according to the evidence before them and the public interest. He pejoratively described the investigation as a fishing expedition. I do not take that view, having had detailed briefings from the SFO team that has looked into the matter. I think that they have behaved with diligence and as good public servants.

I know that the Attorney-General would want me to convey his view to this House, which is that he has absolutely no criticism to make of the way in which the SFO has acted; indeed, its staff have carried out their duties as they should and they have made decisions in an appropriate way. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would want me to place on the record his defence of their actions.

I am sure that on reflection the hon. Gentleman, too, will agree that the approach taken by his hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)—that we need to strike a balance—is the correct one. I hope that he will read what his hon. Friend said and be educated by it.

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1125

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): The Solicitor-General has told the House that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary have expressed the view that the continuation of the investigation would be damaging to UK-Saudi co-operation and that the Attorney-General and the SFO are unable to take into account potential effects on relations with another state. Does he not recognise that the distinction between UK-Saudi co-operation and UK-Saudi relations is a very fine one? What weight and significance was placed on the representations made by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary?

The Solicitor-General: Let me say that the issue was national security—our national security—and our foreign policy objectives and the extent to which those might be damaged as a result of the continuation of the investigation, rather than, as I made clear in my statement, relations with another country. The issue was our national security and the extent to which it depends on these matters.

It is appropriate under the 1951 so-called Shawcross convention, in a Shawcross exercise, for the Attorney-General to obtain the views of other Ministers on a decision such as this. I have taken the trouble to ensure that I have in front of me the classic statement of that convention, made by the then Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, in 1951. He said that

I confirm in relation to informing the director any representations that he was able to be aware of the representations that were received. When he made the decision, he saw the written representations himself. He was able to take a view, without undue pressure. He formed a view, quite properly, and he expressed that view. He reflected on it overnight and he confirmed that it remained his view. The Attorney-General and I had, in the meantime, formed a view that was the same, or broadly the same. Therefore, the decision-making process was conducted entirely properly.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Will the Government now support the Public Accounts Committee or its Chairman having access to the National Audit Office report on a confidential basis? If not, why not?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman should properly take the matter up with the appropriate House authorities, rather than with me.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Every one of the considerations on which the statement is based would have been apparent to a competent investigator within weeks of commencing the investigation. Why was the Serious Fraud Office
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1126
permitted to continue with its investigation, and why has the necessary analysis only now been conducted, in circumstances that make a laughing stock of the Government and the rule of law?

The Solicitor-General: I do not accept the intemperate way in which the hon. and learned Gentleman chooses to present his question. The director of the Serious Fraud Office took the decision in the proper way, and he took into consideration the evidence presented to him. Some of that evidence, particularly that relating to public interest, was more recent, and it is right that he made his decision after hearing it, and after having the chance properly to consider it. I think that he made the decision at the appropriate time, and I have no criticism whatever, so I do not share the hon. and learned Gentleman’s view.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Is the Solicitor-General aware that news of his statement sent a frisson of excitement through the fisheries debate? Some people thought that the Prime Minister himself was about to come and tell us about police inquiries. Does the Solicitor-General understand that even if the decision was made for the best of reasons, it will look very dodgy? Will he at least give us an assurance that the phrase,

is not being used as a precedent for balancing the need to maintain the rule of law with narrow political interests involved in any other investigations with which the police are engaged?

The Solicitor-General: A serious decision has been taken by the director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Attorney-General, both of whom considered the matter very carefully. In the context of that difficult decision, if the hon. Gentleman chooses to make cheap points, that is a matter for him; others will judge him.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Has the Solicitor-General had an opportunity to estimate the costs of the investigation to the public purse so far, and what would the additional costs have been if it had run for another 18 months?

The Solicitor-General: I have not yet had the opportunity to estimate the costs, but I will ask the director of the Serious Fraud Office whether he can do so in due course, although it may take some time to get those statistics. I shall ask my officials to make a note of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is a legitimate one, and I shall see whether I can get him an answer in due course.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Is this not a sad day for the cause of good governance and the rule of law, coming as it does just two weeks after news of pressure from the Saudi Arabian Government? Given that there was every indication that the inquiry was making substantial progress, is it not scandalous that the criminal investigation has been brought to an end? Is there not a case for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his two questions.

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1127

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman claims that there was substantial progress, but I am not sure how he justifies that claim. The Attorney-General and I met the SFO team, and its view was that it would take 18 months to make what the hon. Gentleman thinks amounts to substantial progress. It would take a considerable time just to get to the point at which the SFO could consider whether to undertake a prosecution. He may just dismiss that, but the director of the SFO and the Attorney-General had to balance national security interests, the length of time involved, the implications, and the question mark over whether a prosecution would take place. A decision had to be made, and it was made properly.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Is it not clear and incontrovertible that the representations—indeed, the pressure—of a foreign Government were crucial in determining the course of a criminal investigation in this country, and that if the Government concerned had not threatened to withdraw diplomatic co-operation and to withdraw contracts, and had expressed no views on the subject and made no moves, the investigation would have continued?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman may have his view. It is entirely a matter for other Governments whether they express a view, but it is a matter for the director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Attorney-General to take a view on the law in relation to the public interest and the evidence before them. A view was taken, quite properly, on that public
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1128
interest and on the evidence, and a view was taken that the investigation ought at this point to conclude.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Solicitor-General accept, from one who does not for a minute impugn the integrity of the Attorney-General and who believes that the decision is the inevitable one, that there are many of us who think it should have been made far earlier?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman may take the view that it would have been preferable to be able to arrive at the decision earlier. The difficulty is that the director of the Serious Fraud Office was entitled to undertake appropriate inquiries and investigations to establish the nature of the case, and to make a decision when he had sufficient information before him to make that decision. It was not the case, in his view, that he had that information before yesterday. Therefore, when he had the information, he was able to make the appropriate balancing tests that are required of him under the law and under the obligations of a prosecutor. He made that balancing test when he was able to do so. The Attorney-General and I agreed with the decision that he took, after we had spent considerable time—particularly the Attorney-General; on Tuesday at least, I was engaged elsewhere, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) knows—going into the detail of the case. The Attorney-General spent Tuesday, yesterday and some considerable time before that studying the detail, and has formed a view that the decision of the director of the Serious Fraud Office is the right one.

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1129

Historic Churches

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Steve McCabe.]

6.37 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I probably owe you an apology, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for testing your patience a moment or two ago, but I make no apology at all for raising the subject at this time. I am very grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this as the topic for the Thursday Adjournment debate.

I shall speak briefly about Christian churches in this country, their fabric and their survival. I make no apology for that. This is a Christian country and we are approaching one of the greatest of the Christian festivals. In 10 days, churches throughout the land will be full of those who have come to celebrate Christmas. I am delighted about that, and I am sure the Minister, too, is delighted, as a former chorister of some distinction in one of our cathedrals.

In a fortnight, people will go to church in unprecedented numbers. Many of them may go at Easter and many may go at the harvest festival in the autumn. They are what I would call festival Christians, and I make no criticism of that. Many of them will go, as I had to go today, on sadder occasions, to funerals, which is why I am wearing this tie, or on more joyful occasions, to weddings and baptisms. Most of those who go have little knowledge of how our churches are funded. Successive research has shown that many people who regard the parish church as an extremely important landmark and a focal point in town or village think that it is sustained financially out of the rates or the taxes, or by Government funds of one sort or another. I hope that in a fortnight’s time many of them will dig deeply into their pockets, because although these are public buildings—the most important public buildings in our country, in many ways—they receive very modest help from central Government, and that indirectly.

If I were like the famous Irishman, I would not be starting here. When the millennium was approaching, I urged my Government—and then, as it got closer and we had a change of Government, the Minister’s Government—to forget the dome and to set up an endowment fund to ensure that throughout this century we would not need to worry about the survival of our churches’ fabric. However, both Governments decided to have the dome and probably spent £700 million more than they would have done had they followed my suggestion, but there we are.

I have a long history of involvement in this matter. The first private Member’s Bill that I introduced in this House way back in 1971—the Historic Churches Preservation Bill—had as its aim getting state aid for historic churches. At that stage, it was not available in any form. In 1976, when that campaign was nearing a successful conclusion, I published a book called “Heritage in Danger”, which focused on those churches and other threats to our built heritage and our natural environment.

There has been progress. State aid did come, and on an all-party basis—the decision was made by a Conservative Government and implemented by a Labour Government. I have no hesitation in paying
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1130
compliments to those who were responsible. Since then, we have had the creation of English Heritage, the creation of the lottery and, under this Government, a Chancellor who for the first time has recognised the burden of VAT on those who have to pay towards the restoration of historic buildings. Although they still have to pay it, which is quite a problem, he has created a scheme whereby it is almost entirely reimbursed.

That is very good and it should be put on the record, but we still have a great problem. We have in this country 16,000-plus churches of the Church of England, more than 13,000 of which are listed, 2,750 or more Roman Catholic churches, only 10 per cent. of which are listed—although if one looks at the wonderful book that English Heritage has produced over the past few weeks called “Glimpses of Heaven”, one realises how many more Roman Catholic churches should be listed—and slightly more than 3,000 non-conformist churches and chapels, about 20 per cent. of which are listed.

The problem is that the existing grant schemes are heavily oversubscribed. English Heritage estimates that the shortfall over the next five years could be as much as £500 million. That is why it has launched an extremely splendid campaign called “Inspired!” to draw attention to the importance of our parish churches, in particular, but religious buildings of other denominations too, and has asked the Government to provide over the next five years a sum of £26.5 million, which works out at£8.8 million a year, to allow it to conduct a number of studies into how best we can tackle the problem and ensure the survival of those buildings into the next century and beyond.

English Heritage is not asking for, and I am not asking for, the Government to take over responsibilities for religious buildings. I am, and always have been, implacably opposed to that, because it takes away a sense of local pride, patriotism and ownership. If one goes to some of the great churches of France, where the state has responsibility, one sees that they are wonderfully presented and preserved, but we all know the musty smell that greets us when we enter some lovely but small and obscure churches in French villages, where there is no local responsibility and therefore no incentive to run campaigns to raise funds. Such campaigns often bring a community together, as I know from experience.

I am a great believer in trusts. I am president of the Staffordshire county trust and vice-president of the Lincolnshire—the county of my birth—county trust. Through bicycle rides and other fundraising efforts, those trusts raise money to preserve our historic heritage of churches. That is tremendously important and should be encouraged, not discouraged.

It is also important to encourage those who go to church at Christmas and during the great festivals to dig deep into their pockets. More churches should erect graphic boards, pointing out what it costs to maintain and run a church. Anything that is old, lovely and fragile is expensive to maintain. Year in, year out, the small and sometimes dwindling congregations find that cost a genuine imposition. Demographic change and population movements have led to many parishes having small congregations. There has also been a falling-off in the ordained ministry. Whereas, in my youth, it was normal for a village to have its resident
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1131
vicar or rector, that is now the exception rather than the rule. Many of those men and women are responsible for not only two but sometimes five, six and even more churches. They need lay help, which they receive, but they have to do far more than simply raise money to maintain the fabric.

A residual responsibility rests on those of us in elected office and especially on the Government. I should like to think that the Minister recognises that I am not making a party political point. His party has the honour of providing the Government of the moment; I hope that mine might in the near future. However, whether or not that happens, the problem remains. I want a greater recognition of the problem, building on the achievements to which I referred—the introduction of state aid, the creation of English Heritage and its funds and the lottery. All those are welcome. However, the Minister must be aware of the perception that the Olympics mean that many other deserving causes will be deprived of funds in the next six years and beyond.

When I published “Heritage in Danger” in 1976, I quoted a passage from the great Russian author, Solzhenitsyn, and I should like to draw the House’s attention to it tonight. He wrote:

Next Section Index Home Page