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7 Feb 2007 : Column 888

That is why, with all its undoubted imperfections, the Attorney-General’s slightly unhappy role, often described as a great burden, of reconciling such difficult issues will have to continue. I have not heard it said that public interest considerations should be abolished hereafter in deciding whether a person should be prosecuted. If we were to do that, there would be absurd consequences, and there would quickly be a clamour in the House about how wrong and stupid it was that some people were being prosecuted, because the consequences of bringing the prosecution were out of all proportion with the possibility of securing a conviction.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned parliamentary scrutiny, but he has so far not mentioned the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, and the request that it be laid before the House. That would go a long way towards clearing up the hon. Gentleman’s doubts and uncertainties. Do Conservative Front Benchers support its being laid before the House?

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. It is the last point that I intended to deal with. I cannot go behind what was said by the then Robert Sheldon as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee:

the MOD—

If that is the case, and on the basis that there were good reasons why the report should not have been issued back in 1992—and I do not see that it is very germane to the issue of the discontinuance of the prosecution under discussion—I find every reason to think that we must come up with some pretty compelling arguments if we wish to reverse the decision that was taken by Parliament then. I accept that it must be a legitimate subject of debate, but it is not one on which I feel confident to say that the then PAC Chairman was wrong in the judgment that he made.

I find the Liberal Democrat motion so woolly that it will not command the support of the Conservatives. Should the Government amendment be put to the vote, we will support it.

3.10 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate. As my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said, the Serious Fraud Office decision was a difficult decision and an uncomfortable one, so it is not surprising that some of us still have to be satisfied that it was the right decision. I say at the outset that I find it difficult to be persuaded that the decision by the SFO to suspend the investigation into BAE Systems and the al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia was the right decision.

I shall make and have made no allegations of unlawful activity by any company, any Government or any individual in relation to the matter. I share the concerns of my hon. and learned Friend. In the debate today and in the debate on Tanzania last week, I heard it alleged that Governments, for example, have been involved in bribery, when there is not a shred of evidence for that. However, I am slightly amused when
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I hear it suggested that there has never, ever been any shred of evidence that bribery and corruption have been evident in any arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

I shall give one example. I saw “Newsnight” on 16 June 2006, when the former Defence Secretary, the noble Lord Gilmour, clearly stated that Britain bribed senior Saudi officials to secure arms contracts. I say to Members, do not believe me, believe The Daily Telegraph of 17 June last year, in which Lord Gilmour was quoted as saying:

I am the first to say that that is not a reference about today or about recent years, but I find it strange that there are still those who deny that there has ever been anybody who has provided any significant evidence of bribery at any time in relation to al-Yamamah.

If a Defence Secretary cannot be trusted—[Hon. Members: “He was not a Defence Secretary.”] May I quote again? The Daily Telegraph refers to him as

I will take an intervention to correct The Daily Telegraph any time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman should be dealing with his speech for the time being.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Roger Berry: Of course.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Educating the hon. Gentleman must be in the interests of the House. Lord Gilmour was never Secretary of State for Defence. I think he was at one time shadow Secretary of State for Defence, but he never occupied the post itself.

Roger Berry: I am grateful. I do not read The Daily Telegraph as often as perhaps I should. I probably now know why.

Mr. Grieve: Prior to 2001 it was not a criminal offence in this country to bribe foreign officials abroad. Applying a little common sense leaves little doubt that bribery must have been and was regularly used in relation to foreign contracts by British companies abroad. Not necessarily in relation to Saudi arms contracts but as a general rule, there is quite a lot of evidence to show that that was the case. I wanted to make that clear.

Roger Berry: I am more delighted by the interventions as the debate goes on. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says entirely. It was not until 2002 that the present Government enacted legislation to make international bribery a criminal offence.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): As final clarification, may I cite a more reliable publication, “Dod”? Back in the early 1970s, Lord Gilmour was indeed in the Ministry of Defence and was a Minister.

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Roger Berry: I am delighted. I hope that that is the final intervention on the point. I did not see the wording of the motion until this morning, so I did not have time to do my own research. I apologise to the House.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I misled the hon. Gentleman. I have now had the opportunity to check. Lord Gilmour became briefly, for two or three months, Secretary of State for Defence at the end of Mr. Heath’s Government, when Lord Carrington was moved to another post. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He was technically correct.

Roger Berry: There is correct and incorrect. “Technically correct” is correct. I drew attention to Lord Gilmour’s comments. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) confirmed what we all acknowledge, and he is right. Bribery in relation to trade deals or arms deals was not a criminal offence until 2002. There should therefore be no surprise when people point out that considerable bribery was going on before then.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Roger Berry: I should like to make my final introductory point before I come to my concerns. We have little time.

I have said on countless occasions that the Government deserve enormous credit for two things in relation to the matters that are the subject of our debate. The first is controlling arms exports. Before 1997, the policy was arms to Iraq and the Scott inquiry. This Government provided the first and most comprehensive overhaul of the export control regime since 1939. They are now promoting internationally an arms trade treaty and leading on that, for which they deserve enormous credit.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend comment on the excellent and positive briefing that we, as members of the Quadripartite Committee on Strategic Export Controls, which my hon. Friend chairs, both received this morning from Foreign Office officials on the work that they are doing to take forward our submission to the UN on developing an international arms trade treaty? Does he have any concerns about the impact that the questions raised today might have on that continuing and positive work, in which the Government have played a leading role?

Roger Berry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do have concerns, which I shall come to. The reason that I make the comments that I do about the SFO’s decision is not that I am critical of the Government’s overall policy on the arms trade and dealing with bribery and corruption, but that I genuinely find aspects of the decision puzzling and wish to share that with the House.

Reference has rightly been made to the OECD convention on combating bribery. Article 5, as has been pointed out, requires that the investigation and prosecution of bribery overseas shall not be influenced by

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It has not been mentioned that that is why the OECD is currently investigating that decision and has already taken evidence. I have seen the evidence that the Government have submitted to the OECD. In the near future—I assume by early March, although my hon. and learned Friend the Minister may be able to advise us on this point—there will be a written response from the OECD. I assume that the OECD makes such inquiries when there is a good reason do so and that it is not being frivolous.

The Government have referred to national security. I have no criticism if there is a demonstrable national security interest to such matters. Various Government statements, including the statement issued in December, have referred to the Government’s foreign policy objectives in the middle east, which I happen passionately to share. If the purpose of the OECD convention is not to restrict the areas of national interest that signatories can take into account before pulling the plug on bribery investigations, then what is it? Although article 5 does not state this, I am prepared in principle to sign up to the hidden assumption that national security would be a reason in the public interest for ceasing to investigate further. However, if foreign policy objectives were meant to be included in the OECD convention, I am yet to find them.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. Merely causing problems in a relationship with another friendly state is not in itself sufficient justification for, as he described it, pulling the plug on an investigation. However, where national security is directly affected by that relationship, it was never the intention of this country when we signed up to that convention to say that we would not take into account the risk posed by terrorism to this country when considering whether to continue a case. Quite legitimately, the director of the SFO examined the convention and took the view that the full text of article 5, including the relationship with other countries, did not preclude his taking into account terrorism and the need to maintain relationships that enable our national security and international security to be properly protected. The Law Officers and, in making the decision itself, the director of the SFO acted entirely in accord with that convention.

Roger Berry: That longish intervention is clearly helpful to the debate. I await the outcome of the OECD investigation, and if the OECD expresses a contrary view, this House must re-examine the matter. I remain unconvinced that it is absolutely clear that the SFO has acted in accordance with the OECD convention—I am not a lawyer, but I have my doubts.

I find it difficult to accept the argument that Saudi Arabia—the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has made this point—would not share intelligence to combat terrorism. Saudi Arabia has at least as big a stake in fighting terrorism as anyone else, although I do not expect my hon. and learned Friend the Minister to provide cast iron evidence to the House. I sincerely hope that in the not-too-distant future a Committee of this House will have the opportunity to scrutinise that argument a little more closely.

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Like the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I am also cautious about the value of intelligence from Saudi Arabia. I am not picking on that country, because that is the nature of the case that we are considering. Year after year, the Government’s human rights reports comment on infringements of human rights in Saudi Arabia—for example, torture and ill treatment in prison. I feel uncomfortable in assuming that information gathered by intelligence services will always be reliable in a society where, as the Government have pointed out, there is very limited press freedom, the rule of law is not as robust as in other countries and there is torture and maltreatment in prisons. The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the case of Sandy Mitchell; I will not repeat that.

I acknowledge that we are going back three years and accept that the Government will argue that there has been massive progress in the past two years. I hope that there has been, but I remain uncomfortable about accepting on face value intelligence from a country that has had, and does have, serious problems with human rights.

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. I assure him that the Government would certainly not accept evidence of any sort that might have been obtained through torture, and that any evidence that we receive is examined very carefully for all those variables—not only torture.

Roger Berry: Of course, I accept my hon. Friend’s assurance. I can, however, appreciate the enormous difficulties in distinguishing which sorts of information can be acceptable and which cannot.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman is making a very good case. Further to the plausibility of the argument that Saudi Arabia would not co-operate, does he share my concern that the declaration, “in the national security interest”, can be used at any time in the future by any Government Department facing uncomfortable inquiries with regard to British interests, which would, merely by doing so, cloak itself in immunity from any further investigations without having to provide any evidence?

Roger Berry: I am happy to accept the argument of a Government whom I support that the security interest was a serious consideration, not a way of getting round the OECD convention. However, I am terrified by the prospect of that convention—which I always gave the Government credit for signing, no doubt for the best of motives—being misinterpreted to the effect that it can be got round merely by saying “security interests” or “foreign policy objectives”. I also fear that the fact that the case was suspended before it could be brought to a conclusion on its legal merits sends a message to companies that are trading with countries in which we have a “strategic interest” and might feel that it is easier to get away with bribery in those cases than in others.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that payments made over the table are not bribery, whereas payments made under the table are?

Roger Berry: One learns something new every day. I did not know that I could walk over to my colleagues on the Front Bench, hand them a thousand quid, and
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say, “Give me a job in Government”, and that Opposition Members would think that I was not attempting bribery. Now I know that that is what I should do.

Mr. MacNeil: The point about bribery seems to be that if one is brazen about it, it is okay.

Much has been made of the assertions regarding national security, and I have to question where they have come from. Have the heads of MI5 and MI6 backed those assertions emanating from the Government?

Roger Berry: The reason why I do not support an independent inquiry, as proposed in the motion, is that this involves issues of detail as to what influenced and brought about the SFO decision. That should be considered by the appropriate Committee of the House, which is how I would deal with it. Until we have a proper investigation, questions will remain unanswered.

My final point relates to the impact on British business of any perception that bribery and corruption might not be tackled rigorously. I chaired a Trade and Industry Committee Sub-Committee, which considered the Export Credits Guarantee Department and its anti-bribery procedures. One message that British business conveyed time and again was that it supported the Government’s policies to tackle corruption and bribery and believed that such policies were good for British business, which would be far better placed to win orders internationally if it were seen to be clean and supportive of anti-bribery measures.

I hope that the outstanding concerns that many of us have about the SFO decision can be tackled, doubtless following the OECD’s final determination on the matter. They need to be addressed. We cannot simply say that the decision was difficult and uncomfortable, without acknowledging that there are reasons for that feeling of discomfort. After a speech with more interventions than I can ever recall in my case, I am in a similar category.

3.30 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Although I disagree with the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), I must say, in the light of my intervention, that he made what was technically a very good speech.

I do not normally start with a presumption in favour of the Government, but I do so on this occasion, and nothing that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said has affected that. I accept that, on the face of it, the Government start from a bad position. We do not pay lip service to but genuinely believe in the rule of law, yet the Serious Fraud Office, either on its own initiative or through Government representations, which were undoubtedly made, decided to discontinue a serious inquiry that had been going on for a long time. That led to criticism from the OECD, and criticism from the South African President of double standards. Clearly, the position is embarrassing, and we would all have preferred to avoid it.

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