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The reality is that four times fewer people are unemployed in this recession than in the previous recession, because of the action that we have taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will fight hard to support industry and jobs, especially jobs for young people. That is why we have introduced the
future jobs fund, with a guarantee that after only six months every person under the age of 24 will be guaranteed work or training.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House whether the Government have received representations from the Electoral Commission about foreign money being used to buy British constituencies?
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con):
Leominster town crier and fire fighter Dave Taylor has got cancer. His oncologist has prescribed him Avastin, which is not
approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. What can she do to keep this man alive?
Ms Harman: NICE is independent and acts on the best scientific and medical advice. I pay tribute to the progress that has been made in cutting the loss of life from cancer, and the work that is done by oncologists and the rest of the health service to lengthen people's life expectancy and improve their care. That is one of the things that has benefited from the great increase in investment that we have made. I ask the hon. Gentleman to back our commitment to the guarantee that after someone visits a GP with a suspected cancer, they should see an oncologist within one week.
Before I come to the Bill, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to comment on the news that has just broken that the former leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, has died. I am sure that that news will be received with great sadness, not only by my party, but across the country. Those of us who knew Michael Foot will have a great many memories of him. I have one particular memory of him from when I was a new Opposition Back Bencher in November 1980. There was a run-off competition between Denis Healey and Michael Foot for the leadership of the Labour party, and on an Opposition day dedicated to the state of the economy-which, I say parenthetically, was not doing all that well-Denis Healey opened the debate and spoke very well.
We all came in for the winding-up speeches, which began at 9 o'clock, and Michael Foot made a speech that suggested to me that he had a line to the Almighty unknown to the rest of us. I witnessed the speech, and so did everyone else, with the same incredulity that I witness the imagination behind a Mozart concerto. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) may also recall the occasion.
Mr. Straw: Michael Foot held the House. He had no notes-just a couple of newspaper cuttings-and he started off by saying, "Mr. Speaker, I read in the newspapers that only a couple of members of the Cabinet support the Government's economic policy. I have been wondering", he said, scratching his head in his usual way, "how many Conservative Back-Bench Members support the conduct of the economy by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister." He paused and said, "Hands up who supports the Government's conduct of the economy!" and three Members put up their hands, one of whom was, I am afraid to say, the late benighted Geoffrey Dickens. The House collapsed.
Michael Foot continued-it says a lot that I can remember the speech almost word for word 30 years later-by saying, "It is well known that I come from Plymouth, and my father used to take us to a music hall on Saturday mornings, and sometimes there was a conjurer, and this conjurer was one of the most brilliant conjurers in the world. He used to do all sorts of mind-boggling tricks, and one day he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I would like somebody here to produce a gold fob watch,' and a gold fob watch was produced. What is more," Michael Foot said, "we knew that it was produced by somebody who was not a stool pigeon for the conjurer; it was a real gold watch."
"The conjurer said," continued Michael Foot, "'Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to put this gold watch on this desk. I am going to get this large wooden mallet and bring it down on the watch. The watch will smash, sprockets will go one way, springs will go another, and
then I will utter a spell and the watch will come back together again, and I will hand it back to its owner-it will be perfect.' The conjurer said, 'Let me take the watch.' He put it on the desk, produced the mallet and brought it down with a resounding whack-sprockets go one way, cogs go another, winding wheels go a third and the case goes a fourth way. Then," said Michael Foot, "there is a very, very long pause, and a longer pause, and then the conjurer turns to the audience and says, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm really sorry, but I've forgotten the rest of the trick.'" Then Michael Foot said, "And, of course, Mr. Speaker, the problem for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer is that they have forgotten the rest of the trick," and he sat down. It was absolutely brilliant, and that speech gave him the Labour leadership.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I have indulged the Secretary of State because he has been paying a gracious and eloquent tribute to a quite extraordinarily distinguished parliamentarian, whose loss we all lament. I hope that the House can fairly quickly move on to the Bribery Bill, but I have great respect for what he has just said.
Let me now turn to a Bill that our late and honoured friend would have supported: the Bribery Bill. Modernising and strengthening the law on bribery is one of the key strands of the Government's foreign bribery strategy, which I launched in January. I am known-rather pompously, I think it is fair to say-as the Government's anti-bribery champion, but I am very happy to champion that cause.
Bribery, as we know, is an insidious offence. It undercuts honest companies and distorts the free market. It causes state institutions to lose their legitimacy and public confidence in the political system to wane. Where bribery is allowed to flourish, democracy struggles to take root. Its impact on development is equally damaging. Bribery discourages foreign aid, feeds inequality and injustice, and diverts valuable funds away from basic public services. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the most vulnerable in society are hit the hardest. One of the consequences of bribery and the misuse of developments funds, whether they come from the state or from charitable causes, is the undermining of public support in wealthier countries, including this country, for continuing that assistance.
The scale of bribery across the globe is immense. We have to rely on estimates, and although there is no precise estimate of fraud or bribery, the World Bank has estimated that some $1 trillion is paid annually in bribes, adding around 10 per cent. to the cost of doing business in some countries. There is both a moral and a practical imperative for tackling bribery. As a nation reliant on world trade for our prosperity, the United Kingdom is duty bound to set an international example in stamping out this scourge. Changing the law on its own, whether in the context of bribery or any other sphere, is necessary but, of itself, not sufficient. The Bill is therefore one part of our wider strategy to tackle bribery by supporting ethical business practices in British companies, enforcing the law effectively, and working with our international partners to promote good governance overseas.
That the criminal law on bribery is in need of reform is not in dispute, and certainly not in this House. The current patchwork of offences derives from a mix of common law and rather old statutes, which together have not been substantially altered since the first world war, when Britain was one of the first countries to legislate against any form of corruption. The law has never previously been consolidated, and contains inconsistencies of both language and concept. The result is a body of law that is outdated, complex and, in some respects, uncertain in its effect. As a consequence, it is difficult-although, as we have recently seen, not impossible-for investigators and prosecutors to apply the law sensibly. Therefore, the case for reform is compelling; nor, I am pleased to say, is there now much dispute over how we should change the law.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the difficulty is that people can buy their way out of some bribery charges if they can afford a good enough lawyer? The inconsistencies in the legislation as it stands are not so easily manipulated by people who cannot afford really good legal advice, but they can be taken advantage of to prove someone's technical innocence, as long as they can spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds on lawyers who really understand the ins and outs of the inconsistencies that the Secretary of State has described.
Mr. Straw: The fact that, notwithstanding the inherent difficulties, there have been successful prosecutions shows that the law is not in an impossible state, and nor should the hon. Gentleman believe that purchasing good legal advice is a means by which people can escape prosecution, conviction and justice. None of us should gainsay the idea that people are entitled to the best legal advice. Indeed, we have the best funded legal system among comparable countries that I can think of. However, the hon. Gentleman makes the case for reforming the law, to straighten it up and modernise it.
The Bill is closely based on proposals put forward by the Law Commission in November 2008, following its customarily careful and thorough analysis of the issues, and extensive consultation with those affected. The approach taken by the Law Commission was strongly and unanimously supported by the Joint Committee that examined the draft Bill. I pay tribute to the work of both the Law Commission and the Joint Committee. The fact that the Bill has attracted wide-ranging support and has passed through the other place with few changes-I shall come to those-is testament to the solid foundations laid by the Law Commission and the Joint Committee.
The core element of the Bill can be briefly described. The Bill creates four offences. The first two are to be found in clauses 1 and 2. Clause 1 makes it an offence to give, promise or offer a bribe, while clause 2 deals with the reverse situation of requesting, agreeing to receive or accepting a bribe. Clause 6 creates a bespoke offence of bribing a foreign public official in order "to obtain or retain" a business advantage. The UK takes its international obligations seriously and this House should be in no doubt that our law is already compliant with the various international conventions combating bribery, to which this country has put its name. This specific
offence will underscore our adherence to the OECD's convention on combating bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions.
The quartet of offences is completed by clause 7, which deals with the offence of failure on the part of a commercial organisation to prevent bribery. That is a really important offence. It will, however, be a defence for a commercial organisation to show that "adequate procedures" were in place to prevent bribery. I will say a little more about that in a few moments. All those are serious offences, in recognition of which we are increasing the current maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment to 10 years. A commercial organisation convicted on indictment of an offence under the Bill would be liable to an unlimited fine.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on that particular point, because the penalties are a rather important aspect of the Bill. Does he agree that under existing legislation, unlimited fines are available, but the sentencing guidelines mean that the courts do not always take the offences as seriously as they should? Is he saying that because the penalties are changing, the sentencing guidelines will also have to be reconsidered?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are about to establish the Sentencing Council to take over the twin roles of the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel. It would be sensible to invite the new Sentencing Council to look afresh at its guidelines-and given the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, I undertake to do so-in the light of the greater seriousness with which I believe Parliament has already and hopefully will continue to take these offences and the whole issue of bribery.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Further to the previous intervention, does the Secretary of State appreciate that the sentencing guidelines conflict in some ways with other sentencing powers, particularly in respect of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002? Businesses say that people might not come forward because once they have been convicted under this Act, they might be liable to prosecution and penalties under other Acts. Is the Secretary of State going to look at that?
Mr. Straw: In a sense, that is more a matter for the prosecutorial authorities, but I will certainly look at it. If somebody has egregiously taken a bribe, they are unlikely to come forward and volunteer the information in any event. They might have to enter into a compromise agreement, which is a rather different matter. [Interruption.] I will give way shortly to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).
Currently, there is not a corporate offence; we intend that there should be. There will be a responsibility on companies in practice to come forward if they have uncovered evidence. I think that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) is saying that there should be no protection for those who have been of criminal intent and purpose and effect, but that there should be protection for the innocent company directors and the company as a whole where they have acted properly, and that they should not penalised provided that it can also be shown that they have not profited unjustifiably from the crime. I will certainly follow up the issue and write to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Straw: "Double jeopardy" is a much overworked phrase. It could be argued that it is double jeopardy for someone who has committed a fraud both to end up in the criminal court and to lose his job, but I do not call that double jeopardy. It is simply the consequence of a criminal action.
I happen to believe that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is a very important measure. I would believe that, of course, because I initiated it back in 2000; it was passed after the 2001 election. I think it fair enough for people who have committed a criminal offence and have also received proceeds in a criminal way to have to pay those proceeds back. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): This discussion touches on an important issue. The system that we are setting up and, in particular, the way in which the Serious Fraud Office has been working are undoubtedly intended to encourage companies to come forward and admit wrongdoing if it has taken place, and to accept that penalties that will flow from it, but also, in doing so, to mitigate the offence. The system is thus much more like a regulatory regime than any system we have had before. I think that a difficulty will arise if it is perceived that there is no effective framework in which that interplay can occur. One of the aspects of the Bill that will raise anxieties is the fact that, in a rather English way, we are enacting adversarial criminal legislation which, if it is to work properly, will require a regulatory framework involving an understanding of the commercial world in which some of the decisions will be made.
Mr. Speaker: The erudition of the hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention was, I am afraid, equalled only by its length. I much enjoyed listening to it, and we have plenty of time today, but I think that we ought to try to limit the length of interventions.
Mr. Straw: If I may defend the hon. and learned Gentleman, Mr. Speaker, he raised a very important point, and, in doing so, anticipated what I was going to say next. As he observed, we are moving into what amounts to a new regulatory framework.
Over the past 18 months, I have held round-table meetings with representatives of organisations such as Transparency International and CAFOD-the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development-which are concerned about the effect of bribery, particularly in developing countries. Transparency International does a terrific job in ensuring high standards throughout the world. In the same room have been representatives of the CBI and of large business corporations with substantial business overseas, whose staff and agents often work in countries where there is a culture of bribery and corruption and where they could otherwise have been vulnerable to that environment.
One of the points made by the business organisations, which I have accepted, concerns the need for proper written guidance to the new framework. Such guidance would equip them with yardsticks enabling them to
judge whether they were complying with the provisions in clause 7. We have already begun to draft the guidance, in collaboration with the prosecutorial authorities and others, and it will be issued well before clause 7 comes into force. A commitment to provide guidance is enshrined in clause 9, which was added to the Bill on Report in the other place. I was anxious that it should be there, because, although I look forward to serving in my present office for at least a further decade, there will come a time when even I shall have to move on, and it is important that undertakings given now can be sustained by a statutory requirement.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Under-Secretary of State is looking rather worried about the prospect of the Secretary of State's remaining in office for another 10 years, and I share her concern.
Does the Secretary of State intend the guidance to be published before the Act is implemented? As for the sentencing guidance mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), will the conversations that the Secretary of State promised to have include consideration of the need to increase the penalties for economic crime generally? Money laundering currently attracts a maximum of seven years' imprisonment, whereas the sentence for theft and handling is 14 years. I believe that we need to increase the seriousness with which the courts take these matters.
Mr. Straw: The guidance will be issued before the Bill comes into force-although not, obviously, before it becomes law-and we will ensure that businesses and organisations representing them have time to digest it before the sections of the Act to which it relates come into force. The vast majority of business people, whether their businesses are small, medium-sized or large, are transparent and honest, and want to do a decent job. What we must not do is gratuitously catch them out.
Mr. Grieve: I am sorry that the Lord Chancellor is being subjected to a barrage of Front-Bench interventions, but another issue arises. I am sure the Lord Chancellor agrees that there are often grey areas in what is bribery and what may not be. In other countries-including, I believe, the United States-it is often possible to refer a specific matter to the authorities in order to obtain guidance on whether or not a payment is appropriate, but we do not have such a system in this country. Should we perhaps consider adopting one?
I apologise to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for not replying to his second question. He was right to suggest that sentences relating to such offences as money laundering should be brought into line with those relating to more general offences, so that the courts receive a message from this place that so-called white-collar crimes are just as important, pound for pound, as crimes committed by a common thief-thefts of tangible or what Dickens used to call portable property.
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