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House of Lords

Tuesday, 20th February 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

"Pogs" and Children's Safety

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that the small toys, known as "Pogs", are safe for small children when included with foodstuffs in packets.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, toy safety regulations require that all toys supplied in the United Kingdom must be safe--even those given away free with other products. We have no evidence that any of the "Pogs" currently on the market do not comply with safety legislation; nor are we aware of any incidents of young people mistaking the "Pogs" supplied with food for a foodstuff.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for that reassuring reply. He and other noble Lords are no doubt familiar with the small discs bearing pictures of imaginary characters now being voraciously collected by children. Is my noble and learned friend aware of reports that large quantities are soon to be launched in rival packets of cereals and crisps, and that the British Safety Council is worried that small children could choke on them? In fact, a Pog in the throat might be dangerous--certainly more so than a frog in the throat.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, my noble friend has the advantage of me. Until I prepared for this Question I had no idea what a Pog was. It is a small cardboard disc not unlike those that used to be found on the tops of milk bottles. Their size is such that it is not seriously considered that there should be any risk to young people who intentionally or inadvertently put them into their mouths. The Pog complies with legislation. I am very much aware that remarkable quantities of Pogs are circulating. It is anticipated that there will be around half a billion of them in the country in the course of the next year.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the matter has been examined by the consumer safety unit of the DTI and, if so, what is the unit's view? As it is a matter of consumer safety, can he tell us whether there are plans to change the unit--its standards, the scope of its work or its size, or by farming out its work in any manner?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, regulations were made in 1995. Pogs have been measured against the requirements of those regulations. It has been

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established that all those that have come to the attention of the DTI--the large numbers in crisp packets and cereal packets--are too large to fail to comply with the regulations. That being so, I do not think there is any further requirement for adjustment within the DTI.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, can the Minister answer the second part of my question about the future of the consumer safety unit?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I do not think I can. I am not quite sure how it arises on Pogs.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as my noble and learned friend probably knows, a game can be played with Pogs requiring an additional slammer disc. Are the Government concerned about the safety of this sharp metal disc which is already the subject of a toy safety warning from at least one trading standards department?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am now aware what a slammer is. All the slammers I have seen are plastic. When I consider the objects which small children throw at each other, this is probably one of the most harmless I have ever seen.

Maxwell Case: Costs

2.41 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the total cost to public funds of the recent prosecution of the Maxwell brothers and Mr. Trachtenberg.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, it is too early to say what the total cost of the case will be. As far as criminal legal aid is concerned, the full costs will be known only when the final bills have been taxed. However, £8.3 million has been paid to date in respect of interim payments and the magistrates' court proceedings. The total cost to the courts to date has been assessed at £0.5 million. The cost to the Serious Fraud Office, including investigation of matters that will form the basis of future proposed trials, was approximately £11 million as at 31st January 1996.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that extremely interesting if disquieting information. Can he say whether steps are being taken to restrain the very substantial growth in the cost of legal proceedings, particularly prosecutions of this kind, whether successful or, as in the case quoted in my Question, unsuccessful?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, every effort is made to deal with these matters as efficiently as possible. In the particular case to which my noble friend's Question relates, the degree of complexity involved was very high indeed. The method by which such matters should be dealt with is kept under review

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by the Government. In the light of their history further consideration may require to be given to the manner in which such cases are pursued.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it appears that people brought before the courts charged with fraud on a huge scale seem to take a disproportionate share of the money available for legal aid as opposed to people involved in other nefarious activities? Does he agree that it is time that this matter was looked at? At the moment legal aid appears to be a fund for people who have already received large sums of money through their actions and who seem to be able to obtain legal aid more easily than other people.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, it is perhaps right that the kind of case to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, refers will involve a high degree of complexity and will therefore attract more in the way of resources both for the prosecution and defence. As regards the rules, they are the same for all. It is in an attempt to make sure that they are rigorously enforced that I made the proposals in relation to legal aid for the apparently wealthy.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford: My Lords, is it not the case that the success rate in fraud matters is very low when conducted by the Serious Fraud Office? Is it not time that another body took over those prosecutions--perhaps the police?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I gave the details of this matter in Answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Spens, not very long ago. My impression is that the success rate of the Serious Fraud Office in relation to disputed matters is comparable to that of the Crown Prosecution Service. One must take account of the fact that the subject matter is different between the two. If the noble Lord looks at the figures he will see that the success rate of the Serious Fraud Office in these matters bears quite good comparison with other such figures.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, in view of the fact that the case has already cost the British taxpayer something approaching £20 million, does my noble and learned friend agree that it is high time that the rules concerning the award of legal aid should be changed to the extent that the circumstances of the immediate family of the applicant for legal aid should be taken into account? Can my noble and learned friend confirm that the Saudi Arabian who is appealing against a deportation order will not be entitled to legal aid?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, there are two questions. As regards the second, the person concerned will be entitled to legal aid only if he complies with the rules. In relation to the first question, it is not just a matter of legal aid, but of the costs of the prosecution and the defence. In the circumstances of the particular case to which we are referring, and in view of the outcome, even if the defendants had not been given legal

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aid it is highly likely that they would have been awarded their costs out of central funds. Therefore, legal aid is not directly relevant in this particular situation.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord assist perhaps by putting the matter into context? What was the amount of money disbursed from public funds for legal assistance and representation to those who appeared before the Scott tribunal? Can he offer a view as to which disbursement of public money was the best value?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I do not have the full figures in my head at the moment regarding that matter, which is not the subject of the Question. As to the subject matter of this Question, the problem is that these costs are incurred in pursuit of justice, the rule of law and the integrity of our commercial institutions. It is against that background that their value has to be judged and taken into account. In my view, when that kind of standard is applied it is clear that while the costs are high, they are just a reflection of the complexity of the issues with which the trial was concerned.

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