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House of Lords

Monday, 30th November 1998.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

European Commission: Fraud Prosecutions

Lord Dixon-Smith asked Her Majesty's Government:

    If fraud can be demonstrated to have been undertaken by a member of the staff of the European Commission, under which national criminal code such a case might be prosecuted.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Article 12(a) of the Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of the European Communities confers on officials of the Communities, in the territory of each member state, immunity from legal proceedings in respect of acts performed by them in their official capacity. Article 18 requires each Community institution to waive the immunity accorded to an official wherever that institution considers that the waiver is not contrary to the interests of the Communities. Each case would need to be considered individually in the light of the jurisdictional rules of the country in question; but, in general, any prosecution might be expected to take place under the criminal code of the country where the alleged fraud took place or, possibly, of the home country of the individual concerned.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that full answer. If I understood it correctly, any country may apply for a waiver of diplomatic immunity if fraud can be shown to have taken place; but the reality must be, since we are talking about direct employees of the Commission, that the offence is likely to have occurred in Belgium and therefore the waiver is likely to be applied for either by the Belgian Government or the government of the home country of the individual concerned. Since the Belgians draw considerable benefit from the existence of the Community institutions within their country, it seems to me that they would be rather cautious about becoming involved. The home country of the individual concerned might be the beneficiary of the fraud and would therefore have a conflict of interest. What steps does the Minister think should be taken to improve this situation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not sure that I accept the noble Lord's premise. The fact that an official may be based in Brussels does not mean that the fraud would take place there. The option of the jurisdiction of the place where the fraud took place or the home country of the national concerned is a fail-safe option--in other words, there is more than one way of enabling a prosecution to take place. The noble Lord

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may be encouraged to know that, as far as we know, there has never been a request for a waiver of immunity which has not been granted.

Lord Peston: My Lords, can my noble friend clarify another aspect of his Answer? If a fraud were carried out by a member of the Commission staff, it would almost certainly be the case that other people who were not on the Commission staff would be involved and would be beneficiaries. I take it that there is no possible waiver that could apply to anybody else who was involved in such a fraud and that they would be prosecuted under the relevant laws of the country in which the fraud was committed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is right; that is the case. He may be reassured to be reminded that, as I am sure he already knows, 82 per cent. of the budget of the European Communities is in the hands of member states and not in the hands of Commission officials.

Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, can the Minister say how often waivers have been granted in recent years and how often the prosecutions that flowed from them have been successful?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, no, not off the cuff. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, is reassured to know that waivers have not been denied. That is surely the most significant factor. It cannot be in the interests of the European Communities for fraud to go unprosecuted.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the important consideration is that some prosecution be instituted in respect of the frauds that have been exposed over a number of years in the reports of the Court of Auditors, copies of which I hold in my hand? Will he take steps to ensure that, so far as the United Kingdom Government are concerned--who are, after all, one of the leading net contributors to the Community budget--these allegations of fraud, of which there is abundant prima facie evidence, are investigated without further delay?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. I gave an assurance during the passage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill that the Government take these matters very seriously and are seeking to advance prosecution. Within the next six months we plan to ratify the European Union convention to combat fraud against the European Community budget. That convention will ensure that all member states have adequate criminal law sanctions against fraud affecting the financial interests of the community.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, is it not a fact that the evidence is that most fraud in the European Community takes place in the various member states? If that is so, are not those who have committed the fraud liable to prosecution there? The Question asks whether any

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member of the European Commission has undertaken fraud. He would surely be liable in that country, would he not?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, will recall that I said that 82 per cent. of the European Union budget is in the hands of member states, not in the hands of the Commission. It is up to the prosecuting authorities in each country to take action against fraud. They have the benefit of UCLAF, the anti-fraud unit of the European Commission, which works closely with the prosecuting authorities.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the Minister implies that charges of this nature have not been brought forward, although they may be brought forward in the near future. Is he satisfied that, should that happen, they will be prosecuted with sufficient rigour?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I apologise if I gave the wrong impression to the noble Lord. I do not believe I said that charges had not been brought forward. I said that no application for a waiver of immunity had been denied. In other words, immunity from prosecution which exists for officials of the European Union and diplomats of all kinds--indeed, Members of your Lordships' House have parliamentary privilege in respect of libel and slander--is not a bar to prosecution because there has been no waiver which has been denied. That is rather different from what the noble Lord understands, and it must be my fault.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is it not a fact that much, if not most, of the fraud takes place under the common agricultural policy? Would the problem not be solved if the CAP was repatriated to the nation states?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right. Fifty per cent of the European Union's budget is accounted for by the common agricultural policy. A further 32 per cent. is accounted for by structural funds. To that extent it is inevitable that a very high proportion of fraud should occur in those two areas. But steps have already been taken, which are gradually working, to ensure that the easiest of frauds under the common agricultural policy--the transport of agricultural goods from one member state to another--can no longer take place.

Freedom of Information Legislation

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they intend to introduce a freedom of information Bill.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government will publish a draft freedom of information Bill early next year for pre-legislative scrutiny by the House of Commons Select

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Committee for Public Administration and for public consultation. Following this, the Government will introduce the Bill to Parliament as soon as the legislative programme allows.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. As this matter has featured in Labour Party manifestos since 1974 under both old Labour and new Labour but was not acted upon between 1974 and 1979 and as a parliamentary Answer forecast that a draft Bill would be published early this year, are the Government meeting greater difficulties than they foresaw when in opposition?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we remain firmly wedded to the principle of freedom of information. When published the White Paper was generally welcomed. We must now produce a Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. Quite a number of noble Lords believe that to be a useful way forward because a number of intricate matters must be dealt with. I expect the period of public consultation to be of the order of three months and therefore there will not be further delay. As to the legislative programme, that is a matter for your Lordships.

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