As the House will know, on 28 September this year, Mr. Justice Nicholls gave judgment on an application that had been made in an action by two working miners, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Foulstone, against the NUM. In his judgment, Mr. Justice Nicholls restrained the NUM from, among other things, describing the strike in the Yorkshire area as official, as it had not been called in accordance with the rules of the NUM.
Despite that order, and in full knowledge of it, the national executive committee of the NUM and its senior officials made statements that affirmed the strike as official. This was a deliberate contempt by the union and on 10 October, Mr. Justice Nicholls fined the union £200,000 and ordered the fine to be paid within 14 days.
I am citing a matter of record of the court.
This was a deliberate contempt of court by the union and, on 10 October, Mr. Justice Nicholls fined the union £200,000 and ordered the fine to be paid within 14 days. He made it clear that if the fine were not paid, the union risked having its assets sequestrated. In imposing the fine, the judge said:
A great and powerful trade union, with a large membership affected by the court orders in question, has decided to regard itself as above the law, and to make this plain repeatedly, emphatically and publicly on a nationwide basis.
The fine was not paid within 14 days and Mr. Justice Nicholls therefore appointed sequestrators, as he had warned the union that he would, on 26 October. The sequestrators accordingly set about taking possession of the assets of the union. However, by about 11 November, they had been able to seize assets only to the value of some £8,500. The vast majority of the remaining assets of the union, amounting to many millions of pounds, had apparently been transferred by the union to banks in various countries abroad, apparently in a deliberate attempt to put them out of reach of the court.
The sequestrators, as was their duty, took steps in the countries in question to obtain possession of the funds that had been spirited away, and in particular instituted proceedings in the High Court in Dublin where they had traced a substantial deposit of funds. For the purposes of these proceedings, it seemed likely that the sequestrators might be required to incur considerable financial liability themselves, including having to give a financial—[Interruption.] Oh, do shut up.
You are quite right, Mr. Speaker. I was not intending to refer to you, and I regret what I said. Sometimes, the temptation is difficult to resist.
In those circumstances, I understand that the sequestrators inquired — [Interruption.] This is really quite important. I have been asked particularly to come to the House and make a statement, and I hope the House will let me finish it.
In these circumstances, I understand that the sequestrators inquired from the High Court in this country whether this potential liability could be covered by funds at the disposal of the court. They were told that there were no funds available to the court for that purpose. There was no communication at any time between Mr. Justice Nicholls and my Department.
When I learned of this situation, it seemed to me to be contrary to the public interest to allow the risk of the sequestration being frustrated in this way. On the one hand, it was not right to expect sequestrators to incur this increasing substantial financial liability themselves, even though, at the end of the day, they could look for reimbursement out of the union funds. On the other hand. it was totally unacceptable that the order of the court, made following the non-payment of a fine imposed for deliberate contempt of court, should be defeated by the union's tactics of transferring its assets abroad and keeping them abroad. I therefore sought and obtained authority to give the sequestrators, on behalf of the Government, an undertaking to indemnify them against the costs and expenses that were reasonably and properly incurred by them in carrying out their duties in pursuance of their appointment by the court. In the knowledge that that undertaking is available, they are now pursuing actions in various jurisdictions abroad to recover the assets which were surreptitiously removed from this country. The contempt of court committed by the NUM will therefore be punished and the law will be properly upheld.
I thank the Attorney-General for responding to the Opposition's request for a statement. However, would it not have been better for him to volunteer the information himself, rather than entrusting the matter to the press spokesman at No. 10, presumably after he had been briefed on the law by the Attorney-General's Office? Given the Attorney-General's frequent incantations about his independence, does not this politically incestuous handling of the issue dent his claim more than a little, as his high office is not seen to be independent?
What is the Attorney-General's power under common law to give this indemnity? As the common law is developed through precedents, what precedents are there for this indemnity? As a matter of policy, have the Government decided to reinforce the law of contempt? What evidence was there of the risk of the public interest being frustrated, as the senior partner of Price Waterhouse and Co. is quoted on the tape as saying that the firm did not ask for this help, and it was unsolicited? As Price Waterhouse did not ask for the indemnity, does intend to use it, does not the Attorney-General feel that a hypothetical, or even real, need to protect the courts is outweighed by the disadvantages of his being seen to be intervening in civil litigation? Whatever his motives, is not the cherished impression of the independence of his high office tarnished?
I find it absolutely astonishing that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is one of Her Majesty's counsel and sits from time to time as a recorder, does not seek from the Dispatch Box to support the enforcement of a High Court order.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman had read the statement that I made to the House with the care that I should expect of him, he would have appreciated that the purpose is to ensure that the law is upheld and for the High Court's orders to be successfully carried out. By that I mean that the orders of the court should not be frustrated. We heard not a single word about that from the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Is it not a principle of the common law that where there is a grievance there should be an effective remedy? Would it not be a blot on the fair face of British justice if a plaintiff were debarred through lack of means from effectively obtaining this remedy?
I would always agree with that proposition, but the sequestration was not ordered to enforce the judgment in favour of one of the parties to the action. It was ordered following the non-payment of a fine imposed for deliberate contempt of court by the National Union of Mineworkers. Not only did the NUM make it clear that it would not obey the court's order, but it tried to defeat the order by transferring assets abroad.
Has this ever been done before? Is this an innovation which seems to many to have occurred, not because of the honour of the Attorney-General, which I respect, but because the Government are involved in the dispute? That is the impression in the country. I repeat the question: Is this the first time that this has been done? Is it not being done because the Government are heavily involved in the mining dispute?
This is the first time that it has been done. My researches show that this is the first time that when an order for sequestration has been made—[Interruption.] Such an order is made only when the court is satisfied that the person against whom the order is made has the funds to satisfy it. It is known that as long ago as last March the NUM had taken the money out of the country.
Do not the Law Officers of the Crown have a duty to the Crown to ensure that orders made by Her Majesty's judges on behalf of the Crown are not frustrated because those who are instructed by the court to carry out those orders do not have the means to do so? Is not the precedent the fact that never before has any body such as the NUM sought so perniciously to frustrate the workings of the common law of England?
With respect, I agree. It is important to remember that the sequestrators went back to Mr. Justice Nicholls and spoke of the difficulties they were having in being required either to find a bond or to give a personal undertaking about any damages that might be awarded against them in the action in Dublin if that action failed. They were not doing this for fun. They had been asked by the court to carry out this onerous duty. One can understand why they went to the court to seek assistance and to find out whether any funds could indemnify or guarantee them against the ever-increasing costs. The judge said that no funds were available which he could direct to be awarded to them.
I am speaking of how the indemnity came about. After that, there was a real risk that the sequestrators, Price Waterhouse, might withdraw—[Interruption.] They have said only that they did not seek funds from me. They sought assistance from the court and the court was unable to give it. I, as the guardian of the public interest, have no alternative but to give it.
But is the Attorney-General not aware that, by paying the hounds after the NUM's money, the Government are directly participating in the strike because they are trying to cripple the union financially? Does he agree that this is an act without parallel and that it should now be stopped? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman further aware that in the end the Government and those hounds whom he is paying will not pay the cost because the Government will force it from the miners who will pay in the end?
Everything that has happened, from the first action—brought by two working miners, not by the Government—to the injunction to the union and the executive that they should not call the strike official, to the imposing of the fine of £200,000 and to the entry of the sequestrators, has nothing to do with the Government. They have been carried out by an independent High Court judge. — [Interruption]. The only thing that I have done—it is so simple—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is simple all right."]—and so self-evident — is that I have said that if the sequestrators were unable to go on because they were not in funds, the Government would indemnify them. That was done so that the court's orders would not be frustrated.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the contempt by the NUM leadership strikes at the very root of the rule of law? Does he agree that, if such contempt is allowed to continue, it will undermine the basis on which our society exists and that his action in providing an indemnity will be widely welcomed throughout the country, since he has correctly identified a matter of great national interest?
Does the Attorney-General accept that there is a fine dividing line between the province of the judiciary and the province of the Executive? Is he aware that it appears to many people that such a blatant act by the Attorney-General oversteps that line? The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he sought authority to give the indemnity. From who did he seek that authority? Were the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members involved in giving that authority?
I consulted relevant Ministers. That is all that I shall say about that. It is important to remember—[Interruption]—that there are two alternatives. One was that the sequestrators did not manage to obtain any money and had to give a financial undertaking to the court in Dublin—[Interruption.] I am trying to make a sensible and important point to the House.
I shall start again. There were two alternatives. One was that the sequestrators would be advised by their lawyers that they could not accept an open-ended financial commitment in the case in Dublin and would therefore withdraw. The other alternative was for them to be supported, if possible by the court. They went to the court and were told that the court did not have the funds to do that. It seems so simple that an order of the High Court should be enforced. As guardian of the public interest, I was the only person who could do that.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the argument presented against his action is absolutely bogus, that the country will learn the attitude of Opposition Members, which is to uphold contempt for the rule of law, that the law would be an ass if the orders of the court could not be enforced and that the country is wholeheartedly behind my right hon. and learned Friend in taking seriously his position as the protector of the public interest in this matter?
Again, the hon. Gentleman is completely missing the point. I am not concerned in the matter and never have been. It has always been a case of two working miners against senior officials. The Government are neither concerned nor involved. There is no Government counsel or advice.
At the end of the day, the court made an order which was deliberately and flagrantly ignored. The court then imposed a fine of £200,000, which was ignored. The court then put in the sequestrators, who are liable to run out of money—
Does not the Attorney-General agree that, as this precedent has been created, any future plaintiff who finds—as many have over the years—that the defendant has moved his assets can now receive an indemnity from the Government while tracing takes place? Does not the right hon and learned Gentleman agree that this unique precedent has been created for purely political purposes?
Assuming that the Attorney-General has much unprecedented power, is it not the case that he has had that power for centuries? Have there not been cases of contempt involving sequestration over the centuries? Why has he chosen to use this power now, in this particular case and at this particular lime? Should not the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer that question to avoid the charge that he has acted not as an officer of the Crown but as a servant of the Government?
Sequestration can apply in a number of cases. It can be applied for on behalf of one party to an action who has succeeded against the other party. But this is sequestration not on behalf of either of the two plaintiffs, but because it is a contempt of court and a fine was imposed by the court. It would not go to the benefit of either of the plaintiffs. It is an attempt by the sequestrators to enforce the order of the court. There was a real likelihood that that order would be frustrated—
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that his explanation is anything but satisfactory? Indeed, he shot himself in the foot two or three times. A serious aspect of the matter is that his legal impartiality is now under question. How can he tell the House that, since the order was imposed by the courts, Price Waterhouse could not fund the carrying out of the duty placed on it by the courts? Indeed, suggesting that is, to some extent, a slander on Price Waterhouse, which can easily afford the funds. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the money will be obtained and the miners will have to pay for all the legal proceedings. Therefore, his statement is most unsatisfactory.
The problem is that, if someone is determined to approach the matter with such prejudice — in the way that the hon. Gentleman has demonstrated—there is no point in my seeking to make him see the ordinary, straightforward, honest approach that needs to be taken. I, as guardian of the public interest, have a duty to ensure that the orders of the courts are enforced.
The people will have great respect for my right hon. and learned Friend's courage in taking his action and will share the view that it is a sad day when not a single voice is heard from the Opposition Benches upholding the rule of law. Will they not see it for what it is — an attempt by the Opposition to make cheap political capital out of my right hon. and learned Friend's determination to ensure that the rule of law prevails?
It is not a matter of whether someone is to be prosecuted, where the law imposes a single duty upon me, but with a right — as Lord Shawcross said clearly in 1946 —to consult, although not to be bound by advice. This is an entirely different position. There was a risk that the law would be frustrated. I therefore consulted certain Ministers and drew to their attention what had happened, especially in Dublin, and gave advice on what I thought was the proper course to adopt, and in the end was authorised to grant indemnity.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is clearly contrary to the public interest that the NUM should defeat the court's orders by salting away money outside the jurisdiction? Does he further agree that he is doing no more than his public duty in granting the indemnity? Is it not almost certainly in the interests of the ordinary miners within the NUM that the money is brought back into this country with all possible speed?
That appears to be the view of the judge who ordered the appointment of a receiver. The House must realise—however unpalatable it may be to Opposition Members, especially the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who never stops intervening from a sedentary position — that the courts are the Crown courts and that the pubic interest requires that their orders should not be defied.
Is the Attorney-General aware that it is absolutely right that the sequestrators should be enabled to carry out their job, but as the High Court has made this judgment, is it not right that it should will the means to carry out that judgment? If it cannot do so, will the Attorney-General make a statement about the situation and look into the possibility of finding the means for its judgment to be carried out? If there was no consultation between the judge and the Attorney-General, could the Attorney-General tell the House from whom he understood that Price Waterhouse had approached the court?
As for willing the means—that is the reason why the sequestrators went back to Mr. Justice Nicholls—it was hoped that he would have the means. But he does not. The High Court has the means to pay witnesses, and small items like that, but not to provide the sort of funds that might be necessary in this case. As for the information which was obtained, it was obtained partly from the registrar as a result of inquiry and partly from the newspapers, because the Dublin case was quite widely reported. I am not sure whether Clifford Turner, the solicitors, provided information.
May I thank the Attorney-General for at least being honest enough to admit to the House that the action which he has supposedly taken was not asked for by the sequestrators? Would it not be more truthful if he went on to say that the person who brought the action to bear was the very person from whose office Mr. Bernard Ingham yesterday gave a press conference before this House knew anything about it—namely, the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister? That is where the political involvement relating to this court action came from. It would be more honest for the Attorney-General to stand up and admit that to this House than to try to hide behind this obnoxious way of saying in effect that he knew that he had to pay it but that nobody had asked for it to be paid.
Nothing came from No. 10. [Interruption.] I am speaking of the time when I first looked into the matter and the matters were put before me. As a result, I consulted certain colleagues, informed them of the position and obtained the authority to give the indemnity about which I have told the House.
The matter was put before me within 48 hours, if not a day, of the failure of the sequestrators to persuade the judge to will the means, to use the words of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth), because he did not have any means that he could will. It was thereafter, as a result of further inquiries, that I realised that there was an appreciable risk that the sequestrators might say that they could not go on.
After I had obtained the authority, I spoke to the sequestrators and was told that in their own minds they had set a limit beyond which they would not go. They had not reached the limit, but they were not far from it.
If the matter was as simple as the Attorney-General keeps saying, why is it that nobody else who has held his office from either party, for very many years, has discovered this simple way of dealing with matters? My impression is that the Attorney-General has been incapable of explaining the matter simply to the House. In fact, he has had a tottering time. The Attorney-General ought to know that the sequestrators could get hold of £200,000 quite easily, because £200,000 is to be found in those areas where miners are working. That money has not gone to the national office. If the sequestrators wanted to get their hands on £200,000 they would only have to go to Nottingham, Leicester, South Derby. All the money is there. Is not the truth of the matter that what the Attorney-General and in particular the Prime Minister are up to is using the judges, the police and all the echelons of the establishment in order to smash the NUM? They hope that if they get away with that, the result. Will be that the rest of the trade union movement will fall like a pack of dominoes. It is a political decision from beginning to end and the country, thank God, is beginning to see just how much this lousy, rotten Government are involved.
I cannot say that. All I can say is that there must be a limit to how much an ordinary firm is prepared, at the request of the court, to take on in a duty of this kind without being able in the end to be absolutely satisfied that it will recover its money. It is the partners' money and other people's money. It is not just the firm's money.
Is the Attorney-General aware that there is as much sorrow as there is anger on this side of the House that the Government, having brought the police into disrepute, during the course of this dispute, now appear to be bringing the courts and the law into disrepute? Will the Attorney-General reflect on the political nature of the decision and now answer the specific question which was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) on whether or not an important precedent is being set?
No precedent is being set, because I do not think there has ever been a case in which an order for sequestration has been made in which it was discovered, when the sequestrators went about their duties, that £8,250,000 had been squirreled out of the country and had to be obtained from places as far apart as Dublin, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there are some rebellious and politically unmanageable elements to be found on his back Benches but that, when he upholds the due processes of law and facilitates their implementation, there is unequivocal support for what he does?
We know of the attitude of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) towards what happened at Grunwick, but is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that today he has lost a great deal of credibility? The reason is that he has acted as a pawn of the Government in trying to undermine the strike of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Is it not a fact that on the issue the Government, and in particular the Attorney-General, who has fought with his back to the wall, who has not properly answered a single question today and who has repeatedly lost his temper, are impailed upon the horns of a dilemma because they have been asked questions this afternoon to which they have no answer? Will the Attorney-General tell us which law of this country allows the Attorney-General and the Government to come forward with moneys which could not be obtained by the two scabs who were getting money from business men all over the country, and which sets a precedent that he has been unable to explain to the House in any acceptable way? Is it not a fact that during the last half hour his personal credibility has been totally destroyed?
Does not the Attorney-General now appreciate that for him to have acted in an unprecedented and highly politically partisan manner has compounded the grave dismay which he caused earlier this year when he seemed to be offering advice to judges in advance of court proceedings concerning the miners' dispute? Will he now confirm to the House that the Prime Minister was consulted and agreed before he gave the indemnity that he has given? Will he also confirm that the expenses of court receivers who have been appointed, including active members of the Conservative party, are also covered by the indemnity?
The hon. Gentleman knows that that last comment is ridiculous. I confirm that I consulted the appropriate Ministers; that includes a Treasury Minister because Treasury approval for the payment, if it were ever called up to be made, would have to be given. That is as far as I am prepared to go.
I have said many times to the House that, despite constant references to similar cases, this is a unique case so far as the NUM is concerned. It is a unique case, in which the NUM has deliberately sought to put beyond the reach of the courts over £8 million. That is unique.
The Attorney-General and several of his hon. Friends seem to be suggesting that somehow the NUM has acted illegally in moving money abroad. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not accept that that money was moved abroad lawfully largely because the Government removed exchange controls? If those exchange controls had not been removed, the money could not have been shifted. As that was the Government's action, would it not be more appropriate for the Conservative party, rather than the present Administration, to pay the sequestrators' expenses?
One of the problems is that the sequestrators' expenses have been grossly inflated by the money having been moved abroad because action has had to be taken in the Isle of Man, Dublin, Switzerland and Luxembourg in addition to the ordinary costs here. Therefore, that has amounted to a great deal of money. That is one of the reasons why it is a much higher figure than it otherwise would be.
After the exchanges over the past 40 minutes, would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the one fact which the Opposition appear to be determined to ignore is that the sequestrators were appointed by the court for the purpose of enforcing the order of the court? Is it not right that, if my right hon. and learned Friend did not support the court in that action, that would be an attack on the rule of law in Britain which hon. Members opposite might well come to regret?
I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I have sought to say that in a variety of words. I am grateful to him for the clear way in which he has expressed it.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that he has failed to answer a single one of my questions, but instead sought to question my integrity? He may not be aware that on the Floor of the House in a debate in May, and on radio and television, I have repeatedly said that the law must be upheld and that whoever is in breach of it must be punished. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may wish to reflect on that and reconsider his comment.
Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that the court is powerless? Mr. Justice Nicholls did not ask for his help and Price Waterhouse did not solicit his help. When he tells the House that there must be a limit for ordinary firms, what evidence is there for that and for the decision that he has taken? Will he be good enough to place that evidence in the Library?
Lastly, why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman arrogate to himself the decision on the gravity of the offence? Is that his role? Is that not for the courts themselves? Given that he has revealed that there is no precedent at all for this, now that he says that he is the guardian of the public interest, what precisely is his authority at common law for his decision?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks why I say that the court is powerless. The judge made it clear that there was no way in which he could assist when Price Waterhouse sought assistance for its case in Dublin. I should have thought that a fine of £200,000 for a deliberate contempt of court was in anybody's eyes a serious offence. Nothing more needs to be said about that. [Interruption.] It is a matter of opinion. Hon. Members do not have to agree with me. I happen to think that it a serious offence.
I have said many times that there is no precedent of which I know in which, when an order for sequestration has been made, it has been found that a large sum of money, in excess of £8 million, has been put, so far as possible, beyond the reach of the courts. The authority for the indemnity is the authority under which any Minister has the right to grant one as long as it is put before the House at the necessary time, as this one was.