Serious Fraud Office

Oral Answers to Questions — Solicitor-General – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 8th May 2008.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 10:30 am, 8th May 2008

What role the Law Officers play in decisions by the Serious Fraud Office on the conduct of legal proceedings.

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Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

The Serious Fraud Office exercises its case work functions independently, subject to the statutory superintendence of the Attorney-General. This may include consultation on particularly difficult cases. For certain offences, including offences of corruption, the Attorney-General's consent is required by statute. She exercises that consent role as a Law Officer independently of Government, applying well-established principles of prosecution.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and of course I accept absolutely your very proper direction. The House may wish to consider at some later date whether it is well served by a sub judice rule that is so wide in its application that we are the only people who are not able to question the conduct of Law Officers.

Can the Solicitor-General give the House an assurance that there has been and will be no case under consideration by the Serious Fraud Office where she has intervened to prevent the advancement by the SFO of an argument in support of its position that could be politically embarrassing to the Government?

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Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

The Liberal Democrats have ears to hear, but they never do hear when I say—I have already asserted this and I now repeat it for about the 50th time to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—that the Attorney-General exercises a consent role when it is statutorily demanded of her, totally independent of Government interest. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, a series of proposals in the White Paper "The Governance of Britain" will look at all the issues that he wants to raise. It is absurd to suggest that there is no opportunity to question the conduct of the Law Officers because of course that is exactly what is going on now.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

As the Law Officers have responsibility for the prosecuting authorities, will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that they are advised to ensure that, in taking fraud cases, they do not always make the petitioner the big gun in the case, as it were? In my constituency, there is a case in which a small company was a victim of fraud, as were other companies. Because the case was taken with that of a big company—the major petitioner—the small company did not get its proper recompense out of the case. Will she advise prosecuting authorities to make sure that the way they conduct cases takes into account the vulnerability of the petitioners?

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Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

My hon. Friend, in characteristically defending the rights of her constituents, has raised the issue before. She makes the powerful point that a relatively small company, for which the victimisation in the case was very serious, was not able to get the sort of compensation received by the major protagonist, the big company. The Crown Prosecution Service well understands that point, which she has made well. We have received it and passed it on.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I am not sure whether the Solicitor-General answered the question put to her by my hon. Friend Mr. Carmichael. He asked whether the Government were proposing sufficient measures in the Constitutional Renewal Bill to guarantee the independence of the prosecuting authorities from the Law Officers. Who is responsible, as between the Law Officers on the one side and the director of the SFO on the other, for responding to the ridiculous suggestion that I gather has come from a certain quarter that there be a "legal review", whatever that is, of the uncompleted investigation into BAE Systems?

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Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about yesterday's "PM" programme, and about BAE senior management making some sort of proposal. It is likely that the new director of the Serious Fraud Office will respond to that, if indeed a response is merited. The position of the Law Officers vis-à-vis the director of the Serious Fraud Office is very clear. It is of course part of the constitutional renewal proposals that it should be made even clearer, and there should be a protocol, which will be a public document, to regulate the relationship between the two.

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