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The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I may be answering from this Dispatch Box, but I am not responsible for what the Government do about their legislative programme. I fully understand the point which the noble Lord makes about the advantages of having a desk in this building rather than having to go outside to another building, especially in view of the kind of autumn that we have had. Of course, there are limitations on the number of people that we can squeeze into the Palace of Westminster, but I very much hope that those Peers who venture out of doors to their desk will be those who are happy to do so, given the accommodation then to be found.
Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister recall that some years ago a large block of offices in the Lords' precincts were handed over to the Commons for its uses? Is that block of offices now to be handed back to the Lords and, if so, when?
The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am almost embarrassed by the number of times that noble Lords have referred to me as a Minister. I rather take it that that shows the view they have of their colleagues on these Benches.
I believe that the noble Lord is referring to the offices on the Upper Committee Corridor South. I have had a fairly brief opportunity to look into this matter and I should tell the noble Lord that those offices were constructed in the roof of the Palace in the 1960s specifically for the use of MPs. They never belonged to the House of Lords. The air space may have belonged to the House of Lords but that would be a difficult argument to have with the other place.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the noble Lord recall on what basis the Pugin Room was originally handed over to the Commons? Perhaps it was handed over only on a temporary basis. Judging by the carpet, it looks as though it really belongs to us.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government take very seriously any claims that money launderers have exploited financial institutions in the United Kingdom. The Financial Services Authority is investigating allegations of possible laundering of illegally obtained Nigerian state funds in the United Kingdom. The Serious Fraud Office is gathering evidence on behalf of the Swiss Government in relation to those funds.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the House will be aware that recently Nigeria has moved from a vicious military dictatorship to the re-establishment of democracy under President Obasanjo. Can the Minister confirm that as long ago as April the democratic Government of Nigeria asked the Home Office, under the mutual services agreement, to investigate the laundering of Nigerian money through British banks? Can he also confirm that in October the Financial Services Authority said that it would investigate the issue; that in November the Serious Fraud Office said that it would investigate the issue; and that from April to this day the Government of Nigeria have received no return of that money, there have been no criminal proceedings and they have no evidence of what has happened to some 230 million dollars that the country badly needs?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I fully recognise the seriousness of the case made by the noble Baroness. I am not in a position to confirm or otherwise the comments that she has made. However, what is transparently obvious is that letters of request are communications between two states and relate to matters that are subject to criminal investigation and proceedings. Such matters are always dealt with confidentially.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is widely shared by other sides of the House? The consequence of an eight-month delay in being able to say anything publicly on the matter could well be that the funds that are the subject of the inquiry could be moved. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the funds are secure where they are and that the delays in this long drawn out inquiry--an inquiry from a friendly head of state--will not lead to those funds disappearing?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course I share the concerns of the noble Lord. We are doing all that we can to ensure that those inquiries are expedited as quickly as possible. We have actively played our part in referring the requests to the appropriate department. I can assure the House that we shall continue to pursue matters as rigorously as we can. However, such matters have to be dealt with sensitively.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, is it not the case that some relatively poor countries have been stripped of their assets by kleptocratic rulers? Will the Home Office consult urgently with the Foreign Office and with the Treasury to ensure that appropriate action is taken?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I entirely sympathise with the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Yes, we are consulting and we are dealing closely with the agencies that are carrying out the investigations. We shall continue to work with foreign governments where letters of request are made. We shall take all necessary steps to ensure that action is taken.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the available steps have been taken that would enable the funds to be frozen? If such steps have not been taken, why have they not been taken?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, our current criminal legislation does not allow for the freezing of assets until criminal proceedings have begun or are about to begin. That is a well understood situation, but perhaps it should be reviewed. We are undertaking a review. No doubt in the future there will be careful consideration given to improving those procedures.
Baroness Elles: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Swiss Federal Banking Commission has named and shamed 19 banks for handling Abacha cash? Credit Suisse is to be indicted for accepting large sums from the Abacha family. Why have the Government not acted fully on a request for mutual legal assistance? The Serious Fraud Office investigated only three of the banks implicated in the scandal related to the Abacha affair as a result of the Nigerian investigation. It is quite incomprehensible that Nigeria has been able to show that over 970 million dollars have been looted by Abacha from Nigeria and that they have flowed through British banks. Why has that not been revealed and why are the Government hiding the matter?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government are not hiding the matter. As I have said, we have co-operated as fully as we can. The Financial Services Authority is actively involved. That is as a result of the request of the Swiss Federal Banking Commission's investigation. Swiss legislation is different from our own. As I said, we are looking at ways in which we can improve the quality of our legislation. That commitment was given as recently as last week in the publication of the White Paper by the Department for International Development. We entirely understand the concerns of the noble Baroness and we shall continue to play an active role in ensuring that those appalling scandals are not repeated in the future.
Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that he has been ill-advised--if he has been so advised--in telling the House that the funds can be frozen only if there are criminal prosecutions? The
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