Hollis Industries

- Monday, 2nd April 2001

 

Mr. Lilley: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1) if he informed the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) of the contents of the report on Hollis Industries; [155838]

(2) if he received and read the Section 447 report on Hollis Industries. [155840]

Mr. Byers [holding answer 22 March 2001]: The following statement was issued by my Department on 23 March 2001:

"The following statement sets out the facts in relation to the conduct of the 1999 investigation into companies associated with Geoffrey Robinson (principally Hollis Industries plc) and the involvement of Stephen Byers.

In the light of allegations made about the activities of Geoffrey Robinson and companies associated with him, a decision was taken by officials of the Department of Trade and Industry on 12 January 1999 to conduct an investigation under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985.

The decision to conduct an investigation under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985 was taken in accordance with the Department‘s normal procedures when such allegations are made. Informal inquiries into these matters had been earlier undertaken by the Department itself, and it was now decided to go beyond this to the appointment of an independent investigator under section 447. A section 447 inquiry is essentially fact finding and carried out in confidence. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, further action could be taken for example to launch a more wide ranging investigation under section 432. The Department did not consider the appointment of inspectors under section 432 was justified at this stage: section 432 inspections are rare, and are undertaken in respect of alleged major frauds or irregularities.

This decision was taken by officials in accordance with the Department‘s normal procedures, and because on 8 January 1999 Stephen Byers had been advised by Sir Michael Scholar that neither he nor any of his Ministerial colleagues should be involved in the inquiries into companies associated with Geoffrey Robinson, or in any decisions that needed to be taken, but that this matter should be delegated to officials. Stephen Byers accepted this advice.

On 9 December 1999, officials informed Stephen Byers that the inquiries into companies associated with Geoffrey Robinson had been completed; that no further action was to be taken; and that Geoffrey Robinson, through his solicitors, had already been informed of this outcome.

Because Stephen Byers had taken the advice of his Permanent Secretary and decided that he should not be involved in the inquiries, at no time did he see any papers or other documents obtained by the Department during the course of the inquiries.

On 21 December 1999, Parliament was informed of the outcome when Stephen Byers replied to a Parliamentary Question from Ian Pearson MP about the progress of the Department‘s inquiries into Hollis Industries with the answer

"There have been thorough inquiries in line with the Department‘s normal procedures in these matters. These inquiries have now been completed and the solicitors acting for my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) have been informed that the Department does not propose to take any further action."

In line with the practice under successive administrations, no papers or documents arising from the inquiry were published because information obtained under section 447 of the Companies Act is confidential and may not be published or disclosed except in strictly defined circumstances under section 449 of the Companies Act 1985.

The way in which the inquiry was conducted was in accordance with the usual procedures for investigations under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985. Over 200 such inquiries are carried out every year in this way. The Department throughout has acted wholly in accordance with its normal procedures, notwithstanding the fact that the business affairs of a former Minister were being investigated."

I also wrote to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) on the same day in the following terms:

"Thank you for your letter of 21 March 2001.

I attach a copy of a statement made by my Department, setting out the facts in relation to my involvement in the conduct of the 1999 investigation into companies associated with Geoffrey Robinson (principally Hollis Industries plc).

I hope this answers the points raised in your letter. But the key facts which concern my role are as follows.

Acting on the advice of Sir Michael Scholar, I ruled myself out of involvement in the inquiries into companies associated with Geoffrey Robinson and any decisions that needed to be taken; the matter was delegated to officials.

Had I not taken this advice, and insisted on playing a personal role in the investigation then I am sure you would have been amongst the first to question such a decision--and rightly so.

Officials decided to appoint an independent investigator under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985. I saw no papers or documents arising from the inquiry. I am not nor ever have been in possession of or seen a report into the affairs of Hollis Industries plc. I had no role in the decision to take no further action as a result of the inquiry.

My role was limited to that of responding to Parliamentary Questions and dealing with correspondence from Parliamentary colleagues, in accordance with my duties as a Minister".

Mr. Lilley: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he plans to designate under section 449 1(c) of the Companies Act 1985, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as a public authority to whom the report on Hollis Industries plc can be disclosed. [155841]

Mr. Byers [holding answer 27 March 2001]: I am advised that as the law and facts stand, there is no gateway under the Companies Act 1985 which would allow information obtained under the section 447 investigation in relation to Hollis Industries plc to be disclosed by my Department to the Parliamentary Commissioner.

I am presently considering the general issue of access to information obtained under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985 being made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the legal procedures which would be necessary to enable this to happen. I would hope to be able to make a statement on this shortly.

On the specific issue of the disclosure of documents or information obtained under section 447 in relation to Hollis Industries plc my Permanent Secretary has written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards suggesting how other people, bodies or institutions who are not constrained in the same way as my Department by section 449 of the Companies Action 1985 may be able to provide documents or information which will assist the Commissioner in her investigation.

Mr. Lilley: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what plans he has to establish how information in the report on Hollis Industries was published in the Daily Mail. [155842]

Mr. Byers [holding answer 27 March 2001]: The Daily Mail‘s sources are a matter for the newspaper.

2nd April 2001 (Ref: 366 c5-7W)

 

 

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