Outlook: The purpose of DTI investigations

The wheels of Whitehall grind exceedingly slow. It is almost exactly eleven years to the day that Department of Trade and Industry inspectors were sent into Guinness to investigate the Distillers takeover. Barring last minute hitches, their report on the affair should finally be published this morning.

It is not entirely the DTI's fault that it has taken so long to make this report public. The criminal trials associated with the Guinness scandal were a real impediment to earlier publication, although it ought to pointed out that the last of these, the trial of Thomas Ward, the American lawyer caught up in the affair, ended more than four and a half years ago. Legal objections from participants in the affair have kept the report under wraps since then.

Even so, the public has every reason to wonder what the purpose is of these highly expensive exercises if they are to be published so long after all the lessons of the scandal have been learnt and acted upon. The original idea of having Companies Act investigations was so that the authorities could conduct a post mortem on a big business or financial scandal, take whatever regulatory action seemed necessary, learn its lessons and make appropriate changes in the law. A further purpose was to warn interested parties about those named and shamed.

By all accounts, this report makes fascinating reading and it still has the capacity to embarrass a number of people occupying high powered positions in the City and elsewhere. But all the other purposes have long since been and gone. The law has been tightened, the City cleaned up and the main protagonists punished. As such the Guinness report is just an interesting piece of flotsam and jetsam from the mists of time. This is an eloquent chronicle of the corrupt and semi-fraudulent practices that were allowed to flourish in the City in the mid-1980s, but is the writing up of history really such a good use of the pounds 5m of public money this report is reputed to have cost?

Here's the rub, for the Companies Act objective of DTI investigations was never the real purpose of the Guinness inquiry. The main job of the Guinness inspectors became not that of conducting a post mortem, but the collecting of evidence against the chief players so that the Serious Fraud Office could then prosecute them. This use of the DTI's powers of compulsion is now rightly regarded as an infringement of human rights and it has not been repeated since. This report closes the book on a piece of history in more ways than one.

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