There is still a case for sending in the DTI; COMMENT

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The Independent Online
Ernest Saunders' victory before the European Court of Human Rights has done no favours for the system of sending in DTI inspectors to get to the root of corporate corruption and maladministration. But the judgment should not obscure the fact that they remain an important part of the apparatus for determining blame and then finding remedies when things go pear-shaped, as they so often do in commercial life.

The use of DTI inspectors was never intended to be an aid to the successful prosecution of those charged with breaking the law. However, it became so as the ever-zealous Michael Howard piloted the Financial Services Act onto the statute books. Instead, the purpose of DTI investigations was to serve as post-mortems and get to the bottom of some murky affairs. Hence their powers to compel witnesses to give evidence under pain of imprisonment which lay behind Mr Saunders appeal to the court.

These powers have now been conferred on the Serious Fraud Office for the purposes of pursuing prosecutions But that does not alter the need to retain DTI inspectors. So far, 111 reports by DTI inspectors have been published and although we still await two of the most interesting - those into the Maxwell scandal and the Guinness affair itself - publication serves a public service. It is one of the few, unvarnished ways of getting at the truth behind corporate failure and one of the best means of informing practice and law to prevent future re-occurrences.

Save for the Bank of England's self-serving report on the Barings fiasco, we will probably never definitively know who was to blame for the collapse of Britain's oldest merchant bank. Likewise, in the absence of DTI inspectors, we may never get to the bottom of the Morgan Grenfell scandal, even if the SFO does decide to proceed.

In the Guinness case the European Court may have ruled that the use to which DTI inspectors evidence was put denied Mr Saunders a fair trial. But that does not detract from the important role they should continue to play.