Saudi case raises fears about law chief's role

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown faces a growing backlash over moves to give the attorney general sweeping powers to veto criminal investigations following devastating criticism of the Government's decision to halt the inquiry into arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Senior Labour and Opposition MPs demanded that the Prime Minister withdraw plans to give the attorney general the authority to block future inquiries on the grounds of national security. On Thursday, the High Court issued a damning verdict on the decision of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to halt its investigation into allegations of bribery surrounding the £43bn Al-Yamamah arms deal between BAE Systems and the Saudi government.

The SFO is under pressure to reactivate the investigation, which was abandoned on the advice of the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith. "The SFO are carefully considering the implications of the judgment and the way forward," said the office. Downing Street refused to comment, but if the SFO decides not to appeal against the ruling, the Prime Minister will face demands for a statement on the issue when the Commons returns in nine days. Anger focused on proposals to bolster the powers of the attorney general to intervene in cases similar to the Saudi bribery inquiry. Critics warn that the powers would undermine British justice and create dangerous conflicts of interest. They said that the provisions in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill would prevent similar cases being tested in court and demanded that the Prime Minister abandon the plans.

The Government said last month it wanted to "recast" the relationship between the attorney general and the prosecuting authorities, presenting the move as a way to limit its most senior law officer's power.

But it decided that the attorney general should retain the power to direct prosecutors in cases affecting national security. The plan caused disquiet in the Cabinet but Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the current Attorney General, fought off suggestions that her powers should be limited.