Leading Article: Allegations that must be tested

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MICHAEL MATES'S statement in the House of Commons yesterday is likely to provoke two reactions. Some will say that Mr Mates was brave in delivering a plain account of why he became involved in the Nadir case and what exactly those letters to the Attorney-General were all about. Others will reply that the statement proved once again what a foolish man Mr Mates is to have persisted in a campaign that could bring him nothing but harm.

Both of these reactions are right. Mr Mates's good intentions and his fundamental decency were evident from every line he spoke; also evident, however, was the fact that he had failed to separate in his own mind the question of Mr Nadir's innocence or guilt from the different matter of whether the man's case was mishandled.

He conceded in his statement that the gift of the inscribed watch rather devalued his insistence on being impartial on the substance of the Nadir case. But he failed to mention the matter of the second-hand Volvo lent by one of Mr Nadir's advisers; and he failed to answer the allegation that his involvement in the affair of the car was a clear breach of ministerial guidelines. Nowhere did he tell Mr Nadir baldly to come back to Britain and stand trial.

More important now than Mr Mates's own position is the content of his speech. In it, the former minister went public for the first time on a number of allegations against the Serious Fraud Office and the tactics it pursued in trying to nail the now fugitive Cypriot businessman for fraud.

There is a case for believing that the wide powers given to the Serious Fraud Office are excessive. When the story of the inscribed watch first came out, this newspaper asked whether the complexity of the evidence in fraud trials justifies the serious threat to civil liberties implied in removing the accused's traditional right to silence. The SFO's power to put questions to defendants at any time (even during their trials) and to compel them under threat of immediate imprisonment to answer those questions, does not seem to have made it conspicuously successful in securing convictions. Nor is it clear that rules of procedure which are considered so important that they stand even in terrorist cases should be suspended for fraudsters.

But Mr Mates said the SFO had overstepped even those broad bounds. He accused it of making unscrupulous use of the press to further discredit the fallen tycoon, for instance by staging a carefully publicised 'raid' on Polly Peck's London headquarters when in fact its officers had already gained access to the building and were reading documents inside. He accused it of blatantly breaching the privileged communications between Mr Nadir and his defence lawyers, thus prejudicing his right to a fair trial. Most gravely of all, he accused its officers of a criminal offence: if they trumped up charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in order to destabilise Mr Nadir, as Mr Mates claimed, then they probably broke the law themselves.

It is hard to resist Mr Mates's argument that the only way to resolve these issues is to hold a public inquiry. Unfortunately, it is also hard to see how such an inquiry could take place before Mr Nadir's trial, since it would be impossible for the inquiry to do its job without trespassing on the case itself - which cannot take place until Mr Nadir returns. In the meantime, however, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, should answer in detail the specific allegations made by Mr Mates. That will be the best way to reassure the public that Mr Nadir can hope for a fair trial on his return.