Leading Article: Clear the air, Lord Archer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE THEORY of insider-dealing investigations is supposed to be straightforward. When allegations of wrongdoing are made - as they were earlier this year against Lord Archer - the Department of Trade and Industry appoints a pair of inspectors to investigate discreetly and report back. If, on reading their report, the President of the Board of Trade is advised that the evidence justifies a prosecution, the case is referred. If not, it is dropped - and no harm is done to the reputations of those involved, since the investigation has been conducted in secret and the report sent only to the minister.

So much for the theory. The practice in the Archer case has been different. A five-month investigation began into insider-trading allegations against Lord Archer - but its existence was leaked just when the Conservative peer was hoping for political advancement in the summer reshuffle. He was later cleared, albeit too late for a job in the Cabinet. Three weeks later, the story has once again forced itself on to the front pages, with freshly specific allegations about Lord Archer's conduct.

The new claims are that Lord Archer himself, whose wife is a non-executive director of Anglia Television, ordered 50,000 Anglia shares from a London broker in the name of Broosk Saib, a Kurdish Iraqi who used to work for him, only a few days before the takeover. Even if they are proved, these claims do not necessarily show that the life peer broke the law. He would only have done so had he knowingly received news of the coming bid from his wife or another insider, and either bought shares himself or 'counselled or procured' Mr Saib to do so. The inspectors may well have based their recommendation not to prosecute on further information in Lord Archer's favour which remains unpublished.

Yet the outcome of the affair as it stands is unsatisfactory: Lord Archer remains under suspicion, while the DTI continues to withhold publication of the report into the affair. The department is understandably reluctant to set a precedent that might invade the privacy of innocent people investigated in future - and, perhaps more relevantly, might lay its inspectors open to legal challenge if their reports contain mistakes.

But the law specifically allows part of the contents of the report to be published either by the DTI, if Lord Archer consents, or by Lord Archer himself. So much of the affair has already been made public that it can do no credit to Lord Archer for the rest of it not to be told. If he wishes to put the matter beyond doubt, Lord Archer should therefore ask for the full report to be published.

That may assuage the anger of Anglia shareholders. Whether wider changes are needed to the rules on insider dealing, which have proved hard to enforce, is less clear. Reforms effected earlier this year to bring British law in line with the rest of the European Union have broadened the definition of insiders and established a new offence of illegally disclosing information; so there may be a case for giving the new rules time to take effect. Making public the full background to the current case in the meantime will not only be in Lord Archer's interests; it will also help to preserve public faith in the law.

Comments