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Soliicitor-General

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Rape Convictions

19.

If she will make a statement on recent trends in the number of convictions for rape. [108261]

Recent trends show an increase in the number of convictions for rape, but a fall in the percentage of reported rapes that result in a conviction. Of all the serious offences of violence, rape is least likely to be reported, least likely to be prosecuted and least likely to result in a conviction. The Government and the voluntary sector are working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to improve both law and practice to ensure that rapists are brought to justice.

I welcome that reply. A number of people in the criminal justice system believe that rape conviction rates would rise dramatically if every initial police interview was video-recorded. Does the Solicitor-General agree with that view and will she take steps to initiate a more thorough approach to ensure that such initial interviews are video-recorded so that juries see the reality of the impact of those violent crimes on the victims?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Some police forces routinely video-record the initial complaint when the victim comes in. They do that so that she can say it once off and they put the statement together afterwards, without having to go through it slowly, stopping and starting, thereby increasing the ordeal. The question then is whether that practice can be spread to all police forces, so that all complainants have those facilities. Secondly, what is done with those video recordings? Can they be used in court as evidence to show how the victim was when she first reported the incident? She might look cool as a cucumber when she actually gives evidence, but the video recording made when she first complained might show her dishevelled and distressed. There are issues about the admissibility of evidence and they are being looked at by the police, the prosecutors and the courts, together with me and my colleagues in the Home Office.

Although we congratulate the Government and support them on anything that they do to enable the successful prosecution of rape offences, will the Solicitor-General give some thought to charges against men that are made erroneously? Can the reporting of cases be not allowed unless there is a guilty verdict?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the anonymity of a defendant on the basis that there is a great deal of prejudice against them if allegations are aired in court, in public. The victim is, of course, anonymous but the defendant's name is in the papers. The question relates to whether an acquittal would expunge all that prejudice or whether it would hang around. The issue is important. As regards openness in court proceedings, the fundamental principle is that, if at all possible, everything should be done in public and everything should be on the record: justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done. The exception for victims of sexual offences was introduced by the House, because victims were not prepared to come forward. An exception was made to the normal rule that everything is public only because otherwise victims would not report. Defendants do not have the luxury of not coming forward—they have to come forward—so the issue of deterring them does not arise, and the normal rule that everything should be in public, unless there are exceptional reasons, should prevail. There are no plans to give defendants anonymity.

Race Hate Crimes

20.

If she will make a statement on the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service towards the prosecution of alleged race hate crimes. [108263]

The Crown Prosecution Service reviews all allegations of inciting racial hatred in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors. All cases are considered individually on their merits. However, when considering the public interest test, the code for Crown prosecutors specifically states that a prosecution is likely to be needed in the public interest if the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim's ethnic or national origin. All such prosecutions are dealt with by specialist prosecutors in the casework directorate in CPS headquarters.

Can my hon. Friend say why extremists such as Abu Hamza, who regularly on our televisions and in our newspapers spews out vitriol inciting hatred and violence towards Jews, Hindus, Americans and many other people, cannot be prosecuted? Surely those racist attacks that are visibly coming from his own mouth are evidence enough for a case of inciting race hatred.

Offences of inciting racial hatred and offences against the person such as threats to kill are prosecuted. Indeed, the Crown Prosecution Service recently reported that in the past year there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the number of defendants dealt with by the CPS for offences involving race hatred. That is against a background of a 28 per cent. increase in such defendants over the year before, and the conviction rate being kept steady at 83 per cent. There is greater determination for police and prosecutors to work together to bring offenders to justice. If there is sufficient evidence to bring about a conviction, it will nearly always be in the public interest to prosecute such offences.

Given the collapse at trial of the libel action brought by the notorious revisionist historian, David Irving, against Deborah Lipstadt for her excellent book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory", can the right hon. and learned Lady tell the House what discussions she has had with, or what advice she has offered to, the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to its policy on the circulation of revisionist neo-Nazi material?

If material constitutes by its circulation an offence of inciting racial hatred, if there is sufficient evidence to constitute the elements of that offence, and it is brought to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police or anybody else, it will consider whether to bring a prosecution under the code for Crown prosecutors. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring forward evidence, the Attorney-General and I will undertake to look at it. We consider very seriously any cases that are brought to us by hon. Members, as we do those that are brought to us by members of the public and others.

Prosecution Policy (Financial Institutions)

21.

What monitoring role she performs regarding decisions whether to prosecute in connection with suspicious transactions reported to the authorities by financial institutions. [108264]

The Attorney-General and I superintend the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office, who are independent, and they make the decisions on whether to prosecute suspicious transactions reported by financial institutions. We regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss current investigations and prosecutions.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that bank reports to the authorities of suspicious transactions have rocketed in recent years, and that there were more than 50,000 such reports last year? Given that the whole country is rightly focused on depriving terrorists of their funds, stopping money laundering and denying smugglers the proceeds of their trade in human beings, drugs and alcohol and tobacco, can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the prosecuting authorities are sufficiently geared up to respond to the enormous rise in the number of such suspicious transactions?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In the past, fraud has all too often been considered as a victimless white-collar offence that is not important. My hon. Friend is right to say that money laundering, drug trafficking and human trafficking are all connected with money laundering. Prosecutors across different departments have been working together on the issue, as have ministerial colleagues. My hon. Friend will know that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which introduces a new offence of failing to disclose suspicious transactions, came into force in February this year, and that further money laundering regulations placing obligations on professionals to disclose will be introduced later this year. The international fraud business lies behind a lot of other crime, and we have to gear up our act to tackle it.

The Solicitor-General is, of course, right to concentrate on the use of anti-money-laundering and proceeds of crime legislation against terrorism and other serious crimes such as drug smuggling. Will she accept the point that I put to her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, however, that some financial institutions have used the legislation, which has laudable intentions, to impose extra and very burdensome obligations on customers, particularly on small charities, and have sought to increase their statutory requirements by adding requests for intrusive information for their own commercial reasons? Will she agree to meet me and representatives of charities who have contacted me to look into this matter? We do not want laudable anti-terrorism legislation being misused to intrude too much into people's personal lives and personal information and to disrupt the valuable work that charities do.

Of course, I agree to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the important issues that he raises. Clearly, a balance must be struck: on the one hand, charities and small businesses do not want to be overburdened by reporting regulations, but on the other, they are often victims of fraud themselves. Fraud against small businesses and charities is an issue that they are rightly concerned about dealing with. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and to take those issues forward.

The Customs and Excise prosecution office now comes under the Solicitor-General's Department's aegis. Millions of pounds have been lost to the Exchequer in connection with the failed London City Bond and Stockade prosecutions. When will those matters be resolved finally? When they are resolved, will she make a statement to the House?

When the matters are resolved finally, I shall certainly consider how to give the House appropriate information as required on those important cases. I know that the hon. Gentleman has corresponded with and met the Attorney-General in relation to the matter, and that he takes an interest in these issues. I cannot comment further at this stage, but, clearly, we keep the issue under review.