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Solicitor-General

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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The Solicitor-General was asked

Industrial Accidents

18.

How many successful manslaughter charges have been brought in each of the last three years by the Crown Prosecution Service in cases of fatalities in industrial accidents. [115014]

I am afraid that the figures that I can give the House are not 100 per cent. reliable. However, on the basis of national figures held by the Crown Prosecution Service, I understand that in the last three years, 39 defendants were charged with corporate manslaughter. Ten were found not guilty, 13 guilty, and 16 are yet to be completed.

Can the Solicitor-General explain why, after 3,000 deaths at work over the last six years—a third of them due to negligence—and from the cases that she mentioned and others, only one executive or director has gone to prison for manslaughter? If it does not reflect a failure in the prosecution system, it reflects a failure in the legislation. Can she explain why the Government have this week introduced legislation on corporate killing that specifically excludes named individuals?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to concern about that matter. Two aspects need to be taken into account: the substantive law itself, and the implementation of the law. On implementation, it is important that all the prosecution agencies—the Crown Prosecution Service and the Health and Safety Executive—work closely with those who are investigating the problem, which includes the British Transport police as well as the police. Enforcing the law as it stands is vitally important. Whether the substantive law is right is another question. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my Home Office colleagues are introducing legislation to ensure that those whose actions result in the death of employees at work are called to account.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to the case of Steven Parsons, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Parsons in Warmsworth in my constituency, who died aged 18 on 7 March 2000? He was working under a 16-tonne fairground lorry when it fell and crushed him. He was a trainee mechanic working under supervision, and the Government vehicle examiner, Peter Moses, stated that the method used to carry out the job was "unsafe and reckless practice". The case went to court under health and safety legislation, but the family feel that the issue of manslaughter should be taken much more seriously in such cases. This was a life that did not need to be put out.

I will write to my hon. Friend to explain why it was decided that insufficient evidence was available to mount a prosecution for corporate manslaughter. However, my hon. Friend has just brought this case to my attention and I would like to express my condolences to the Parsons family for the loss of their lovely son at such a young age. I also commend them because I understand that they are working to improve health and safety generally across the board. For our part, the Government will ensure that the substantive law is improved and that no stone is left unturned in the investigation and prosecution of cases.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that there would be an increase in successful prosecutions for manslaughter and for other offences if there were a more rigorous case management regime for criminal trials? That is one of the recommendations made by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and it would involve the legal aid regime recognising the importance of the pre-trial phase. Incidentally, does the Solicitor-General believe that a new UN resolution could provide a defence to any unlawful actions that preceded it?

I detect that the hon. Gentleman has raised two issues. On the first, he is right. We must get the substantive law right, but the success or otherwise of a prosecution depends on issues such as how the cases are investigated, whether the right charges are laid, whether the police are given the right legal advice about what the charges should be, whether the evidence at the scene is properly preserved, how the case is managed and how promptly it is brought to court. As for his other point—

Domestic Violence

19.

If she will make a statement on her Department's handling of cases of domestic violence. [115015]

The Crown Prosecution Service, which the Attorney-General and I superintend, handles about 13,000 cases of domestic violence each year. Most are dealt with in the magistrates courts, but domestic violence also results in serious injury and death, and such cases are dealt with in the Crown court. The Government and the CPS are strongly committed to effective prosecution of domestic violence, so that women and children are protected and perpetrators are held to account for their crimes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and I invite her to use her powers of appeal against lenient sentences, so that we can get across the message that such offences will not be tolerated.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about sentencing in cases of domestic violence. If women go through the ordeal of domestic violence, have to go to court to support a prosecution and the man is simply given a slap on the wrist, the impression is that the courts have not taken the matter seriously and other women will think, "What's the point?" The Attorney-General and I take the issue seriously and we have the power to refer sentences to the Court of Appeal if they are, in our view, unduly lenient. In domestic violence cases, we will send—and have sent—cases to the Court of Appeal, because the lower courts have not taken them seriously enough. On several occasions, the Court of Appeal has agreed with us and increased the sentence. I remind hon. Members that they can refer such cases to us if examples come to their attention in their constituencies.

I thank the Solicitor-General for the answers that she has given on this important matter. She is aware that I have dealt with many domestic violence injunction cases in county courts. Will she recognise that many people are concerned that the police are still too slow to respond to reports of domestic violence? Will she use her good offices to try to liaise with police forces, to ensure that reports of domestic violence receive a prompt response from the police? Will she also recognise that appeal against over-lenient sentences, which she has just mentioned, was one of the most important powers introduced by the previous Conservative Government?

Yes, I acknowledge that the powers introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to refer sentences to the Court of Appeal were an important change in the law by the previous Government, and I give them full credit for that. The police have changed their attitude and are stepping up their act on domestic violence. Part of that is a general change in attitude and a recognition across society that attacking a woman in the home is every bit as bad as attacking a stranger in the street. The police response is improving and ACPO is monitoring that. It is important that the police have the right powers and information, and a good partnership with the CPS. We want men to realise that if they attack their wives and girlfriends, they are not ordinary, upstanding members of the community, but criminals—and as bad as any other sort of criminal. We must get the issue out from behind closed doors and make people recognise that domestic violence is a crime that will be investigated and prosecuted.

Gun Crime

20.

What guidelines the Director of Public Prosecutions issues on the prosecution of gun crime. [115016]

When considering a case involving guns, the Crown Prosecution Service is governed by the code for Crown prosecutors. In addition, the DPP has issued guidance to prosecutors relating to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. She will be aware that people in Wales and the rest of the UK have been concerned for a long time about gun crime. Does she agree that the recent gun amnesty exercise was very successful, and a step in the right direction? Will she say what more can be done to build on that success?

I am well aware of the widespread concern in Wales and England about the increasing use of guns—by gangs, as part of their business in drugs and organised crime, and by individuals, who now carry guns much more regularly. I know that there is a problem in Wales, but there are also particular problems in London and Manchester. Again, it is a matter of the police and the CPS working together, and of having the right substantive law. In the case of gun crime, it is also a matter of supporting witnesses. It is often very difficult for victims or witnesses to feel that they can come forward, as they fear that they will be intimidated if they give evidence against a gang. We have been working with the Home Office and the police to make sure that people prepared to come forward to enforce the law against guns will be protected by the criminal justice system, in support of prosecutions.