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Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

The Solicitor-General was asked—


18. What contribution his Department is making to the Government-wide initiative to tackle overseas corruption. (92849)

My Department, and especially the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, has contributed to the UK action plan on overseas corruption. We have also provided training and technical expertise in tackling corruption to other countries, such as Romania, Macedonia, Ghana, Kenya and Bulgaria.

When the Prime Minister responded to the all-party group on Africa report on the UK and corruption in Africa he said that the Government planned

“to establish a dedicated unit jointly housed by the City of London and Metropolitan Police Forces to investigate allegations of foreign bribery by UK businesses, and use of the UK’s financial system to launder the proceeds of corruption.”

What use will the SFO make of those investigatory resources to ensure that cases of trans-national bribery are brought before the courts?

My hon. Friend has been pressing for the setting up of that unit and, as part of the national action plan on overseas corruption, the Metropolitan police and the City of London police have formed a specialised unit that will begin operations in three weeks’ time, from 1 November. It will be tasked with the investigation of aspects of overseas corruption, and it will be funded by the Department for International Development. Of course, the SFO remains the lead department on overseas corruption, but the new City of London police and Metropolitan police unit will be a valuable resource that it can use. Clearly, the SFO cannot investigate all matters, but the new unit will be able to investigate those areas that the SFO cannot reach.

The Solicitor-General must be aware of the concern that Romania and Bulgaria are being allowed to join the European Union before they have put their own houses in order. What threat does he believe that they pose to this country in terms of organised crime and corruption?

Clearly, we are watching with care the impact that crime has in a number of eastern European states. We want the European Union to expand, but on the right terms, so we are developing much closer links with Bulgaria and Romania to ensure that we have the facility to work with them and to assist them, where we can, in tackling some of the crime and corruption problems that they obviously have.

Human Trafficking

Last week, I opened the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, which is staffed by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies and aims to co-ordinate our work in tackling the trade in people. The CPS has developed a network of area prosecutors to deal with trafficking offences, and there is also improved training of prosecutors and CPS staff, who have been issued with national guidance to deal with human trafficking.

The whole House will deplore the abuse suffered by innocent victims brought here against their will, but there are also organised criminal gangs charging illegal immigrants for illegal entry into Britain. What does he say to those of my constituents who want to know that illegal immigrants are removed quickly, and that those engaged in this illegal trade face the same tough penalties as those trafficking drugs and other serious organised criminals?

The Government have improved the removal rates of those who arrive here illegally, and through legislation we are tackling sentencing issues. The key thing is to ensure that we can break up those involved in trafficking human beings. Operation Pentameter, which was undertaken between February and May this year, was very successful at breaking up some of the organised rings in this country. In dealing with the development of human trafficking for prostitution purposes, 84 victims were rescued and 230 people arrested. So we must not only deal with the removal of those who are here and with the proper sentencing of those involved; we must also ensure that they are caught in the first place.

A debate at our party conference last month recognised both the seriousness of this issue and the work already done by Government. But we also called on the Government to get the United Kingdom to sign and ratify the Council of Europe convention on trafficking in human beings, which we unanimously support and which is widely supported throughout the country. Is it now the view of Law Officers and the CPS that we should sign and ratify that convention, and will the Solicitor-General undertake that the Government will make that a priority in the weeks ahead?

The straight answer is, not quite at the moment. We support the convention’s aims—indeed, we played a significant part in negotiating it—but we have concerns about a number of particular aspects. The automatic granting of reflection periods and residence permits for trafficking victims give rise to some concerns. We should remember that trafficking victims might include not just those trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, about whom we have heard a lot in the newspapers recently. There are also those who come here—sometimes voluntarily—for economic purposes who are trafficked, in the sense that traffickers bring them in. A consultation was completed in April on how we might implement the proposals, and we are looking at the results. There are still some details to work out before we can make an announcement.

Is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that we are still getting this issue right in terms of sentencing policy and the priority given by law enforcement agencies to trafficking? We know that trafficking—certainly the trafficking of women—is very often accompanied by extreme violence and sexual violence. Frankly, the sentences of the courts do not always reflect just how serious the traffickers’ underlying activities are. Can we now see a real determination to ensure that the police and the courts treat trafficking with the seriousness that society expects?

I very much hope that we will. I am particularly pleased that the recent reference of a serious trafficking case to the Court of Appeal resulted in the sentence being substantially increased, to 23 years. The Court of Appeal has thereby sent out a clear message that those caught engaging in human trafficking need to be sentenced appropriately, which means serious custodial sentences. We have recently seen a number of those, following that reference to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney-General.

The establishment of the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, and of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, means that we can focus more closely on dealing with this problem. This is a growing problem as a result of the global economy, and there is still a lot of work to do to address it. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that that work is being done.

Court Papers

Statutory charging by the Crown Prosecution Service should ensure not only that the correct charge is made but that evidence and case papers are available at the first hearing. In addition, in the four pilot areas for the programme known as “Criminal justice: simple, speedy and summary”, the CPS has committed additional resources to quality-assure papers delivered to court and to the defence.

My constituent, Mr. Prokop, had his case dismissed at Milton Keynes court because he failed to turn up for the hearing. However, he claims that he never received notification of the court date. More alarmingly, when he contacted the court, it was unable to provide any evidence that the papers had ever been delivered. What action does the Solicitor-General intend to take to ensure that courts at least record the delivery of court papers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman’s office for alerting me to this case. We have made inquiries about it, and it appears that it might be a county court case, rather than one being dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service. If the hon. Gentleman provides me with further details of the case, I will happily look into it for him.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his recent visit to Nottingham, and for the impetus that he has given to our bid for a community court. Will he look further into the “Criminal justice: speedy, simple and summary” pilots and let the House know how they are going? If they are working successfully, as I believe that they are, will he consider extending them to my constituency and to the city of Nottingham?

The pilots are apparently going very well, although they started only recently, so we need to be cautious about some of the results. The improvement in guilty pleas has been quite substantial, however. The key elements that we have seen include papers arriving and being provided early to the defence, so that cases can be ready at the first hearing. The result of that has been that guilty pleas have been running at 80 per cent., as 60 per cent. have been issued at the first hearing. Half of these cases have been dealt with at the first hearing. That is a very good result. The pilots are showing that, if we simplify the process of dealing with cases, ensure that the papers get there early, or before the first hearing, we can speed up the whole criminal justice process.

If the Crown Prosecution Service is now showing itself to be much more efficient in relation to the provision of court papers—and, I assume, unused material—to ensure that trials can take place quickly, would it be worth while ensuring that some of its staff are delegated to work with the Home Office in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, to ensure that there is no repeat of an occurrence that we discovered this week, namely that material was not being properly disclosed in the SIAC process, leading to contradictory material being revealed in two cases? That is a serious scandal that undermines the credibility of the entire procedure.

It is the case that a problem arose in a specific case involving SIAC. It is not the case, however, that that reveals a systemic problem. It shows that problems arose in a particular example. The Government are looking into the reasons why those problems arose, but I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s claim that this undermines the whole system.