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Disclosure (Offenders)

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

16. If she will discuss with the senior presiding judge the guidance on disclosure to courts of information on prolific and priority offenders. (150580)

I do not currently have plans to discuss the guidance, which has recently been reviewed, with the senior presiding judge. It is not the label “prolific and priority offender” that is important to the court when it sentences, but its function in ensuring that the defendant’s full offending history and the risks of reoffending are before the court so that it can sentence appropriately.

I urge the Solicitor-General to reconsider speaking to the presiding judge because the problem in Kettering and north Northamptonshire is that the police catch the prolific and priority offenders, bring them before the courts, but all too often they are let back out on the streets on bail, only to reoffend immediately. The police are tearing their hair out, and I suggest that it is up to her to ascertain whether she can persuade the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts Service to do something about that.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell me that such a problem was certainly perceived in his constituency. A “premium service” has been set up in the criminal justice system generally to deal with PPOs. Like many criminal justice issues, it is intended to be co-ordinated through the local criminal justice boards. The intention is that the police and the CPS share the targets for tackling PPOs, and the premium service consists of getting people to court more quickly, increasing multi-agency co-operation and listing cases quickly so that the sort of problem that the hon. Gentleman raises should not arise. We can only do our utmost to ensure that all the evidence of the local harm that PPOs cause is before the courts so that they can be rigorously sentenced.

I welcome the steps that the Solicitor-General and her predecessors have taken, but it is important that the information is accurate. Will she assure hon. Members that, when multi agencies approach the subject, the information gathering is done efficiently and the information is accurate and disclosed to the defendant?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. One reliable way of ensuring that the information that comes before the court is accurate is to ensure that it is agreed, as it were, by both parties to the case. As I have said, the CPS has been marked over the past few years by its ability to work closely with, and to enlist the support of, NGOs and other public sector and criminal agencies, to ensure that it makes progress in priority areas such as PPOs. Of course the CPS has a duty to try to ensure that the information that comes from those outside sources is accurate before it puts it before the courts.

The Solicitor-General will be aware that the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised is about concrete examples brought to him of what one sometimes hears anecdotally from elsewhere. Is not the basic problem, if it exists in this form, nothing to do with whether there are prolific or priority offenders, but simply failures by the CPS in presenting cases in court to bring to the court’s attention previous convictions and previous breaches of bail? It is difficult to gauge the extent to which that might be happening, but will the Solicitor-General consider whether the Crown Prosecution Service should conduct a review of how such information is presented to the court? If my hon. Friend is right, something that can be easily rectified is not being addressed, but if it were, it would go a long way towards dealing with such cases much better.

I take from that what I hope and expect is support from the hon. Gentleman for saying that it would not help to put the label “PPO” before the court. What is imperative is to ensure that the full history of offending is put before the court. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has raised an important point. We will look across the board at how well we are doing that work. If I found deficits, I would have no hesitation in asking the inspectorate to look at the position.

The debate so far illustrates how well the system can work when there are guidelines in place for which the Solicitor-General is accountable to the House. Does she accept that there is a case for maintaining that system, with the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General on one side and the prosecution service on the other, so that instead of discussions and instructions on specific individual prosecutions, the relationship is always one where the Law Officers give guidelines to prosecutors?

The hon. Gentleman and I were both involved in a debate about the roles of the prosecutors and the Law Officers respectively as recently as Monday. I believe that the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee is due to publish a report on the issue imminently, or that it has just published one. We shall publish a consultation document, I hope next week, which will look at the role of the Law Officers in that and a number of other regards. That is consonant with “The Governance of Britain”, which the Prime Minister announced a few weeks ago. We intend to encourage all sorts of participation throughout the House of Commons and elsewhere to ensure that we get the model for the Law Officers right for the 21st century.