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Volume 501: debated on Thursday 26 November 2009

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Assisted Suicide

11. What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on his interim policy for prosecutors on assisted suicide. (301675)

After the House of Lords required the DPP to produce his interim policy for prosecutors on cases of assisted suicide in July, my office was consulted by him, as is appropriate for a superintendent Department. The DPP’s interim policy is now the subject of public consultation and a final policy will be issued next year.

Let me emphasise that all cases alleging assisted suicide are assessed on their facts and merits.

I am grateful for that answer. One of the things that concerns me about the DPP’s interim guidance is that serious disability is one of the factors that he will consider in assessing whether a prosecution is not in the public interest. I wonder about the message that that sends out to people with a disability about the extent to which we want a society that helps them live independently and gives them a good quality of life rather than encourages them to take their own lives.

I cannot for one minute think that any innuendo of that kind could be appropriately drawn. The court asked the DPP effectively to list, as a policy, all the factors that were capable of being taken into account. That is as far as the reference to disability goes. It would probably be odd to leave out disability caused by, for example, life-limiting illness in a case of someone assisting a suicide. The cases are complex and sensitive, but no innuendo such as that suggested by the hon. Gentleman could possibly be drawn. The DPP is consulting publicly to try to get every factor and to balance them. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, it was not the DPP’s wish to produce any guidelines. Let me emphasise again that each such case, when it arises, will be considered carefully on its merits.

The Judicial Committee in the House of Lords put the DPP in an invidious position in asking him to declare the law. That is a matter for Parliament, not the DPP. Do the Government have any plans in the near future to revisit section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961?

Bribery Bill

12. What recent discussions she has had with the Attorney-General on the implications of the proposed Bribery Bill for the role of the Attorney-General. (301676)

13. What recent discussions she has had with the Attorney-General on the implications of the proposed Bribery Bill for the role of the Attorney-General. (301678)

The Bribery Bill will no longer require the consent of the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General before a prosecution for an offence under the measure can start. Instead, it will require the consent of the director of the relevant prosecuting authority. The Bill does not alter the role of the Attorney-General in any other way.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but what can she do to assure the House that never again will the Government use bogus reasons for not proceeding with Serious Fraud Office offences? I simply mention the murky BAE Systems-Saudi arms deal.

I suppose precedent would be a help because there never has been such behaviour by the Government. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the House of Lords said about the decision. First, it made it clear that the director of the SFO, not any member of the Government, made the decision. It was also clearly stated: that

“It may indeed be doubted whether a responsible decision-maker could, on the facts before the Director, have decided otherwise”.

This is a problem for the Government—and, indeed, for the House and the country. I engaged with the OECD investigation into bribery, in which it said that

“systematic deficiencies… make clear the need to safeguard the independence of the SFO”.

How will that happen if reform of the Attorney-General’s power does not take place?

The only power would be a power to use a direction in a case where national security was at stake. There is a process to go through before that happens. It has not happened for many, many years. Normally what would happen, even in a case where national security was at a premium, is that the director would take it into account when evaluating the public interest.

Does the Solicitor-General believe that the proposed Bribery Bill would deal with the Leader of the Opposition’s promise to make amendments to the inheritance tax regime which will benefit only the people on his Christmas card list?

That is as well—let me say to the hon. and learned Lady that its relationship with questions 12 and 13 is, at best, I think, opaque.

The Solicitor-General seems to have missed the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) was making—that because all reform of the Attorney-General’s office has been removed from the Constitutional Reform Bill, the power of the Attorney-General to superintend in general the prosecutions put forward by the directors has been left unaffected. Has the Solicitor-General received any guidance, information or assurance from the OECD that it is satisfied with the arrangements that will now be in place, because if she has not, the lack of independence of the directors will continue to be a blot on the reputation of this country and may leave British business in a very difficult position?

The hon. Gentleman really does not live in the real world. He should try telling Richard Alderman or Keir Starmer that they are not independent: they are extremely independent individuals, and rightly so. There is a detailed protocol, which I commend to the hon. Gentleman, so that he can understand this area rather better than he appears to do now. The superintendence function has specifically been cast into a protocol to make its limits very clear. Our current law complies with the OECD convention, which the OECD makes very clear.

Why does the Solicitor-General propose a difference between the function of the Attorney-General on extra-territorial crime under the Bribery Bill and on other offences committed overseas?

So far as I am aware—it is not my Bill, but a Ministry of Justice Bill—the recommendations of the Joint Committee have played a role there. I am obviously answering on behalf of the prosecution departments today, as I always do, but a good deal of note has been taken of what the Joint Committee said, and that was its position.

Transnational Bribery

14. What plans the Government have for legislation to amend the law on transnational bribery; and if she will make a statement. (301679)

The Bribery Bill, already referred to, will provide a modern and comprehensive scheme of bribery offences to equip the prosecutors and the courts to deal effectively with bribery both at home and abroad.

When I introduced my draft International Bribery and Corruption Bill in February 1998, it was opposed by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who sits on the Conservative Front Bench today, and who described it as “fundamentally naïve”. Has my hon. and learned Friend discussed the Bribery Bill with the Opposition Law Officers and will they now support it?

I do not think there is anything fundamentally naïve about this Bill. At first sight, it looks as if the Bill is going to hit the spot and will be much more modern, clearer and less fragmented than what applies currently. Whether the Opposition will support it, I do not know. It will be introduced in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Bach, and when it comes here it will be dealt with by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who I have no doubt at all will have conversations with the Opposition. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who has had a long-term interest in this issue and has focused primarily on ensuring that bribery and corruption go out of overseas development funding? I hope that he will be pleased with the Bill when it comes through.

Has the Solicitor-General had representations about alleged systematic bribery in overseas offices by entry clearance officers, allowing people effectively to buy visas to enter this country?

No, I have not, although I have read, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, about some suggestions along those lines. When they are brought to the attention of the authorities, they will, of course, be taken very seriously.

Pro Bono Work

15. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her policy on raising awareness of pro bono work. (301680)

Our eighth national pro bono week, which is dedicated to raising awareness of pro bono work, took place two weeks ago. The number of activities increased to 128 from 82 a year before. The Attorney-General and I hold a pro bono reception to showcase such work to MPs, and we have introduced a guide to pro bono, which we have distributed to every MP. That guide informs MPs about sources of pro bono work in their constituencies, so that, if they cannot handle a problem, they can contact a lawyer who can help.

As Members of Parliament, we have constituents who come to our surgeries with legal problems, and we try to get them legal aid and access to pro bono, which is not easy. Why has access to justice become so expensive under Labour?

I do not think that it has. I receive the same sort of inquiries, and I can usually find a local lawyer to help if I cannot deal with the matter myself. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the guide to pro bono, he will find many networks that have local membership. Therefore, people can get something pretty close to their needs pretty quickly.

As the processes of the Infrastructure Planning Commission get under way, has my hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about ensuring that individuals and communities have access to proper legal advice?

I have not had such discussions, but I understand the nature of the issue. From general knowledge, I am aware that some bodies help with planning applications, so I am sure that citizens will be able to find assistance if they want to be represented.

Does the Solicitor-General accept that de facto pro bono work has increased substantially as a result of the Government’s restrictions on the level of legal aid fees available to members of the Bar?

No, the number of acts of legal assistance has increased significantly through the reorganisation of the legal aid system. For instance, there were 2.5 million acts of assistance in the last year but one, and 2.9 million this year, and they have increased in both the civil and criminal areas. Pro bono is in addition to all the work done under legal aid, and it is an important part of a lawyer’s experience and training. As with most volunteering, it is good not just for the recipient but for the person who does it.

Prosecution Policy (Burglaries)

16. When she next expects to meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss prosecution policy in respect of burglaries. (301681)

We have frequent and regular meetings with the DPP, and we discuss a range of issues. If there were particular concerns about prosecutions for burglary—perhaps the hon. Gentleman has some to raise—we would talk to the DPP about them, but under the terms of the protocol to which I have alluded between the Attorney-General and prosecution departments. In 2008-09, the Crown Prosecution Service conviction rate for burglary was 87.1 per cent. nationally, and 91.3 per cent. in Norfolk.

I am pleased to hear that, but does the Solicitor-General share my view that burglaries are invariably incredibly traumatic, and often lead to dreadful scars that last many years and tear families apart? Does she agree that as long as there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, burglaries should always be prosecuted through the courts, and never dealt with by out-of-court procedures such as cautions or penalty notices for disorder?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. I imagine that he refers to dwelling-house burglaries, which can be extremely injurious to the people who suffer them. There is an annexe to the DPP’s guidance on when to use conditional cautions, and burglary is not included among the offences for which they should be used.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with Slough Town Against Crime, which is an alliance of shops, police officers and public bodies. One of the participants suggested that prolific shoplifters who have been barred from shops and have shoplifted again ought to be prosecuted for burglary. Will the Solicitor-General raise that matter with the DPP, as it would be a practical way of tackling the appalling problem of prolific shoplifting, which is blighting Slough town centre?

This is an old, knotty problem in the law. In order to be a burglar, someone must enter as a trespasser. There have been prosecutions when people have gone from the public side of a shop to the private side, behind the counter. That has been deemed to be entering as a trespasser, and I can see an analogy with the case cited by my hon. Friend. I think that the local chief Crown prosecutor would have to examine each case in order to make a sensible decision, but my hon. Friend’s idea does have merit.

Domestic Violence

17. If she will meet the stronger families project in Nottingham to discuss means of increasing the rate of prosecution in domestic violence cases. (301682)

I should be very happy to look at that very good early-intervention project, whose aim is to help young children who would otherwise suffer trauma as a result of their experiences of domestic violence.

As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, we continue to work to improve prosecution performance in this area. The number of domestic violence prosecutions undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service has risen from nearly 35,000 in 2004-05 to nearly 68,000 now, and the proportion of successful cases has risen from 55 per cent. to 72 per cent. over the same period.

The perpetrators of domestic violence include a high percentage of cowards and bullies, even in comparison with the perpetrators of other criminal offences. Those two groups are particularly susceptible to a strong, clear message from Government about the consequences of their actions, but the performance indicators in the local area agreement relating to domestic violence have been dropped, and there has been a resulting drop in detection in the Nottingham area. Will my hon. and learned Friend emphasise once again how important the Government consider this offence, and will she consider again the possibility of restoring the performance indicators?

I cannot emphasise too strongly how important the Government consider prosecuting domestic violence. My hon. Friend was good enough to tell me that he was worried about the removal of the sanction detection count rate, and about the possibility that it had had a bad effect on arrest rates. I have looked into the matter for him, and have established that although sanction detection rates are no longer a target, they are still counted in Nottingham. The figures that I have found do not quite agree with those that he has given. As there is no offence of domestic violence, it is quite difficult to quantify it in the terms to which he has referred. However, if he is not satisfied with my answer, I shall be happy to meet him, and I should also be very pleased to visit Nottingham.

Crown Prosecution Service

Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate assesses the effectiveness of the CPS, and reports on a wide range of operational issues. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the CPS engage in regular area performance reviews with their chief Crown prosecutors, and a series of monitoring and evaluation reports are produced. The CPS performance reports on violence against women and on hate crime are due to be published soon.

Was the Solicitor-General not rather disappointed to read a recent report by Her Majesty’s CPS inspectorate which found that nearly a third of 367 advocacy assessments were rated lacklustre, less than competent or very poor? Has the CPS given her any indication of how it will improve its standards in future?

I do not know how that advocacy compares with other kinds of advocacy. Those ratings apply only to the CPS. They should be compared with those applying to the Bar and to defence lawyers to establish whether they are any less lacklustre. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will keep my eye on the position.

Is the Solicitor-General satisfied that the Crown Prosecution Service—engaging in discussions with the police—can get a grip on the problem of the mistaken use of out-of-court disposals, given the importance of ensuring that the interests of justice and, indeed, the needs of victims are satisfied, and that appropriate measures have been taken?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. I am aware of at least one chief Crown prosecutor who has already started to make representations about what he regards as the overuse of fixed penalty notices when he feels prosecutions would be appropriate. We should perhaps also have regard to the overuse of taking offences into consideration. I am confident that the CPS will play a full role in examination of the position.

Does the Solicitor-General not share my concern, which is also shared by the Justice Secretary, that there are too many out-of-court settlements and fixed penalty notices for the crime of shoplifting? I might also ask why the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) did not support my Bill in the previous Parliament, as it would have benefited her constituency.

I cannot comment on the use of out-of-court settlements in particular cases, but I know that the hon. Lady has been very concerned about this matter for some time. Clearly, systematic shoplifting should be prosecuted, although perhaps the occasional instance should not. I know that the hon. Lady agrees that there needs to be a proper balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has raised a very interesting point that would add gravity to this: the threat of prosecuting systematic shoplifters for the higher-sentence offence of burglary, rather than for theft.