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Volume 504: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Householders (Protection of Property)

11. What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service in charging householders who have used force in cases of burglary. (312116)

The Attorney-General and I have regular meetings with the DPP, at which we discuss a range of issues within the terms of the protocol between the Law Officers and the prosecution departments that was published in July 2009.

The Solicitor-General must be aware that hardly a week goes by without some sort of report of a victim of burglary bizarrely being prosecuted. There is certainly a feeling of great injustice in the country, so will she give clearer guidance to the CPS when it considers prosecution?

I do not accept that hardly a week goes by, although obviously I am well aware of the cases that hit the headlines recently and some years ago. As a consequence of the earlier case in 2005, a joint statement was issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the CPS that made it very clear that a person is entitled to use force to resist a burglar. The current case has brought the matter forward again, but it has not really impacted on the very good advice contained in that statement.

A survey of prosecutions shows that in the 15 years between 1989 and 2004, only 11 people were charged with responding in any way violently to being burgled. As the hon. Gentleman says, such cases clearly occur more frequently than that, which suggests that the law is right overall, and deals with them sympathetically. In his judgment yesterday on the most recent case, the Lord Chief Justice said that it was not at all about a person defending himself after a burglary, as the burglary was long over before the violence that gave rise to the sentence took place.

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept my opinion that the law is right and that there must not be a change? Otherwise we would be putting property above life, and that is something that I hope our law will never accept.

Certainly, an appeal against conviction in the current case was refused. There is no suggestion in the thorough judgment from the Lord Chief Justice that he considers there to be anything wrong with the law. The barrister who defended this family also defended Tony Martin, and he said on the radio this morning that he thought that the law was right. To avoid doubt, I emphasise that the law allows for what was referred to in the case as a “moment of unexpected anguish”, when a person honestly and reasonably thinks that they are doing what is necessary. Members of the jury have to try to put themselves in that person’s position, and evaluate how high their feelings would be. Even then, they must ask whether, taking all that emotion into account, the response was reasonable. I suspect that the law is pretty accurate, and that juries have every opportunity to give as much credit as they want to the incredibly tense situations that people can find themselves in.

Given that the courts have shown that they can defend householders and understand the situations that arise, will the Solicitor-General continue to resist those siren voices who want the law rewritten? We have had enough criminal justice legislation as it is.

Some of the criminal justice legislation that has gone through the House has been extremely good. It has benefited victims of domestic violence and rape and improved conviction rates enormously, so one cannot sweep all sorts of criminal justice law up together and say that it is all a bad thing. However, I agree that we should resist any calls to change the law. That is simply not necessary, as I think that the courts deal with such cases quite properly.

Is it not absolute nonsense to suggest that the current law, which has been in existence for so long, is soft on burglars? The law is quite clear, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, and if one believes in the rule of law one should not try to change the existing position.

Yes, I do agree. The case of Palmer, which essentially set out in common law the principles that are now in statute, has been working since 1971 with very little complaint. In the two cases that have given the most cause for concern, the courts have made it clear—in both instances—that the violence happened after the burglary was over, and we do not allow that. That is breaking the rule of law, itself; it is revenge, not self-defence.

One aspect of the Hussain case that has escaped public attention is the way in which the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and before that the Criminal Justice Act 2003, badly restricted the discretion of the sentencer. Judge Reddihough would have been more able to produce the sentence that the Court of Appeal produced yesterday had he not been hogtied by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, or the Sentencing Council. Will the Solicitor-General please discuss with her Government colleagues getting rid of the Sentencing Council, so that judges can sentence on the facts before them, rather than having to follow a template issued by other people elsewhere?

There is no template, as the hon. and learned Gentleman well knows. The judiciary have a discretion and they rightly exercise it, because they, at first instance, are the people who see the dramatis personae before them, and who can make a proper assessment of the absolute detail and the nature of the person. Judges have plenty of discretion, and in the judgment that I have read, the trial judge made no suggestion that he found himself hogtied—and the Lord Chief Justice certainly did not, either.

Criminal Charges

12. What guidance is issued to the Crown Prosecution Service on the period of time within which charges in criminal cases should be brought. (312117)

The Crown Prosecution Service is responsible for charging in about 35 per cent. of criminal cases. There is no separate guidance on time, but the principle is to charge as soon as possible, and there are obviously controls over the situation when people are remanded in custody. The hon. Gentleman made a freedom of information request about the average time between the police reporting to the CPS and a charge, and he received the answer 8.3 days. I do not know whether he found that helpful, because some cases are dealt with very quickly and others require a forensic report before there can be a charge. However, that is the average.

The longer it takes the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to charge somebody, the longer very serious criminals could be out on the streets on police bail committing further crimes. The average time that the CPS spends making a decision ranges from three days in Cumbria to an astonishing 20 days in Northamptonshire. What is the Solicitor-General doing to address that?

It is hard to pinpoint the hon. Gentleman’s complaint. I do not know the nature of endemic offending in the two parts of the country to which he refers; there may be significant differences. However, people are not automatically on bail pending charge; some are remanded in custody. Then a charge becomes urgent, and the CPS respond accordingly. There have been vast improvements through statutory charging, and its efficacy has been praised in no less than four recent reports.

Defendants’ Health (Prosecutions)

13. What consideration the Crown Prosecution Service gives to the physical and mental health of defendants in making decisions to prosecute. (312118)

The evidence that a defendant has a significant physical or mental illness may mean that the Crown Prosecution Service decides that the public interest does not always require a prosecution. However, the defendant’s health must be balanced with the seriousness of the offence and the need to safeguard the public.

Is the Solicitor-General willing to see me about a case in which the charge has just been dropped at the second review by the CPS? It relates to a constituent of mine, whose son, a member of our staff, has worked for us in this building. It was clearly inappropriate, for a domestic matter that occurred at home, with no support from the victim—another member of the family—and where the evidence was clear from the beginning, to prosecute a seriously mentally ill individual.

I know the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because we looked into why the hon. Gentleman was asking the question. Of course I shall meet him, and it is better if we talk about it privately, as it were, because it is a family matter. However, my general understanding is that there was a mental health issue, and that the CPS received information early that the condition could be controlled, but had not been at the time. That raised the question of whether, if the man in question again did not take his medication, there would be a further threat to someone else. Later medical evidence has, I think, helped to put the matter to rest, but I am certainly very happy to discuss the case with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that nothing that I have said here upsets the family further. There are clearly issues to discuss.

Bribery Bill

14. What recent assessment she has made of the extent to which Crown servants are engaged in the activities contemplated in clause 12 of the Bribery Bill. (312119)

17. What recent assessment she has made of the extent to which Crown servants are engaged in the activities contemplated in clause 12 of the Bribery Bill. (312123)

The Government have assessed that there are occasions when the fight against serious crime, the protection of national security or the safety of the armed forces may require the authorities concerned to offer financial or other kinds of inducement in order to carry out their functions effectively. The extent to which such conduct occurs has not been quantified, as far as I am aware, but the Government are satisfied as to the need for the defence in general.

Can the Minister explain why the Government have felt it necessary to give the police and the Army a licence to bribe, given that the draft Bribery Bill covered only the security services, and that the Joint Committee on the draft Bill said that it had received no persuasive evidence that even that was necessary?

The Bill is in the House of Lords, is it not? I understand that those responsible for the Government’s business there have accepted that the Bill’s current definition of who may be covered by this is too wide, and that it would probably be better to specify a list. Perhaps there would then be arguments about who was on the list, but that approach would significantly narrow the present terminology, which is pretty general.

What I find particularly odd in this proposal is that under clause 6 the police are to be allowed to bribe a UK official but not a foreign official. Why is that?

There is a specific exclusion from clause 12 to match the OECD treaty, which prohibits bribery of a foreign public official. The services are not going to be allowed to bribe, except in very particular cases. It will be a defence, which would have to be raised if somebody were prosecuted for bribery, and the burden would be on them to raise it. The matter is still being debated in the House of Lords, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues are putting forward full frontal attacks. It seems to us, however, that we must not hamstring the security services.

Obviously, the Bribery Bill is very welcome. However, can the Solicitor-General confirm that this particular proposal allows not only the giving, but the receiving, of bribes by the armed forces, the police and the intelligence services? Can she also confirm what appeared to be said in the House of Lords—that in the view of Ministers the purposes for which this can be done include not only national security and suppression of crime but the furtherance of national economic purposes, which would not be consonant with our international obligations?

It is very hard to give somebody a defence for giving a bribe if he has not given one already. Of course, the people to whom he has given it are ultimately likely to be involved in far more serious charges themselves. I have not understood economic advantage to have the remotest connection with it. This is about security, and it is intended to be used within a very narrow ambit.

Rape Cases (Prosecution)

Steps that we have already taken have led to reports of rape to the police more than doubling in the past 10 years, and there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of convictions. We have set up a cross-governmental rape monitoring group, and there is a body continually going around areas of criminal justice to spread best practice from one place through all the others. We have commissioned Baroness Stern specifically to review the response of public authorities to rape, and she will report in February.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that very useful reply; we are clearly moving in the right direction. However, I think she will agree that at the end of the day there are too few successful prosecutions in rape cases, which could be because too many women are withdrawing. What are the Crown Prosecution Service and various police forces doing to support women so that they do not withdraw? Is anyone explaining to such women that when they do withdraw, the person concerned—the rapist—could well go on to rape and rape again, as in the recent “black cab” case?

My hon. Friend hits on a very important point that needs to be made much more regularly, which is that much rape is serial offending. When women do not complain or when they withdraw a complaint, they are not just making a decision on their own behalf; in many cases they are potentially putting other people at risk. I do not want to put any more pressure on rape complainants than there already is, but there is a clear and emerging position that much rape is serial offending.

Almost all sexual offence complainants are now given an independent sexual violence adviser who stays with them as a befriender and supporter from complaint to at least the end of the criminal proceedings and who helps them into counselling after that. That is a great support that is helping more women to be ready to come forward and to sustain a complaint when they do.

Although it is true that the interests of complainants are very high in importance, so too are the interests of defendants. May I say that we must do nothing to dilute the principles that require a case to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and ensure that the burden rests on the Crown?

Wise words with which I totally agree. We are not seeking to do that and have not done anything that will. What is important is to support complainants so that the pressures of having to talk in front of a court about something extremely intimate, distressing and traumatising are not so overwhelming that people will not come forward and ensure that justice is done. That is what we have been trying to do.

Corston Report

16. What contribution the Law Officers’ Departments are making towards the implementation of the recommendations of the Corston report on meeting the needs of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. (312122)

The Government accepted almost all of Baroness Corston’s recommendations and are committed to diverting from custody vulnerable women who are not dangerous or serious offenders by strengthening services in the community that can tackle the complex needs of such women, who are frequently convicted of a lot of low-level offending. There have been 31 grants to such organisations, including Together Women and the Cardiff-based women’s turnaround project, which is hosted by Safer Wales and offers practical support so that women can manage their lives better and do not fall into offending. My hon. Friend has been a great champion of the turnaround project.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend and congratulate the Government on the progress made on the Corston report and on the fact that the number of women in prison is now falling. I am particularly pleased about the Cardiff project. Does she agree that many women offenders are, or have been, victims of abuse to a disproportionate level? What more can the Law Officers’ Department do to help women who have been abused as either children or adults when they present as offenders?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I chaired the Fawcett commission on women and criminal justice, the evidence made it plain that a disproportionate number of women in custody for low-level, non-dangerous offending had either been sexually abused or suffered domestic violence, and through the chaos that followed that treatment had declined into crime. Because at that stage we were not intervening as quickly and as well as we do now in cases of either domestic violence or sexual abuse, we were, in a sense, punishing them twice—by not helping them early enough to prevent them from descending into offending and then by putting them in custody when they offended. We are now trying to tackle the problem, and it is notable that organisations such as the turnaround project and Together Women deal with women not just after they have they have been convicted but after they have been abused, when their lives are becoming chaotic, to try to save them from ever descending into criminality at all.

Snow and Ice Clearing

18. What discussions she has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on whether householders may be prosecuted in relation to snow and ice clearing activities which lead to the injury of another. (312124)

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman—I hope that he will not take it badly if I put it briefly, and I know that you will not, Mr. Speaker—is that there have been no discussions about prosecuting people for clearing snow and ice.

I appreciate that the Solicitor-General might have been trying to clarify the fact that clearing is not subject to criminal action, and if that was what she intended to say, I am grateful to her. However, she will be aware of the considerable concern among householders in recent weeks that they are potentially liable to prosecution either from local authorities or in civil cases. It would be helpful if she could get clarification from colleagues, perhaps in the Ministry of Justice, that that is not likely to occur.

When I saw that the hon. Gentleman’s question was about prosecution, which is our responsibility as Law Officers, I sent back to the Crown Prosecution Service to ask it to scour the four corners of jurisprudence to look for anything that looked like a possible prosecution for snow clearing with some bad effect, but we could not find anything, whether relating to local authorities or anything else. Between us, the hon. Gentleman and I can probably rule out prosecution for clearing snow. Civil liability is a different thing. It looks very remote to me, but I am not going to give free legal advice.

Youth Matters (Expenditure)

The hon. Gentleman asks in general terms how much was spent on youth matters. Reducing youth crime and improving the criminal justice system for young people is a central part of the Government’s effort to build safer communities, and action is planned for that.

However, if he is asking about such things as the Law Officers’ youth network, which encourages understanding and respect for the rule of law and the criminal justice system, I can tell him that in the past 12 months, it has cost just over £4,500. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service has spent almost £86,000 on a national schools project, with a similar information motive.

Is there a danger that police officers spend too much time doing youth work that should really be provided by professional youth workers?

The hon. Gentleman would be asking me only for a view about that, because the police are not my responsibility. My constituency engagement tells me that police are very usefully involved in talking in schools, and they are sometimes even posted at schools for a while and have regular liaison with them, but I doubt they go beyond the four corners of their responsibilities and try to give people counselling and advice. I am not sure anything is going wrong, but he should take the matter up with the Home Office if he is worried.