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Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2010

The Attorney-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service (South-west)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in the south-west. (3378)

May I first pay tribute to my predecessors Baroness Scotland and Vera Baird QC? The Solicitor-General and I both hope that we will be able to follow their tradition in our dealings with Parliament.

The last area performance inspection of the CPS Devon and Cornwall by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate was in July 2007. Performance was rated as good, an improvement on the previous assessment in 2005, which rated the area as poor. There is a structure for monitoring area performance, including regular performance meetings between the chief operating officer of the CPS and the area chief Crown prosecutor. The performance of CPS Devon and Cornwall for 2009-10 was assessed as poor in one indicator—proceeds of crime—good in four of 11 indicators and excellent in another four of 11 indicators.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his comprehensive response. Will he encourage the Crown Prosecution Service to leave behind its tick-box obsession with conviction rates, become more robust in prosecuting the perpetrators of low-level crime and antisocial behaviour and help to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system?

I am very much aware that my hon. Friend has taken a close personal interest in this issue in his area. He will understand that each case must be scrutinised by a prosecutor under the tests set out in the code for Crown prosecutors. There is a duty in each case to keep that under review, in accordance with the evidence available. In some cases, if the police provide more information, that can result in a charge having to be reduced and, in some cases, lesser pleas accepted. But I agree with my hon. Friend that errors can happen, and if a case is brought to his attention that troubles him in this respect, he should, of course, contact me or the Solicitor-General and we will ensure that it is inquired into.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the success of the CPS cannot always be judged by prosecution and, indeed, conviction rates? May I urge him to look at what has been done in Bristol to tackle the problem of on-street sex work? We are using conditional cautions, and the CPS is working with projects such as One25 to try to tackle the root cause of the problem, rather than just taking it through the courts over and again.

Yes, I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. Good work is being done by the CPS, in conjunction with the police, to try to ensure that crime of that nature is reduced without necessarily going through the courts. Equally, it is right to say—the CPS understands this very well—that the use of conditional cautions must not serve as a device to avoid proper convictions being recorded in court against people who ought to be brought before the courts.

Domestic Violence

May I begin by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his election?

The Government take domestic violence very seriously. The Law Officers support the work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking to increase the rate of prosecution in such cases. The increase in the provision of specialist domestic violence courts, the training of all CPS prosecutors in domestic violence cases and improvements in support and safety for victims have all led to an increase in the rate of prosecutions leading to a conviction. The CPS works with other agencies to ensure that, where possible, the evidence is available to prosecute such cases effectively.

Has any additional consideration been given to making special provisions for children where cases of domestic violence occur in settings where children are present or where children are victims or witnesses to acts of violence in their own homes?

It is estimated that about 750,000 children witness domestic violence during any given year. Clearly, a great deal needs to be done to ensure not only that those children are protected, but that, if appropriate, they can give evidence in courts in such a way that does not frighten them and that leads to proper convictions being arrived at. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that will certainly be considered further.

It depends on what my hon. Friend means by the phrase “recourse to public funds”. A number of victims will be protected or assisted by independent domestic violence advisers. We now have 141 specialist domestic violence courts. As she will know from her private practice as a family lawyer, people can be assisted in a number of ways. The main thing is to ensure that they know what is available and that they can be assisted before, during and after the court hearing.

Rape Allegations

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on policy on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. (3380)

I have had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters and will continue to do so as and when issues arise. Rape is one of the most serious and damaging of all crimes, and I support the current work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases. If there are to be any changes to the law or procedure in respect of rape trials—for example, the introduction of anonymity for defendants in such cases—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear last week, they will take place only after the issues involved have been fully researched and debated. The views of all those with relevant knowledge and expertise, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, will be fully taken into account.

Victims of rape need to feel confident that those accused of rape will be treated as serious offenders. Does the Attorney-General agree that extending anonymity to those defendants will stop victims coming forward and send a signal that it will be difficult to accuse people?

I do not think that it will in any way lessen the seriousness of the matter; on the contrary, it will emphasise the seriousness. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that anonymity for defendants in rape cases existed between 1976 and 1988. Indeed, I defended rape cases over that period and saw that trials were conducted without difficulty and with no lessening of the gravity of the offence. However, such matters can and will be debated, and if they are debated with a proper emphasis on detail, I believe that we will reach the right solutions.

If we go down the road of balancing victim anonymity with anonymity for the person accused, is not the important consideration that if the prosecution has good reason to believe that evidence will be brought to light if the identity is known, it should be possible to waive anonymity?

Yes; my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have no doubt that that issue is one of those that can be examined. It is worth bearing in mind that the existing anonymity for complainants has the consequence, for example, that there are occasions when a history of false complaints made to someone other than the police does not come to light before a trial takes place. However, that has not been put forward as an argument for removing anonymity for complainant victims. He is correct, however, that such matters can all be looked at properly when we examine this area of the law.

May I begin by welcoming the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Solicitor-General to their posts—it must be like going back to chambers? I also thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the kind words about his predecessors that he set out at the beginning of Question Time, which were gratefully received by Labour Members.

There has been a lot of confusion about this area of policy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has, like several of his colleagues, spoken about the matter as if we were conducting a debate, but I remind him that the coalition agreement states that anonymity will be extended to defendants in rape cases. Will he lead the Government from the front by admitting that they have got this wrong, accepting that they have made a mistake and dropping this disastrous and retrograde policy?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome; indeed, I welcome her to her role of shadowing the Law Officers in the House. She will be aware that my role is to provide legal advice about policy decisions made by the Government, and she can be reassured that I will ensure that exactly that happens.

As for this policy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear when answering questions last week that he wished to engage in a debate to examine this procedure and area of the law, which have caused concern. That is exactly what I invite the House to do, in the spirit in which such debate should be conducted.

Crown Prosecution Service

5. How long on average it took for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to prosecute in cases referred to it in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in the latest period for which figures are available. (3381)

During the year ending May 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service took an average of 13.6 days to complete a pre-charge decision in Northamptonshire, and 8.1 days in England as a whole.

What encouragement and advice can my hon. and learned Friend offer to Northamptonshire CPS so that it improves its performance and gets up to the national average?

I have absolutely no doubt that my hon. Friend, who is my parliamentary neighbour, will give his own encouragement to his local CPS. A lot has been done, although a great deal more can be done, and I am sure that, between us, we will keep Northamptonshire CPS up to the mark.

I welcome the Solicitor-General, who is my near neighbour, to his new post.

When Members of Parliament write to the CPS to make representations on behalf of constituents about cases that it is considering, are there any guidelines on how long it should take the chief Crown prosecutor to write back to them?

All letters from Members of Parliament, whether to the headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service, or to the chief Crown prosecutor for a particular area should be answered speedily. Occasionally, work has to be done to provide a full answer, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his kind remarks, will understand that it is better to receive a thorough answer a few days late than a half answer on time.

In-house Advocates

6. If he will estimate the cost to the public purse of the use by the Crown Prosecution Service of in-house advocates in the Crown court in the latest period for which figures are available. (3382)

In 2009-10, the full cost incurred by the Crown Prosecution Service of in-house advocate deployment in the Crown court was £18,552,313. The CPS estimates that it would have cost £27,833,588, excluding VAT and fees, to use self-employed advocates for that work, representing a saving of £9,281,275, excluding VAT. I acknowledge that the methodology for calculating the cost of Crown advocate deployment has been disputed by the Bar Council. I understand that discussions are taking place between the CPS and the Bar Council to try to resolve the matter and to look more generally at sustaining the role of self-employed advocates in the Crown court.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend go further and accept that the best guarantee of cost-effectiveness and quality in the Crown court is the independent bar?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is widespread recognition, including by the CPS itself, that the referral bar has an important role to play in the prosecution of offences, and that that must be sustained. It is my intention, working with the head of the CPS, to ensure that that happens.

Rape Allegations

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. (3383)

Does the Attorney-General agree with the Lord Chancellor that there should be a free vote on this?

It will be for Government members who are introducing the policy to decide whether that matter should be subject to a free vote or not.

Domestic Violence

8. What recent representations the Crown Prosecution Service has received on steps to increase the rate of prosecution in cases of domestic violence. (3384)

Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the House. Records of representations received by local CPS offices are not kept centrally. I can tell him, however, that the Director of Public Prosecutions has not received any recent representations on steps to increase the rate of prosecutions in cases of domestic violence.

May I ask the Solicitor-General what he proposes to do to build on the success of the Labour Government in tackling domestic violence?

That is a wide question that I do not have time to answer, except in an Adjournment debate. As I said in my answers to the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends at the beginning of Question Time, the Government take domestic violence every bit as seriously as the previous Government. It is worth noting, however, that the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 included a power to introduce restraining orders. Until I reminded the then Government during the course of debates on the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 of those powers, they did nothing about introducing restraining orders for four or five years. Their record was therefore rather patchy.