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Attorney-General

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

The Attorney-General was asked—

Defendant Anonymity

1. What recent representations he has received on the effect of introducing anonymity for defendants in rape cases on rates of prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service in such cases. (11102)

2. What recent representations he has received on the effect of introducing anonymity for defendants in rape cases on rates of prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service in such cases. (11105)

7. What recent representations he has received on the effect of introducing anonymity for defendants in rape cases on rates of prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service in such cases. (11110)

There is a serious concern that if we introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases, other witnesses will not then come forward and rates of prosecution will drop. Hon. Members understood that the Government were to compile all available research and statistics, and report to the House before the summer. However, reports in the media say that that will not now happen. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman urge the Ministry of Justice to commission research into the impact on victims of rape and their likelihood of reporting the crime if anonymity is granted to defendants?

The research is ongoing and will be published in the autumn, but I can assure the hon. Lady that the Ministry of Justice has the matter well in hand.

I have received many representations, including from Swansea student union and women’s groups in Swansea. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman now confirm once and for all, given the rumours, that he intends to drop plans to stop police giving out the names of those accused of rape whom the police believe are serial rapists?

I am not sure of any such proposals, but if the hon. Gentleman has information that would help me to reach a proper conclusion, or if he wishes to refer the matter to the Ministry of Justice, which has the policy lead on this issue, or the Home Office, given that it has responsibility for the police, I am sure his representations would be gratefully received.

I am very disappointed to hear that the research is now not going to be out until the autumn. An answer from a Justice Minister, on 17 June, said that it would be published before the summer recess. Will the research alluded to be original research into the incidence of malicious false accusations of rape, or will it be a survey of existing evidence?

The research will be research, and no doubt we will look into the matter as a whole. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady—this must be very annoying for her—but she really needs to address her questions to the Ministry of Justice, which is the lead Ministry dealing with the issue.

Violence against Women

3. What the outcomes were of the Crown Prosecution Service’s review of its violence against women strategy. (11106)

The Crown Prosecution Service’s violence against women strategy, 2008 to 2011, was published in June 2008. No review has been carried out to date. Quarterly assurance is provided by the voluntary sector, and annual reports are published. The assessment of the benefits of the strategy on violence against women prosecutions will be made in 2011.

I am grateful for that reply. Does the Minister accept that the concerted effort of the previous, Labour Government led to a 64% reduction in the incidence of domestic violence according to the British crime survey? Will he therefore ensure that potential cuts of 25% in CPS funding and his Department will not lead to a lesser focus on domestic violence issues, which are important not just to women, but to the whole community?

I have no reason to disagree in any way with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He is right that, for example, successful prosecutions from charge to conviction have significantly increased, from 65% in 2006-07 to 72% in 2009-10, against an increasing volume of such prosecutions. The number of discontinued cases has fallen, from 26% in 2006-07 to 21% in 2009-10. Similar statistics apply to rape cases. Although there will clearly be financial constraints on all Departments, let me reassure him that it is certainly my intention and that of the Director of Public Prosecutions to ensure that the CPS can maintain its record of momentum and good progress in this area.

Is not one reason for the progress in successfully prosecuting domestic violence and rape cases that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has reported the existence of independent domestic violence advocates and independent sexual violence advocates? Will he give the House a commitment that he will continue to resource such a programme—a programme that is helping women bring their attackers to justice—or persuade his colleagues who are budget holders to do so?

Yes, there are currently 141 specialist domestic violence courts, and in these courts there is the assistance of independent domestic violence advisers, as the hon. Lady says. Indeed, as she and I both know, in Slough there is an excellent voluntary service helping those who have been the victims of domestic violence. I will do all that I can to reassure her that there is no intention of allowing that excellence to be diminished. Clearly, I accept that in times of financial constraints we will look across the board at everything. However, as matters stand at the moment, it is the intention of the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as my intention as the Attorney-General, to ensure that the progress that has been made in this area is maintained.

I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments about his continuing focus on the issue. However, now that he has given up his role of co-ordinating the policy response to domestic violence across the criminal justice system as a whole, and in view of the CPS submission to the Treasury—we have all read it on The Guardian website: it says that delivering only key priorities will be affordable in future—will he confirm today, in terms, that tackling domestic violence will indeed be one of those key priorities for the CPS and him?

Yes, I am happy to confirm that tackling domestic violence will remain a key priority. However, going back to the point that I made last time I answered questions about the role of the Attorney-General and the office, perhaps I could explain that the decision to cease taking a lead in this area is reflective of the size of the Law Officers’ office and their ability to drive such an agenda. There is a trilateral partnership, as the hon. Lady is aware. The role of the Law Officers is to be heavily involved in that tripartite relationship, providing policy advice and helping to drive agendas. However, it is right and proper that driving the agenda in question should lie with another Department, because those other Departments are specifically resourced to introduce the necessary legislation.

Serious Fraud Office

5. What assessment he has made of the resource implications for the Serious Fraud Office of the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. (11108)

An impact assessment was prepared for the Bribery Bill when it was introduced into Parliament in November 2009, and the Serious Fraud Office contributed to it. The impact assessment estimated that the new offence of failure by a commercial organisation to prevent bribery would result in one additional contested criminal prosecution per year of a commercial organisation by the Serious Fraud Office. The overall cost to the SFO was estimated at £2 million a year. As regards the implementation of the Bribery Act, funding for the SFO from April 2011—which is when the Act is expected to come into force—will, as with all other Government Departments, be settled in the current spending review. The SFO expects to be able to carry out all its normal functions, including Bribery Act investigations and prosecutions, within that funding settlement.

Our international obligations under United Nations and OECD conventions require us not only to have an effective law to prohibit transnational bribery but to enforce that law. Given that the cost of enforcing the new Bribery Act is about £2 million a year, will the Serious Fraud Office have that amount of money set aside to fulfil its obligations under the Act from April next year?

As I indicated a moment ago, the view of the Serious Fraud Office is that, on the basis of its submissions, it will have the necessary resources—including that £2 million—to do what is necessary in this area. It is worth remembering that the policy, which was commenced by the previous Government, was designed to limit the number of contested cases. For example, section 7 of the Act, which covers the failure by commercial organisations to prevent bribery, is intended to encourage commercial organisations to self-refer and co-operate. This is one of the reasons why it is hoped and expected that, in many cases, expenditure on major trial processes will not be necessary. The £2 million that has been identified is the Serious Fraud Office’s best assessment of what will be needed to take this policy forward.

May I suggest one other area in which the Serious Fraud Office should do a bit more work? It relates to the suborning of police officers. We have only to read a couple of tabloid newspapers every day to see that newspapers and journalists pay police officers for stories, which constitutes suborning a police officer.

By its nature, the Serious Fraud Office is concerned principally with offences of serious fraud. I certainly think that suborning a police officer is an extremely serious offence, but it seems to me to be a matter that is more likely to lie with the Crown Prosecution Service.

People with Disabilities (Victims of Rape)

6. What assistance the Crown Prosecution Service gives to people with disabilities who are giving evidence as victims in rape cases. (11109)

Giving evidence as a victim in a rape case must be a traumatic experience, no matter whether the person has a disability or not. The Crown Prosecution Service endeavours to ensure that individually tailored support is given to all victims. Victims with disabilities are eligible for a range of special measures to enable them to give their best evidence. In appropriate cases, prosecutors offer to meet victims personally to discuss the need for special measures.

I am afraid that the Minister’s answer reflects the fact that my question has appeared on the Order Paper in a substantially different form from how it went into the Table Office. What I am really concerned about is that people with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, are disproportionately the victims of rape, yet the prosecution rate in such cases is very low. What more can be done to ensure that, despite any difficulties they might have in giving evidence, their cases are brought to court?

I will endeavour to assist the hon. Lady, irrespective of the way in which her question ended up on the Order Paper. First, I want to congratulate her on her appointment as the shadow Minister for those affected by disability issues. I am sure that she will be an active participant in these debates, and I hope that policy will develop as a consequence—[Interruption.] I was endeavouring to be genuinely helpful, Mr Speaker.

The main point that I want to get across to the hon. Lady is that any prosecution depends on evidence, and achieving best evidence from people with disabilities is vital. If she is right in saying that a disproportionate number of people with disabilities are raped and that their cases do not get to trial, we must do all that we can—and I do mean we—to ensure that their evidence is presented to court in a way that juries can consider and, if appropriate, bring in a true verdict of guilty.

Will the Attorney-General keep in mind the recommendation of the Justice Committee that the courts are quite capable of treating people with learning disabilities, and those with mental health problems, as credible witnesses? The Crown Prosecution Service should not be frightened to bring such witnesses before the courts.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As I hope I indicated in my first reply, the Crown Prosecution Service does its very best to ensure that all victims of rape are properly treated and that their evidence is put before the court so that the alleged defendants, or alleged criminals, can be brought to justice. I have absolutely no doubt that the CPS will do its very best. I should add that, having recently attended the Judicial Studies Board course on serious sex offences, I know that the judiciary are acutely aware of the need to deal with the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Given that one of the vulnerabilities that people with learning disabilities face is that some of those carrying out abuse and rapes in residential settings will move to another care home and might get lost in the system, and given that the Government have announced that they no longer intend to proceed with putting the application for anonymity on a legislative basis, and want to look at non-statutory options, may I urge the Solicitor-General and his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to ensure that there is wide consultation on any non-statutory option to extend anonymity?

Certain European jurisdictions have the use of specialist rape courts, which enable best evidence and have increased conviction rates, so would the Attorney-General consider that?

All judges who try serious sexual offences cases are specially trained, as are the prosecutors from the Crown Prosecution Service and the people who assist prior to trials, such as those who work in the sexual assault referral centres and the independent domestic and sexual violence advisers, who were mentioned in an earlier question. My hon. Friend makes a good point, which underlines our earlier discussions.

Domestic Violence

8. What assessment he has made of the effects of the appointment of domestic violence specialist Crown prosecutors on the effectiveness of prosecutions for domestic violence offences. (11111)

All Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors have been trained in domestic violence cases. Dedicated prosecutors are linked to specialist domestic violence courts and each CPS area has a co-ordinator to deal with violence against women. As I mentioned earlier, successful prosecutions of domestic violence have significantly increased from 65% in 2006-07 to 72% in 2009-10. We believe that these roles have been key contributors to such improvement.

The introduction under the Labour Government of specialist prosecutors has no doubt been a crucial factor in driving up the success rate of prosecutions in cases of domestic violence. Will he commit the CPS to continue to focus its efforts on prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence?

As I mentioned earlier, the CPS sees the prosecution of domestic violence as one of its key priorities—there are, of course, others, but it is one of them. For that reason, it has no intention of relaxing or giving up on trying to ensure that these cases are properly prosecuted and taken through the courts.