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Attorney-general

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

The Attorney-General was asked—

Rape (Prosecution)

The appointment of specialist rape prosecutors is the responsibility of local chief Crown prosecutors, who appoint specialist prosecutors in accordance with the requirements of their area. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently unable to provide figures as to how many specialist rape prosecutors there are in the CPS. However, the CPS has trained and appointed a significant number of prosecutors as specialist rape prosecutors as part of a rolling programme in all 42 CPS areas. By the end of March 2011, all training for 2010-11 will be completed, and the information on the number of specialists will then be available.

I thank the Attorney-General for his response. May I remind him that the Stern report said that nine out of 10 rapes go unreported? Given the 25% cuts in the budget of the CPS, will he assure us that all those who have been trained by the end of March 2011 will be in jobs?

First, I can give the hon. Lady a figure: 584 delegates are shown as having attended the rape and serious assault training course between July 2008 and December 2010. That might help to give her an idea of the numbers. There is no intention that the priority that is given to this extremely serious offence should be in any way downgraded as a result of savings having to be made within the Crown Prosecution Service.

National Fraud Authority

The National Fraud Authority is an Executive agency of the Attorney-General’s Office, which is the authority’s sponsoring Department. The Law Officers are the Ministers accountable to Parliament for the work of the agency.

I am grateful for that answer. Given the estimated £30 billion cost to the UK economy of fraud, does the Solicitor-General agree that the coalition’s spending cuts must not undermine the work of the National Fraud Authority?

Phone Hacking

3. What support the Law Officers’ Departments have provided for the investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service into alleged telephone hacking and blagging; and if he will make a statement.

(33909)

The roles of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are distinct. The police investigate allegations of criminal conduct; the Crown Prosecution Service provides them with advice, when requested to do so, and takes prosecution decisions. The constitutional role of the Law Officers is to superintend the CPS. The Law Officers are not involved in the provision of such advice. On 14 January, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that the CPS would conduct a comprehensive assessment of all material in the possession of the Metropolitan Police Service relating to phone hacking, following developments in the civil courts in cases taking place on this issue. The purpose of this assessment is to ascertain whether there is any material that could now form evidence in any future criminal prosecution relating to phone hacking.

Are the Law Officers confident that the CPS is giving the right advice? In particular, is it asking the Metropolitan police to examine the separate secure e-mail server used by News International executives of the grades of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade and also to examine the existing illegally transcribed phone message made by Ross Hall for “Neville”?

The hon. Gentleman may have seen a copy of the letter written by Mr Yates, the acting deputy commissioner, to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That letter makes it quite clear that he wishes to re-examine all the material collected in this matter and then to seek the advice of the CPS and the DPP in relation to it.

Does the Attorney-General agree that it is important for this matter not to be just a witch hunt against the Murdoch press, which is what the Opposition are trying to turn it into? The Information Commissioner’s report published some time ago made it plain that this habit of hacking and bad behaviour by reporters was happening across the whole of the press, not just in the Murdoch press. Will he make sure that the issue does not become concerned only with the Murdoch press, but that the investigation is carried out on a wider basis?

I am not going to be drawn into making criticisms of any individual in this matter. What is quite clear is that the hacking into telephones is indeed a serious criminal offence, that the Crown Prosecution Service will apply the code of Crown prosecutors in order to weigh up the information and evidence available, and that it is plainly in the public interest for proceedings to be brought against individuals where there is evidence that an offence has been committed.

As the Attorney-General is aware, serious concerns have been expressed about the handling of the News of the World phone hacking investigations to date. The announcement of a comprehensive assessment of all the material held by the Metropolitan Police Service is to be welcomed, but will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm whether he shares these concerns about the handling of the case to date? Will he clarify what prompted this change in direction only a matter of weeks after the CPS announced that there was no admissible evidence on which it could properly advise the police to bring criminal charges?

The hon. Lady must understand that any investigation in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors must take account of the information and evidence available. If evidence and information become available that warrant looking further at a matter, that is exactly what happens. In this particular case, as I indicated in my first answer, information has emerged in the course of civil proceedings, which gives rise to a justification and reason for looking again at the material. That is exactly what the police and the CPS are going to do.

Judicial Review (Ministerial Decisions)

4. On how many occasions decisions by Ministers have been overturned on judicial review in the last five years. (33910)

Figures for the number of occasions on which decisions by Ministers have been overturned on judicial review in whole or in part over the last five years are not held centrally, and such information could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Well, there have clearly been quite a number. Does not the Solicitor-General’s response highlight the fact that the concept and reality of parliamentary sovereignty are often misunderstood and that, increasingly, the last word on what Parliament has decided will not be determined here, but by the judges on the other side of Parliament square, in the Supreme Court? The increase in judicial review is a reality that is now part of our constitutional fabric.

I do not think that my hon. Friend, who is an eminent member of the Bar, is at all confused about the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Nor, if I may say so, is our right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who responded to the debate on clause 18 of the European Union Bill last Tuesday.

Judicial review has increasingly become part of the legal armoury since the second world war. Ministers, whether of the present Government or the last, are not above the law, and it is for our independent judiciary to arbitrate, through judicial review cases, in disputes between the citizen and the state. The courts apply the laws enacted by Parliament, and Parliament can make, amend and repeal legislation as it thinks fit.

Given the increase in judicial activism and, in particular, legislative activism on the part of the judiciary, is it not important for us to examine much more closely the qualifications and background of the individuals who are making these decisions, so that we can ensure that the judiciary is much more representative of the society from which we all come?

That is a point of view. I tend to think that judges ought to be highly professional, legally qualified and of the highest intellect. If the hon. Gentleman takes a different view, perhaps he will let us know.

Arrest Warrants (Private Prosecutions)

5. What estimate he has made of the likely funding required by the Crown Prosecution Service to implement proposals to restrict arrest warrants in private prosecutions. (33911)

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to assess the costs of implementing the proposals to restrict arrest warrants in private prosecutions. The service currently expects any additional costs to be absorbed in current resources. I should point out that such private prosecutions relate solely to cases involving international jurisdiction.

What guidelines are likely to be set in relation to the time that the Director of Public Prosecutions is given in which to respond to private arrest warrant applications, and will those guidelines take into account late notification of arrivals?

By its very nature, the system that is likely to operate when such references are made to the DPP will involve extremely short time frames. The point has been well made in the House that it is much better to go to the police and make a complaint, because the police can arrest, interview, search and conduct forensic examinations. If an application is made through a private prosecution or through the DPP, all that is possible is for a person to be taken immediately to court. I have no doubt that the DPP will ensure that he can operate within a time frame that reflects the urgency of the matter concerned.

I welcome the fact that Ministers are dealing with the matter, and that they are doing so by using the DPP rather than the Attorney-General as the person to whom reference can be made. Will this be covered in any way by the superintendence responsibilities of the Attorney-General, or will it be clear that the DPP has an independent role in the matter?

The decision will be that of the Director of Public Prosecutions. As in all matters, if the DPP wishes to consult the law officers in relation to their superintendence, it will be open to him to do so.

Does the Attorney-General not agree that the reputation of the country would be better served if the current system whereby private individuals can seek prosecutions in the courts, or seek arrest warrants in the courts for crimes against humanity or war crimes, were preserved rather than taken away and handed over to public officials?

I think that the reputation of the country will be best preserved through proper and targeted work by the police and prosecutors to bring to justice those who have a case to answer. The reputation of the country will not be served if the use of private prosecutions is seen merely as a tool of harassment, and there is no proper outcome from an arrest.

Human Trafficking

6. What recent representations he has received on the effectiveness of prosecutions in human trafficking cases. (33912)

Is the Solicitor-General aware that many solicitors still face many problems taking instructions from child victims of trafficking who wrongly believe that their trafficker is their friend? If the Government are serious about ensuring that there are more prosecutions for this heinous crime, why will they not ensure that every child who undergoes the gruelling, awful court process is afforded a guardian to represent his or her best interests?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to the fact that someone of that nature is not available. I had hoped that that was the case. I will make some inquiries of the Crown Prosecution Service to establish what assistance of that sort can be given, but it is fair to point out that the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service already bend over backwards to ensure that vulnerable witnesses, be they children or vulnerable adults, are afforded every possible protection so that they can give their evidence. Without the evidence, we cannot have the convictions.

Domestic Violence

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s performance in the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (33913)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s performance in the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (33914)

I have regular discussions with the DPP on a range of criminal matters. Domestic violence is a serious crime, which has real and lasting effects on the victim, their children, their wider family and society as a whole. I support the work undertaken by the CPS with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases.

How will the CPS prosecute domestic violence cases in the approximately 10 areas where proposed court closures include specialist domestic violence courts?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue, of which we are extremely mindful. Work is currently taking place within the court estate rationalisation programme, working in conjunction with the domestic violence national steering group, to issue guidance in those areas where provision may be affected. The detail of that will be finalised once the decisions and announcements are made. The CPS is absolutely determined to maintain the current quality of provision.

The Attorney-General acknowledges that the domestic violence prosecution rate improved greatly under the last Labour Administration. What measures will he put in place to ensure that it continues to improve against the backdrop of the 25% cut to the CPS budget?

We are doing a number of things. We are developing the recently launched cross-Government violence against women strategic narrative. For the CPS, we agreed on a number of steps to improve domestic violence prosecutions and the safety and support of victims, including specialist co-ordinators, guidance in respect of stalking, effective monitoring of cases and legislation, and ways to improve communication with victims. In addition, guidance for prosecutors on stalking and harassment cases was launched in September 2010, and a new violence against women assurance regime was launched on 1 January 2011. As there is not enough time available now to allow me to amplify my remarks further, I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with details of some of the things we are doing.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all he can to ensure that all Government agencies and Departments have a unified definition of domestic violence, as there seem to be alarming differences in that definition between different Departments, and that needs to be remedied at the earliest opportunity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention. It might be helpful if I have a conversation with him so he can identify in greater detail where he thinks these current misdescriptions exist. I entirely agree that it is important that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.