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Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Attorney-General was asked—

Domestic and Sexual Violence

1. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of specialist domestic and sexual violence services to support prosecutions involving allegations of such offences. (56989)

I have not held specific discussions with ministerial colleagues on the provision of domestic and sexual violence services to support prosecutions. The Solicitor-General is a member of the inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which is responsible for monitoring progress against its action plan. This action plan identifies the importance of support for victims of violence against women.

I know that the Attorney-General has recognised the importance of specialist services in pushing up prosecution rates. Does he share my concern about the cuts to these services up and down the country? If so, what is he doing about it?

It is worth bearing in mind the fact that the Department for Communities and Local Government has secured £6.5 billion of funding for the Supporting People programme, which will include accommodation for vulnerable people, including domestic violence victims, over the next four years. That equates to an average annual reduction over the four years of less than 1% in cash terms. In addition, I can reassure the hon. Lady that the issue continues to be a high priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. The evidence to date suggests that despite the difficult financial climate, the success rate for prosecuting this type of offence continues to improve.

Will the Attorney-General agree that, contrary to recent media distortion, Members on both sides of the House take crimes of violence against women very seriously indeed? Will he further assure the House that the Government will continue to support alleged victims of rape and that he will do all he can to ensure that justice is done in cases that are often very difficult to prosecute?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is the position. The provision of specialist co-ordinators and rape prosecutors, the issuing of stalking guidance and the effective monitoring of the measures we have put in place will continue. As I said in answer to the earlier question, the evidence suggests that the good work done by the previous Government is being successfully continued. I want to emphasise that both in terms of the volume of prosecutions and their success rate.

Crown Prosecution Service

8. What priorities the Crown Prosecution Service has set during the comprehensive spending review period. (56996)

The priorities are to provide a prosecution service of the highest quality, informed by its core quality standards, published in April 2010, which set the measures by which the CPS is judged by itself and others; to provide a more streamlined and efficient service, for example by making good use of all available technology; and, by working with the police and the courts, to eliminate unnecessarily bureaucratic systems, while at all times promoting justice.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer, but will he respond to the serious concerns of defence barristers and Victim Support about the CPS instructing single counsel for the prosecution, including for murder cases with multiple defendants, as a result of cost pressures?

I do not know whether that is a direct result of cost pressures, but I, too, have raised this very matter with the CPS, and we are looking into it with some care.

The cost pressures on the CPS over the coming period are leading it to prioritise cases such as those involving serious domestic or sexual offences. What cases will it have to de-prioritise to achieve those aims?

In all prosecuting decisions, the CPS will look at the prosecutors code to see whether there is sufficient evidence and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. It is not a question of picking one type of crime and not picking another.

I support the Government’s drive for more prosecutions of rape. Will the Solicitor-General support my move to allocate a centre to North Yorkshire and York to help victims of rape? Were we to have such a centre—

Order. I am not sure that this is a priority of the Crown Prosecution Service, but the Solicitor-General can respond to the first part of the question briefly.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the way in which rape cases are currently prosecuted. As was stated in this House the other day, we want to bear down on the attrition rate. The conviction rate bears comparison with other aspects of the criminal system, but we want to ensure that rape victims can report their allegations to the police and that they are treated with care and sensitivity right the way through to what we hope is a conviction.

The Prime Minister has said that it should be a priority for the CPS and the Metropolitan police to follow the evidence where it goes in the phone hacking scandal. Will the Minister say whether it is cost pressures at the CPS that have left the Metropolitan police reluctant to pursue the evidence of other private investigators involved in the illegal covert surveillance of British citizens?

I do not think that that is at all true. The hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in this matter and I have no criticism of him for doing that, but the relationship between the CPS and the Metropolitan police is entirely clear and constitutional, and will, as the Prime Minister has said, permit both to lead the investigation to where the evidence takes it.

CPS Advocate Panels

3. What plans he has to reduce the administrative burden on those completing references for candidates for appointment to Crown Prosecution Service advocate panels. (56991)

On 17 May 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service announced three changes to improve the reference process: allowing additional time by extending the deadline for applications by two months; removing the requirement for a minimum number of judicial references; and allowing references to be submitted directly to the CPS, rather than via the candidate.

I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer, but he will probably know that the completion of such references—indeed, the entire process—places a considerable burden on the judiciary and others. Will he undertake to ensure that a rather more simplified procedure is applied the next time such an exercise is undertaken?

As my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, the issue is ensuring that the panels prepared by the CPS are of a high quality, and are able to provide both sustained support to the CPS and regular work to the barristers who are on them. I have to say that I do not agree that the forms are particularly onerous to fill in. A form requiring somebody to provide between 100 and 300 words of reference does not seem to me to be onerous. Many judges are very happy to fill it in, but there are always lessons to be learned from any process of change, and I will bear in mind his comments.

Does the Attorney-General agree that there is widespread concern among the criminal Bar about the new procedure, notably the fact that someone who is unsuccessful in applying for one grade is not allowed to apply for another? There seems to be no parity with CPS in-house advocates.

The process of evaluation of CPS in-house advocates is at present extremely complicated, and rather thorough. I do not think that it could be satisfactorily extended to the independent Bar. Discussions on the panels’ structure are continuing between the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Bar Council the Criminal Bar Association and the circuits, and I am rather confident that they will find a satisfactory solution. I would like to emphasise, however, that the provision of those services by the independent Bar in future is dependent on having an effective panel system in which there is widespread confidence.

Forced Marriage

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of forced marriage. (56992)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of forced marriage. (56998)

I have had no recent discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service on forced marriages, but I shall have one of my regular meetings with the director later today, at which I have no doubt the matter will be discussed. The CPS and the Law Officers are studying the Home Affairs Committee’s report on forced marriages, and the Government will respond to it in due course.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Forced marriages are an appalling abuse of human rights and have no place in modern society. May I press him further on the subject of the Home Affairs Committee’s report and ask whether the Government will consider legislating to make forced marriage a criminal offence?

I am sure that the Government will, but it will essentially be a matter for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to consider. The matter was considered by the previous Administration. The Labour Government held a consultation via the Home Office in 2005, and announced in 2006 that, on balance, they did not consider that it would be advantageous to turn forced marriage into a criminal offence. The Select Committee’s report is now available for us all to consider, and the Government will come back to the House with their response.

Forced marriage and associated crimes are already thought to be chronically under-reported. Will the Minister explain how 25% cuts to the CPS’s budget will enable more, rather than fewer, victims of forced marriage to come forward?

The most essential thing in this area of the criminal law, as in any other, is to encourage people who have been affected to come forward with evidence, because it is upon evidence that we can bring prosecutions. I can assure the hon. Lady that neither the Attorney-General nor I is in the least bit reluctant to encourage the prosecution of people who have committed crimes. The CPS works hard to ensure that women, in particular—forced marriage cases principally involve women, but about 17% of those affected are men—are properly protected by the law of England, and we will endeavour to ensure that they are.

Fraud and Economic Crime

5. What steps he is taking to maintain the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and prosecute economic crime during the comprehensive spending review period. (56993)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure the effective prosecution of cases involving fraud and economic crime. (56994)

7. What steps he is taking to maintain the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to investigate and prosecute economic crime during the comprehensive spending review period. (56995)

The Serious Fraud Office will meet the requirements of the comprehensive spending review by making efficiency savings in all areas of its business and ensuring that its budget is focused on its core activities of investigating and prosecuting crime. The Crown Prosecution Service also recognises the need to ensure that fraud and economic crime are prosecuted effectively and efficiently. Its structure ensures that cases requiring input and direction by specialist prosecutors are dealt with rigorously.

The director of the Serious Fraud Office has said:

“My concern has always been if investigations and prosecution powers…are split, the fight against complex economic crime will be damaged.”

Does the Minister share those concerns? If so, why are this Government insistent on letting dodgy bankers off?

I am not quite sure that I see the direct correlation between the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question and the first. On the structure of the Serious Fraud Office, it is certainly my opinion that the present structure has been successful in delivering growing effectiveness in dealing with serious and complex fraud. The director has an important point to make. The Government are discussing how they can achieve the best structures for dealing with serious and complex crimes of all kinds, and discussions are taking place on how the Serious Fraud Office will fit into that structure. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the point that he has raised is very much in the Government’s mind.

Nevertheless, the director of the Serious Fraud Office has major concerns. If the Attorney-General is determined to pursue this route, what assurance can he give the House that the impact of the change on complex crime prosecutions will be monitored, so that it does not have the effect that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is concerned about?

The hon. Gentleman pre-judges a decision that has not been made. It is sensible within government for discussion to take place on how to improve the services, including prosecution, that the Government deliver. My point in reply to the earlier question was that the director has an important role in contributing to that debate, and I am sure that his views will be listened to very carefully. I certainly listen to them very carefully indeed.

In his previous question session, the Solicitor-General told the House that the UK’s international reputation on tackling corruption would be safeguarded by his getting on with his job. Will he therefore explain how he expects staff at the SFO to get on with their crucial jobs in the face of 50% budget cuts and the separation of its investigation and prosecution functions?

The first point to make is that the Serious Fraud Office is getting on with the job very effectively indeed. During 2010-11, it took 17 complex cases to trial with at least one conviction in every case; 31 defendants, both corporate and individual, went to trial, of whom 26 were found guilty, giving a conviction rate of 84%. That is an extremely good rate, and I wish to see it continued and built on. I have every confidence in the professionalism of the Serious Fraud Office and in its dedicated staff in delivering its service. I have every confidence that they will be able to do so in the future as well.

As The Times reports today, the Government’s proposals on serious fraud and international corruption are in total disarray. First, there was dilly-dallying over the Bribery Act 2010 and now there are trailed press reports on dismantling the SFO. Are the Government following the trend and going soft on economic crime? When will a statement on the SFO’s future be made, and will the Attorney-General confirm that it will be made first on the Floor of the House?

I have no doubt at all that it will be made first on the Floor of the House, but I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady’s premises. The position is very straightforward. The SFO is doing a good job, but I think everybody agrees that we need to see ways of improving the fight against economic crime. To take the hon. Lady’s point to its logical conclusion, there should be no discussion in government or anywhere else about such structures because doing so might raise some uncertainty. I simply do not share that view. I am confident that we will come out with the correct outcomes and that they will enhance our capacity to deal with economic crime generally. [Interruption.]

Order. I was trying to indicate gently that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) must not leave before the question has been concluded. I am sure that he is enjoying the exchanges.

In parts of the United Kingdom, there is widespread organised criminal activity. During the comprehensive spending review, what assurance can the Minister give us that those involved will not be able to gain yet more from their illegal and ill-gotten deeds and activities?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, perhaps missed by other questioners —that there are different kinds of economic crimes, some of which move into serious organised crime as well. That is why it is so important for the Government to give this matter a high priority. As I said to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), that is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others, as well as me, have been focusing on how to deliver the best outcome to cover the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has spoken about, while also ensuring that the financial end of serious crime is tackled correctly. I am very confident that we are going to come up with the right solutions.

Will the Attorney-General assure us that the Serious Fraud Office will not be swallowed up by the national crime agency, relegating fraud and corruption to third place after terrorism and organised crime?

I am absolutely confident—because of my own commitment and that of my fellow Ministers to this matter—that the area of crime the right hon. Gentleman identifies is of the highest priority to the Government. That is precisely why it is being discussed. I can reassure him—and I will stand by it when the time comes for announcements—that the outcome will commend itself, I hope, widely across the House.

Transnational Bribery

9. When he last met the Director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss the investigation and prosecution of transnational bribery. (56997)

I hold monthly meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss all aspects of the SFO’s work, including transnational bribery. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Bribery Act 2010 comes into force on 1 July and the SFO is well prepared for it.

I was reassured by some of what the Attorney-General said in reply to an earlier group of questions. Richard Alderman is a very talented civil servant who has greatly improved the performance of the SFO, but I believe that that improvement is threatened by the proposal to break the SFO into an investigating arm and a prosecuting arm. It appears that the Law Officers are currently having an argument with the Home Office about the matter. The House clearly supports the Law Officers. May I have an assurance that even if the nature of the SFO changes, the prosecuting and investigating arms of whatever new agency takes over will be kept under one roof?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and agree with his assessment of the SFO’s director, Mr Richard Alderman, who has proved to be a loyal and dedicated public servant and prosecutor in whom the Attorney-General and I have the utmost confidence.

I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman’s support for the Law Officers. We accept whatever support we can whenever we can get it. On that basis, I will quit while I am ahead.