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Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Attorney-General was asked—

Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on magistrates’ sentencing powers. (72844)

I meet the Justice Secretary regularly, when we discuss a range of criminal justice issues, including magistrates’ sentencing powers.

It is clear that the Attorney-General and the Justice Secretary do not see eye to eye on magistrates’ sentencing powers. Will the Attorney-General clarify whether he disagrees with any other aspects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently going through Committee, such as the likely increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves in family law cases?

To stick to the point that arises from the question that was initially asked, I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no difference of view between my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and myself on this matter. As she will be aware, in 2003, the previous Government introduced the power for magistrates to increase sentences as part of custody plus, but were never able to implement it because, I think, they were concerned about the rise in the prison population. There remains an issue of debate about the value of increasing those powers. It would undoubtedly put more cases into the magistrates courts, but at the same time it would run the risk of increasing the prison population. The problems remain much as they were under the previous Government. My right hon. and learned Friend has therefore taken the decision that it is best to keep this power in reserve, even though the way it is expressed at the moment is by no means perfect—it is linked to custody plus in the Criminal Justice Act 2003—and to consult thereafter on whether it could be brought into operation profitably to improve the working of the criminal justice system or might have to be replaced by a similar provision that was not linked or worded in the way that it is at present.

Is it correct that, on average, magistrates have imposed significantly longer sentences for offences committed in the context of the riots? If it is correct, does my right hon. and learned Friend welcome that, as I do, and will he confirm that magistrates are absolutely right to take the context in which certain offences are committed into consideration when determining sentences?

The courts always take the context in which an offence is committed into consideration in determining the appropriate sentence. Few people would disagree with the principle that it is a serious aggravating feature if an offence is committed in the midst of riotous assembly and general mayhem. As usual, if for any reason the courts have passed a sentence that is excessive or inappropriate in any way, it can be reviewed by the Court of Appeal. I am afraid that I cannot help my hon. Friend on the precise statistics. Quite apart from anything else, many cases are still coming into the courts in respect of behaviour and crime committed during the riots, and it is far too early to make a final assessment.

The Attorney-General assured the Justice Committee that he had given no guidance whatever to judges or magistrates on sentencing policy after the riots. Nevertheless, is he not concerned about the apparently disproportionate sentences that have been handed down to a lot of young people, which may of course be changed on appeal? Is he prepared to undertake a study so that we can see what has happened and find out how many young people who naively got involved in things that they should not have been involved in have been given wholly disproportionate sentences?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I repeat what I said to the Justice Committee, which is that it is none of my business. It would be improper of me to express a view on individual cases and the sentencing done by judges. There are occasions when serious offences come to my office under the unduly lenient sentences referral scheme, which may be referred to the Court of Appeal. However, that does not really come into the picture in the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. I have no doubt that how sentences have been passed in the post-riot period will be the subject of study in due course, as such things usually are. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), many cases are still coming into the courts. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that there are currently cases before the Court of Appeal in respect of the riots, and it will doubtless be able to provide some guidelines.

In his discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice, has the Attorney-General looked at magistrates using restorative justice as part of their sentencing powers?

The Lord Chancellor is certainly committed to using restorative justice as part of his programme of reducing reoffending through the rehabilitation of offenders. Powers are available to magistrates in that area. As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, further changes to the law are a matter for the Lord Chancellor and his Department, rather than for me.

Female Genital Mutilation

2. What representations he has received on the updated guidelines issued to prosecutors by the Crown Prosecution Service on the offence of female genital mutilation. (72845)

I have received no representations regarding the new legal guidance on female genital mutilation published by the Crown Prosecution Service on 7 September 2011.

It is well known that European countries such as France and Sweden have brought successful prosecutions on this matter, but it may surprise the House that many African countries such as Liberia, Ghana, Kenya and Burkina Faso have also brought such prosecutions. However, in the 25 years since the UK legislated on this matter, we have brought no prosecutions for this terrible crime. Does the Attorney-General feel that the new guidelines will bring that possibility closer, and will he urge prosecutors to use the expertise built up in child sexual abuse cases to bring prosecutions closer?

As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, the Crown Prosecution Service has cases referred to it by the police, and if cases of female genital mutilation are referred, I can absolutely assure her that every effort will be made to prosecute them successfully if the evidential base on which to proceed is present. I understand that, in 2010-11, only one case was considered for prosecution by the CPS, and it resulted in no further action being taken because it did not meet the evidential criteria.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that if we are to prosecute such cases successfully, we need to create a climate in which victims can come forward. Of course, in many cases people will have become victims when very young, and that is one problem that besets the matter. I simply say, finally, that the fact that there have not been prosecutions does not necessarily mean that the legislation is not succeeding at least in providing some deterrent effect on individuals engaging in this appalling behaviour.

I strongly support the thrust of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). Would it not perhaps be sensible to monitor unexplained absences from school among young girls from certain communities, to try to build up some evidence to pursue prosecutions?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I certainly know anecdotally, and indeed from visits to a school in my constituency, of concerns being expressed by teachers about the absence of pupils who appeared to have been sent abroad. In that context his idea is very sensible, but as he will appreciate, it will require co-ordination. The Crown Prosecution Service will not be able to do it on its own.

Crown Prosecution Service (Staffing Costs)

4. What proportion of savings to be made by the Crown Prosecution Service over the comprehensive spending review period will be made through a reduction in staffing costs. (72847)

A reduction in staffing costs will account for an estimated 60% of the total savings to be made by the Crown Prosecution Service over the spending review period.

Given that the CPS’s own submission to the spending review said that a 25% budget cut would bring considerable risk to service delivery, what steps is the Attorney-General taking to ensure that Government cuts do not damage its ability to prosecute crime?

When these savings were first outlined, the Director of Public Prosecutions and I gave very careful consideration to whether they could be achieved without reducing front-line services. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the plans centre principally on reductions in staff numbers at headquarters, recruitment freezes and the streamlining of services, particularly savings in IT services and elsewhere. For that reason, the CPS and the DPP remain of the view that it is possible to implement the budget reductions without affecting front-line services.

The concerns about the cuts to the capability of the CPS are matched by concerns about the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office, whose job is to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic and overseas corruption. Given those concerns, has the SFO been able to brief the Attorney-General on the case of 3M v. Boulter in Washington, which is a case of blackmail that allegedly involves the attempted dishonest settlement of a dispute between an American company and a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence? Some may be aware that the case has arisen of a meeting at the five-star Shangri-La hotel in Dubai between Porton Capital’s chief executive Harvey Boulter, the Secretary of State for Defence and the latter’s friend Adam Werritty, at which it has been alleged that there was a conversation about $30 million and the taking away of a knighthood. Will the Attorney-General assure the House that the advice that he receives, and the action that is to be taken, will not be affected by cuts to the prosecuting departments?

May I first welcome the hon. Lady to her new post? I look forward to many opportunities to debate matters with her, and I congratulate her on her appointment. So far as the matter that she has raised is concerned, I simply make a couple of points. The SFO will examine cases that are referred to it, and as she will be aware, in any case that might have any degree of political sensitivity, by convention, proper steps are taken to ensure that the Law Officers’ role is kept to a minimum.

Domestic and Sexual Violence

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic or sexual violence. (72848)

I have not had a recent discussion with the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to domestic and sexual violence. However, I support the continuing work of the Crown Prosecution Service to improve prosecutions in that area and to support victims of crime.

Last month, I met Change, a user-led organisation of people with learning disabilities, which highlighted the extent of domestic abuse against people with learning disabilities. Will the Attorney-General tell me what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such victims are properly catered for in criminal proceedings, and what discussions he is having with colleagues across the Government to ensure that such vulnerable victims are properly looked after?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight this matter. A great deal is done by the CPS in multi-agency working at a national level to try to ensure that there is good support for victims who come forward in such a setting. If the hon. Lady wishes me to write to her with further details on the specific instances that she raises, I will be most happy to do so. However, from my discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions, I have been left with a sense of confidence that there is a full understanding of the difficulties raised by such cases, that the CPS will do its utmost to ensure that justice is done and that prosecutions are brought wherever possible, and that the victim is supported during the process.

One in four girls are hit by their boyfriends—some are as young as 14 and 13. What action will the Attorney-General take to deal with that?

My hon. Friend highlights an area of undoubted concern—violent behaviour by younger teenagers—but as she will appreciate, that is first a matter for the police. Secondly, if such cases come to the attention of the CPS, consideration must be given as to whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. Each case will turn on its own facts, and prosecutorial discretion may have to be exercised in such circumstances.

That said, if my hon. Friend feels that that is a growing difficulty, the multi-agency approach that we were talking about in a different setting a moment ago will probably be the only way to tackle it. At the end of the day, prosecutors can take only one of two decisions—to prosecute or not—but prevention must come from other agencies.

Human Trafficking

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of human trafficking or slavery. (72849)

I have had no recent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving human trafficking or slavery. However, the Crown Prosecution Service is working with law enforcement agencies and others, both in the UK and in source countries, to improve the investigation and prosecution of those involved in human trafficking. The CPS is also encouraging victims of human trafficking to support criminal proceedings.

Having worked with the remarkable children caught up in this appalling trade over many years, I can tell the Minister that the most effective way to increase the number of prosecutions is to provide support for victims. Will he mark anti-slavery day by announcing a formal system of child guardianship, so that we no longer have the appalling spectacle of children as young as five having to instruct their own lawyers, simply because there is no one else to do so?

The specific matter that the hon. Lady raises is, I am afraid, outside my immediate remit in terms of my responsibilities for the CPS. As she will be aware, the Government announced the decision to opt in to the EU directive on human trafficking in March 2011. We are now working closely with the Commission on its implementation, which includes the review of our domestic legislation to ensure that it complies with the provisions, and that it does not inhibit our ability to bring successful prosecutions. The Government, the CPS and I will continue to give human trafficking a high priority. For those reasons, I hope that the hon. Lady’s point will be given consideration at the same time.

I read with interest the CPS report on prosecuting human trafficking cases, and I cannot understand how the Minister can say that the matter is not within his remit, because it quite clearly talks about vulnerable children, the need for adequate support and safeguarding. It is difficult to get prosecutions if those children flee, and we do not know how many are in care or how many are missing. Surely the obvious thing to do would be to have a scheme of guardianship, in which the children are looked after individually. They could then be supported through the process of going to court, so that we can get prosecutions for this heinous crime.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and for the reasons that I gave in answer to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I can see that it has considerable force, but I do not think that it is the specific responsibility of the CPS to deliver on this. It would require work with other agencies to achieve it and, for those reasons, it is something that I am happy to see taken forward, but it is not something that the CPS on its own can deliver.

The Attorney-General is right that the issue of guardianship is for other parts of the Government. However, he is responsible for sentencing. The Government, in their human trafficking strategy, promised a review by December. Will he update us on how that review is going and congratulate the Prime Minister on marking anti-slavery day by having a reception in Downing street on 19 October?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Prime Minister on properly commemorating anti-slavery day. I am afraid, however, that I am not in a position to give my hon. Friend an update. There is a timetable for this report to come out. If I have any further information on the matter, I shall write to him.

Human trafficking is a crime that crosses borders. What discussions have been held with Europol and Eurojust to try and catch the real perpetrators of this terrible crime?

I know that there are frequent discussions between police services and the CPS and its counterparts about co-operation. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the EU directive on human trafficking is designed to provide a measure of co-ordination in this area. I have to say again to him that I would be happy to arrange a briefing for him from either the police or the CPS, if that would be of assistance to him in understanding the details of how that work is carried out. However, I am confident from what I know of the work being done that a high level of co-operation is achieved with our partner countries.

The original question was about how the Attorney-General will increase the number of prosecutions. According to an answer that I received not long ago, there have been only six prosecutions for holding someone in slavery since the introduction of that specific offence 17 months ago. What will he do to increase the number of successful prosecutions for holding people in servitude?

There has been at least one reference by my office to the Court of Appeal of an unduly lenient sentence in which that sentence has been increased. In addition, I think that the CPS acknowledges that trafficking for forced labour is a particularly difficult area in which to get people to come forward and give evidence. The CPS will therefore continue to work with other agencies, including the police, to try to provide an environment in which that can better happen.

Forensic Science Service

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the effect on prosecutions of the closure of the Forensic Science Service. (72852)

I have met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who has responsibility for crime and security, twice since April 2011 to discuss issues and progress around the closure of the Forensic Science Service. Furthermore, representatives from my office and the CPS attend regular Home Office-led FSS transition board meetings and participate in key groups leading the FSS closure process.

Will the Attorney-General clarify whether he and the CPS were consulted before the announcement of the FSS closure? If so, what was his response and that of the CPS?

Yes, we were consulted, and our response was that, on the basis of our understanding of how the closure was to be carried out, the Director of Public Prosecutions was satisfied that the quality of forensic science available to the CPS would be maintained.

In view of that intervention, I would simply add that the current position is that the closure process has been monitored and the DPP remains satisfied at present that in no case has the closure of the FSS had any impact on his ability to carry out prosecutions within the CPS.

I am immensely grateful to the Attorney-General, whom no one could ever accuse of excluding from his comprehensive answers any fact that he judges to be material. We are most grateful to him.