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Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

The Attorney-General was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on improving the effectiveness of rape prosecutions. (93671)

I have regular discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters, including rape. The DPP, the Attorney-General and I take our duties in regard to rape prosecutions extremely seriously. The hon. Lady met the DPP in April last year to discuss rape prosecutions, and he wrote to her on 6 May setting out what the CPS is doing to improve the effectiveness of rape prosecutions.

Last week the chief prosecutor for London, Alison Saunders, called on the Government to start a public debate to bust some of the myths about rape victims which prevent successful prosecutions. Will the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General agree to work with ministerial colleagues to begin a Government-led campaign to address the misrepresentations of and misconceptions about rape victims which get in the way of successful prosecutions?

Of course we will. I am already a member of the inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, and as I indicated a moment ago I take my responsibilities with regard to the prosecution of rape cases extremely seriously. I have personally appeared in a number of applications to the Court of Appeal, dealing with unduly lenient sentences passed in relation to rape victims. We want to improve the attrition rate and the conviction rate, and the hon. Lady can be assured that this Government and these Law Officers are fully behind that momentum.

On the prosecution of sexual offences, the number of child sexual offences reported to the police last year was about 17,000, and the number of prosecutions was about 4,000. Does the Solicitor-General know the reason for that gap?

I do not know—I have no empirical evidence that I can deploy this afternoon—but clearly there is an absence, often in such cases, of evidence that has reached the state in which it can be taken to court. My hon. Friend will know from his practice at the Bar that it is essential that we have adducible evidence to put before the court. Without evidence, we cannot prosecute.

Human Trafficking

The Crown Prosecution Service is working with law enforcement agencies and others in the UK, as well as 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.

To what extent are prosecutors and police alert to the fact that British citizens are being trafficked both within the UK, as was uncovered shockingly in my constituency last September, and from the UK, as we learned earlier this month?

We are very much aware that this is a problem, but part of the difficulty is that trafficking for forced labour is notoriously difficult to establish, and often the victims will not come forward. That said, as my hon. Friend will be aware, there is now a national referral mechanism that alerts the police at neighbourhood level, the UK Border Agency, social services and charitable organisations as to how they can pick up such information and feed it into the specialist units of the police, which can then bring in the Crown Prosecution Service to try to deal with those matters.

If the Government are serious about more prosecutions and, indeed, about preventing trafficking, should we not substantially increase the UK Border Agency’s strength, with many more properly based staff so that they can do the job?

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, with my hat on as superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service, it would be easy for me to ask for extra resources in all directions outside my own Department, but if he thinks that there are specific instances in which the service may be in some way deficient he should, I suggest, bring them to my attention or to that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The evidence that I have from the Crown Prosecution Service is that it receives very good co-operation from the agencies with which it deals.

I thought that the Government were carrying out a review of human trafficking sentences, with a view to reporting to Parliament by now on the changes that would make conviction easier. When is that report going to be published?

I am not in a position to give my hon. Friend a precise date. What I suggest, as he will appreciate that the issue is outside my departmental area, is that I write to him when I have ascertained whether we have further detailed information on it.

Surely we are going to get many more convictions only if there is much more effective co-operation between prosecutors and police in this country and elsewhere. Given that many such gangs are elsewhere in the European Union, is not the European arrest warrant a vital part of the necessary armoury? Will the Attorney-General tell his Back Benchers that he is not going to step outside the European arrest warrant, even if they want to do so?

I have no doubt at all that mechanisms for co-operation throughout the European Union and, indeed, elsewhere can be very useful in the apprehension of criminals, particularly in this field. How that should best be carried out is, if I may say to the hon. Gentleman, ultimately I suppose a matter for this House, if it ever comes up for review.

Economic Crime

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the director of the Serious Fraud Office on the capacity and effectiveness of organisations tackling economic crime. (93673)

The Attorney-General and I hold regular meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office, at which we discuss all aspects of its work, including individual cases and the development of deferred prosecution agreements as an additional weapon in our criminal justice armoury. We also hold regular meetings with the Home Secretary and her Ministers, but there have been no recent discussions on economic crime. I remind the hon. Lady of the Home Office paper entitled “The National Crime Agency: A plan for the creation of a national crime-fighting capability”, which was published in June 2011. The NCA will include an economic crime command.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. Given that the Serious Fraud Office is facing cuts of 23% and that the Law Society Gazette has reported on deferred prosecution agreements, will he update the House generally on those agreements? Specifically, will they be available for the public so that those dealing with companies that are subject to such agreements can see that?

When DPAs come into the criminal justice system in this country, they will be available to the public in the sense that they will be operated by the director of the Serious Fraud Office, who is a public prosecutor. I am not sure that I can help the hon. Lady much further than that. The matter is under discussion and we are developing it within Government. Further announcements will be made just as soon as we are ready.

Given that when investigating the failure of RBS, Adair Turner concluded that the FSA has little power under the existing rules to take action against individuals associated with the banking crisis; that the director of the SFO believes that

“things have got to change”;

and that we are still waiting for anyone in the UK to be prosecuted in relation to the global financial crisis, will the Solicitor-General use his best efforts to persuade the Attorney-General to look again at introducing a crime of corporate negligence so that prosecutors have a full range of weapons in their armoury to use in future against reckless financiers?

The Attorney-General and I always use our best efforts. The development of the criminal law is within the remit of the Ministry of Justice. I am sure that the hon. Lady will address her remarks, via the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), to that Department.

European Court of Human Rights

I am working closely with the Foreign Secretary and the Justice Secretary, and talking to many member states and to key figures in the Court and the Council of Europe. Only last week, I spoke at the seminar on court reform for European civil society organisations. There is a keen appetite for reform of the Court and we are confident that we can gain agreement on a reform package.

There is an incredible backlog of 150,000 cases. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that undermines the Court’s ability to perform its role efficiently, and that something needs to be done soon to improve that efficiency?

Yes, there is no doubt about that. The Court itself knows that. Some efforts have been made to reduce the backlog, particularly by streamlining the sitting hours of completely hopeless applications. The problem remains that there is a large number of cases that is in excess of the number of cases that can be heard each year. It is for those reasons that the United Kingdom, as part of its reform package, has asked those who are interested to examine how principles of subsidiarity can be introduced so that fewer cases have to be considered by the Court, with cases instead being resolved properly at national level wherever possible.

Does the Attorney-General not consider that there is a strong argument for fast-tracking certain cases, for example cases of national security, through the European Court? We will hear later about the case of Abu Qatada. That is an example of how it takes a long time to get a decision out of the European Court.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have no doubt that things could be done better. The Court already has a system of prioritisation. I have no doubt that the reform process will look at whether the Court can do better in identifying cases of particular importance. As he is aware from remarks that I have made on another occasion, the length of time that someone may be detained in custody while a case is being considered at the European Court of Human Rights level is something to which great consideration should be given.

I welcome the efforts that Ministers are making. Is there an appetite among the mature democracies, as the Attorney-General indicated, to ensure that the Court gives priority to cases of gross abuses of human rights, rather than to the refinement of the law in countries that have well-developed human rights?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s sentiments would be echoed by most member states that are asking for reform to take place. At the same time, I want to make it clear that any reform package must still leave autonomy for the European Court of Human Rights. Its own processes must be reformed, and it must have control of them. Those issues are being examined, and I hope that the reform package that we will initiate will make a real and substantial difference to how the Court can approach its work load and continue doing its important work.

In his reforms to the European Court of Human Rights, will the Attorney-General ensure that we do not end up by default making it much more difficult for people bringing human rights abuse cases from, say, Russia, Hungary or other places where there are serious abuses of human rights, by pushing them back to the national jurisdiction? The influence of the Court can be a force for good and help to curtail some of the most vile human rights abuses that are taking place across Europe.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we share his view that the Court has been of immense benefit in member states across the European continent in improving human rights standards. In that context, as I have indicated, there can be no suggestion that the right of personal petition, for example, should be removed. Although we need to ensure that the Court keeps its autonomy, there is widespread acknowledgment that there must be reform if it is to continue doing its work properly.

Leveson Inquiry

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the progress made by the Leveson inquiry. (93675)

None, save that the Director of Public Prosecutions has informed me recently that he has been asked to give evidence to the inquiry.

Eighteen months ago, Alison Levitt, QC, was tasked with a review of the previous evidence from the 2006 hacking case. Will her conclusions be shared with Lord Leveson, and can they also be shared, maybe in a redacted form, with members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, who are conducting an inquiry on the matter at the moment?

Is it not the case that public confidence in both the Crown Prosecution Service and the police is absolutely vital? If so, does the Solicitor-General share my concern about the fact that we have had many arrests of journalists under Operation Elveden but only two arrests of police officers, and that the names of those police officers have remained unpublished? There seems to be one rule for the police and another rule for journalists.

There is also another rule that the Law Officers do not tell the police what to do. It is entirely a matter for the police to deal with arrests. If matters come to their attention that need the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service, which the Attorney-General and I superintend, we will no doubt examine them.

One issue that will arise in this context is contempt of court and the extent to which the media need to be controlled. I was rather disappointed to hear the Attorney-General’s responses on Radio 4 this morning. Would the Solicitor-General like to make it absolutely clear to the entire nation that, notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of particular cases, it is possible to commit contempt on Twitter?

Crown Prosecution Service (Evidence)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the management and disclosure of evidence by the Crown Prosecution Service. (93677)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the management and disclosure of evidence by the Crown Prosecution Service. (93679)

The effective management and disclosure of evidence relies on the proper discharge of duties and obligations by both the police and the prosecutor. Although there have been failures in a small number of cases, in the vast majority of cases the disclosure duties are carried out well.

As the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) will know, there is currently an inquiry into the Lynette White case in south Wales, more properly called the Crown v. Mouncher and others. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is carrying out a review of police conduct in that case, and the Director of Public Prosecutions has separately and additionally asked the inspectorate of the Crown Prosecution Service to carry out a review of the actions and decision making of the CPS in relation to disclosure in that case.

It took nearly 10 years and cost the taxpayer about £30 million to bring eight former South Wales police officers to court on charges of perverting the course of justice and fabricating evidence. The case collapsed when the key documents were thought destroyed, but they have now been found. I thank the Attorney-General for his answer, but what assessment has the CPS made of the prospects of a future prosecution?

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) has said: there is considerable shock at the conduct of this case, in south Wales and elsewhere. In the past, there have been a particularly high number of miscarriages of justice under the South Wales police force. Is the Attorney-General aware of any other similar cases in which the disappearance and re-emergence of key evidence has led to a retrial?

Off the top of my head, I am not aware of any such cases, but the right hon. Lady is right to point out that the collapse of the Lynette White case in south Wales just recently, which affects her constituents and neighbours and those of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), is a matter of huge regret. It is now being subjected to two inquiries. Once they have been completed, further announcements will be made.

Is not the lesson of the disclosure debacle in the Lynette White case this: when criminal allegations are made against police officers in one police force, disclosure should be handled by officers from an entirely independent police force? Will my hon. and learned Friend do all he can to ensure that such reforms take place so that such a disaster does not happen again?

Clearly—particularly in large and complex cases such as the one we are talking about—the need to get disclosure right is key. That is also true, however, in what one might call less serious cases—although I do not want to be misunderstood when I use that adjective. My hon. Friend’s point about other police forces dealing with the disclosure in such cases must, surely, be a matter for the chief constable of the relevant police area. I have no doubt that the Home Secretary, who is sitting beside me, will bear that in mind in due course.


Will the Government wait for the outcome of the Liberal Democrats’ review of the extradition law before making a decision on the coalition Government’s change to that law?

My understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is currently giving careful consideration to the recommendations of the independent extradition review panel. She wants to discuss the Government’s proposed response to those recommendations with Cabinet colleagues before announcing to Parliament what action the Government will take. In reaching a decision on what the Government propose to do, she will also take into account the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on extradition and the representations made by Members of the House during recent debates.

A recent motion in this House called for the extradition treaty to be redrafted to enable the Government to refuse extradition requests if UK prosecutors have decided against beginning proceedings at home. What progress is being made on that?

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the review is being led by the Home Office and it might therefore be best if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary answered his question. The entire package being considered by the Government will take into account all representations made in coming to a decision.


10. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the successful application by the Serious Fraud Office to confiscate dividends paid by companies convicted of bribery. (93680)

The Government are committed to protecting and building on the reputation of UK business. The recent use of the civil recovery process to recover shared dividend payments derived through contracts won through unlawful conduct reinforces that. The actions of the Serious Fraud Office send a clear message to shareholders and investors, particularly institutional investors, that they must satisfy themselves that the business practices of the companies in which they invest are legal and ethical. The Serious Fraud Office has signalled its intention rigorously to pursue similar civil recovery actions, where appropriate, in the future.

It is good to see the Attorney-General being tough on bribery and he might want to have a word with the Justice Secretary about that. He will be aware that in the Mabey Holdings case, the director of the SFO said that

“the shareholder was totally unaware of…inappropriate behaviour.”

Will it be common practice for lay shareholders and pension funds to be penalised for the fraudulent activities of companies which, by definition, they will not know about, as bribery is not generally advertised?

I think it is right to say that in the case of Mabey Engineering, the company that held the dividends was a subsidiary company—that is, a holding company held the dividends. That said, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any specific assurance as we will consider the matter on a case-by-case basis. The principle of the possibility of taking back dividends that have been paid wrongly, as they are the fruit of bribery and corruption, must clearly be kept in mind.