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Attorney-General

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012

The Attorney-General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office

There has not been a recent independent assessment of the performance of the Serious Fraud Office, and for that reason, in consultation with the SFO director, I have requested Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate to carry out an inspection. It is intended that the inspection should assist the incoming director, and is timed accordingly. Furthermore, the SFO will continue to publish its annual performance information in its annual report.

A KPMG report suggests that fraud is on the rise and estimates that more than £1 billion of Government money was stolen by fraudsters in 2011 alone. This financial year the SFO’s budget was a little over £30 million. Does the Attorney-General agree that that smacks of a false economy?

I have absolutely no doubt that if there is more money to spend, one may get greater results—but it is also worth pointing out that since the 2008 de Grazia review the SFO has been transformed. Investigation times have been significantly reduced, conviction rates remain high, and very substantial sums of money are being recovered from the proceeds of crime. From that point of view, the SFO is well fulfilling the mandate it has been set. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point: it is always possible to argue that priorities in government should be substantially altered, but if that is to be done, far more funds will have to be found.

9. The Attorney-General will be aware that the Department for International Development’s annual review states that the Government’s record on investigating international corruption suffers from incoherent strategic direction. Can he tell the House how he will improve that record and increase the number of prosecutions? (100660)

It is worth bearing in mind that, so far as international corruption is concerned, the benchmark legislation is the legislation passed in 2011. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, for reasons that are obvious, that legislation is not retrospective. Therefore, although investigations are now under way into offences that have taken place from that time on, not many cases—or no cases—will have come to court. It is therefore a bit difficult at the moment to make an assessment of how successful this work will be. What I can tell the hon. Lady, however, is that between 40% and 50% of the Serious Fraud Office’s investigatory case load relates to bribery and corruption.

Transforming through Technology Programme

2. What assessment the Crown Prosecution Service has made of the effect of its Transforming through Technology programme on small firms of solicitors. (100653)

The impact on defence firms of working digitally is discussed every fortnight when the chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service, Mr Peter Lewis, meets the Law Society and other defence representatives to discuss progress on the programme.

The criminal justice system goes digital next week. However, with less than half of publicly funded criminal defence firms able to receive CPS e-mails, with defence firms having no money to print evidence, and with the Government not even knowing how many sockets there are in courts to plug in the computers, is the Minister fearful that some problems may develop in the system?

The hon. Gentleman paints a pretty gloomy picture—but then, he is in opposition, so I can fully understand it. The short point is that this is a rolling programme: it will be introduced incrementally. I can assure him that defence firms in his constituency and mine will come to terms with it and meet the challenges that they need to face.

Extradition

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on reform of the UK’s extradition arrangements. (100654)

I meet the Home Secretary regularly to discuss a wide range of issues of mutual interest. I know that my right hon. Friend is giving careful consideration to the recommendations in Sir Scott Baker’s review of extradition, and will make a further statement to Parliament detailing what action the Government propose to take as soon as is practicable.

As the Attorney-General has told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that he is not sure that changing the test applied in UK and US extradition cases would make any difference, does he regret his previous statement that our extradition laws are “one-sided” and should be rewritten?

It is worth bearing in mind that part of the problem for the first three years was that the last Government decided to implement the extradition treaty on a one-sided basis, so that we extradited to the US under the terms of our treaty at a time when the US would not carry out such extraditions. I think the hon. Lady will find that one of the reasons why I made that comment was that at the time of that debate, which took place in 2006, the United States had still not ratified the treaty. There are undoubtedly differences between the way in which the test that is required is applied, but having looked at the matter carefully. I do not think that the treaty as it stands at the moment can be described as one-sided. What can be said is that, as I explained to the Home Affairs Committee, there remain serious issues with public confidence in the way in which the extradition system with the United States operates.

But is it not important to recognise why there are serious anxieties among the public about the nature of the system for extradition, and does not the question of the different standard of proof on each side of the Atlantic lie right at the very heart of that anxiety? The Attorney-General will be obliged to give legal advice to the Home Secretary. Will he give her advice that points to the fact that the two standards are different, and therefore that the political conclusion that the system is failing is a legitimate one?

I have to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I do not think that, in practice, the difference between a test of “probable cause”, which we have to show in the United States, and a test of “reasonable suspicion”, which the United States has to show here, amounts to a very significant difference at all. As I mentioned to the Home Affairs Committee, in any event, the United States usually provides material to its own “probable cause” standard, so I have to say that I may disagree with him on this. Although I accept that there is an argument that this country could seek to move to a “probable cause” basis, to mirror that of the United States, in practice I do not think that that would make a very substantial difference to the way in which the extradition agreement with the US worked.

The Attorney-General will know that since his own appearance before the Home Affairs Committee, President Obama and the Prime Minister have announced a joint initiative to look into the operation of the treaty. In the light of that initiative, and the review that is now being conducted by the Home Secretary, does the Attorney-General agree that it would not be in the public interest for any British citizen to be extradited to the United States under the treaty until the review and the initiative have been concluded?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, and as I explained to the Home Affairs Committee, the discretion for the Home Secretary, or any member of the Executive, to prevent an extradition from taking place is extremely limited under the current law. I am afraid that what the right hon. Gentleman is asking for would be impossible, unless Parliament were to enact fresh legislation.

Has the Attorney-General had any discussions about the UK and US team that has been set up? What is its remit? Does it include only implementation, or could it also include issues such as the forum bar?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the matter was discussed by the Prime Minister and President Obama during the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States. The Prime Minister said that they would seek ways in which the treaty could be better operated in practice, and ways in which some of the public concerns could be addressed. At this stage that is probably all that I can reasonably say, but I can give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that this is a matter that the Government and I take seriously.

Does the Attorney-General think it entirely fair that the European arrest warrant can be used to extradite people from this country with no evidence whatever, and that the Home Secretary, who has absolutely no room for manoeuvre, simply has to hand those people over to other Governments, some of whom have a burden of proof that is quite dubious?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this subject causes disquiet, but it was his Government who enacted the necessary legislation to enable these circumstances to come about. The matter will come up for review, as part of the third pillar arrangements, by 2014.

Police Paperwork

4. What assessment he has made of the effect on prosecutions of the roll-out of the streamlined process in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in reducing police paperwork and in summarising key evidence to a high standard. [R] (100655)

In 2011 the Crown Prosecution Service reviewed about 900 files across all 43 police force areas in England and Wales, including Northamptonshire, to assess compliance with the streamlining process. All CPS areas, and the police, have since been advised of what further work is required of them to reduce paperwork and ensure that key evidence is identified and summarised effectively.

I declare my interest as a special constable with the British Transport police. The aim of the streamlining process is to reduce the police time required to prepare effective prosecution files while reducing the cost to the public purse. What steps can my right hon. and learned Friend take to highlight best practice, in order to encourage the police forces that are falling behind the curve?

First, I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he does as a special constable. The idea behind the streamlining process was precisely to achieve better practice. Performance in terms of the way in which the police have responded to it is variable. Some police forces have responded very well indeed, and the reviews suggest that they are applying the measures correctly; others appear to have more difficulty. If they have more difficulty, that means that they are spending unnecessary time over-preparing files. The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to working with every police force to try to ensure that best practice can be rolled out, and we will continue to do that, and to conduct periodic reviews to see how the process is progressing.

The Attorney-General has mentioned the huge variation between police forces, as did the National Audit Office last year. Is it possible to iron out those differences to ensure a common standard? Is any research being carried out to examine whether the process is leading to different outcomes—for example, in relation to guilty or not guilty pleas, or even to final sentencing?

In human affairs, achieving the complete elimination of all disparities might be rather difficult, but more could certainly be done to reduce them, and that is what we are striving to do. I will go away and check whether we can draw any specific conclusions from the process. Clearly, if people overburden themselves it will take up more time, and it could lead to a case not being properly presented, because the amount of material involved could hamper the presentation of the prosecution. I am afraid that I am not in a position to tell the hon. Gentleman whether statistics can show that the problem is leading to cases failing when they might otherwise have succeeded, for example—but it is clearly undesirable, and we must do what we can to help the police to make their lives easier.

Domestic Violence

5. What recent progress he has made in increasing the rate of prosecutions for domestic violence. (100656)

The number of domestic violence prosecutions in England and Wales has increased from 57,361 in 2006-07 to 82,187 in 2010-11. Prosecution in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is, of course, a matter for the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.

Each year, many of those who suffer domestic violence return to the home where it all began. For them, legal aid is vital before a decision is made. Will the Minister urge his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice not to reverse the improvements in protection for victims of domestic violence that the Lords have made to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill?

I will certainly make sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in that Department have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say.

On domestic violence, does the Solicitor-General agree that the programme of having independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisers supporting victims has improved conviction rates?

Yes, my hon. Friend may well know that from his own experience as a criminal law practitioner, but it is certainly true for an observant Member of Parliament, too.

Housing authorities in Sheffield have reported to me an increase in domestic violence, given the stress on families resulting from the economic situation. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are finding out about domestic violence generally, as he has reported an increase in prosecutions? Is domestic violence increasing overall, and what work is going on across Government to look at this issue, which still leads, week by week, to women being killed by current or former partners?

My take on the matter is necessarily narrow, as it is to superintend the Crown Prosecution Service and its conduct of such prosecutions. Of course I am generally aware of the matter to which the hon. Lady refers, and it may well affect her constituents more than mine. The short answer is that the Government, and certainly my Department, will bear down on domestic violence—however it is caused or wherever it happens—so that women, in particular, can be protected and those who are guilty of it can be brought to justice.

6. What recent assessment he has made of the role of special domestic violence courts in improving prosecution rates for domestic violence. (100657)

Evaluations of specialist domestic violence courts, or SDVCs, in 2005 and 2008 clearly demonstrated that they had contributed to improving prosecution rates, as well as safety, for victims of domestic violence. There have been no further formal assessments since 2008.

In the light of the truly disgraceful comments by the actor Dennis Waterman, does the Minister agree that now might be a good time to reassure the House that the vital services provided by domestic violence courts will be maintained, despite the court closure programme and the plan to close 23 of them? Will those vital services be protected during the transfer of services?

Yes, they will. We need to distinguish between bricks and mortar and the service provided by the specialist courts. There will be a reduction in the court estate, but it is certainly my intention that there should be no reduction in the service provided for victims of domestic violence.

It is good news all round that stalking has been made a criminal offence, but there are countless examples of victims of stalking having been ignored for years by the authorities, despite the fact that the stalkers are already breaking the law. The law is one issue: enforcement is another. Will the Solicitor-General reassure the House that the new laws will be properly and robustly enforced?

As soon as the new criminal law comes into effect, it will of course be up to the police to provide the Crown Prosecution Service with the evidence upon which prosecutions can be progressed, but my hon. Friend makes a good general point, which will be followed up.

Crown Prosecution Service

The Crown Prosecution Service operates a robust performance management framework with 10 key performance measures. They address case work outcomes, together with performance relating to finance, efficiency and people. Over the past 12 months, performance has improved according to nine measures and declined according to two.

Only one in 10 rapes are reported to the police, and only one in 15 of those reports lead to a conviction. How does the Attorney-General expect a 25% cut in resources for the CPS to increase the number of cases reported, or indeed the number of convictions?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, but as I have told the House on numerous occasions, domestic violence and rape matters have remained a top priority for the CPS, and at present I have no reason to believe that the result of any changes in its funding will alter its ability to prosecute people successfully for such offences. If there are instances that the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring to my attention, I shall of course be happy to meet him.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend as concerned as I am about the conclusion of the inspectorate’s report that there is too large a pool of Crown advocates, that they are often under-prepared and that work is poorly allocated, which leads to cracked trials and unchallenged evidence?

Yes, I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. When we first came to office I devoted some attention to the issue, and particularly to the balance between work done by Crown advocates within the service and that done by the independent Bar. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there have been some changes in the way in which that work is allocated, and I hope very much that the quality of both the work done by the independent Bar and that done in-house will improve as a result. The Director of Public Prosecutions takes this matter very seriously.

On 6 April it will be four years since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force, but although between 250 and 300 people die at work each year—deaths which, according to the Health and Safety Executive, are usually avoidable—only two companies have ever been prosecuted under the Act. Does the Attorney-General know what is wrong, and if not, will he conduct urgent inquiries and make a statement to the House as soon as possible?

I shall be extremely happy to go away and seek the detailed views of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and to write to the hon. Lady and place the letter in the Library. I have discussed the matter with the DPP on occasion, particularly in view of my background as a health and safety practitioner.

Corporate manslaughter is the most serious offence for which people can be prosecuted, but prosecutions can sometimes be brought to cover similar sorts of offence within the health and safety laws. I know of no evidence to suggest that the Crown Prosecution Service is not correctly applying its approach to deciding when a prosecution for corporate manslaughter is appropriate, but in order to reassure the hon. Lady in response to what was a very sensible and pertinent question, I will endeavour to provide her with the information.

BAE Systems

8. What recent discussions he has had with the director of the Serious Fraud Office on penalties imposed on BAE Systems following the company’s conviction for offences connected with the sale of a radar system to Tanzania. (100659)

I have regular meetings with the director of the Serious Fraud Office, and I discussed that issue with him recently. On Thursday 15 March the SFO announced that a memorandum of understanding between the Government of Tanzania, BAE Systems, the SFO and the Department for International Development had been signed, enabling a payment of £29.5 million plus accrued interest to be made to support educational projects in Tanzania.

This is the first time that a British company convicted of financial crimes has been required by our courts to compensate victims in a developing country, but it has taken more than a year for the payment to be made. Do the Government intend to change the law to empower judges to impose penalties of this kind and to enforce quick payment, instead of relying on the voluntary agreement which led to the payment of compensation in this particular case?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me when, later in the current Parliament, I introduce deferred prosecution agreements to the criminal justice armoury. Such agreements will deal with penalty payments, but also, where appropriate, with the payment of compensation, and the payments will be made as a result of court orders.