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Attorney-General

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012

The Attorney-General was asked—

Serious Fraud Office

Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has been asked to carry out an inspection of the Serious Fraud Office. It is intended that the inspection should assist the new director, and it has been timed accordingly. In my superintendent’s role, I have regular meetings with the director and other senior officials.

The Attorney-General has said that he does not plan to publish the results of the current review into the operation of the Serious Fraud Office. Will he give his reasons for that and reconsider his current plan to keep us and the public in the dark on this issue?

It is not accurate to say that I have indicated that the report will not be published. The position is that such reports are not normally published, but due to the unusual and understandable level of interest, I think it important that as much as possible should be put into the public domain. I will make it my business to ensure that that happens. I should explain that the reason it may not be possible to publish all of it is that there have to be safeguards to prevent prejudice to ongoing investigations, but subject to that, I would wish to see the results made available.

Having spoken to my constituents at the weekend, I know that there is no doubt that they would have preferred a judge-led inquiry into the banks. During last Thursday’s debate, the Attorney-General told us that a quick inquiry would clash with ongoing criminal investigations by the Serious Fraud Office. What assurances can he give us that the Select Committee inquiry, which will be wrapped up by Christmas, will not create the very clash that he warned us about last week?

Provided that the Select Committee conducts its business in the best traditions of the way in which I would expect a Committee of this House to do so, any difficulties that may arise in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation ought to be surmountable, and indeed I made that clear during last week’s debate. The difficulty that I identified with part of the motion that had been tabled on behalf of the shadow Chancellor was that it was quite prescriptive in terms of what it wanted the judicial inquiry to do. I foresaw that that could cause particular extra problems.

Would the Attorney-General consider making arrangements to enable people to move in and out of the SFO on a more regular basis, so that the experience of working for the organisation could be more widely spread throughout the private sector?

To-ing and fro-ing between prosecutors and the private sector is always desirable. The SFO does a great deal of work in trying to recruit from the private sector, encouraging individuals to work there for a period and then return. That is a very good way of acquiring expertise, and I know that the current director will have it very much in mind.

In examining the wider performance of the SFO, will the Attorney-General consider the relationship that will exist between the role of the National Crime Agency and its economic crime unit and the activities of the SFO?

It is clear that there will be close co-operation between the SFO and the National Crime Agency and its economic crime command. However, in setting up the agency we gave careful consideration to whether there was any point in moving the SFO into it, and the conclusion reached was that the SFO’s work was so distinctive that it did not fit naturally into the agency’s work, and so important that it should be maintained as a separate entity.

The Americans spend massive amounts of money on prosecuting fraud. Indeed, the increase in their budget this year is more than the total amount that we spend on the SFO. On this side of the Atlantic, we are cutting our budget by 25%. No wonder the bankers laugh at us. Too many people in the City believe that the rules apply only to little people and not to them.

While we welcome the additional £3 million for the prosecution of LIBOR offences which was announced in the Financial Times and which has been hastily gathered from the crumbs that have fallen from the Treasury’s table, we ought to note that it amounts to only 5% of the Barclays LIBOR fine. Is it not too little too late? Will the Attorney-General take account of the call this week from the Leader of the Opposition for the establishment within the SFO of a properly funded, dedicated banking and financial crime unit, recruiting the best and headed by a high-profile prosecutor, so that those fraudulent, thieving bankers can be sent to prison like the common criminals they are?

As the hon. Lady will know, the SFO and its directors have indicated that they have initiated a criminal investigation. At no point during the time for which I have had superintendence has it been suggested to me by any director of the SFO that they were not able to take on a case that they considered that they should be able to take on because they did not have enough funds to do so.

What happened last summer was that the perfectly sensible decision was made that the Financial Services Authority should initiate its regulatory inquiry, and should liaise with the SFO while it was being carried out until the regulatory investigation was finished. When it was finished, the SFO considered the matter, and has initiated a criminal inquiry.

That said, I fully accept the hon. Lady’s point: it is possible that we could spend more money on the SFO. I should also point out, however, that within the totality of funding for prosecutorial functions in England and Wales, the level of funding for the SFO is similar to that which prevailed under the last Government—and it is not, of course, the only prosecutor of fraud.

I am sure that we are now much better informed, but anybody would think that these lawyers are paid by the word.

Lenient Sentences

3. How many sentences he has asked the Court of Appeal to review because they appear to be unduly lenient since May 2010; and in what proportion of those cases the sentence was subsequently increased. (115837)

The Attorney-General’s Office records show that from 10 May 2010 to 6 July 2012 the Solicitor-General and I have referred the sentences of 188 offenders from 135 separate Crown Court cases to the Court of Appeal. One of those offenders’ sentences has yet to be considered. Of 187 individual sentences that have been considered since May 2010, the Court considered 87% to be unduly lenient and increased the sentences of 155—or 83%—of them. Annual statistics are published on my Department’s website, and the 2011 figures were published last week.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on taking forward these unduly lenient cases and making sure that proper sentences are handed out? However, can he tell us what remedial action is taken against the lily-livered, wet, soft, liberal judges who hand out these unduly lenient sentences in the first place to make sure that this does not happen again?

I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s basic premise. Just to get the position in perspective, I should say that 95,795 sentences were passed in the Crown Court in 2011, and we had referred to us in that period some 377 requests to reconsider sentences. Many of those requests were in fact wrong, and the total number we referred reflects the sorts of cases that we identify where a mistake has been made. I have to say to him that I am afraid that in human affairs such mistakes will always be made, which is precisely why we have the mechanism we have got to try to ensure that they are corrected.

It would be odd for me to agree too often with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) but, nevertheless, there is genuine public concern about levels of sentencing. It is certainly true, on one level, that too many people go to prison, but it is also a matter of fact that at any point in time there are cases that do trouble the public. A 71-year-old man being given a four-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting a very young child is not seen as the kind of punishment that the public would expect. Nobody wants overly harsh sentences, but we do want realistic sentences, so how do we assess the judges?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I can only do my job? I have a job, laid down by statute, to review cases where it is thought that the sentence may be unduly lenient, and if I think it is, I will refer it. The success rate that we have been enjoying seems to indicate that, broadly speaking, on most of the references we make the Court agrees with us. It is worth pointing out that there are sentencing guidelines, which lay down very clearly how a judge should go about sentencing. In some cases, although the public may be unhappy about a sentence, it may conform to those guidelines. If the lawyers who advise me and I consider that that is so, the case may not be suitable for a reference.

Serious Fraud Office

Owing to their complexity, SFO cases rarely conclude in the same year in which the prosecution, still less the investigation, begins. In 2011, the SFO concluded 14 fraud cases and 28 defendants were convicted; a further seven bribery cases were brought to a successful conclusion.

With the SFO budget being cut by 25% over the course of this Parliament, what advantages does the Solicitor-General think the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements will bring, apart from plugging the financial hole in fraud investigations through plea bargains with corporate perpetrators?

Deferred prosecution agreements bring with them self-evident advantages: they will ensure that companies are brought to justice, through confession, through whistleblowing or through investigation; they will bring speed, as a resolution in these matters will be brought forward much more quickly—the average SFO case takes about three and a half years and costs about £1.5 million; they will bring compensation to victims; they will avoid collateral damage to innocent parties; and they will provide an additional weapon in the prosecutor’s armoury. I hope that the hon. Lady would welcome that.

Rules of Disclosure

5. What assessment he has made of the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate to review the handling of disclosure in complex cases; and if he will make a statement. (115839)

The duty of disclosure is a key part of the criminal justice system and therefore Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has plans to undertake specific work on disclosure. That includes both a focused review of the disclosure of sensitive material in cases involving sexual offences, which is planned for this autumn, and a joint inspection with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on complex cases, which is currently being scoped.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer but I am concerned, as are the British Association of Psychotherapists and the Association of Women Barristers, that the way in which disclosure is sometimes handled in cases of rape and sexual assault affects pre-trial treatment decisions and inhibits victims from undertaking counselling. Will the Minister give me his assurance that those concerns will be addressed by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate in the upcoming review that will, I understand, be announced in the next few weeks?

I can reassure my hon. Friend. The final scoping for the inspection is not yet complete but it will include examination of a significant number of sexual offences cases to ascertain whether the disclosure of medical records, including, where applicable, counselling notes, complies with the prosecution’s duty of disclosure and policy and the potential impact of any non-compliance. As I hope she will appreciate, although the other part of the disclosure inquiry is particularly about the problems that came out of the south Wales case of Lynette White, those two things are not mutually incompatible.

Counter-terrorism (Prosecutions)

The Crown Prosecution Service, police and security services work closely together to build a strong evidential case to enable those suspected of involvement in terrorism to be charged wherever possible with appropriate criminal offences. A post-case review is held after every prosecution and, where appropriate, lessons learned and good practice are used to improve future prospects of successful prosecution and conviction.

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. According to Home Office data, convictions under terrorism legislation have fallen by 100% since 2006 while convictions for false accounting have fallen by 82% since 2004. Is it not time that we better armed our prosecutors with tools such as intercept evidence and greater use of plea bargaining so that we can take a more robust approach to disrupting and deterring joint criminal enterprises, whether they are terrorism or fraud in the banking sector?

I have had the opportunity to discuss this with the CPS and it is not thought that the processes we have require widespread reform. The CPS and the Security Service already work closely together from the earliest stages of an investigation, exploring options to strengthen the evidence and follow lines of investigation that lead to sufficient evidence on which to charge. Early formation of the prosecution team and collaborative working with international partners are regarded as essential in securing convictions. I have not seen the statistics to which my hon. Friend referred, but mercifully the number of prosecutions for terrorism-related offences is small and I would be just a little wary of trying to extrapolate a trend in view of the numbers of cases involved. For example, I know that in the early part of this year there were a number of notably successful prosecutions in that field.

I am slightly concerned about the whole question of terrorism at the moment, as points are being raised by residents of parts of London about missile batteries on the roof and so on. Has anything crossed the Attorney-General’s desk about the legal implications of that or about cases being taken to court?

I am not quite sure how best to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Crown Prosecution Service is a demand-driven organisation. As and when its services are called on, it will do the work to help the police with investigations. That is what it does day in, day out and what it will certainly continue to do over the course of the Olympics.

Prosecutions (Olympics and Paralympics)

9. What progress he has made on introducing fast-tracked prosecutions during the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. (115843)

The arrangements for fast-track prosecutions during the Olympics and Paralympics are in place and they have been agreed by the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and representatives of defence lawyers in London. Olympic offences originating from the hon. Lady’s part of London will be dealt with at Thames magistrates court and Snaresbrook Crown court, with priority cases being dealt with at Highbury Corner magistrate’s court.

The Crown Prosecution Service has been quoted by the media as saying that offences classified as “Olympic offences” will be fast-tracked through the courts during the Olympic and Paralympic games. Will the Solicitor-General explain what is meant by an “Olympic offence”, and does he think that it is right that Crown and magistrates courts near Olympic venues or traffic hubs should close or reduce their sittings during the games?

The hon. Lady has not seen it either. We are both in the dark, that is wonderful—[Interruption.] The shadow Attorney-General does not know anything, apparently. Let me enlighten her—[Interruption.] She is obviously in a hurry to learn.

The criminal justice system Olympics working group has adopted the following definition of an Olympic offence:

“any offence…committed and charged in the period 1st July to 30th September 2012, and is…stated by any Court to be directly connected to the 2012 Olympic or Paralympics Games”.

It is a definition of a type of crime, not a new offence.

When fast-track courts were used following the riots, there was a feeling among magistrates that district judges had been used extensively and the lay magistracy had not been used as much as it could have been. Will that happen in Olympic cases, or is the Solicitor-General looking carefully at this?

I am sorry, but I found it quite difficult to hear my right hon. Friend, but in so far as I heard his question, the courts will be manned by all appropriate judges. At the Crown court, clearly there will be Crown court judges; in magistrates courts, district judges will be deployed and, where appropriate, justices of the peace will sit in banks of three.