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Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2012

The Attorney-General was asked—


1. What steps he is taking following the publication of the report of the Hillsborough independent panel in September 2012. (122175)

9. What steps he is taking following the publication of the report of the Hillsborough independent panel in September 2012. (122183)

My consideration of the evidence in this matter is far from complete, but as I do not wish to cause the families affected by this disaster any greater anxiety, I have decided to take an exceptional step and announce that, on the basis of what I have already seen, I am persuaded that an application to the Court for fresh inquests must be made.

Ninety-six people died as a result of what occurred at Hillsborough that day, and 96 inquests were held. I believe that, as all those deaths arose from a common chain of events, it would be better for me to apply for all 96 cases to be considered again. I want to allow all the families affected the opportunity to make representations to me on that issue, and I will be in contact with them.

I wish to make it clear that, having announced my decision, I will still need further time to prepare the application so that the strongest case can be made to the Court. I have given that work priority and I will continue to do so. I have today laid a written ministerial statement in both Houses announcing my decision.

All in the House and all the families involved will welcome the Attorney-General’s decision today; they have lived with a completely wrong verdict for far too long. Will the Attorney-General assist the House by telling us about the speed of the process, so that urgent justice can prevail?

I need to complete my consideration of the evidence and, as I have said, I need to provide the families with the opportunity to make representations, and to consider any representations that are made. I need to complete my consideration of the legal issues, and I then need to make the application to the Court. When the case is heard will be a matter for the Court’s listings. It is very difficult for me to give a precise timetable for my hon. Friend; I will move as quickly as I can.

I say a genuine thank you to the Attorney-General for what he has announced today. The families who have waited so long for justice are at least now within reach of that justice. Will he assure the House that sufficient resources will be made available so that work on getting a new inquest can proceed as quickly as possible? Can he say whether that inquest will be held in Liverpool, as the families have always requested?

I am satisfied that there will be sufficient resources to take this forward. The venue of any eventual hearing is not really a matter for me. Should—I stress this for the House—the application that I make to the Court be successful, it will be for the Court and the coroner to decide where the inquests take place. I am sure that representations can then be made in respect of that, but it is not my decision.

I thank the Attorney-General for his very important statement; he will know what a hugely important day this is for Merseyside and the many people around the world who care about putting right the injustice of Hillsborough. Will he meet a delegation of Members of Parliament, with the families, so that we can talk about some of the complexities of what he has announced today?

I am always happy to see Members of Parliament. As for meeting with delegations, the hon. Lady will appreciate that one feature of my work is that I must take it independently. If there is a good reason for meeting people, I am certainly always happy to do so, but she will appreciate that I have already undertaken to consult representatives of the families. We will do that as a formal process, and I would obviously wish to avoid something that does not appear sufficiently structured.

I genuinely thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his announcement, which will be of great comfort to my constituents whose family members died at Hillsborough, and particularly to the families of those who died after the 3.15 pm cut-off. Will he indicate whether he expects the Director of Public Prosecutions’ potential consideration of criminal charges to have any impact on the timing of the inquest?

Clearly, the consideration of charges is done independently by the DPP and I have no role in it. It is perhaps trite to say—I think I have said this before—but were there to be criminal proceedings, that could undoubtedly impact on when an inquest could take place. However, I do not think that it has any impact on the timing of my making an application to the Court for it to order inquests to take place if it is so minded.

The Attorney-General’s announcement is indeed welcome news. Will he assure me that adequate parliamentary time will be given for the fullest of debates into the shocking revelations that we heard last month?

It is my understanding that there will be the opportunity for a debate on this matter next Monday, 22 October, which I believe will be led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Obviously, I will be present for as much of the debate as possible to listen to what is said.

The Attorney-General’s statement is greatly to be welcomed, and the families had a very positive meeting with the DPP yesterday. All hon. Members hope that justice for the Hillsborough families is finally in sight. However, the Crown Prosecution Service faced criticism for failing to act 14 years ago when it was presented with evidence of the wholesale alteration of witness statements by South Yorkshire police and their solicitors. In order to build further public confidence in the process launched by the DPP last week, will the Attorney-General consider discussing with the DPP the value of instructing, at the outset, a senior and independent-minded Queen’s counsel to lead the review of evidence and the decision-making process on any possible prosecutions? Does he agree that such an additional check and balance would be helpful and positive?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I understand that she wrote to the DPP on 8 October, which I believe his office received last Friday, to raise some of those issues. I understand that she will get a reply from him as soon as possible.

May I reiterate that the DPP, under our constitutional system, acts entirely independently from myself, although I have superintendence. I am sure he will have noted the hon. Lady’s comments. The question as to how he best goes about conducting his operations within the CPS, bringing prosecutions or reviewing any matter that is historic, is a matter for him, but it is always open to him to discuss it with me.

The Attorney-General’s announcement will be welcome not just on Merseyside and in Yorkshire, but by football supporters in the whole country. Will he, at an appropriate time, and perhaps with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice, talk to the new chief coroner to ensure that the lessons of this experience are learned for all future inquests?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said and I think I agree with him. It is worth bearing it in mind that the world has moved on quite a lot since the events surrounding the original inquests. We have much better systems in place. One of the challenges, should the Court be minded to grant my application, will be how to structure the new inquests, if they are to take place. I have no doubt that tried and tested methods—they have already been used with great success in other recent, high-profile matters—are in place.

That is a rather difficult question for me to answer. Ultimately, costs can be a matter for the Court. As I have indicated, at the moment, the costs of the preliminary work that is taking place are borne by my Department. I cannot assess how much those will be. Once the matter is within the court process, the courts have discretion, but I suspect—it is probably inevitable—that the taxpayer will pay a considerable amount of the cost.

I note the Attorney-General’s comments about where the inquest might be held, but is it his view that the inquest should definitely not be held in Sheffield?

The hon. Lady has made her point, but it is not for me to start giving views or instructions to the Court or coroner about how they should conduct an inquest, if one is held. I have no doubt, however, that representations made by hon. Members and representatives of the families will be noted by those concerned.

Disability Hate Crimes

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of disability hate crimes by the Crown Prosecution Service. (122176)

The whole country marvelled this summer at the achievements of the Paralympians, which provided a huge opportunity for changing attitudes towards disability. The CPS takes disability hate crime very seriously and the DPP has made his own commitment very clear. I have not had the opportunity to discuss the matter with him yet, but I can assure her that the CPS prosecutes these cases whenever it can.

I start by welcoming the Solicitor-General to his new position.

In 2011, the number of disability hate crimes rose by one third to 2,000, but only 523 convictions were upheld. When he has such conversations, will he talk through how that conviction rate might be increased?

The hon. Lady has spent much time and effort campaigning for disability rights, including within the criminal justice system, and I respect the point she makes. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that progress has been made: the number of convictions has risen steadily from 141—I believe—in 2007-08 to the 480 concluded in the past year. However, yes, more progress needs to be made, and the DPP has explained in the past that he thinks a lot more needs to be done.

According to the CPS website, there is no legal definition of a disability hate crime. Will the Solicitor-General look into this matter and see whether it can be reviewed?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important to monitor and identify crimes, particularly violent and public order crimes involving an element of disability hate. The CPS has issued new guidance on this matter to its prosecutors, who of course have the right in appropriate cases to ask, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, for an uplift in the sentence. That needs to be done in appropriate cases.

Media Prosecutions (Guidelines)

5. What changes he expects following the publication of the Director of Public Prosecution’s final guidelines for prosecutors in cases involving the media. (122179)

The guidelines issued on 13 September by the DPP should ensure a more consistent approach by prosecutors and provide transparency to the public over how such cases are handled.

Weighing the competing elements of public interest and criminality in this area of the media will always be a nuanced matter. Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that the new guidelines bring greater clarity to prosecutors and will lead to increased robustness in decision making?

Yes, I am. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the guidelines arose from a response by the DPP to the Leveson inquiry and from evidence he gave before it. Essentially, the guidelines encapsulate in a transparent fashion the practice of the CPS in this area. I therefore have every confidence that they provide, and will continue to provide, a robust application of the law. There is no special law for journalists in this context, but there are public interest considerations which, as the DPP has shown in the guidelines, will be taken into account.

As I read the guidelines, it is unlikely that they will make much difference to two of the ways in which social media have been horrifyingly used for criminal purposes. One is paedophiles using Twitter and the other—perhaps not criminal, but certainly shocking to large numbers of our constituents—is the use of YouTube to mock Islam. What more has the Attorney-General done to prevent that kind of crime, as opposed to prosecuting it?

Crime committed on social media is crime. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that if there are examples of criminal behaviour taking place on social media—incitement, sex crimes or incitement to religious or racial hatred—it is for the police to investigate initially, as she will appreciate. However, if that evidence is then brought to the Crown Prosecution Service, it would be surprising if it were not in the public interest to bring a prosecution. As she will be aware, there are already instances of individuals who have committed crime on social media having been successfully prosecuted.

Advanced Language Solutions

6. What progress Advanced Language Solutions has made on reporting to the Crown Prosecution Service the results of checks to ensure that all of its interpreters have been security vetted. (122180)

Advanced Language Solutions has completed its review and has provided assurances to the Crown Prosecution Service that a full audit trail is now held in respect of the 1,100 interpreters on its list and that all vetting information has been fully verified.

The Government have overseen a shambles in the provision of interpreting services. They have procured an IT system, at a cost to the taxpayer of £42 million, to ensure that interpreters turn up in court, but they are not turning up. Justice is being delayed, and in many cases it is being denied. What action is the Attorney-General taking to ensure that the Ministry of Justice is taking proper action to ensure that justice is not ill served by such chaos?

It is important that there should be strong performance in this area. There has been a major improvement since the early months of the contract, when there were the problems that the hon. Lady has rightly outlined. The picture is one of improvement and one where the Government are saving £15 million a year, so we are also ensuring good value for money. There has been an improvement, and we will continue to monitor the area closely.

Burglary (Prosecutions)

7. What proportion of prosecutions for burglary were successful in each of the last three years; and if he will make a statement. (122181)

The Crown Prosecution Service’s records show that the proportion of defendants prosecuted successfully for burglary in each of the past three years was 86.1% in 2009-10, 85.8% in 2010-11 and 85.6% in 2011-12.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position and thank him for that answer. Does he believe that fewer prosecutions will be brought if the new offence of using grossly disproportionate force, which the Justice Secretary intends to introduce, is brought in?

No. The intention is to be firm on burglary. In fact, the number of successful prosecutions increased from 23,700 to 25,077 between 2009 and the most recent figures. The approach is to be firm on burglary.

Is there any systematic review examining the causes where prosecutions fail? Obviously it could be quite right that the court should find a person not guilty, but sometimes there is a failure to pursue the prosecution adequately, either because witnesses do not match up or the case is not properly put, so is there any systematic review of where prosecutions fail?

Yes, this is something in which the Director of Public Prosecutions takes a particular interest. As Law Officers, we are in the position of superintending the process, and we ask the sort of probing questions that the hon. Gentleman would wish us to ask.

European Court of Human Rights

10. What assessment he has made of progress in reforming the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. (122184)

Good progress has been made in clearing the backlog of inadmissible cases before the Court. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have approached the need to reform the European Court of Human Rights through the Brighton declaration. Reaching agreement on the declaration represents a substantial step towards realising the Government’s ambitions, particularly on the extent to which the Court should get involved in questions that national courts have already fully considered. We need now to ensure that the reforms are implemented swiftly. The first key step—preparation of a draft protocol to reflect the required amendments to the convention—is due to be completed by April 2013.

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer, but will he give a complete and categorical assurance to the House that there is no question of Britain withdrawing from the European convention on human rights? Doing so would mean being the only country, alongside Belarus, that was not part of the convention, which has performed an important role in promoting and defending human rights across every one of its member states. We should be part of that process, not turn away from it.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no question of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the convention. We helped to draft it and we support it strongly. It has already contributed to widespread changes across Europe, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the recognition of the freedom of religion in the former Soviet countries, the prevention of ill treatment in police stations and elsewhere, and the removal of military judges from civilian courts. Those are all very good reasons for it continuing its very good work.