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Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Attorney-General was asked—

Specialist Rape and Child Abuse Prosecutors

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128878)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that the CPS’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128883)

9. What steps he is taking to ensure that the CPS’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128886)

The prosecution of rape and child abuse is and will remain a key priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and will continue to be funded accordingly.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that rather brief response. Will child abuse cases always be prosecuted by specialist advocates or, as is now the case in rape trials, only when the specialist happens to be available?

That is not correct. All Crown Prosecution Service advocates have been trained in how to deal with domestic violence cases. Some 800 have been fully trained as rape specialists, and they are always involved in any rape case, so it is not right to say that that is not so. A network has been set up, under Mr Nazir Afzal, the chief Crown prosecutor for the north-west, to look at child sexual exploitation and improve prosecution, and it is proving successful.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has indicated that the Crown Prosecution Service’s failings in child grooming cases go well beyond Rochdale, and he said that a whole category of crimes has not been well treated by the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor-General know how many cases the DPP is referring to and whether any of them will now be revisited by the CPS?

Whenever a case is the subject of further evidence or it is suggested that the right prosecution decision has not been made, the CPS takes that very seriously, and, as the hon. Lady will know, it reviews cases as appropriate. It is worth making the point that the CPS is improving its performance in rape and sexual abuse cases. Rape convictions are up by 4% year on year, and that is continuing in the current year, and there is an improvement across the area of sexual violence generally.

Rape convictions may be up, but they are still woefully low. Given that next Sunday is international day to end violence against women, will the Solicitor-General expand on his earlier comments about the number of specialist prosecutors? The key question is whether there are enough of them for justice to be pursued swiftly, which makes things better for the victim and more likely that a prosecution will be secured.

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is a key priority. It is extremely important that the Crown Prosecution Service deals effectively with these cases, which are so important. That is why a huge effort is going on, with improvements to guidance and ensuring that prosecutors are properly trained in this area. As she may know, the Director of Public Prosecutions himself led the training for prosecutors in the past year and made sure that particular reference was made to supporting witnesses. This is an area of vital concern. I could go on for hours, but I will not.

Does the Solicitor-General share my concern at the delay in prosecutions being brought in North Yorkshire because of the lack of a sexual assault and rape centre? Will he use his good offices to ensure that we have one at the first available opportunity not only to enable counselling to be given but forensic evidence to be taken to enable rapid prosecutions to take place?

It is important to have very good arrangements for the support of witnesses. As somebody who has prosecuted rape cases, I can say that they are not easy. It is very important that witnesses feel confident that they can give their evidence, and that is all about support. I will certainly look into the situation that my hon. Friend has mentioned, but she should not think anything other than that the Government take this extremely seriously, as does the Crown Prosecution Service.

Deferred Prosecution Agreements

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements on the level of economic crime. (128879)

It is not possible to quantify exactly what the effect of the new deferred prosecution agreements will be on the amount of economic crime, but we do believe that they will contribute to the welcome trend of an increase in self-reporting by organisations. That will enable the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service to obtain better evidence so that prosecutors will be able to bring more cases and restitution will be obtained, and this could lead to a reduction in the amount of economic crime.

What steps will the Minister take if the proportion of cases resolved by the CPS creeps higher than the Government have forecast in the impact assessment? Does he agree that a sunset clause of five years would be a sensible safeguard?

It is certainly important to recognise that this is not an alternative to prosecuting in serious cases, and the SFO and the CPS are very anxious to ensure that that is the case. It is particularly important that individuals should not feel that they have any way out of their liabilities, but this relates purely to organisations. A sunset clause is not contemplated at present, but the hon. Lady has put the idea forward and of course I will look at it. I thank her for making that important contribution.

But all too often directors of companies are, in effect, complicit in what has been going on when economic crime is involved in their organisation. They want to protect the company rather than self-declare. Indeed, this surely must lead the Crown Prosecution Service to take very seriously the idea, when directors are negligent, of bringing prosecutions under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 or the Data Protection Act against the body corporate—for instance, News International.

I clearly cannot comment on a particular case, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is important that this should be about self-reporting by companies. That does not let individuals off the hook, but it means that the business and jobs can continue and that these business entities have certainty, while ensuring that they are on tough conditions. The whole point of this is that a company should pay a penalty and be on tough conditions that will be monitored by a judge, to ensure that it cleans up its act and provides all the information necessary to the prosecution authorities.


4. What recent representations he has received on an inquest into the death of Kevin Williams in the Hillsborough disaster; and if he will make a statement. (128881)

In relation to the death of Kevin Williams I have received a number of representations. I acknowledge the significant public support for Kevin Williams’s case to be accelerated. However, the evidence that supports a new inquest into Kevin Williams’s death is basically the same as that in relation to the deaths of all the other victims of Hillsborough. My duty is to act in the public interests of all the victims of Hillsborough and I consider that the wider public interest requires a single application to be made in relation to the inquests. I have made good progress on preparing an application to the High Court for new inquests in these cases and I expect to make the application in December.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will he join me in recognising the role that Mrs Williams has played in fighting for justice for the 96 in setting up the charity Hope for Hillsborough?

I entirely acknowledge her key role in this matter and am particularly troubled to hear of her ill health. As I have said, I will do everything I can to take this process forward as quickly as possible, but I have to consult properly. There are a number of things that I simply cannot short-cut. I am endeavouring to do it as fast as possible and, as I said a moment ago, I hope that I can stick to the timetable that I have identified.

I know that the families will welcome what the Attorney-General has said about making an application in December and I thank him for that. Anne Williams is seriously ill and all she wants is official recognition of why her son died. I know that the Attorney-General understands that, but could I urge him to do all he can to grant her wish before it is too late?

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he must also appreciate that my application is to quash the existing inquest verdict and, if that happens, for the court to order a fresh inquest or inquests. Once I have carried out my task of presenting the case to the court, my function will be at an end and I obviously cannot predict the time it would then take for the fresh inquests to take place. I have no doubt that, if the original inquest verdicts are quashed, it would be greatly in the public interest for the matter to move forward as quickly as possible, although, as I have told the House before, some criminal investigations might affect the time scale.

The e-petition calling for a speedy new inquest into Kevin’s death has passed the 100,000 mark in the past hour. May I add my voice to those of Government and Opposition Members calling for a speedy inquiry into Kevin’s death?

I fully appreciate the good reasons why many would sign such a petition. I acknowledge that entirely. I can only do my job properly and professionally. As I have said, a number of things have to take place, such as consultation with each individual family. Medical evidence also has to be reviewed so that I can reassure the court that any new inquest could reach an informed decision on the cause and time of death even on the basis of the paper documentation available. For that purpose, I have retained the services of an expert forensic pathologist. That just gives the House a flavour of what I have to do.

Could the Attorney-General assure the House that he has all the resources available to him to expedite this matter as quickly as possible?

Yes, this is not a resource issue; it is a mere time issue. We have written, for example, to the families—we have to consult them—and I think it is reasonable to give them a calendar month in which to respond, and that date has not yet expired. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that no short-cuts can be taken to take the matter to the court.

Prisoner Voting Rights

5. Whether he has given legal advice to the Secretary of State for Justice on the potential financial penalties the European Court of Human Rights could impose on the UK in respect of its policy on prisoners’ voting rights. (128882)

By long-standing convention observed by successive Governments, the fact and substance of advice from the Law Officers is not disclosed outside government. I hope that my hon. Friend will therefore understand why I cannot say whether I have given any legal advice in relation to this matter.

It may be helpful for my hon. Friend to know that the Strasbourg Court can order the payment of compensation and of legal costs and expenses, but cannot impose any other financial penalty. Non-financial sanctions are a matter for the Committee of Ministers and, ultimately, for the Council of Europe itself.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this instance of judicial activism by the European Court of Human Rights seeks to undermine the democratic mandate of this House? Does he recognise that talk of the UK meeting its international obligations with respect to the Court’s judgment seems a bit premature when one considers that hundreds of unimplemented judgments are pending review by the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe?

No, I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. I do not believe that the democratic mandate of this House is challenged. Parliamentary sovereignty remains. It is open to Parliament to decide not to change the law. However, if Parliament chooses not to implement the judgment, it would be a serious matter, because it would place the UK in breach of international obligations to which it is a signatory. I accept that other countries are in breach of their implementation obligations, but that does not provide an excuse for not honouring our own.

In addition, it is right to point out that only one other pilot judgment, besides the Greens and MT judgment, has not been implemented. That is in a case concerning Ukraine. There are, of course, many hundreds of judgments at various stages of implementation, but that is a slightly different issue.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s answers are invariably works of scholarship, from which no matter that he judges could be of any conceivable interest would ever be excluded.

Does the Attorney-General agree that there are two good reasons why we should implement legislation on prisoners’ voting rights? Firstly, we would be adhering to our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Secondly, it is a useful part of the rehabilitative process that prisoners do not lose all their rights when they go to prison, but rather lose their liberty. The opportunity to vote is actually quite helpful, as the South Africans have found out now that they have universal voting rights for prisoners.

On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman may be correct. That is a matter for robust debate, which this House has had and may well continue to have on this subject. On the former point, it is right to say that the UK has always, in modern times, adhered to its international obligations. There are good reasons why a country should adhere to its international obligations, such as to set an example and to provide international confidence. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for the House to determine.

Law on Contempt

In February 2011, an undertaking was given to the House that I would conduct an informal review of the law on contempt. As part of that process, I started consultations with various interested parties. However, my review has been overtaken by recent developments: Lord Neuberger’s report on super-injunctions, the Leveson inquiry and, of particular significance, the Law Commission’s review of the law on contempt. This last is a detailed and comprehensive formal review and the commission’s findings will doubtless inform what, if any, action is required from the Government.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that jurors are made aware of the sanctity of the jury room at the start of their jury service, and that possible offences under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, including use of social media, will be followed up?

Yes, I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The judiciary makes it clear to jurors that they must respect the sanctity of the jury room and avoid research on the internet. That message has been reinforced by a number of contempt proceedings that I have brought, including in the cases of Mrs Fraill, who revealed details of the jury’s deliberations, and Dr Dallas, who conducted research on the internet. Both received terms of imprisonment. I can also confirm that yesterday, the president of the Queen’s bench division issued a protocol on jury irregularities, which provides guidance to the judiciary and practitioners on how best to address contempt committed by jurors.

Jimmy Savile

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of cases referred to it in 2009 involving alleged sexual assaults by Jimmy Savile. (128885)

Neither I nor the Attorney-General have yet had discussions directly with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the case. This week, the Attorney-General was briefed by the principal legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Levitt QC, on her draft review, and I understand that that draft review is now with the director for consideration.

What consideration has been given to proposals by the Director of Public Prosecutions that the Crown Prosecution Service should be able to refer cases to other relevant agencies—such as social services—where it concludes that there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution?

The hon. Lady is right and it is an important point. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering its policy on how it shares information with other relevant agencies. It is, of course, important that disclosures and information that may be helpful in protecting a vulnerable person are shared where possible, and the Attorney-General and I feel that that process should be considered carefully and in a positive way.

Serious Fraud Office

I have appointed a new director to the Serious Fraud Office who started work in April. David Green QC has restructured the office, made high-profile appointments and built in layers of quality control. He has clearly restated the intent and purpose of the SFO, and I am confident that, as a result, we will see improved efficiency and performance. I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses the report of the inspection of the SFO by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, which I requested. I thank the chief inspector and his team for that helpful report, and confirm that the new director of the SFO has accepted all its recommendations and is already implementing them.

I thank the Attorney-General for that helpful reply. Does he agree that the SFO has a vital role to play in the drive against crime linked to corruption and bribery, but that UK exporters must know where they stand and be treated fairly? Can he confirm that the current guidelines are fit for purpose and that no major or fundamental changes will be made to them?

Bribery and corruption are serious offences. Guidelines have been published to help companies in that respect, and I have every confidence that no company will be prosecuted unless it has committed a serious offence. I cannot, however, give an undertaking that the guidelines will not be subject to review. The guidelines will evolve over time, and they are just that—guidelines. Ultimately, it is for the director of the SFO and the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a decision based on an evidential test and the public interest.

Two weeks ago we were astounded to learn that the former chief executive of the Serious Fraud Office had received an unauthorised send-off of £440,000 for just two years in the post. Last week we learned that the outgoing chief operating officer struck a confidential deal similar to that offered to Ms Williamson. What is the scale of that second payment and can it be stopped? Who knew about both payments, and when? Is this negligence, incompetence, or a deliberate bypassing of the system? Finally, what guarantees can the Attorney-General give the House that he is no longer asleep at the wheel?

First, neither I nor anyone in my office was aware of the irregular payments that were made. They came to light subsequently on the appointment of the new director, and are a matter of great concern to me, as are all irregular payments. I am satisfied that the new director has put in place all necessary measures to ensure that such a matter will not occur again. The hon. Lady asked about dates. I would be happy to write to her so that she is aware of exactly when the matter came to light, although I am afraid I do not have that recollection in my mind at the moment. I will ensure that her point about the chief operating officer is also answered.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that a request for further resources for the SFO to investigate the LIBOR scandal will be met favourably by the Government?

I reassure my hon. Friend that the matter has already met a favourable response from the Government in terms of ensuring that adequate funds are made available. My hon. Friends and colleagues in the Treasury will want reassurance that the money is being well used, but I am quite satisfied that money and resources are available for the SFO. The director and I are also quite satisfied that he has the necessary resources to carry out the investigation properly.