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Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2013

The Attorney-General was asked—

National Crime Agency

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the establishment of the National Crime Agency. (142501)

Although the Attorney-General and I have frequent discussions with the Home Secretary, there have been no recent discussions on the NCA, which is created by the Crime and Courts Bill. I am currently serving on the Bill Committee.

Will the Solicitor-General join me in welcoming Gordon Meldrum, the former director-general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, as the new director of the NCA? As the Solicitor-General will know, organised crime happens across the UK, irrespective of borders. Will he outline the scale of the NCA and its budget and give the House an example of why we truly are better off together as one United Kingdom?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this is a large and important area of the UK economy that is threatened by serious and organised crime, estimated to be £20 billion a year. It is therefore right, as he says, to have a cross-United Kingdom response. Funding for the agency is a matter for the Home Secretary. The indicative budget for the first year is £407 million.

The second most profitable crime for organised criminal gangs is human trafficking. Does the Solicitor-General agree that the establishment of the National Crime Agency will help this country fight the evil of human trafficking?

My hon. Friend has made a distinguished contribution to the all-party group that deals with this issue. He is absolutely right that we need to focus on this both at home and overseas, and that is what the National Crime Agency will be very well able to do.

Code for Crown Prosecutors

2. What estimate he has made of the likely saving the Crown Prosecution Service will make by introducing proportionality into the public interest test of the Crown prosecutors’ code. (142502)

If the Crown Prosecution Service is to make decisions not to proceed with a prosecution on the grounds of cost or because of concerns about the health of a victim, is it not then right that a proper record is kept of how many and why, so that victims, the public and Parliament can hold both the Crown Prosecution Service and Ministers properly to account?

First, it is important that proportionality has been reintroduced to the Code for Crown Prosecutors. We have all seen examples of the schoolyard scuffle or other matters that should not be prosecuted, and where it is important to achieve a balance. On recording, the CPS keeps a considerable amount of records. Of course, that costs money and so there is a balance to be struck, but I will certainly think over the hon. Gentleman’s point.

I welcome the reintroduction of the proportionality test as part of the wider public interest test. Will my hon. Friend reassure the constituents I represent that the question of cost is but one of eight questions to be asked by Crown prosecutors when applying the public interest test, and that it will not be determined on the basis of cost alone?

My hon. Friend makes the point better perhaps than even I could, but I will just make two short points. First, this is not just about cost, but about assessing cost, the likely sentence, the full circumstances of the case and the other points made by my hon. Friend. Secondly, with regard to effective case management, it is often important in a complex case to concentrate on the main and most serious suspects, and so this gives an opportunity for the prosecution to consider that.

Rape (Conviction Rates)

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on increasing the Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction rate for rape where the defendant contests the charge. (142503)

I meet the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly and discuss this issue, most recently on 23 January 2013. The Crown Prosecution Service remains committed to robustly prosecuting perpetrators of rape and serious sexual assaults. Following an investigation of rape where the defendant contests the charge, the CPS will work closely with the police to build a strong prosecution case and review the matter in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.

Frances Andrade tragically took her own life during the course of the trial that she described as like being “raped all over again”. What steps will the Attorney-General take to ensure that CPS policy on vulnerable victims and witnesses seeking counselling is enforced, particularly given the worrying allegations that Mrs Andrade was discouraged by the police from seeking support?

There is no doubt that the story of Mrs Andrade is tragic, and I am sure the House will join me in expressing our sympathy to her relatives and family. I take very seriously any suggestion that she might not have received the support to which she was entitled. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Home Secretary announced yesterday that the police were carrying out a review of their role in this matter, and I have no doubt that the CPS will contribute to that process. I can say that on the information I have been given at present, it appears to me that the CPS took all steps that I would have expected to try to support her as a vulnerable victim and witness. However, I would like to emphasise that that is not to say that there may not be lessons that can be learned from this tragic case.

Does it not need to be made very clear that every possible assistance in the courtroom will be offered to witnesses in such a position and that therapy or treatment needed for the mental health of the witness will not be prevented?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Taking the second matter first, let me say that the CPS’s guidelines are crystal clear that a victim or witness giving evidence should not be prevented from accessing the care or counselling they might require. Indeed, I believe that Mrs Andrade was specifically referred to the possibility of counselling when it was seen that she was distressed prior to the case taking place. On the issues in court, protocols are in place to try to familiarise people with the court process and to ensure that the trauma of giving evidence in court is lessened, including of course the possibility of special measures. In Mrs Andrade’s case, however, she made it clear that she did not wish special measures to be introduced.

I draw the Attorney-General’s attention to the comments made by the Surrey police and crime commissioner that seem to contradict what the Attorney-General has just said. Might it be appropriate to write to all PCCs to reiterate what he has just said to the House of Commons?

I am aware of the comment about what might have been said in Surrey, but I reiterate the position of both the CPS and the Greater Manchester police, who investigated this matter: there is no reason someone should not receive counselling and every reason they should, if they need it. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of this issue being raised; I am obviously aware of it as well, and I can reassure the hon. Lady that we will investigate to ascertain whether there was a failure of communication on the part of anyone in respect of Mrs Andrade.

On the issue of sexual violence, the CPS website states that one in 10 women who experience sexual assault do not report it to the police. What is the Attorney-General’s Department doing, in line with other agencies, to tackle this?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the CPS gets it references from the police, so unless a case is referred to it, it cannot carry out an investigation. It works closely with the police, however, both to improve the conviction rates for rape—it has been consistently successful in doing that for some years—and to encourage people to come forward by ensuring that the victim support process available provides reassurance that people will be helped.

Has the tragic suicide of Frances Andrade after giving evidence as a victim of rape not shown us that we have a system strewn with high-minded codes, pledges and guidance to victims that are brushed aside in practice? She was refused counselling and, as already stated, her PCC has said that victims will not and should not be referred for counselling until after they have given evidence. That is clearly in breach of the agreed code. Is the CPS in charge of these cases or not? It clearly did not know what was happening in the case of Mrs Andrade. In how many other cases has the victim not been properly supported and does the CPS simply not know what is going on? I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has stated that she will look into this and that the Attorney-General has stated today that he will too, but is it not time that we had a proper review that overarched all the agencies to ensure that we have a decent rape prosecution policy in this country, not one that just looks good on paper?

I share the hon. Lady’s concerns, although I am not sure I entirely share the sweeping generalisations that she derives from them. As I said earlier, the evidence is that, under the last Government and the present Government, through the work of the CPS, the conviction rate for rape has consistently been improving. The House will want to bear that in mind.

On the very serious suggestions that Mrs Andrade was somehow misled, yes that is a matter of concern to me. As I indicated in an earlier answer, the information I have been given supports my view that both the CPS and the Greater Manchester police correctly advised her and recommended routes by which she could obtain counselling. The suggestion that some other organisation or police force might have said something to the contrary is obviously of serious concern and will be looked into.

Serious Fraud Office

4. Whether the Serious Fraud Office holds contracts with any companies which are subject to a criminal investigation by a prosecuting agency overseas. (142504)

The Serious Fraud Office is not routinely informed about the work of overseas prosecuting agencies and where it is properly involved, it would not be appropriate to comment in relation to current investigations or prosecutions.

The Attorney-General knows that at least one contractor of the Serious Fraud Office is being investigated for fraud overseas. Apart from being embarrassing, does this not constitute a conflict of interest? Will he tell the House when he proposes to publish the findings of the Allan report, which was completed in 2011?

I shall start by dealing with the first part of the question and then deal briefly with Sir Alex Allan’s report. I am not in a position to comment on what is or is not being investigated. That is a private matter for the Serious Fraud Office. When it takes on an investigation, wherever it can, it publishes that on its website, but there are sometimes circumstances where it cannot do so without prejudice to the investigation. If I may say to the hon. Lady, such conflicts of interest can arise quite frequently, but there are a whole series of protocols in place in prosecutorial organisations to ensure that that does not impede their efficiency or ability to carry out such investigations.

As for Sir Alex Allan’s report, the hon. Lady knows from what I have said previously in the House that I would very much like to see as much of its contents as possible published, but there are issues in respect of data protection. When I have worked through those, I hope to be able to satisfy her wishes in that respect.

Prosecutions for Burglary (Northamptonshire)

5. How many successful prosecutions were carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service for burglary in Northamptonshire in the latest year for which figures are available where the defendant had (a) previously been convicted for at least one other criminal offence and (b) no previous convictions. (142505)

Two-hundred and twenty-seven defendants were successfully prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service for burglary offences in Northamptonshire in 2011-12, at a conviction rate of 89%. No central records of a defendant’s previous convictions or non-convictions are maintained by the Crown Prosecution Service.

I congratulate the Crown Prosecution Service in Northamptonshire on prosecuting 227 burglars. Burglary is an horrific crime, and I strongly suspect that most of those 227 had previous convictions of one sort of another. May I encourage the CPS to collect those data, so that we can head off more potential burglars in future?

The Crown Prosecution Service is not the organisation that maintains the database of convictions, and that is unlikely to change. However, in the period 2009 to 2012, the number of defendants prosecuted for burglary offences increased by 6.4%, compared with the national fall in prosecutions of 8.9%, so he can be assured that burglary is being given proper attention.

Female Genital Mutilation (Conviction Rates)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on increasing the Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction rate for female genital mutilation. (142506)

The Director of Public Prosecutions regularly briefs the Attorney-General and me on the issue of prosecuting for female genital mutilation and on the action plan that was developed following the Crown Prosecution Service round table on 28 September 2012.

I very much welcome the DPP’s action plan, which is a positive step forward. May I urge the Solicitor-General to look at the work being done in Bristol with young women from affected communities? They have been really brave in speaking out—they have even developed a two-part storyline for “Casualty”, which will be shown later this year. Does he agree that ensuring that such work is community-led as well as Crown Prosecution Service-led is an important way of dealing with the problem?

I certainly agree with that. The inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which is chaired by the Home Secretary, is taking a particular interest in those sorts of approaches, so I commend the hon. Lady on mentioning it in the House, and she is absolutely right. Finding the right evidence and having the support of the community—and, therefore, support for the victim—is vital.

Further to that answer, has the Solicitor-General any measures in mind that would make it easier for people to report this dreadful crime? I am thinking in particular of the language barrier, which is often a factor in cases of this kind.

The action plan that I have mentioned contains a number of proposals to improve the situation and to make it easier for people to come forward. The main obstacle is not so much the language barrier. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can imagine that many of these cases involve young girls from particular communities, and that there are cultural and other taboos that make this very difficult for them. The real point is the approach mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) involving getting community support. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, however.

Scottish Independence (EU Membership)

7. Whether he has had discussions with the European Commission on the legal status of Scotland’s membership of the EU in the event of a yes vote to independence. (142507)

I have not discussed with the European Commission the legal status of Scotland’s membership of the EU. The United Kingdom Government’s position is that the most likely outcome is that Scotland would have to join the EU as a new member state. That position has been backed up by comments from the President of the European Commission and by the President of the European Council.

We have a phrase in the Scottish language, “Facts are chiels that winn’a ding”, which means “Facts are children who do not lie”. Despite the wonderful report by Professor James Crawford of Cambridge university and Professor Alan Boyle of Edinburgh university—which includes the quote on page 8 from the President of the Commission that has just been referred to—on which the Government have based their most recent document, may I plead with the Attorney-General to get engaged in this issue? We need to get to the point at which the legal officers in this Chamber and the majority of the people in my party, representing the people of Scotland, are dealing with facts, not with assertions. Will he please get involved with the interrogation of the Commission and set down the legal facts on what will happen? I think that that would support Barroso’s position.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s message. The view that I express is the view of the United Kingdom Government, and it is backed up by the advice of Professor Crawford and Professor Boyle. The overwhelming weight of international precedent is that, in the event of independence, the remainder of the UK would continue to exercise its international rights and obligations, and that Scotland would form a new state. In those circumstances, Scotland would have to apply to join the European Union.

But is there not an alternative legal viewpoint, which is that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom without Scotland would itself have to reapply for membership of the European Union?

The Electoral Commission has specifically recommended that the UK Government and the Scottish Government should agree jointly the processes that should follow either outcome of the referendum. Will the UK Government accept the Deputy First Minister’s invitation to prepare a joint submission to the European Commission setting out a transition process in the event of a yes vote? If not, why not? What are they afraid of? Or do they prefer scare stories?

The United Kingdom Government are not in the business of prejudging the outcome of the referendum.