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Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Attorney-General was asked—

Rule of Law

1. What recent representations he has received on the effect of membership of the European convention on human rights on the UK’s reputation for upholding the rule of law. (149745)

I have not received any recent representations on this subject, but I am clear that the United Kingdom’s enviable reputation for upholding the rule of law is closely linked to our country’s commitment to the European convention on human rights and to ensuring that those rights are enshrined in our own laws.

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. Some Government Members are talking about exiting the European convention on human rights. Will he assure us that that will not happen? I know that he believes in the convention, so may I tell him that he will have the support of Opposition Members in the battle to ensure that we remain in it?

I have noticed, on occasion, irritation in all parts of the House about the operation of the European convention on human rights, but the Government’s position remains clear: our adherence to the convention is in the national interest.

Is it not possible to be proud that this country created the European convention on human rights in 1948 to counter communism and fascism while also being dismayed that, because of judicial activism, the Court is interfering in the rights of this democratic Assembly to come to its own conclusions on issues such as prisoner voting rights?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the United Kingdom has not been uncritical of the way in which the European Court of Human Rights has operated. That is why we initiated the negotiation with other countries which led to the Brighton declaration. We believe that the principles of subsidiarity should be re-emphasised, that the selection of judges should be improved and that the backlog of the Court needs to be addressed. Those are important reform packages. We were successful in getting agreement on them last year, and we intend now to see that they are implemented.

Does the Attorney-General agree that it is simply not possible or right to start picking and choosing which decisions of the European Court of Human Rights we agree or disagree with? We are signed up to that charter, which guarantees the human rights of people all over Europe, including in this country. Surely that is something of which we should be proud rather than trying to undermine it all the time, as many of his Back Benchers consistently do.

The convention is an international legal obligation that we take extremely seriously and I have no doubt that our adherence to it is extremely helpful in raising standards of human rights elsewhere and in countries that have much poorer track records. The advantages to be derived from such an international legal obligation applied across countries need to be weighed in the balance when people are critical of how it is sometimes interpreted.

Will the Attorney-General ensure that all Ministers and members of his own party are at all times honest and accurate about both the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights?

I am quite sure that all my right hon. and hon. Friends always strive for accuracy in this department. It has to be said that I sometimes open my newspaper and am quite surprised to read some of the material published on the subject, so if anyone relies on such newspaper articles, it may be that they are likely to be misled.

Will the Attorney-General confirm very simply that the European convention on human rights was founded by the Council of Europe and is nothing to do with the European Union, and that it is legitimate to be against the European Union while being supportive of the European convention on human rights?

Is it true that some of the judges on the Court that enforces the European convention have no legal training whatsoever?

I would be hesitant to make such a comment. It is true that the judges are sometimes appointed from academic backgrounds, but it is worth bearing in mind that our national judiciary, apart from the fact that they have sometimes sat part time as judges, are not formally trained for judicial office even domestically. One must be a little wary of making such a sweeping statement, but there is no doubt, as I said, that the quality of the judiciary needs to be improved.

Given that one of the early backers of the European convention on human rights was Winston Churchill, does that not add an historical tone as to why it would be irresponsible to remove oneself from the convention?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that Winston Churchill was a great proponent of the convention’s coming into force. It was supported on both sides of the House. There were some hesitations at the time, but it was undoubtedly seen as a marked step change in improving human rights on the European continent.

Human Trafficking

2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of prosecutions for human trafficking and related offences; and if he will make a statement. (149746)

As a member of the interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, I keep the effectiveness of prosecutions for that very serious form of crime under review. Wherever possible, the Crown Prosecution Service brings prosecutions for human trafficking or other related offences.

Has the Solicitor-General asked for advice on the letter signed by a dozen charities on 28 April, which predicts that when the EU trafficking directive comes into force on 6 April the UK will be in breach of the following: the protection of victims during criminal procedures, access to compensation and legal assistance, and the provision of a guardian for trafficked children during legal proceedings? What is he going to do about that?

As the hon. Lady will know—I hope she will forgive me—we do not, as Law Officers, explain when and where we have given advice. Her point is very important, however. Victims of human trafficking need to be identified and it is important that they should not be prosecuted or treated disrespectfully once that is known. That is one of the points being discussed in the interdepartmental ministerial group and she is right to highlight it.

My hon. Friend referred to the interdepartmental ministerial group. Is not one of the problems that there are lots of different Acts of Parliament? Would there be any merit in pulling all the different Acts together in a consolidation Act on modern day slavery?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area. It is possible to consider putting a number of laws into a consolidating statute, but the problem is that we tend as a House of Commons to say, “We have these laws. Do we want to spend time consolidating them when we might have other matters to deal with?” Taking such an action was recommended in the recent report from the Centre for Social Justice, however. I have discussed it with the authors and the interdepartmental ministerial group will consider it.

Northern Ireland has had a number of convictions for human trafficking, and there are cases pending. Legislation will soon be introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly by my colleague, Lord Morrow. Will the Solicitor-General outline the co-operation across all regions of the United Kingdom to tackle human trafficking?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there has been considerable co-operation and co-ordination of effort, particularly over intelligence and how those offences can be disrupted. Of course, there is an issue about the new National Crime Agency and exactly how it will operate—he will be aware of the situation and the ongoing discussions. It is important that there is that co-ordination of effort, which happens across the United Kingdom and the wider world, in trying to tackle the problem.

Serious Fraud Office

3. What recent assessment he has made of the success rate, measured by convictions, of investigations by the Serious Fraud Office. (149747)

The SFO has a 71% conviction rate by defendant for the current financial year to date. It prosecutes highly specialised cases, the number of which is small, so year-on-year change in the rate is not a particularly good indicator of trends. Although there is always room for improvement, I am broadly pleased with the SFO’s conviction rate. The report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate in November last year found that the outcomes in SFO cases demonstrate that it can deliver under pressure. There will be a follow-up inspection within the next year.

SFO investigations have increased in duration to 28.8 months on average, success rates are down, as the Attorney-General has just told us, and its previous director handed out £1 million to departing staff without authorisation. Can the Attorney-General tell us how much money will have to be set aside on his watch for legal fees and damages as a result of botched investigations by the SFO?

I take it that the final part of that was the question and the rest was comment. The position is that at the moment the SFO is handling ongoing civil litigation within its budget. In so far as it requires further resources, it will speak to the Treasury.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House that the way those statistics are recorded changed three or four years ago and outline the reason for that change?

My hon. Friend is right that the statistics for SFO cases were previously based on the number of defendants sentenced, rather than those convicted. Consequently, because the number of cases is very small, we can get huge statistical shifts simply by looking at it in a different way. That is why, as I explained earlier, I do not think that trends in the statistics are a good indication of performance. Overall, I prefer to rely on HMCPSI’s report.

As the Attorney-General knows, the offence of misconduct in public office occurs when a public officer, without reasonable excuse,

“wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself… to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder.”

Is he aware of any reason why the former director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, should not be investigated for misconduct in public office over the circumstances of his failure, as senior accounting officer, to obtain authorisation for payments to senior staff members of over £1 million?

As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, if it is thought that somebody has committed a criminal offence and it will be subject to investigation, that would not be a matter on which I could possibly comment in the House.

The SFO received 2,731 tip-offs from members of the public last year but launched only three investigations into information supplied by the public. If members of the public report something to the SFO, can they have confidence that it will be investigated?

Yes, they can be confident that the reports will be looked at. Indeed, there are other routes by which reports might come to the SFO, including through the City police and Action Fraud. There is clearly a requirement for prioritisation, but the SFO will examine and consider any reports it receives.

Conviction Rates

The Crown Prosecution Service secures convictions in over 17 out of every 20 cases. The Director of Public Prosecutions has concentrated particularly on improving rape and domestic violence outcomes for victims, and conviction rates for both have improved substantially over the past two years. As for the statistical performance of the Serious Fraud Office, my hon. Friend will have heard the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan).

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. For all the controversy over terrorism legislation, LIBOR rate rigging and tax-dodging, terrorism convictions plummeted by 77% over the past five years, convictions for false accounting fell by 73%, and convictions for tax evasion slumped to 107 under Labour. What action is he taking to plug the gaping prosecutorial deficit left by the previous Government?

The Home Office is responsible for producing official statistics on casework outcomes in terrorism. The latest published Home Office data for the year ending September 2012 indicate that 24 out of 29 defendants were convicted, at a conviction rate of 82.8%. At that time, 134 prisoners classified as terrorists or domestic extremists were convicted and remanded. On fraud, the number of prosecutions has increased by 25% since 2010 and the conviction rate remains at 86.2%. On tax evasion, in the financial year to date 86% of cases originating with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have resulted in conviction. I should like to write to my hon. Friend about the overall figures on this.

Does the Attorney-General share my concern about the memo leaked by the CPS that showed there was a risk of CPS prosecutors deliberately choosing cases that were likely to crack because of lack of evidence, in order to save costs?

I think that the conviction rates speak for the efficiency of the CPS. I have seen nothing to suggest that cases are not being pursued outside the ordinary tests of public interest and the reasonable prospect of getting a conviction. Obviously, if those do not apply then there should not be a prosecution at all. I am certainly not aware of there being any fiddling and of decisions being made not to prosecute certain cases that should be prosecuted.

Confiscation Orders

5. What steps he is taking to increase the effectiveness of the pursuit by the Crown Prosecution Service of high-value confiscation orders. (149749)

The Crown Prosecution Service is generally very effective in the pursuit of high-value confiscation orders. My office and the CPS are represented on the Home Office-led criminal finances board, at which asset recovery performance is discussed. Asset recovery is a long process. Assets are often hidden. Third-party litigation, appeals against conviction and confiscation orders all mean that the enforcement of such orders may take a significant amount of time. Due to the way in which the value of a confiscation order is calculated, in many cases it is not possible to recover the full amount that has been ordered.

Four out of five of the largest confiscation orders sought by the CPS in the past three years have concerned VAT fraud. Will the Attorney-General ensure that prosecuting these high-value and highly complex fraud cases is prioritised by the CPS?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will raise the matter with the CPS, but I have no reason to think that it is not doing that. The evidence suggests overall—I cannot break it down for VAT fraud—that year on year the amount being confiscated is rising from what was a very low and rather unsuccessful level after the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 first came into force. In the past year, £107 million was realised through confiscation. I will write to him about his specific point on VAT.

Minimum Wage: Evasion

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service as a prosecutor of employers who evade the minimum wage. (149750)

The Crown Prosecution Service decides whether to prosecute national minimum wage cases, but the cases are investigated by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Since 2010, three cases have been referred to the CPS by HMRC, two of which resulted in convictions, most recently in February 2013, where the defendant was fined £1,000.

Shockingly, there were no prosecutions for minimum wage evasion in 2011 or 2012. If the Government are really serious about dealing with low-skilled immigration and its causes, why have they not been enforcing the minimum wage legislation properly?

It is important to bear in mind that HMRC has two sorts of powers that it can use: criminal investigation, which we have already discussed, and the civil powers that enable it to look at the books and then to impose penalties and recover arrears. It is for HMRC to decide on the best way forward. The hon. Lady is right that these are important matters.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that the number of relevant inspections by HMRC has been falling for the past two or three years? Does that not make the sort of convictions that he is talking about less likely in the future?

These are important matters and I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s comments on to Treasury Ministers. It is important that this matter is taken seriously and that there is proper enforcement. The Government certainly consider it to be an important matter.


7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in rape prosecutions. (149751)

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. However, in 2011-12, the CPS took no further action in nearly half the cases that involved a rape allegation that were referred to it by the police. What reasons have the Law Officers identified for that?

It is difficult to prosecute some cases. Often, it is the word of one person against the word of another. It is important in those circumstances to ensure that the victim who is the witness is properly supported. In addition, it is vital to have corroborative evidence and to use it effectively. It is sometimes said that there are a lot of incorrect allegations, but recent research by the CPS shows that there are very few cases of that sort. There has been a big improvement in the conviction rate, but we cannot be complacent. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is important to tackle this matter.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2013

Presumption of Death Act 2013

Mobile Homes Act 2013

Antarctic Act 2013

Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act 2013

Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013

Diocese in Europe Measure 2013

Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure 2013.