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Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013

The Attorney-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service (Procurement/Outsourcing)

1. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in procuring and outsourcing services. (163818)

The Crown Prosecution Service has a good record of procuring and outsourcing services. The Department utilises pan-government contracts for goods and services and has extensive arrangements for outsourcing services including advocacy, information technology and facilities management. These arrangements save many millions of pounds a year, protecting front-line jobs and front-line service delivery.

The Crown Prosecution Service has a pilot contract for interpreters at four witness care units, but it has been dogged by delay. What is going to happen now at witness care units across the country?

The use that the CPS makes of those services is actually fairly limited. The information that I have does not suggest that the difficulties experienced by the service more generally have caused the CPS a problem.

Crown Prosecution Service (Court Proceedings)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the reliability and punctuality of the Crown Prosecution Service in court proceedings. (163819)

I am surprised by the Minister’s answer because last year the CPS failed to comply with nearly half the court orders on time—at great expense to the public purse. Just what do Ministers intend to do about this so that justice delayed is not justice denied?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. Hot off the press today, we have had the annual report of Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, which looked at this issue and concluded that compliance with court directions was improving, as was monitoring. Looking at the overall picture, which is what the hon. Lady’s question was about, there are 800,000 cases a year—

I have answered the question, which is that there has been an improvement in compliance. I would like to point out, if I may, that conviction rates are at 86% and that with ineffective cases the Crown Prosecution Service is not ready only in 1.5% to 2% of cases.

I declare an interest as a defence solicitor, but I mention the interest of taxpayers and justice, too. How can we hold the Crown Prosecution Service to account when it fails during a criminal justice case that is in process, particularly given the lack of wasted costs orders applying to legal aid cases?

As my hon. Friend will know, there are measures in place, such as the right of review and complaints system, which allow complaints to be made. More generally, it is worth looking at the annual report of the HMCPSI, which concludes that against a background of reducing costs there has been an improvement in almost all areas.

It is not just a case of turning up to court on time; it is a case of processing cases quickly. I wrote to the Attorney-General yesterday about a young woman who was killed exactly a year ago—Elena Fanaru—and it took the CPS a year to bring the person responsible to court. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot accept that that is a good deal for the victim, as it causes additional stress to victims’ families and others concerned in these cases.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to take up the case with my right hon. and learned Friend and he knows that the matter will be looked at carefully. On a day such as today, however, when the HMCPSI annual report has just come out showing progress in all areas, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, although we often rightly talk about individual cases in this place, there are high levels of convictions and very good results on punctuality overall. We are also seeing overall decision making on charging improving, assessment of case work quality improving, compliance with Crown court directions improving and the processes of dealing with disclosure—an extremely difficult issue—improving. Hon. Members are right to take up these issues.

I think the Crown Prosecution Service does a good job, especially in Northamptonshire, but I was surprised to receive a written response from the Solicitor-General, saying that the CPS

“does not maintain a central record of the number of times an application to remand a defendant in prison has been refused.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 11W.]

I think the public would like to know that information and I think the CPS would find it useful; we could then see where the problem lies—with the CPS or with the courts.

The CPS, of course, keeps quite a range of different management information, but that is not one of them. I am certainly happy to consider whether it would be possible, but against the background that we do not want to clog up the system with a lot of over-reporting and regulatory concerns at a time when we are reducing costs.

I am concerned about the Solicitor-General’s complacency on this issue, particularly in the light of what has happened in the last three weeks. Crown court judges across the country, from Bristol to Warwick and from Warwick to Croydon, have said publicly what all those working in the criminal justice system have been saying privately for some time—that the CPS is dogged by delays and disorganisation, that trials are being put at risk and that there is a danger that people charged with very serious offences such as murder and rape will walk away scot-free. I have written to the Director of Public Prosecutions about this, and I would ask the Solicitor-General to acknowledge these problems and tell us exactly what it is that he is going to do about them.

The hon. Lady has written a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, citing three cases out of 800,000—and they are not what they seem. For example, in one case, the advocate for the prosecution fell ill at court; the judge was not aware of that and made some comments about the way in which the case was being conducted, but at the time—

It was indeed a serious case, but when that advocate fell ill, he was replaced by another, and a conviction followed.

I do not think that picking three instances, all of which involve special circumstances, is the right way of dealing with this. The HMCPSI report examined 2,800 cases, reviewing the files in detail, and they presented a promising picture.

Internet (Legal Framework)

3. What assessment he has made of the level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to the internet. (163820)

Since taking office, I have brought a number of successful proceedings involving contempts committed online. The Crown Prosecution Service has also prosecuted numerous offenders who have used the internet to commit criminal offences, and recently issued new guidelines to prosecutors on the handling of cases involving social media. Many of those cases have been widely reported in both national and local media, and I trust that they have increased public awareness of the fact that misconduct online has consequences.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that public awareness has been increased by, for example, the successful prosecution of jury members who do not keep to the rules and who research the details of a case during the course of a trial using the internet?

I trust that it has. If we wish to preserve trial by jury, it is extremely important that judges’ directions to juries not to conduct research are properly observed. If they are not, trial by jury will not survive. I have brought a number of cases against jury members; they have been reported, and I hope that as a result of my bringing them, I shall have to bring far fewer in future.

When the footballer Ched Evans was convicted of rape last year, his victim was named more than 6,000 times on Twitter. She has been forced to accept a new identity and relocation package. I understand that only a handful of people have ever been held to account for naming her, and that they have merely been ordered to pay compensation. Should we not send a much stronger signal to people who indulge in such behaviour?

The hon. Lady has raised two separate points The first relates to the way in which the CPS has gone about prosecuting these cases. It has obviously been selective. Cases have to be brought to its attention, and it seeks to deal with those cases, particularly cases involving those who have initiated such comments. I think that that must be the right way of going about things. As for the hon. Lady’s point about penalties, she must understand that they are not a matter for the CPS. If Parliament wishes to make the penalties more severe, that is a matter for legitimate debate in the House of Commons.

The Attorney-General referred to the new guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions on social media. They are very welcome, but does he agree that in some cases the law is not clear, and is being brought into disrepute? I am thinking of, for example, the Twitter joke trial under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

The principle of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 places a higher threshold on prosecution than an ordinary abusive comment, but it must be shown that, in the circumstances, the comment was grossly offensive. I hope that the guidelines issued by the CPS—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his appreciation of what they have done—will provide a framework that shows clearly what is and what is not acceptable, but there are bound to be areas that present some difficulty. The basic rule must be that the fact that someone is operating on social media does not give that person immunity from the criminal law.

As one who, some time ago, was the subject of a specific death threat on a social media site—which, thankfully, resulted in a successful prosecution—may I ask the Attorney-General to reassure the public that people’s perception of their own anonymity on a keyboard will be dispelled, and that those who break the law on line will be rigorously pursued?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that some individuals have come in for a rude surprise when they have been prosecuted despite having believed that they enjoyed anonymity. While of course there may be circumstances in which prosecutions cannot be brought—there can clearly be no prosecution when material is placed on the internet from abroad—I am generally satisfied, on the basis of what I have observed, that both the police and the CPS have responded proactively. They take offences of this kind seriously, and are keen to convey the message that this is not an area in which people can behave with impunity.

What discussions has the Attorney-General had with the Department for Education about ensuring that young people fully understand the legal framework of the internet, and, more important, know how to keep themselves safe on the internet?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting and important point. We have had no formal discussions about that, but I know it has been discussed informally because I have done so myself. She might wish to ask the Secretary of State for Education that question, as the way in which young people can be brought up to understand their rights and responsibilities is an important part of the new curriculum.

Departmental Legal Advisers

4. What benefits he expects will be achieved by the continued merger of departmental legal advisers into the Treasury Solicitor’s Department. (163821)

Sharing legal services brings considerable benefits, including greater flexibility and resilience, more efficient deployment of legal resources, more opportunities for savings and improved knowledge-sharing, which in turn supports consistency.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his answer, but what steps is he taking to ensure that TSOL actually does provide value for money, and how will the Government’s legal bill be reduced as a consequence of this merger?

This is part of the civil service reform plan, and bringing services together at TSOL has, for example, meant it has become a centre of excellence in employment law. TSOL also has a good record of reducing cost, with 40% efficiencies from its shared litigation service.

Will the Solicitor-General assure the House that public money will not be wasted in transaction costs between Departments and that we will not end up with more finance officers chasing invoices than lawyers doing the work?

It is true that clients in the Departments are billed by TSOL, but this is a lean process and fees are being kept down at a reasonable level.

Undercover Investigations

5. Whether the Crown Prosecution Service is always informed when an undercover police officer has been involved in an investigation that leads to a prosecution. (163822)

The CPS should always be informed. The CPS signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2012 with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which ensures investigators and prosecutors work closely together when covert operations are embarked upon where there is clear potential for a prosecution.

The former police Minister said undercover police officers could have sex with suspects if abstaining would blow their cover. Does the Attorney-General agree with the Northumbria police and crime commissioner and former Solicitor-General, Vera Baird, that the sexual activities of some of these undercover officers when they enter into a relationship with protestors may fall within the definition of rape?

I think the hon. Gentleman is asking me for a legal opinion, which I do not think I am in a position to provide across the Floor of the House. That was the thrust of his question, but what I can say is that the CPS takes very seriously the fact that if there is covert police activity it must be informed about it, because it is highly relevant to the conduct of any prosecution.

May I tempt my right hon. and learned Friend to state whether it will be appropriate for police officers in those circumstances to be prosecuted if they are deemed to have broken the law and overstepped the mark in their undercover operations?

Nobody is immune from the law, and if a police officer acting undercover breaks the criminal law of this country, they make themselves liable to prosecution.

There seems to be complete chaos in understanding what the police are, and are not, allowed to do when undercover. Given that a number of legal cases have been dropped or put at risk because of the involvement of undercover police officers, is it not high time there was a proper judge-led public inquiry so we get to the bottom of this and make sure we know what the rules are in the future and what the judgments are for the past?

I certainly acknowledge that the hon. Lady is right, and the consequence of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station case was that a review was carried out by Sir Christopher Rose, and the CPS took the issues in that very seriously, but any question of a wider inquiry or review does not lie within the remit of my Department.

Financial Institutions (Offences)

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office on the feasibility of introducing an offence of reckless management of a financial institution. (163824)

In view of the recent announcement on this, I wonder whether the Minister can give us any indication of which prosecuting agency would be responsible for enforcing the new offence of reckless mismanagement of a financial institution, and what steps are being taken to ensure that the agency has sufficient resources to tackle what are likely to be complex cases?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Government set up the commission on banking which has come up with the recommendation that there should be such an offence. The Government have accepted that recommendation and the drafting process is in hand. I cannot go further than that, but he will see the draft when it is ready.

In two constituency cases I have been told, “It is not in the Serious Fraud Office’s remit and the police will not look at the corporate fraud because they do not have the money.” So how do we get these corporate fraud cases properly looked at?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about fraud. The National Crime Agency is setting up, as we speak, with an economic crime command that will have a focus on fraud. The aim is to tackle exactly the problems he mentions. In the meantime, Action Fraud is one good place to make a complaint to and, of course, the City police have a particular role to play in this area.

Legal Reforms

8. What recent representations he has received from the legal profession on the effect on the criminal justice system of the Government’s planned legal reforms. (163825)

The Solicitor-General and I have attended meetings of and with the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board at which the Government’s proposed legal aid reforms have been discussed. We have also seen responses to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation about these proposals from the Bar Council, the Law Society and others, and have corresponded with panel counsel about the proposal.

In 2004, the right hon. and learned Gentleman told the Law Society Gazette:

“There are ideas creeping into the system that treat legal aid as if it is just about the economic provision of a service. That approach will lead to problems with lowered standards.”

Now that his Government are slashing £220 million from the budget and making so many other changes, is he even more worried?

The key issues then were, as I dare say they are now, the maintenance of choice, achieving value for money and, above all, maintaining professional standards of representation in court. I note that the Lord Chancellor has already indicated that he is going to keep a choice of solicitors, and he is also keeping advocacy fees separate. Those things are in response to the current consultation, and I have no doubt that, building on that, there will be further possibilities to have a very important debate so that we can reach a conclusion where we have a viable system of criminal legal aid that can be maintained in the long term.

Appeal Cases

9. What recent assessment he has made of how effectively appeal cases have been handled by the Crown Prosecution Service. (163826)

I am grateful for that answer. Will the Solicitor-General please explain to the House how he can satisfy himself that the CPS is indeed conducting those cases effectively? Does it compile and analyse any data on how it is performing?

Yes, the detailed schedule of cases comes to the Attorney-General each month, and we have discovered that more cases are being dismissed without leave to appeal being granted, which suggests good CPS presentation; up to 57% of cases are now dismissed without leave.

But what is happening on how the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office deal with highly complex financial scandals, where there is a great reliance on the accountancy profession, which has been shown to be very unreliable in the evidence it gives?

The hon. Gentleman makes the point in his own way, but the advantage of the SFO is that it has in-house experts and can also draw on outside expertise to ensure that these cases are very well prepared. Although we have had some problems, as he knows, in many cases the SFO is able to do an exceptional job.

Child Sexual Exploitation (Evidence)

10. What special measures he is considering to help vulnerable minors give evidence in child sexual exploitation cases. (163827)

The Government have announced that they will pilot the video pre-recording of the cross-examination of witnesses, as outlined in the Ministry of Justice’s “A Strategy and Action Plan to Reform the Criminal Justice System”, published on 28 June. The strategy and action plan includes other important measures, including reviewing how we might reduce the distress caused to some victims by cross-examination, particularly where multiple defence barristers are involved. On 11 June, the CPS published, for consultation, its new interim guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sex abuse, which set out a new approach, including challenging myths and stereotypes, if raised in court, about how the victim behaves.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and the Director of Public Prosecutions on the way in which they have enacted the child sexual exploitation action plan to make it more sympathetic and sensitive to witnesses who are often vulnerable and traumatised. Does he agree that one of the most intimidating processes is where multiple barristers act for gang members, as we have seen recently, re-traumatising very vulnerable victims by getting them to go through all their processes over and over again? Will he tell us specifically how he thinks we can still make sure that justice is done, both to the victim and to the defendant?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is very much a matter of two things: professional standards on the part of the advocates; and proper case management by the judge. Judges need to be proactive in these cases. In addition, The Advocate’s Gateway, which has been introduced, makes clear the responsibilities that lie on counsel in approaching cases of this kind. I am confident that we will make a lot of progress in this area, and I think the rules will be progressively tightened to achieve the impact and result he desires.