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Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

The Attorney-General was asked—

Rape and Domestic Violence Prosecutions

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on increasing the number of prosecutions for rape and domestic violence. (900458)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (900462)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (900465)

The Attorney-General and I regularly discuss the effective prosecution of cases of violence against women and girls, including both domestic violence and rape, with the Director of Public Prosecutions. Discussions also take place between the DPP, the police and the Home Office. In 2012-13 the proportion of such cases resulting in conviction increased to 74.3% for domestic violence and 63.2% for rape.

Under this Government more and more cases of both rape and domestic violence are being dropped by the police without being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution, leaving offenders unpunished and free and leaving victims vulnerable. What are the Government going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government are aiming to increase the number not only of prosecutions, but of successful ones which result in conviction. On 26 September this year the Director of Public Prosecutions held a meeting with all the other stakeholders—the police, the Home Office, the College of Policing and the Attorney-General’s Office—to look at why the referrals from police to the CPS had fallen. Six actions were agreed at that time.

Does the Solicitor-General share my concerns that for 2012-13 around 30% of defendants for domestic violence were aged under 24, and more than 2,000 were between 14 and 17 years old? What are the Government doing to tackle domestic violence among young people?

My hon. Friend has a strong record of campaigning on this issue and he is absolutely right: it is of concern that young people are perpetrating domestic violence. The Government’s action plan for violence against women and girls includes a programme to increase understanding and awareness of these issues, and the DPP’s national scrutiny panel last year focused on teenage relationship abuse. The CPS is putting together specific training for prosecutors on issues to take into account when they are prosecuting cases and also to support the victims.

Taking into account the gravity of the offence, there is a concern that too many cautions are being issued in domestic violence cases. If this is established to be happening, will the Solicitor-General work with the Home Secretary to address it?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As he will know, the Secretary of State for Justice has announced a wider review of out-of- court disposals, but at the recent meeting which I mentioned, convened by the Director of Public Prosecutions, it was agreed that there needs to be a closer analysis of domestic violence figures and how out-of-court disposals are being dealt with. That is ongoing.

The Solicitor-General has given us a rather tantalising answer, telling us that in September there was a meeting on ensuring that more cases were taken by the police and given to the Crown Prosecution Service for charging. We are all concerned that the CPS is not getting enough cases in front of it on which to make decisions. The Solicitor-General tells us that six actions have been agreed. Would he like to tell us what they are?

I did not want to trespass on Mr Speaker’s good will, but I am delighted to set out the six actions. First, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary will carry out a themed inspection of domestic violence, liaising closely with the Home Office and the CPS. Secondly, the evidence that I have just mentioned about how out-of-court disposals are dealt with will be examined in more detail to see what is happening in this area. Thirdly, the performance of the CPS is being closely examined to see whether there are differences between areas in the way in which cases are referred. The fourth action entails looking at the independent domestic violence adviser network and making sure that it is performing consistently across the country. Fifthly, six areas are being reviewed and cases which were not referred to the police are being examined closely to see why. Sixthly, the Crown Prosecution Service is going to give further advice to the police about how to pursue cases without the witnesses giving evidence.

Just about, Mr Speaker.

In 2012 there was the tragic death in my constituency of Eystna Blunnie, a victim of domestic violence. The CPS admitted that there had been a failure to prosecute the murderer for a previous assault. What steps are my hon. and learned Friend and the Government taking to ensure that the CPS properly follows through prosecutions of perpetrators of domestic violence?

Of course, the key is to have regular meetings and to issue the sort of guidelines that the Director of Public Prosecutions has done. If my hon. Friend wishes to write to me about the case he mentioned, I will certainly ensure that any review that is still available is undertaken.

As the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) pointed out, this is a serious matter, and the consequences are serious. In Thames Valley last year there were 9,804 recorded incidents of crime involving domestic violence, but a further 22,627 incidents were reported to the police, and we know that such cases sometimes end in a tragic death. I fear that the hon. and learned Gentleman’s six actions are a bit laid back. What is he going to do?

First, the six actions relate to one important aspect: ensuring that referrals come through from the police to the CPS. But let us be clear that over recent years huge progress has been made, in both the proportion of cases that are prosecuted and the conviction rates achieved. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need a cross-governmental strategy, which we have in the action plan of the interministerial group on violence against women and girls, so there is no complacency in that regard, but she must recognise that there are achievements as well as areas that need improvement.

Vulnerable Witnesses

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in sexual abuse or domestic violence cases. (900460)

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in sexual abuse or domestic violence cases. (900464)

The Crown Prosecution Service takes allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence very seriously and ensures that prosecutors are well equipped to handle those cases. There is also the national network of witness care units, whose role is to support victims. The House will want to know that the Director of Public Prosecutions will publish final guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse shortly.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. Will he also look at what more can be done to support those who have been the victims of psychological or emotional abuse, because although there is no physical effect, the mental trauma can be quite debilitating?

My hon. Friend’s contribution is timely, as we have recently had mental health day. He is right that it is important to support such victims and witnesses, which is what the witness care units do. In addition, there is a range of guidance for prosecutors on issues such as the provision of therapy to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. With regard to victims who have suffered mental trauma, there is guidance on how to help victims and witnesses with mental health issues, and the CPS also contributed to the Mind toolkit.

Will my hon. and learned Friend outline what the special measures will be, how they will be granted for vulnerable witnesses and how they will help the court process to ensure that the trial is fair for all, particularly those witnesses in these very difficult cases?

The special measures available for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses include: giving evidence from behind a screen, by live television link or in private by clearing the court room of the public; removal of wigs and gowns by judges and lawyers; use of video-recorded evidence-in-chief; examination of the witness through an intermediary; and provision of communication aids. Many of us are strong supporters of one special measure, pre-recorded cross-examination, for which I think there is a measure of support across the House. It has not yet been implemented, but it is coming soon.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Children have particular difficulty in communicating, and registered intermediaries are crucial in enabling them to give the best possible evidence in court, but they are being appointed in a tiny minority of cases. What more can the Solicitor-General do to make sure that the Crown Prosecution Service appoints better registered intermediaries for children at an early stage?

As the hon. Lady will remember, that is one of the six issues that is being considered. I agree that it is important to ensure that the right support is given in every case. Of course, support would not be needed in every case, but where it is, it should be available.

The Solicitor-General will know that the specialist domestic courts that were established under the previous Labour Government helped to speed up prosecutions and reduce attrition. Why, then, have his Government gone about closing them down?

Although referrals are down, the proportion of the caseload that is domestic violence or rape cases has held up strongly, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s allegation stands up. However, it is certainly true that we need to ensure that these cases are dealt with expeditiously.

I thank the Attorney-General for the report he commissioned, following our meeting with the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate, on the disclosure of medical and counselling records of victims of sexual abuse and rape. Will he or the Solicitor-General meet me to discuss the implementation of these recommendations and the need for further action in related areas?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Attorney-General and I were very grateful for her intervention in this regard. The report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate bears that out, and either one or both of us would be happy to meet her to discuss taking this forward.

May I draw the Solicitor-General’s attention to the experience of one of my constituents who has been identified as a potential witness in a case of serious sexual abuse going back over many, many years? This has caused him great distress, and, frankly, he is not receiving the support that he desperately needs. Will the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General look again at what more can be done to support vulnerable witnesses over the many months they have to wait while their case comes to trial?

If the right hon. Gentleman writes to me I will make sure that the case is given whatever extra support is needed. As regards the point he makes, he is absolutely right. As somebody who has prosecuted these cases, I know that having a properly supported witness who feels confident in giving evidence is key.

I am currently dealing with a case where a vulnerable witness has been forced to leave her own home as a result of the abuse she has suffered, and the offender is now walking around and living in that house. Does the Solicitor-General agree that that is an absolutely disgraceful situation? If I send him the full details, will he look into it and find ways in which I can help this constituent?

I would be more than happy to discuss the case with my hon. Friend. Obviously it is difficult for me to comment, not having seen the papers, but I make that offer.

Exit Payouts (CPS)

4. If he will discuss with the Director of Public Prosecutions ways of limiting public expenditure on exit payouts at the Crown Prosecution Service. (900461)

I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions, and this subject has been discussed. The CPS has reduced its staff numbers by 1,902, or 21%, during the current spending review period, while improving overall performance in its delivery of a public prosecution service. These reductions will save the public purse a forecast £77.8 million per annum by 2015-16. Expenditure on staff exits will substantially reduce in the next financial year as the CPS will have completed its major programme of achieving significant staff reductions.

Given that, by his own admission, the Attorney-General is losing a quarter of all prosecutors, perhaps it is not surprising that he spent £50 million getting rid of them, but why has £10 million of that gone on packages of more than £100,000, including ones of up to £300,000, when the rump of the service is starved of resources?

The payments in each case were those to which the individuals were contractually entitled. I am aware of the recent press coverage of two payments, but it relied on a series of assumptions that have been shown not to be accurate. Moreover, in the case of one of those two cases, the payments were in fact made in 2009 and were part of the redundancy payments approved by the previous Government, which we changed.

Criminal Sentences

6. On how many occasions during the last 12 months his Department has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review on the grounds that it was unduly lenient. (900463)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the power to refer sentences is an exceptional remedy reserved for those cases in which the sentence is so far below the range of sentences it was reasonable to impose that public confidence in the criminal justice system risks being damaged. For 2012, the most recent period for which statistics on unduly lenient sentence cases have been published, we received 435 requests for sentences to be reviewed, of which 82 were referred as unduly lenient and heard by the Court of Appeal. For the period ending 30 September 2013, we have received 352 requests for sentences to be reviewed, of which 57 have been referred to the Court of Appeal and have been, or are due to be, heard by the Court.

In that case, could the Attorney-General please assure the House that he will give due consideration to widening the scope to appeal against unduly lenient sentences? I am sure he will agree that weak sentences by our courts let down the victim, the judiciary and the whole of society.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the scheme is currently restricted to a list of serious offences. It is right to say that we have added to that list in recent years. In August 2012, the offence of trafficking people for exploitation was added, as were racially or religiously aggravated assaults in October 2003 and various offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in 2006. It is always possible for cases to be added to the list, but it is important to bear in mind that references take up court time and there must be a limit to the number of cases that the Court of Appeal can hear. One must also bear in mind that there has to be a degree of finality and these things have to be balanced out. If my hon. Friend knows of any cases or types of offences that he thinks might be added, I am always happy to consider such matters. It is, obviously, ultimately a matter for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, but we discuss these matters and will act if we think it necessary.

I am usually a great fan of the Attorney-General, but the way in which he has handled the case of Elena Fanaru is very disappointing. She now lies in a grave in Romania. The man who knocked her down and killed her, having fled the scene of the accident, got only one year and four months in prison. When are we going to make sure that such people really do face justice?

I am not going to comment on an individual case. I am quite satisfied that, in so far as I have been able to have any role in this matter, I have acted properly. In so far as it is a matter of where the law needs to be changed, that is for this House to decide.

May I urge the Attorney-General to work with the Lord Chancellor to extend the period in which an appeal can be made against an unduly lenient sentence from the current 28 days? Could he also give a word of encouragement to campaigners such as the excellent Families Fighting for Justice who claim it would make a big difference to victims of the most serious offences?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly, the question of the time limit will be looked at by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. I am certainly open to suggestions, although it is right to say that if we have a new time limit there will always be the risk that it will also be exceeded in some cases. It is important that cases should be reviewed quickly. In some cases the defendant/offender may not have been given a custodial sentence, and to have a long period of delay before a custodial sentence is then imposed is clearly undesirable.

Human Trafficking

9. What steps the Director of Public Prosecutions is taking to raise awareness amongst prosecutors of how to deal with cases of human trafficking; and what assessment he has made of whether current legislation is being used to prosecute such cases effectively. (900467)

Guidance is issued by the Crown Prosecution Service and it is regularly updated. There is a training programme for the CPS and the Director of Public Prosecutions will host a round-table event later this year to consider how best to strengthen prosecutions.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that response. This Friday 18 October is anti-slavery day, which aims to highlight human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the key problems is that those crimes are very well concealed and seldom brought to the attention of the authorities and the police, and that wider public awareness, as well as the awareness of GPs and teachers, is required.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are committed to publishing a draft modern-day slavery Bill later this year. There have been amendments to the law to enable more prosecutions to occur. The round-table event later this year will be important in raising awareness, as she suggests.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has recently brought in legislation on human trafficking that is perhaps unique in the United Kingdom. Has the Solicitor-General had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly and, if so, what was the outcome?

I have not had such a discussion, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to talk to me about the issue, I would be happy to do so.

Will the Solicitor-General press the Home Secretary to consider this matter in drafting the modern-day slavery Bill?

The details of the Bill will be published in draft, so my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to contribute at that point. I pay tribute to the work that he does with the all-party group on human trafficking.