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Attorney-General

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

The Attorney-General was asked—

Unduly Lenient Sentences

1. On how many occasions in the last 12 months he has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review because it was felt to be unduly lenient. (901833)

From 31 December 2012 to 1 January 2014, the sentences of 67 offenders were referred as unduly lenient and have either been heard or are due to be heard by the Court of Appeal.

The will of Parliament was that the use of a knife in an aggravated fashion would carry a mandatory six-month jail sentence, but according to the latest statistics, the courts have imposed such a sentence in only half of all cases. Does the Attorney-General agree that perhaps these should be considered for appeal, and does he back Parliament’s will?

My hon. Friend may be aware that such cases are not currently referable. It is for Parliament to decide whether it wishes to extend and make referable those sentences. If Parliament’s will is that they should be, it is my job to consider that. It is worth bearing in mind that the principle enunciated originally was that only a small number of cases in specified and very serious offences would ever be referred. But there needs to be finality in sentencing and, of course, if many more cases are referred, that will place burdens both on the Court of Appeal in considering them and on my office in making the assessment of around 450 cases per annum.

Thank you, Mr Speaker and happy new year. Does the Attorney-General agree that, at the end of the day, it is for the judges who hear the evidence in a case to decide what the sentence should be?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We must rely on judges’ judiciousness in deciding what sentences should be. Occasionally there will be examples that are unduly lenient and fall within the specified schedule where I can make a reference. The object of the reference is not only to correct the particular sentence that has been passed but to try to lay down a good precedent for the future. It is noteworthy that we have referred fewer cases overall in the last 12 months than the 12 months before. That may be an indication of the extent to which the Sentencing Council is working to ensure consistency.

What proportion of the 67 cases were for child sex abuse or child sex pornography in some form or other? Is the Attorney-General prepared to review the sentencing of those sorts of cases in terms of the sentences that are available?

My hon. Friend can be reassured that most of those cases will be referable and, indeed, I have referred such cases to the Court of Appeal. I am afraid that I cannot give him the statistics at the Dispatch Box but I will write to him with the statistics for the last 12 months.

As the Attorney-General has said, there are a number of very serious cases that cannot be referred. He says that that is a matter for Parliament. But will he take the initiative and start a consultation, allowing Members to put forward their views as to which offences should be subject to these reviews?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, other offences have been added to the specified offences. In August 2012, we added trafficking people for exploitation. In May 2006, various offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to which we have just referred, were added. Of course that is possible but, as I said in my first answer, we need to balance the need for finality and the need not to end up with a system where the Court of Appeal becomes the sentencing court for almost all offences. But if the right hon. Gentleman has examples that he feels need to be considered, I strongly urge him to write either to me or to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and those can undoubtedly be considered.

Complaints about Public Prosecutors

3. What recent assessment he has made of the options available to victims of crime who wish to complain about the performance of public prosecutors. (901836)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the options available to victims of crime who wish to complain about the performance of public prosecutors. (901841)

Since the Crown Prosecution Service launched its new victims’ right to review scheme on 5 June 2013, victims have the right to request a review of a CPS decision not to prosecute in qualifying cases. The CPS feedback and complaints policy has also been revised to reflect the appointment of the independent assessor of complaints for the CPS. The VRR scheme was the subject of a consultation, concluded on 5 September 2013, and the CPS is considering the responses to the consultation with a view as to how best to operate the VRR scheme in the future.

There have been 600 requests from victims of crime to review prosecutors’ decisions to drop their case since the victims’ right to review was introduced six months ago. Given that level of demand, will the Government consider looking at widening the right to review to include decisions to caution instead of charge and decisions to alter substantially the original charge?

It might be worth while seeing first how the current changes, which are significant, operate in practice. The hon. Lady referred to the figure, which is 662, of which the determination was that the original decision was incorrect in, I think, 18 cases. There have also been cases referred to the independent assessor, where six have been upheld and three partly upheld. I am utterly pragmatic about this; I wish to see victims’ rights at the heart of the criminal justice system, but there are significant changes and we need first to see how well the system is operating and, in particular, how it will operate once the CPS responds in February to its consultation.

The Crown Prosecution Service is prosecuting fewer and fewer cases each year, and has been referred fewer cases to charge by the police. This suggests that more cases are being dropped at a stage in the criminal justice system where no right to review exists. Is the Attorney-General concerned by that?

The hon. Gentleman may be right, but there may be other explanations, one of which is that the noticeable fall in crime is leading to fewer cases coming to the police in the first place. I am obviously not answerable for the actions of the police who, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, are in fact independent in the way they operate. They can be subject to judicial review, but certainly not to ministerial command. If the hon. Gentleman or indeed any hon. Member has examples where they think that the police decision-making process is not working properly, I would be most grateful if they brought them to my attention or indeed to that of the Home Secretary.

Many people, not just victims of crime, have concerns about the performance of public prosecutors in court. Will the Attorney-General set out what inspections are made of public prosecutors in court and how many unannounced visits are made in order to assess the performance of the CPS prosecutors?

The Crown prosecutors who appear in court as advocates are monitored. Indeed, it is a rather more rigorous monitoring process than the one available, for example, for the independent Bar that does their work. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details of how this monitoring is carried out. The previous Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, made a very particular point in the first year that I was working with him in carrying out an extensive review of the performance of Crown prosecutors. This is monitored and it is also the subject of inspections by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. There are published reports on the quality of the advocacy being delivered.

Now that wasted cost orders are no longer available in legally aided cases awarded against the Crown, how can accountability be enforced against Crown prosecutors who have plainly not only wasted the court’s time, but let down the criminal justice system, which includes victims?

First, if there is adverse publicity in respect of prosecutors not doing their jobs properly, that is a matter of very serious concern to me and should and would be a matter of serious concern to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That provides some sanction in itself, quite apart from the fact that I have to answer for the work of the Crown prosecutors once a month in this House.

The day after we saw barristers and solicitors withdrawing their labour in the teeth of the cuts to legal aid, what is the Attorney-General doing to try to improve the efficiency of the Crown Prosecution Service? When I was a witness just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the inefficiencies and time wasted—for victims, witnesses and prosecutors—in the system. With these stringent cuts, that should surely be an area in which to look for efficiencies.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are seeking to introduce many efficiencies into the system, including digital working, early guilty plea systems and better warning of witnesses. Some of those are in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service, but others, as she will appreciate, are not. They lie with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Court Service. There is a great drive for efficiency: efficiency delivers savings and in a time of austerity, there is no doubt that improving the efficiency of the Court Service and of the throughput of the criminal justice system is one of the highest priorities—both for me and, I know, for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Can anything be done to rectify a perceived imbalance in criminal cases where the person on trial has direct access to the barrister who is representing him while the victim, as a witness, has no direct access to the prosecutor? Victims sometimes feel that their case is not as fully understood by the prosecutor as it should be. Can anything be done about that?

There are limits to what is feasible, although it is also right to say to my hon. Friend that the previous practice, whereby the prosecuting counsel could have no contact whatever with the witness, is now at an end. There is now an opportunity for an introduction and an explanation of how the court process is likely to develop, which I think is a great improvement. That said, there should be no suggestion that a witness is being coached, which my hon. Friend will appreciate could undermine a prosecution case. Those two things have to be balanced. A point that was always made to me when I prosecuted was the absolute necessity of informing witnesses, introducing oneself to them and keeping them informed within the bounds of propriety and the court process about what is actually going on, including talking to witnesses who turn up to find that they are not needed because the defendant has pleaded guilty. It is important to explain that to them.

Prosecutions for Rape, Child Abuse and Domestic Violence

4. If he will take steps to ensure that the causes of the recent decline in prosecutions for rape, child abuse and domestic violence are investigated. (901837)

7. If he will take steps to ensure that the causes of the recent decline in prosecutions for rape, child abuse and domestic violence are investigated. (901840)

In September the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, chaired a meeting with the Home Office and national police leaders, the outcome of which was a six-point action plan to investigate and increase the number of rape and domestic violence cases that are referred by the police to the CPS for charging decisions.

What recent discussions has the Solicitor-General had with Home Office Ministers about the fall in the number of referrals of rape, domestic violence and child abuse cases to the CPS?

I have not engaged in any specific bilateral discussions, but I am a member of a number of Government committees that discuss these matters, including the committee that deals with violence against women and girls. There are falls in the number of referrals, which the six-point action plan is addressing, but it is worth pointing out that the rates of convictions for domestic violence, rape and child sex abuse are at record highs.

What has been the impact of the closure, under the present Government, of 38 out of 39 joint police-CPS offices nationwide on the close co-operation between police and prosecutors that is so vital in relation to this very sensitive subject?

I agree that close co-operation between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service is important. As the hon. Lady will know, there are rape and serious sexual offence units that are combined. However, there are advantages in a more efficient system and a cluster of excellence in the CPS, and the view is that, on balance, the way in which the system is currently developing is more efficient and effective.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on the progress that has been made in ensuring that the court process is less traumatising for victims, especially victims of child sexual exploitation. The greater profile that is now given to some of those cases is a sign of that success.. However, will my hon. and learned Friend tell me what work he is doing with, in particular, children’s charities and child protection professionals with the aim of communicating to some of the victims the information that the court process is now less traumatising and more user-friendly, so that more of them will be encouraged to take their cases all the way to court and appear as witnesses, rather than being scared off and allowing the perpetrators to get off?

The inter-departmental committee on violence against women and girls, which I mentioned earlier, is involved with representatives of various organisations who attend its meetings, so there is that connection. The new guidelines on child sex abuse that were issued last October are intended to bring about a big change in the way in which such cases are dealt with. They recommend an holistic approach and consideration of the credibility of the allegation rather than just the credibility of the witness, and I think that that will help a great deal.

In July 2012, Canadian police closed a child abuse network. They released hundreds of children and passed 2,345 names of suspects to British police, who then did absolutely nothing for 16 months. What assessment has the Solicitor-General made of the effect that that has had on the number of successful prosecutions?

The way in which the police investigate cases is independent. The hon. Gentleman could raise it with the Home Secretary, but it is not dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service. The new CPS guidelines constitute a major step forward, as do the new national network of rape and child sex abuse prosecutors, which provides a source of expertise on such offences in each area. That will lead to more effective prosecutions.

One of the reasons for the decline in the number of prosecutions for child abuse is that the police are not referring as many cases to the Crown Prosecution Service despite the fact that the numbers remain constant, but the other major factor is that local authorities are not co-operating with the Crown Prosecution Service. Was the Minister as shocked as I was to discover that in the past three years two thirds of councils have refused to disclose information to the police and to the CPS in child abuse cases? Does he think in future he should monitor this, rather than leave it to me, through the Freedom of Information Act, to discover that information, and will he consider making disclosure compulsory in future if this situation does not improve?

In fact, the Attorney-General and I have been concerned about this issue and as a result Her Majesty’s inspectorate of the CPS has undertaken a report on disclosure, which was published recently. It is a matter that needs to be addressed. Having said that, the new protocol and the way in which the various authorities are coming together on this is encouraging. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says something from a sedentary position which I cannot hear, but I assure her that all efforts are being made—

I do not want to get into pantomime mode and say, “Oh yes they are,” but the fact of the matter is that considerable progress is being made.

Online Stalking and Harassment

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the rate of successful prosecutions of cases of online stalking and harassment. (901838)

The CPS has published guidance for its prosecutors on stalking and harassment cases and on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. In addition, all prosecutors must complete an online e-learning course on cyber-stalking, non-cyber stalking and harassment.

Will my hon. and learned Friend help reassure victims of stalking and help prosecutors by setting out exactly what training and guidance is being brought in for the CPS following the Government’s implementation of the new tougher stalking offences?

Yes, I am happy to do that. My hon. Friend will recall that just over a year ago the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 amendment provisions dealing with stalking and with stalking leading to fear of violence and alarm and distress were introduced. Since that time new guidance has been brought forward dealing with the way in which such offences are to be identified and with harassment, and also specifically how they should be dealt with if they involve the social media. Some 438 cases have been prosecuted so far under the new law. That figure is not necessarily too low given that we are at a very early stage, but it is important that this should be driven forward so a joint protocol is being produced by the CPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is due in spring 2014 and it will set out in more detail how both sides of the criminal justice service should perform.

Those of us who campaigned for the new law are disappointed in as much as we now have evidence of under-charging by the CPS using the old 1997 Act as it was, and also, regrettably, many Crown prosecutors have not been sufficiently trained to implement the new law. Will the Minister please have a word with the Director of Public Prosecutions and ensure this is put right, because otherwise we will be failing many thousands of people?

May I start by paying tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his all-party group on their work in this area? These two new offences, which were introduced just over a year ago, are an important step forward. It is too early to say whether it is disappointing that the number of offences so far charged is 438 rather than a higher figure, because we want to see how this goes forward from here, but there is no lack of drive or push in trying to deal with these offences, which are horrific and require a very firm approach, and I think this joint protocol will certainly help. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to discuss it with me, I will be more than happy to do so.

Contempt of Court

6. What steps he is taking to promote awareness of the laws on contempt of court among users of social media. (901839)

The media and those who publish information on social media sites should always be alert to the requirements of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. In December I announced that in future, if appropriate to do so, advisory notices that I issue for specific cases will be published on the Government UK website and my office’s Twitter feed as well as being issued to mainstream media. These advisories will not take the form of general guidance, but there will also continue to be some information on contempt available on our gov.uk website and this has been updated today. Providing advisory notices to the wider public on a case-by-case basis will, I hope, ensure greater awareness of the law of contempt and its applicability to both the mainstream media and users of social media and help prevent people from inadvertently committing a contempt of court.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that response. Do the Government plan to follow the Law Commission’s recent recommendations on contempt of court, which include the introduction of a new statutory offence for jurors who google extraneous information relating to their case?

I have read the Law Commission’s report and proposals with great interest, and I am taking them very seriously. They are an extremely important contribution to how we might be able to improve matters.