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Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Attorney-General was asked—

Child Abuse

1. How many local authorities have signed up to the information-sharing protocol for cases of child abuse launched in November 2013 by the Director of Public Prosecutions. (902533)

5. How many local authorities have signed up to the information-sharing protocol for cases of child abuse launched in November 2013 by the Director of Public Prosecutions. (902538)

The national protocol came into force on 1 January this year. The aim is for all parties to sign a local protocol as soon as possible. The Crown Prosecution Service intends to carry out a survey of all CPS areas to monitor progress.

If the voluntary approach does not produce the goods that the Minister and the Opposition wish to see, will he consider making it compulsory for local authorities to sign such protocols, given the importance of the issue? In particular, will he discuss it in my area with the National Assembly for Wales?

It is very important that local protocols should be signed so that there is a clear, seamless process and when an investigation starts the information is shared with the other authorities. A draft protocol has now been sent to contacts in all the local authorities in the right hon. Gentleman’s area, and discussions are continuing. It is thought that it will be possible to have the protocol signed by the middle of March.

Given that openness and information sharing are key to prosecuting these cases, what assurance can the Solicitor-General give that the Government will resist calls to introduce suspect anonymity in cases of historical child abuse and rape?

On the subject of information sharing, tomorrow the judges in Newcastle are meeting all the local authorities to try to agree a way forward. There are certainly no current plans to change the anonymity rules. If the hon. Lady wants to discuss this with me, I would be more than happy to do so.

My hon. and learned Friend knows how important information sharing is in this very sensitive area. He is no doubt aware of the successful conviction of the former head teacher of Caldicott preparatory school the week before last in my constituency. Will he join me in paying tribute to Mr Tom Perry, who revealed his own historical child abuse to enable this prosecution to go forward? What encouragement can he give to Mr Perry and his colleagues as regards the Government looking favourably on mandatory reporting for regulated activities, which could help to protect more of our children in future?

This was an horrendous case, and, like my right hon. Friend, I pay tribute to Tom Perry for his courage. She is absolutely right about information sharing and, as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), it is important to have these local protocols in place so that information is shared expeditiously from the very beginning. We believe that that will happen; certainly, very good progress is being made. We will look at the results of the survey and at that point we will be able to see where we stand.

On child abuse, is any progress being made on prosecutions for female genital mutilation? Is the Solicitor-General aware of the disappointment felt by so many people all round the country that so far it seems that this issue is not being taken seriously enough? Can we expect prosecutions in the near future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, because this is a very important issue. Ministers met non-governmental organisations last week to discuss how to make progress. A number of things are happening. He will know that the Crown Prosecution Service is currently reviewing 10 cases, and it is very much hoped that it will be possible to ground a prosecution. However, the key thing is that one does need evidence, so it is very important that the information gathering for the sort of evidence that is needed for a successful prosecution is found and pursued. Every effort is being made, and I have recently visited all the units concerned.

Child abuse and rape prosecutions are falling because the agencies are not working together. I have uncovered the fact that local authorities are not disclosing information to police and prosecutors and the fact that the police are referring fewer and fewer cases to prosecutors. We now need to know what the Solicitor-General and his brother and sister Ministers are going to do to show some leadership on this issue. Are the Government doing nothing about it because violence against women and girls is not a priority for them, or because the 27% cuts to the CPS and the loss of a quarter of its lawyers mean that the Solicitor-General is resigned to the idea that more and more cases are going to be dropped?

It is sad to hear the hon. Lady traduce the Crown Prosecution Service in that way. The fact is that we have the highest ever level of conviction rates for rape, for domestic violence and for child abuse, and the people who are prosecuting these cases are doing an excellent job. She knows that we are investigating fully, through a six-point plan, why referrals are falling in some parts of the country, but the idea that the Crown Prosecution Service can be criticised when it is doing the best it has ever done in terms of conviction rates is quite wrong.

Shared Legal Service

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Treasury Solicitor on the development of a shared legal service. [R] (902534)

I have regular discussions with the Treasury Solicitor, Sir Paul Jenkins, on matters of mutual interest. Sir Paul is the architect of the shared legal service, which has led to a much improved organisation and streamlining of the Government legal service. I trust that that will continue. Sir Paul has been a Government lawyer for 35 years. He will retire at the end of the month and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his major contribution to this issue, for his years of service to the Government legal service and, indeed, for helping the good governance of our country.

I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Will my right hon. and learned Friend set out what benefits will be gained from sharing legal services across Government Departments?

Sharing legal services brings considerable benefits in greater flexibility and reliance; more efficient deployment of legal resources, including specialist expertise; and more opportunities for savings and improved knowledge sharing. It also provides a more coherent legal service for Government as a whole and good career development opportunities for lawyers, and it improves the legal support to individual Departments.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one area of expertise that could be improved by shared legal service is that of awareness of and consistent access to expertise in forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, which should be available to all Government Departments?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is precisely the benefit of bringing the legal advisers from different Departments into one organisation. There is now a single board that groups those people together in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, and I am confident it can deliver savings, lower charging costs for Departments—we have already seen that—and greater efficiency and expertise in-house.

Stolen Assets (Repatriation)

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the repatriation of stolen assets to emerging democracies in the middle east and north Africa. (902535)

In September 2012, the Prime Minister established a taskforce to speed up our efforts to return stolen assets to the people of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The Metropolitan Police Service is currently investigating a number of specific cases alongside its Egyptian counterparts. At international level, we used our G8 presidency last year to promote that agenda. That included co-hosting an international conference in Marrakesh on asset recovery last October, which I attended.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that this Government have been at the forefront of helping with the issue, particularly with regard to returning stolen assets to Egypt, and that that was key at the Arab Forum on asset recovery?

Yes, I can confirm that we have been at the forefront of asset recovery efforts. A number of priority cases have been identified with the Egyptian authorities. UK investigators have opened domestic money laundering investigations into individuals with significant assets in the UK and they are in daily contact with their Egyptian counterparts. I hope that that will improve with some secondments to Egypt shortly.

The Arab Forum on asset recovery allowed us an opportunity to have an overall discussion about the issue. One of the difficulties is a lack of understanding in some countries about the due process of law that has to be gone through in order for recovery to take place. I hope, therefore, that the conference facilitated a greater understanding of that.

A National Audit Office report on the proceeds of crime shows that, as a result of poor co-ordination and a lack of leadership, out of every £100 generated in the criminal economy, as much as £99.64 is retained by the perpetrator. What is the Attorney-General doing to address those findings so that victims in north African and middle eastern emerging democracies can get their—

Order. We are fully seized of the purport of the hon. Gentleman’s inquiry at just about the same time as he has become seized himself.

The hon. Gentleman shows some ingenuity in linking his question to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies). I assure the hon. Gentleman that asset recovery is given a high priority and that a taskforce within Government is looking at how we can improve it overall. There are a number of interesting challenges, which go back long before this Government came into office. For example, there is a mismatch between the amounts ordered to be seized and the actual realisable amounts and, in some cases, the orders made bear very little relation to the assets available. We are looking at all those things and seeking to prioritise how we can identify those assets that can best be recovered. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that so that he can be brought up to date on our thinking.

In relation to repatriation from north Africa and the middle east, the Attorney-General will know that, in 2012, 500 children were abducted from the United Kingdom contrary to UK court orders and taken to countries in such areas. What steps have been taken and what discussions have taken place with those countries about returning the children to the United Kingdom?

This matter does not fall within my departmental responsibility, and it would be best for my hon. Friend to raise that with the Ministry of Justice. I accept that there are areas of real difficulty in respect of children who are abducted, but that complex issue above all involves international co-operation and respect for the orders made by family courts in other countries.

It is probably foolish to engage in speculation about precise figures, but I will simply say that it is recognised that there are likely to be substantial sums in this country.

Domestic Homicide

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the use of diminished responsibility defences in domestic homicide cases. (902536)

The CPS is working to strengthen its approach to domestic homicide cases, particularly where the partial defence of diminished responsibility is raised.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that domestic homicide trials where the defence is one of diminished responsibility deteriorate into character assassinations of the victim, rather than focusing on the facts of the case. Will he say what steps the CPS is taking to mitigate that issue, particularly to reduce the trauma to victims and their families?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on homicide as a subject, and I agree with her. The Crown Prosecution Services needs to take and will take a challenging attitude in three areas. The first is unwarranted attacks on the deceased’s character. The second is the need to emphasise the context of domestic violence, which is an aggregating feature, and to bring out evidence about the true dynamics of the relationship, so that such cases are treated as cases of domestic violence. The third is that the CPS should be aware that the existence of a recognised mental condition does not necessarily mean that it amounts to an abnormality of mental functioning sufficient for grounds of diminished responsibility.

The “Domestic Homicide Reviews” lessons learned paper published last year stated that the CPS was “looking to strengthen guidance” for prosecutors about bail applications. Has that happened, because people on bail too often go on to reoffend?

The guidance on that area is being worked on at present, but I will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady’s concern is reflected back.

The law of diminished responsibility very often depends on expert evidence from psychiatrists. In complex cases, decisions about such important offences are far too often made at the last minute. Is my hon. and learned Friend happy about existing protocols in relation to making sure that psychiatric evidence can be agreed at the earliest possible opportunity, and that the consequences of important decisions based on that evidence can be explained in ordinary English to the families of the victims?

My hon. Friend makes the very important point that the bereaved should meet the prosecutor post-charge and pre-trial. As I said a moment ago, the troubled issue of the meaning of a recognised mental condition in these circumstances should be examined in a challenging way by Crown prosecutors.

These are very serious and complex cases. Does the Solicitor-General propose to look at sentencing guidelines for cases where it is found that any of the parties involved suffers from a mental illness?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are guideline cases dealing with manslaughter. The judge has to have discretion because, as he will know only too well, there are cases in which the mental condition is suddenly there and an incident occurs that is totally out of character for the accused. In those cases, adequate discretion needs to be available.

Foreign Offenders (Removal)

6. What recent steps he has taken to promote awareness among prosecutors of the tools available to secure the removal from the UK of low-level foreign offenders. (902539)

The Crown Prosecution Service has worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the UK Border Force to develop joint guidance for the foreign national offender conditional caution scheme in advance of its introduction in April 2013. Prosecutors are advised that where the criteria are met, there is a strong public interest in issuing a conditional caution to foreign national offenders.

I understand that 20 cautions were issued in the six months from April 2013 and that 13 were successful in removing the offender. What happened to the other seven?

It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands that any decision to go down that road pre-charge is for the police to make, not for the CPS. The CPS can be consulted and after charge, when it is reviewing cases, it may identify cases that it can recommend should go down that route and have the charges dropped. I cannot tell him what happened to the other seven; I shall try to find out and write to him. It is desirable that the project be taken forward. It is not without difficulty: there are human rights issues, and often people say they are asylum seekers or have claimed asylum and therefore cannot be removed. That said, the fact that even that small number of people have been removed seems to me to be a step in the right direction.

What happens when those foreigners have been repatriated? Are they allowed automatically to come back to this country at a later date, or are they banned from returning?

Generally speaking, they are banned from returning to the United Kingdom, at least for a period of time. It depends on the nature of the offence: in some cases, the offence will be an immigration offence and may lead to a ban for a period of time; a serious criminal offence is likely to lead to a ban for ever.

Last week, the Government introduced a new provision in the Immigration Bill allowing the Home Secretary to remove the British citizenship of people from other countries who have been naturalised. In cases where the individual is resident in this country, what will happen to them? Will they be banished from the realm? Will they be exiled, and if so, where to?

I think the hon. Gentleman has taken a slightly simplistic view. The measure passed by the House returns us to the status quo ante 2006, which allows for such a power to be exercised by the Home Secretary. Obviously, if that power is to be exercised it has to be exercised bearing in mind, first, whether the person may obtain another nationality, and secondly, whether they can be deported. A number of criteria can be brought into play before a decision is made on such a case.

The cost to the taxpayer of every 1,000 prisoners kept on the prison estate is £28 million. What work has my right hon. and learned Friend done and what advice has he given the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to expedite bilateral agreements with countries such as Ireland and Poland to bring about the quick removal of foreign national offenders?

I am not allowed to say what I do or do not advise on, but in countries such as Ireland and Poland—signatories to the European convention on human rights and fellow members of the EU—it ought to be possible by bilateral dialogue to speed up the removal of prisoners from the United Kingdom, either to serve the rest of their sentence in their country of origin, or deporting them at the end of their sentence.

Digital Working

7. What assessment he has made of the effects of increased digital working by the Crown Prosecution Service; and what estimate he has made of the savings to the public purse as a result of that increase. (902540)

The CPS has led progress in implementing digital working with other criminal justice agencies. It is estimated that most police forces are now transferring 90% of case files electronically and that savings of £30 million a year can be achieved by 2015-16.

Are the other parts of the criminal justice system being as proactive as the CPS in developing and increasing digital working?

Yes, all parts of the criminal justice system are embracing digitalisation, with Essex and Chelmsford playing a key role. Essex police lead on the development of the Athena digital police system—the largest ever collaboration on a police IT project, taking a case from report to court—and Chelmsford is piloting court wi-fi and clickshare video.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is pleased to represent the new white heat of the technological revolution.

Serious Fraud Office (Overseas Co-operation)

8. In what ways the Serious Fraud Office co-operates with prosecutors overseas; and if he will make a statement. (902541)

The Serious Fraud Office co-operates with prosecutors overseas during joint investigations, SFO investigations with which overseas prosecutors can assist, building capacity internationally, and executing requests for legal assistance when asked to do so by the Home Office.

Can the Attorney-General say what discussions he has had with America regarding the extradition of people who may be guilty of fixing the LIBOR? Progress is lacking in prosecuting people involved in LIBOR-fixing; does this increase the likelihood of their being extradited?

The Serious Fraud Office is in touch frequently with its United States counterparts in respect of investigations that have a transnational dimension. I will not talk about a specific case, but looking at the matter hypothetically, in such circumstances it will be decided in which jurisdiction a prosecution would best be brought. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a LIBOR investigation is progressing in this country. There are also investigations in the United States. From what I know of the matter, I am satisfied that there will be good co-operation between the two jurisdictions to ensure that any alleged criminality is brought to justice.

Law of Contempt

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on reform of the law of contempt. (902542)

I met the Justice Secretary recently to discuss proposals for reforming the law of contempt. The proposals will implement recommendations that were made by the Law Commission and have been included in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. I strongly support the reforms, which include the creation of criminal offences for jury misconduct. If enacted, the legislation will reform the contempt law that is applicable to publication contempt, with the aim of providing greater clarity and certainty for the media and the courts about when material that is published online should be removed when proceedings are active.

What success has my right hon. and learned Friend had in prosecuting jurors who ignore judges’ pre-trial advice, particularly with regard to the unlawful use of social media?

Since coming to office, the Solicitor-General, his predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), and I have successfully instituted proceedings against five jurors. Four of those cases involved the misuse of the internet, including using the internet to conduct research. In two of those cases, social media were used to commit the contempt. As a result of those proceedings, judicial directions to jurors have been revised and strengthened. The purpose of those prosecutions is to send out a clear message about the unacceptability of such behaviour and, thereby, to ensure that further prosecutions are not necessary. By turning it into a straightforward criminal offence, we will make quite clear the gravity of the matter, while also providing statutory defences.

We will hear very shortly from the man in the conker-coloured suit. I look forward to that, as does the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a moment.