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Volume 578: debated on Tuesday 25 March 2014

The Attorney-General was asked—

Proceeds of Crime (Confiscation)

1. What recent assessment he has made of the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office to confiscate the proceeds of crime. (903264)

The last external assessment was completed by the National Audit Office as part of its report on confiscation orders in December 2013.

Last year, the Serious Fraud Office collected £3.9 million in proceeds of crime, but it hoped to collect £32 million. Will the Minister explain why the shortfall occurred, what he intends to do about it and whether the £19 million requested Treasury bail-out has anything to do with that shortfall?

No, the shortfall does not have anything to do with that figure. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that money is recovered in different ways. More than £76 million has been returned to victims as a result of Serious Fraud Office activity since 2009, so it is wrong to ignore compensation and other moneys paid to victims when looking at the overall picture.

The Solicitor-General refers to the National Audit Office report—it was shocking, was it not?—which talks about how the confiscation of criminal assets is just not working at the moment. There are 27% fewer asset restraining orders than there were in 2010; £450 million remains unpaid, even after defendants have served extra time; and £285 million in foreign banks cannot be touched—I could go on, but I am sure that Mr Speaker would not wish me to do so. What plans do the Solicitor-General and Attorney-General have to strengthen enforcement of confiscation orders? Will the Solicitor-General improve our co-operation with overseas jurisdictions? How can we make sure that our justice system gets its hands on these ill-gotten gains?

The hon. Lady is covering a much broader area than that raised in the question. As I think she would agree, the Serious Fraud Office has a superb unit that is actively after the money that it leads on—£100 million—and it is believed to be extremely competent. [Interruption.] The extra money is nothing to do with this particular aspect. Overall, we do need a proper strategy to improve confiscation and asset recovery, and that is under way. Ministers are meeting on the matter, and a new strategy from the Crown Prosecution Service was explained in more detail when evidence was given to the Justice Committee. I think the hon. Lady is being over-critical, as it is not always easy to extract money that is overseas in complex trust arrangements and hard to recover.


2. What assessment he has made of the legal implications for the UK of Russia’s recognition of Crimea as a sovereign state. (903265)

3. What assessment he has made of the legal implications for the UK of Russia’s recognition of Crimea as a sovereign state. (903266)

The steps taken by President Putin to annex Crimea to Russia, including recognition of Crimea as a sovereign state, are a flagrant breach of international law and Russia’s international obligations. The United Kingdom, in common with the European Union and the majority of the international community, does not recognise the 16 March Crimea referendum or its outcome as legitimate or of any credibility or value. As has been made clear by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary at this Dispatch Box, Russian actions threaten the rules-based system of international order, a fundamental principle of which is respect for the territorial integrity of states.

My constituents of Ukrainian descent in Huddersfield are following this crisis closely. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this crisis should have been resolved through diplomacy and international law, and that we, and others, must not exacerbate the situation through such unilateral and provocative actions?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As he is aware from what the Prime Minister said, there was no basis or justification for Russia’s actions in Crimea, even before it moved on to annexation. Its decisions to do that are, as I said, in flagrant breach of its international legal obligations. The United Kingdom is co-operating with other states, including those of the G7 and the European Union, in making clear that such behaviour is unacceptable, and that there will continue to be consequences for as long as Russia does not de-escalate the crisis.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is more important than ever that we depend on the stability and security of the international order?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Although at times people call into question the mechanisms of international order under the charter of the United Nations, or in a European Context those of the Council of Europe, they have delivered over time real improvements in the way in which states behave towards each other. That is why the actions of the Russian Government in tearing up the rule book in this way are so sinister and so chilling.

Is the Attorney-General satisfied that the United Kingdom in particular has fulfilled all its obligations under the Budapest memorandum?

I have no reason to think that the United Kingdom has not fulfilled its undertakings under the memorandum. The memorandum provided some important mechanisms and assurances for the Ukrainian Government when Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, and it is clear that those have not been observed by the Russian Government.

So why does the United Kingdom not move to expel Russia from the Council of Europe? My right hon. and learned Friend has said in the past that if we do not give prisoners the vote we will be expelled from the Council of Europe, so surely on the issue of proportionality it is important that we spell out to Russia that it should leave the Council of Europe, and if not, it should be expelled.

As my hon. Friend is aware, and as the Prime Minister made clear at the G7 summit, the United Kingdom Government will, along with its partners, look at a range of sanctions and responses, depending on how the crisis unfolds and whether the Russian Government seek to de-escalate it. The best answer I can give is that nothing is ruled out at all.

Law Officers’ Departments (Running Costs)

Over the next two financial years, the total expenditure of the Law Officers’ departments will be reduced through measures such as shared legal services, reduction in non-front-line staff, increased digitalisation, rationalisation of estates and more efficient court listing practices.

How much is the Department spending to contest freedom of information and court decisions, in order to suppress information to the public? The claim has been made that information is available that would show that an important person is unfit to do his future job. Should we not allow the lobbying letters of Prince Charles to be made public?

The hon. Gentleman raises a case that involves issues of constitutional significance, including upholding Parliament’s intentions for the freedom of information regime and the Government’s ability to protect information in the public interest. It is important that the Government continue to fight the case in question. To protect public funds, if we are successful at the next stage of the legal proceedings, we would expect The Guardian to meet our legal costs in full.


My hon. Friend has a long interest in this matter in his role as vice chair of the all-party group on Hillsborough and because Anne Williams, who sadly died last April and whose son Kevin died at Hillsborough, was one of his constituents. As the hon. Gentleman may know, a number of pre-inquest hearings have taken place since the appointment of Lord Justice Goldring in February 2013. I am able to tell him that the inquests themselves are scheduled to commence next week on 31 March.

Tuesday 15 April marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Friends and relatives of those affected have waited far too long to find out what happened. With the inquests starting next week, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the press now have to be extremely careful in how they report the inquests, to avoid any form of accusation of prejudicing inquests?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The families have waited a long time, and I am very pleased that the inquest is going to take place. It is right that the coroner issued a warning on 11 February about reporting, and I issued a contempt advisory on 10 March. It is important that the issues that will be raised and considered at the inquests are not prejudged through comment in the media or social media, and that the lawyers representing the families, the coroner and the jury can get on with their work.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General. I think right hon. and hon. Members will have taken note of the substance of that reply.

I thank the Attorney-General for his comments. As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) pointed out, we will soon mark the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. It is important to remember that we lost 96 individual people, and that thousands more were terribly affected. Will the Attorney-General join me in remembering the people we lost and offer his support to the memorial events taking place over the next month or so?

I am very happy to join with the hon. Lady in that respect. Having studied the papers that led me to make the reference to the High Court to seek a fresh inquest, I can understand the scale of the tragedy that took place very well indeed. For those reasons, I hope the commemoration goes well and is of use and help to the families. I join wholeheartedly in the sentiment she has expressed.

Rape (Charging Decisions)

6. What steps the Director of Public Prosecutions is taking to improve the timeliness with which charging decisions are reached in cases of rape. (903269)

8. What steps the Director of Public Prosecutions is taking to improve the timeliness with which charging decisions are reached in cases of rape. (903271)

The Crown Prosecution Service’s new rape and serious sexual offences units now advise police in all areas at the start of rape investigations. Rape charging decisions require meticulous attention and can include complex evidence. They are monitored by the Director of Public Prosecutions in all areas at six-monthly intervals, and recent improvements have resulted in the highest ever levels of rape convictions.

But figures unearthed by the Opposition show that it is taking prosecutors more than a month to charge alleged rapists—10 days longer than it took five years ago. Is it not awful for rape victims to have to wait that extra period, and does it not run the risk that they will withdraw their support for a prosecution? What are the Government going to do about that?

It is important to charge as soon as possible, particularly when vulnerable witnesses are involved, and there is a protocol to that effect between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. However, it is also important for the CPS to be able to take on more cases that are referred to it by the police than has previously been the case, and to take on more complex cases involving more vulnerable victims. It is doing that now, and the result is an improved conviction rate. While timeliness is important, it is also vital for there to be that careful attention to detail which results in a successful outcome.

What assessment has the Solicitor-General made of the impact on CPS charging times of the loss of a quarter of CPS solicitors and the closure of 40 operational offices since 2010?

It has had no impact whatever, because there has been a clear prioritisation of cases of this kind—involving specialist rape prosecutors—and, indeed, of child abuse cases. Cuts would certainly never affect performance, and the overall statistics show that they are not doing so

In a recent statement, the Minister for Crime Prevention said that he had

“held discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has agreed to establish a CPS-police scrutiny panel to look at how forces deal with rape.”

When is that panel likely to be set up?

This is part of the six-point plan that I outlined during an earlier Question Time. It is designed to establish why there are fewer referrals from the police, and, in particular, why that is the case in certain parts of the country. The national scrutiny panel will sit on 4 April with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the national policing lead on rape, and will examine evidence compiled from seven police force areas to see what the implications are.

A range of special measures can be taken in the courts themselves to make the experience of court less troubling for vulnerable witnesses. There are also witness care units. I have already mentioned the rape and serious sexual offences units, which are another part of our efforts to support witnesses. As the hon. Lady has implied, if prosecutions of this kind are to be effective, there must be confident witnesses who are prepared to explain exactly what happened, and that is what we are aiming to achieve.

Serious Fraud Office

7. What recent discussions he has had with the director of the Serious Fraud Office on funding arrangements for that agency. (903270)

I meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office regularly to discuss a range of matters, including finance. The SFO has a current core budget to enable it to carry out its work, but the nature of that work means that it will need additional funding from time to time for its very largest and most complex investigations and prosecutions, such as those relating to LIBOR. As with any other department, the principal arrangement is for the SFO to apply for any additional funding that is required during the year through the estimates process, as it has recently done.

As the Attorney-General has just explained, because the SFO is so underfunded, every time a major case comes along it must go cap in hand to the Chancellor for more funds. David Green, the director of the SFO, has described the arrangement as

“a mystery…inside an enigma”,

and has told the Justice Committee that he is

“keen that an appropriate and more certain funding model can be agreed by all those with an interest.”

Will the Attorney-General do as the director has repeatedly asked, and review the funding arrangements?

If I may say so, I always keep the funding arrangements under review, and I am always happy to discuss them with my colleagues in the Treasury. The nature of the SFO’s work load is very flexible, and I therefore think it almost inevitable that if it is to do its work effectively, there will be occasions when it will need extra funding, or will require funding in excess of what it needs. This is an interesting balance which we need to look at. That said, I am mindful of the fact that there may be other ways in which the funding can be delivered and I discuss that frequently with the director of the Serious Fraud Office.

Hate Crimes

9. What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on prosecuting crimes of violence against subcultures as hate crimes. (903272)

I pay tribute to the work the hon. Lady has done in this area. The CPS prosecutes violent offences robustly, including cases where victims have been attacked on the basis of subculture. Targeting particular groups is treated as an aggravating feature in such cases.

I thank the Minister for that response. As he is aware, I have been working with the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. She was killed seven years ago and her mother has been tirelessly campaigning for police forces to record such crimes as hate crimes. Might it be part of the sentencing guidelines given to courts that they can sentence specifically in relation to hate crimes?

At present statutory provisions cover cases motivated by hostility or prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity, but none the less it is possible for a judge to sentence on the basis that the crime was motivated by hate of a different kind, as Judge Russell did in the case the hon. Lady mentioned, and to treat that as an aggravating feature. I think the hon. Lady is arranging a meeting at the House of Commons tomorrow at which the Sophie Lancaster Foundation will be having a listening event.