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Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

The Attorney-General was asked—

Conviction Rates

1. What recent discussions he had with the Director of Public Prosecutions about tackling regional variations in conviction rates. (904725)

5. What recent discussions he had with the Director of Public Prosecutions about tackling regional variations in conviction rates. (904729)

The Crown Prosecution Service delivers a reliable and consistent service, achieving an overall conviction rate of 85% or above in each of the past four years. The CPS is introducing new casework quality standards and standard operating procedures to seek to ensure that a consistent approach to quality is adopted across each CPS area.

I thank the Attorney-General for his answer, but prosecution and conviction rates for rape and other sexual crimes in particular vary widely across the country. What are the Government going to do to seek to ensure that all such crimes are prosecuted and convictions achieved, wherever the crimes occur?

There are indeed some regional variations, although overall when looked at in the round they are perhaps less significant than might be appreciated. However, the CPS has put a great deal of effort into prioritising cases of violence against women and girls, including rape. I am satisfied that, particularly when one looks at those areas that have had the lowest performances—London is a good example of this—the efforts that have been made recently, particularly by Baljit Ubhey, the new Chief Crown Prosecutor, should, with the reviews that have taken place, lead to significant improvements, and indeed they already have.

I am sure that the Attorney-General would like to join me in congratulating Durham CPS on achieving a conviction rate of almost 82%. What is he doing to support Durham in sharing that best practice, so that we can get an overall improvement in conviction rates, which is very much needed?

I seek to support Durham CPS in a number of ways. First, I go to visit Durham CPS; it has been a pleasure to visit its area offices. Secondly, I have a dialogue with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a monthly basis, and if necessary more frequently, when we keep the statistics under review. I have often said that statistics can sometimes become a bit misleading if one becomes obsessed with them, but they are a very good benchmark of quality. Linked to that is the feedback that we get. Equally, what I pick up through the unduly lenient sentence system enables me to evaluate whether the system is working properly in the case of court presentation.

For all those reasons, although I am certainly not complacent and I know that we constantly have to drive this agenda, I am satisfied that the CPS has performed outstandingly on overall conviction rates. On issues concerning rape and violence against women and girls, raised by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), while I clearly have anxieties about areas where there may be lower rates, the performance overall seems, particularly in the hon. Lady’s area, to be very good indeed.

On his visits around different CPS offices, will my right hon. and learned Friend try to get a handle on whether there are regional variations in how we prosecute people who assault vulnerable people, particularly those with dementia? He will be aware of a constituent case of mine, where the public interest test was cited as the reason for not taking forward a prosecution of an assault on someone with dementia. That has caused great concern. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into this?

Yes, I am happy to look into it. I am aware of the case, but my hon. Friend will not be entirely surprised that in addition to that I do not think I can give him an answer about the statistics. If we can find some figures on that type of offence to see whether there are variations, I will provide him with that information.

Not only conviction rates are important; referrals to the CPS also show huge variations. Cheshire tops the table, with 65% of rape allegations being passed to the CPS and 33% of domestic violence incidents being reported to the CPS, but in Warwickshire the figure is only 3.5%. Has my right hon. and learned Friend given any consideration to regional variations in reporting to the CPS?

The Government as a whole are giving a great deal of attention to regional variations in reporting. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have both made this a priority issue. Indeed, I am also aware that the Opposition have taken this issue very seriously, as we all should. There are reviews of why there might be inconsistencies in the reference rates. I wish to see those evened out. I also wish to see the agenda driven forward, as indeed I know does the Director of Public Prosecutions, and as did his predecessor.

Lenient Sentences

2. On how many occasions he has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal as unduly lenient in the last 12 months.


In the period from 1 July 2013 to 4 July 2014 the sentences of 105 offenders were referred as unduly lenient and have either been heard or are due to be heard by the Court of Appeal. My office releases annual statistics for unduly lenient sentence referrals from the previous calendar year, and my office will release the 2013 statistics in the near future.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer. Can he clarify which type of offence has most often been referred to the Court of Appeal, and on how many occasions the Court of Appeal has increased the sentence? Will he confirm that his Department has received representations to review the sentence in the Rolf Harris case?

I can confirm that the Attorney-General’s office has received a request to review the sentence in the Rolf Harris case. I can give this clarification: for the same period, from 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014, the type of offences most often referred to us are, indeed, sexual offences. That includes rape, indecent assault and assault by penetration and other offences. Thirty-one such cases were referred in that period, 25 of which have been heard, and all sentences have been increased. Six cases are yet to be heard.

I have referred cases from my own area to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s office when I have thought that the sentence was unduly lenient. Is that a common practice? Does he receive that kind of information from large numbers of Members of Parliament?

I get some references from Members of Parliament. I do not have the exact figures, but in a given year we receive somewhere between 350 and 400 references. They come from everywhere, including MPs, and I would like to emphasise that if a Member of Parliament feels a sentence is unduly lenient, they should feel free to make such a reference. Each reference will be treated with equal weight, and whether I receive 600 references or one on one particular case, they will be given due consideration.

Of course, we all want fewer references and fewer referrals, and much clearer sentencing guidelines and sentences that are fit for purpose. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give me and the House an assurance that that will be the case when we get the much-heralded review of sentences for criminal driving?

If I may say, the evidence is overwhelming that we are moving to greater consistency in sentencing. The Sentencing Council and the progressive rolling out of sentencing guidelines is an immensely helpful tool to judges in ensuring consistency in sentencing. In addition, if the judge has not explained any inconsistency with the guidance, that usually provides a good basis for my making a reference in those cases which are referable. I think we are moving in the right direction, and that progress is totally supported by the judiciary. I therefore hope that, as we move to new areas in which guidance is provided, the need for me to make references will go down.

Child Abuse (Prosecutions)

The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes child abuse cases robustly. In 2013-14, the number of such prosecutions rose by 440 to 7,998, with a conviction rate of 76.2%. Steps to prosecute the cases include piloting pre-recorded cross-examination of children, prioritising cases involving children aged 10 and under, and applying a new approach to child sexual abuse cases generally.

I am grateful for that answer. The Director of Public Prosecutions recently announced a series of measures regarding cases of rape because of the decline in referrals from the police to the CPS. Will such measures be considered in cases of child sex abuse, given that there has been a decline in referrals of such cases from the police to the CPS since 2010-11?

The emerging evidence is that the referrals are beginning to increase, which is good news. However, there are new guidelines, issued last October, for child sex abuse cases, which provide that there should be specialist prosecutors; a focus on the allegation, not the victim: early third-party material; and a challenging of myths and stereotypes.

Given that historic child abuse cases are being revisited because there is a chance of successful prosecution, can the Solicitor-General clarify the policy of his office and of the CPS on the destruction of documents, and what has been the policy over the years?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Home Secretary announced yesterday an inquiry that will look into the way in which paedophilia and institutions have operated. A separate inquiry, which he knows about, is looking into the documents and dossiers, including those of my former hon. Friend Geoffrey Dickens. A lot of work is being done to discover the history. As far as the present situation is concerned, the Government are for maximum security and care in looking after documents and want to see transparency in everything they do.

May I press the Solicitor-General on that answer? He is aware that there is acute public concern at the suggestion that Government Departments, particularly the Home Office but also the Director of Public Prosecutions, failed to act on a series of child abuse allegations brought to their attention by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP. It has been reported that although documents outlined in those allegations were presented to the DPP in 1983, the CPS can no longer locate them. The Home Secretary has instigated an inquiry, but perhaps the Solicitor-General can clarify a couple of matters now.

What is CPS policy on document retention from the DPP’s office in the early 1980s, and does the apparent disappearance of the documents suggest that an exception was made to that policy, or was it breached? What explanation has the Solicitor-General received about the absence of the files? What steps has the CPS taken to try to recover the documents, and can he say what action, if any, was taken regarding the allegations by the DPP or the CPS in 1983 or at any time thereafter?

The hon. Lady does always have the alternative recourse of an application for an Adjournment debate.

Indeed, but this can be dealt with now. What I was gently, diplomatically, politely suggesting to the hon. Lady was that one question ordinarily suffices, and it is not necessary to have five in one go.

I do not think I will be able to answer all those questions, but I will certainly write to the hon. Lady when I have reflected on all the detailed points she made.

I want to make the point that the sort of decisions made in 1970 or 1998 occurred under a very different approach from the courts. I think the hon. Lady would accept that since that time the maximum sentences for indecent assault have been increased; the way in which corroboration is dealt with by the courts has changed; and the ways in which character evidence and historical allegations are looked at have changed. For now, I would say that in the current situation the Crown Prosecution Service makes the prosecution of these cases a top priority, and there are new guidelines and all the sorts of approaches I have already mentioned. We are living in a very different world, but I will write to her on the detailed points.

If lawyers were paid by the word, they would be multi-millionaires by now. I would like to get through a bit more, preferably with the co-operation of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), in the form of an exceptionally pithy question.

Will Law Officers take every available step to ensure that public servants and former public servants are not prevented, by terms of severance agreements or the Official Secrets Act, from providing information on which the inquiry is contingent?

As the Home Secretary said yesterday, it is the Government’s intention to have a transparent inquiry, and the Attorney-General’s office stands ready to support that.

Bribery Laws

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that offences against bribery laws are prosecuted successfully.


The CPS is the principal prosecutor of domestic bribery, and the Serious Fraud Office has lead responsibility for enforcing the provisions of the Bribery Act 2010 in respect of overseas corruption. I hold regular meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the SFO to discuss issues affecting their respective organisations. I am satisfied that both organisations are well positioned to enforce bribery laws, as is well illustrated by the major investigations into cases of suspected foreign bribery that the SFO has commenced.

If the SFO wants to investigate a major bribery case, it has to go cap in hand to the Treasury to beg for funds. What steps is the Attorney-General taking to ensure that the SFO is not just independent, but seen to be completely independent?

I do not think that the SFO does have to go cap in hand to the Treasury. The SFO can go to the Treasury for special funding. The difficulty has always been that some cases require a lot of funds, and if they are not being inquired into, the SFO is probably receiving more money in any given year than it needs. I accept that this is an issue, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it, but I am satisfied that the SFO has not been prevented by financing from investigating any cases it wishes. That is a good starting point.

Criminal Assets

7. What recent estimate he has made of the total value of criminal assets subject to Serious Fraud Office confiscation orders that are hidden overseas.


The Serious Fraud Office estimates that, as at today, approximately £32.1 million of criminal assets subject to confiscation orders in SFO cases are hidden overseas. Sophisticated criminals often transfer their assets to other jurisdictions and misuse legal ownership structures to make recovery difficult, but since 2009 the SFO has managed to recover £76 million for victims of crime.

Given the amount of money criminals have hidden overseas that is owed to the SFO, will the Solicitor-General support Labour amendments to the Serious Crime Bill to increase the power of prosecutors and increase penalties for suspects who hide their assets overseas?

As the hon. Lady knows, that Bill is part of the Government’s serious and organised crime strategy, and it includes measures to strengthen the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and enhance our enforcement powers during the fourth parliamentary Session. Of course the Government will always look at what amendments are and whether they improve the situation, and I am sure that will be case in this matter, as always.

Vulnerable Witnesses

8. What the Crown Prosecution Service is doing to ensure that adequate support is given to vulnerable witnesses in cases of sexual abuse or domestic violence.


May I welcome my hon. Friend to Law Officers questions?

The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police and voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence are well supported. Special measures include: intermediaries; screening at court; and use of the video live link to help victims give their best evidence, supported by independent sexual violence advisers and domestic advisers who can guide them through the criminal justice process.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that new measures such as pre-recording evidence with vulnerable witnesses before a trial go a long way towards helping victims? Will he join me in thanking local organisations such as the Newark Women’s Aid and refuge which have campaigned on this for several years?

Yes, I am delighted to do so. I am also delighted to tell my hon. Friend that the Crown Prosecution Service in the east midlands is due to commence a pilot in Nottinghamshire shortly, whereby victims of domestic violence will be offered the chance to give evidence by video live link. A number of other measures have been put in place by the CPS to try to improve victims’ experience of going to court to give evidence in those very difficult cases.