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Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

The Attorney-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

1. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute cases of domestic violence. (906833)

New guidance on handling cases of domestic abuse was announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 29 December last year, and that will help the CPS to deal effectively with a projected 20,000 more cases this year than two years ago. The updated guidance sets out the handling of all aspects of domestic abuse offending, including the many ways that abusers can control, coerce and psychologically abuse their victims. The new proposed offence of coercive and controlling behaviour announced by the Home Secretary will be introduced in the Serious Crime Bill.

I congratulate the Solicitor-General on the progress made so far, but a recent study showed that families experiencing domestic violence are 23 times more likely to abuse their children under the age of five. Does he acknowledge that children, who are more often than not the victims, often inherit those domestic violence traits themselves, and what is he doing to protect children from domestic violence abusers as early as possible?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s continuing work in this field, both when he was a Minister and as a Member of Parliament. The CPS guidelines are clear that the presence of children must be treated as an aggravating factor when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Often, criminal justice procedures are difficult for children and young people, who feel that they have to take sides, and special measures are available if they have to give evidence. I will do everything I can to ensure that children are protected within the criminal justice system.

Last spring in my constituency two women were brutally murdered by their partners within a three-week period, one alongside her toddler daughter. In both cases, families, friends and others in the community were aware that abuse was taking place. Is the Solicitor-General content that evidence gathered by the police from others outside the direct situation is being used effectively and passed to the CPS to aid in prosecutions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I cannot comment on those specific cases, but she makes an important point about collaboration among agencies, whether social services or other arms of local government. The CPS and the police are clear that there needs to be even better collaborative working to ensure that tell-tale signs are not missed before it is too late.

I welcome the announcement of a new measure on domestic abuse by coercive and controlling behaviour. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm whether this important proposed legislation, which could have had a real impact on the life of Hollie Gazzard, who was brutally murdered in Gloucester not long ago, will be complete before this Parliament comes to an end?

My hon. Friend raises a tragic case. The Government have such cases very much in mind when making sure that the full course of domestic violence conduct is reflected by the criminal law. The Serious Crime Bill will be in Committee next week, and is the platform on which these important reforms will be introduced. I very much hope that Royal Assent will be achieved before the Dissolution of Parliament.

Recent press reports have suggested that cuts to legal aid have been putting victims of domestic violence at a disadvantage, and even deterring them from pursuing their cases at law. Will the Attorney-General be making representations to the Justice Secretary on this serious matter?

My particular concern is the prosecution of cases involving domestic abuse. I am happy to say that numbers continue to rise, both in terms of the proportion of conviction rates and the absolute number of police referrals. In fact, we have now reached the highest number of police referrals ever recorded.

Social Media

2. What steps he is taking to develop a greater level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to social media. (906834)

Where appropriate, I publish online warnings about potential prejudicial reporting that had previously only been given to the mainstream media. We also send tweets warning social media users of the risks of being in contempt of court. I intend to look again at whether there is anything more that can be done to raise awareness in this area. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service publishes online its guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. These set out the approach that prosecutors should take when deciding whether to prosecute.

The inappropriate use of social media can cause immense harm to innocent people; there was a case just before Christmas of a young man who was driven to suicide by the actions of online bullies. What actions can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that people understand that their unlawful conduct online is subject to precisely the same sanctions as such conduct offline?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s point. It is important for everyone to understand that if they engage in behaviour online and on social media that would be punished under criminal law in other circumstances, it will be punished under criminal law. As I said, the CPS is making an effort to publish its guidelines on a number of matters. This is one of them and there was a public consultation prior to it. We all need to play our part to ensure that people understand the law in this area.

Does the Attorney-General share my concern about the increase in Islamophobia and racism on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the inability of site owners to take the postings down? Will he have a meeting with the companies concerned to urge them to take down these postings, rather than face prosecution?

I do share that concern, and I am very happy to meet social media providers and others to discuss what more we can do. As the right hon. Gentleman says—I am sure the House generally agrees—it is important that everyone understands that social media is not a space where one can act with impunity. Social media providers, and all those who use social media, need to understand clearly that criminal law applies.

What steps can be taken to ensure that the judiciary, as well as members of the public, understand that at the commencement of trials it is absolutely imperative that no proceedings are communicated via social media, particularly in relation to very high profile legal proceedings?

The hon. Gentleman is right. In all cases, the judiciary need to give clear directions that social media is to be used cautiously and, for jurors, not to be used at all. It is important for jurors to understand that, which is why we have put in statute offences that jurors may commit if they use social media to communicate what they are doing, or in other ways behave inappropriately and not in accordance with their oath. We will always look at ways to explain that more clearly to all who are involved in court proceedings.

Assault against Prison Officers

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that assaults against prison officers are more effectively prosecuted. (906835)

I believe very strongly that assaults on prison officers should be taken seriously and dealt with robustly by prosecutors. The CPS is currently working with the police and the National Offender Management Service to develop a national joint protocol on crimes in prisons, focusing on offences against prison officers. This is something I helped to instigate as prisons Minister and I am very pleased to see it happening. The CPS legal guidance on prison offences also outlines that if the victim is a prison officer performing his or her duty, the public interest is heavily in favour of prosecution.

I thank the Attorney-General for his answer. As he knows, my constituency contains two prisons and a secure training centre, so I would like to be sure that a prison officer who is the victim of assault would be entitled to exactly the same service as other victims outside prisons.

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The custodial institutions he refers to are on the boundary between his constituency and mine—I know them well—and like me he represents people who work in the prison system. They are entitled to protection; in particular, they can make a victim impact statement, as can other victims of crime. In addition, it is possible—and I would encourage the use of these—for a prison community impact statement to be made. Prisons are unique communities and can be affected substantially by criminal offences, so it is important that sentencers take that into account when sentencing.

We know that with the shortage of prison officers the number of assaults on individual officers has increased. Has the number of prosecutions for those assaults also increased?

The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on particular prosecution decisions, but she will know that in my last job and this one I have made my views plain: I think it is important that where there is evidence Crown prosecutors prosecute in cases where prison officers are assaulted. Such assaults should never happen, of course, but we have tightened the protocols to make it clear that where they do so and evidence is present Crown prosecutors should proceed against those who assault prison officers, because those who work in our prison system are entitled to the full support of the law in what they do.

Given the increasing incidence of violence in prisons, I welcome the personal interest that the Attorney-General has taken in the issue and his determination that prosecution will follow assaults on prison officers. Does he agree that it is essential that the state protects prison officers with the full force of the law, given the important work they do on our behalf?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I restate the point that, as he and the House understand, it is not for politicians to make decisions on individual prosecutions, but it is important that we send the clearest guidance we can to Crown prosecutors about when prosecution should follow. It is important, too, that sentencers make full use of the sentencing guidelines in this respect. The sentencing guidelines are clear that where an offence is committed by a serving prisoner, the sentence that follows, if a conviction occurs, should be consecutive and not concurrent. It is important that prosecutors do their bit to make that clear too.

The officers at HMP Risley in my constituency are concerned about the increasing violence in prisons, but other public sector workers, such as hospital and ambulance workers, are also on the front line. Will the Attorney-General ensure that the CPS takes a stand on those cases and prosecutes them rigorously, and will he discuss with his colleagues in government the need to introduce a particular offence, carrying an exemplary sentence, of assaulting a public sector worker in the course of their duties?

I certainly agree that it is important that where public servants are assaulted their public service is taken fully into account not just by prosecutors but by sentencers. The hon. Lady will be aware that assaulting someone while they are serving the public is an aggravating feature for sentencers to take into account. That is as it should be. However, we will continue to consider whether the law needs to be strengthened. She will know that many people, in this Government and the previous Government, have considered whether a specific offence should be created for assaults on those serving the public.


4. If he will take steps to encourage the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute people for treason in cases where that offence is suspected to have been committed. (906836)

In all cases referred for a charging decision, the CPS should use whichever offence, including treason, is appropriate to the facts of the case. However, modern criminal offences, including terrorism offences, usually offer a better chance of a successful conviction than would a prosecution for treason.

British jihadists who go abroad to support ISIS are aiding and abetting the Queen’s enemies, and now that we have the horrific spectacle of British citizens beheading other British citizens and citizens of allies on international television, should it not be made clear to these people that it is worse than murder and terrorism—it is treason—and that should they ever be apprehended they should be prosecuted for such?

I have a good deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. The point I would make is a purely practical one. I think it important that treason remains available to prosecutors in appropriate cases and I wish to see that continue, but I also think it important to recognise that there are specific practical difficulties in the prosecution of treason—whether it be the establishing of the direct or constructive levying of a war under one limb of the offence or indeed defining the sovereign’s enemies under the other. It is important that we prosecute effectively.

Stalking and Harassment

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute stalking and harassment cases. (906837)

Most recently, a joint police and CPS protocol on stalking was launched in September last year. The CPS legal guidance has also been revised to reflect this development, and training has been provided to prosecutors on the new stalking offences. Prosecutions for these offences have increased by more 20% in the last year.

My constituent, Jane Clough, a nurse at Blackpool Victoria hospital, was murdered in 2010 by her stalker, Jonathan Vass, who stabbed her 71 times and then slit her throat in the hospital car park. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that stalking is a serious offence that often leads to even more serious crimes?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him for his work with Mr and Mrs John and Penny Clough, Jane’s parents. In fact, their work on the Justice for Jane campaign and the dignity with which they have conducted themselves in order to achieve important changes in the law is a real exemplar of how to achieve something positive from something so appalling.

Between November 2012 and June 2014, 1,447 CPS lawyers completed the cyber-crime cyber-stalking course, which was developed by the CPS for all prosecutors. However, in a written answer from the Solicitor-General in October 2014, I was advised that a lower figure now applied. Will he please give us an update on the progress of how many CPS lawyers are undertaking this very important training?

May I in a very gentle way say that lawyers’ questions and answers tend to be learned and lucid, but also rather long? Perhaps the Solicitor-General can disprove the trend.

The right hon. Gentleman and I share a continuing interest in, and passion for, reforming the law on stalking and harassment and ensuring that implementation is carried out. I am able to update him. As of 31 December last year, 1,402 CPS employees had undergone the training.

Service Prosecution Authority (Sex Offences)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Service Prosecution Authority on its effectiveness in prosecuting rape and other sexual offences in the armed forces which took place (a) in the UK and (b) overseas. (906839)

The Attorney-General and I meet the director of service prosecutions regularly and discuss casework issues at those meetings, including the prosecution of rape and other sexual offences, whether they are alleged to have been committed here or overseas. The Service Prosecution Authority has adopted CPS best practice guidelines to make sure that sexual offences are prosecuted to the highest standard.

Does the Minister agree that decisions to prosecute allegations of rape and sexual assault in the military should be subject to an independent review, given that only five cases of alleged rape were prosecuted in 2013?

It is difficult to compare the CPS with the SPA because the sheer number of cases before the SPA will be much lower. When it comes to decision making on prosecution, CPS best practice is replicated in the SPA, and joint training and a lot of joint working takes place. The problems identified by the Liberty report, among others, are more to do with the investigation of offences as opposed to their prosecution.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very nice to be popular.

Does the Attorney-General agree that the very low level of rape and sexual assault prosecutions in the military is a direct result of both a lack of independent scrutiny by civilian authorities and the discretion given to commanding officers to hear cases summarily themselves? Does he think it would be helpful if regular inspections of the Service Prosecution Authority were to be put on a statutory footing?

May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position and offer warm congratulations to him? The point he makes is perhaps more relevant to other types of sexual offences that are not included in the schedule to the Armed Forces Act 2006. When it comes to rape and serious sexual offences, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the rigorous standards used by the CPS are those adopted by the SPA as well. The joint training and joint working I mentioned allow the Attorney-General and I the reassurance we need to make sure that these serious matters are prosecuted effectively.

Errors in Law (Costs)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the cost to the public purse of errors in law made by the Crown Prosecution Service when bringing forward prosecutions. (906840)

There are a number of safeguards, both in the CPS and in the criminal justice system, to minimise the impact of errors in law. They include the CPS casework quality standards, judicial oversight, and the appeal process itself. There is no central record of the overall cost to the public purse when such errors of law occur, but whenever errors are identified, the CPS works to address them.

May I encourage the Solicitor-General to try to calculate the cost? Obviously, we should like to know what impact staff cuts in the CPS might have on the costs of cases, and, in particular, how they might affect the ability of the CPS to prepare and present cases. In that spirit, will the Solicitor-General undertake to try to identify the cost and let the House know what it is?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he asked his question. I can tell him that the total value of cost awards against the CPS was only 0.2% of its budget, and that, within that percentage, identifying specific errors of law was going to be very difficult. However, I can assure him that only 142 appeals against conviction were allowed last year, and that very few of those will have involved an error of law on the part of a CPS lawyer. An error might well have been made by the trial judge, or might have been made at some other point in the system, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the number of errors of law committed purely by CPS lawyers is very small indeed.

Pre-charge Bail

I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss matters affecting the CPS, as my hon. Friend might expect. We discussed the Home Office’s consultation paper on limiting police pre-charge bail before it was published, and I expect the CPS to contribute to that consultation.

How would my right hon. and learned Friend feel if, like one of my constituents, he was subjected to the ignominy of a highly publicised arrest, suspended from his job, and put on pre-charge bail for 11 months before being released without charge? How is such oppressive treatment of innocent people consistent with the spirit of Magna Carta?

I do not think that oppressive treatment is consistent with the spirit of Magna Carta. In this of all years, we should consider very carefully what my hon. Friend has said, and I think that that is why the Home Secretary initiated the consultation. We need to consider all aspects of this matter. It is right to balance against the important points that my hon. Friend has made the need to ensure that, in complex cases, investigation is given its proper time, and that victims and witnesses are protected, as they can be, by conditions attached to pre-charge bail. However, he is right in what he says, which is why we are considering the issue.

I have encountered a case in which someone was bailed for even longer without being charged. That has ruined the lives of two people, and it has gone on and on. What is the longest period of bail without charge of which the Attorney-General is aware?

I cannot answer that question off the top of my head, but I will of course write to the hon. Gentleman, and I agree with him. We need to consider this issue carefully, and to ensure that in the generality of cases there is a clear expectation of a maximum length of time that people should spend on pre-charge bail before minds are made up about what to do in such cases. That is what the consultation is about, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others will contribute to it.