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Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2015

The Attorney-General was asked—

Human Rights

1. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. (907527)

6. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. [R] (907532)

7. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. (907533)

Hon. Members will know that I cannot discuss legal advice that I may have given to members of the Government, but I have regular discussions with colleagues about a large number of issues. Domestic and international human rights are an important aspect of our law and are a key consideration in the Law Officers’ work.

Can the Attorney-General tell the House whether he supports the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights, and whether he and the Solicitor-General are completely in agreement with the Government’s position?

The answer to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. On the first part, I do not support the Human Rights Act, but I do support the European convention on human rights. There is a misunderstanding here, perhaps on his part and certainly among some of his Labour colleagues, as the abolition of the Human Rights Act does not mean the abolition of human rights. The Conservative party is in favour of human rights and we have a proud record on human rights. What we do not agree with is the mess his party made of the relationship between this country’s courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg—we will do something about it.

May I follow up on the Attorney-General’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) by asking whether he agrees that last week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that British courts can hand down whole-life sentences without breaching human rights is a fine example of dialogue between our courts and Strasbourg? As we mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, will the Attorney-General join me in celebrating the European convention as Churchill’s legacy and one that provides vital protections that we would be unwise to deny our people?

I welcome clarification from the European Court of Human Rights on whole-life tariffs, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not just the outcome of these cases that can be problematic but the time, effort and taxpayers’ money spent defending them. He is quite right that the convention is an excellent document; there is very little to disagree with in it. The problem is the way in which the European Court of Human Rights has interpreted that document. Once again, the Conservative party will do something about that, but, as far as I can tell, the Labour party in government would do nothing whatever about it.

One of the basic human rights is the right of association and, through that, the right to combine together in trade unions. Will the Attorney-General say why his Government are making it harder for civil servants to exercise that basic human right by withdrawing the right to have trade union subscriptions taken off pay at source?

I do not accept that we are taking human rights away from civil servants. Let me repeat the point that I made: the Conservative party in government has a proud record on human rights. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a Conservative Home Secretary who brought forward the Modern Slavery Bill, of which we are very proud. Clearly, it was a “human-rights enhancing measure”. Those are not my words but those of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It was a Conservative Foreign Secretary, now Leader of the House, who has done excellent work on preventing the use of sexual violence in conflict—again, huge steps forward in the defence of human rights in this country and abroad. We are proud of that record, but see no reason to combine that pride with a blind and meek acceptance that every judgment of the European convention on human rights by the European Court of Human Rights, however eccentric, should be meekly accepted.

The Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights were set up to protect the citizens of Ukraine from the former Soviet Union. Should we not be doing more to protect the citizens of Ukraine with regard to their human rights at this present time?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Of course she is right that when the convention was originally drafted, it was precisely to deal with the most egregious examples of breaches of human rights across the world. That is what we have always supported, and we will continue to do so. What we do not support is the extension of that franchise to discussing things such as the insemination of prisoners in prison, and whether prisoners should be given the right to vote in British elections. That is in no way comparable to what my hon. Friend is discussing.

Will the Attorney-General confirm that neither the repeal of the Human Rights Act nor a British Bill of Rights could in any way diminish Britain’s obligations under the European convention on human rights, or does he disagree with his predecessor on that point?

As I have said, there is no direct connection between what we decide to do on the Human Rights Act and what we decide to do in support of human rights, both nationally and internationally. We remain wholly committed to the preservation of human rights, both in this country and abroad. As for my predecessor, I think that he would wholeheartedly support that position.

The Attorney-General refers to the Government’s leadership in tackling modern slavery. Given that traffickers operate across jurisdictions, what is he doing to support other countries to have effective justice systems to protect the victims and enforce the law?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to think about how we assist other countries in the way in which they implement their justice systems so that we can work together to confront what is, as he says, cross-border problems. It comes back to the dilemma that was being discussed with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister around what we do in countries that do not have the best records in the preservation of justice and human rights. We have to get the balance right, but it is important that we continue to co-operate.

Domestic Abuse

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of introducing an offence of coercive control on prosecutions for domestic abuse. (907528)

I have been taking this welcome new measure through Committee with the support of Members from all parties. The new law of coercive control will help protect victims by criminalising sustained patterns of behaviour that stop short of serious physical violence but amount to extreme psychological and emotional abuse. It is likely to increase the number of cases of domestic abuse reported, which should result in an increase in the number of prosecutions.

I am grateful for that response. As the number of domestic abuse referrals has increased, which must be welcomed as people now have the confidence to refer such crimes of abuse, does the Solicitor-General agree that it is apparent that just as physical abuse should be consigned to the history books so should mental control, which is a form of torture that is equally unacceptable in this country today?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks. Only today on the radio, we heard about people using mobile apps to control the movements and behaviour of their partners. Modern technology can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be very dangerous in the wrong hands. I believe that the new law will embrace that, too.

Female genital mutilation is a form of domestic abuse. Is the Solicitor-General as concerned as I am that there has been no successful prosecution for FGM in this country, following the acquittal last week of two of those prosecuted?

The right hon. Gentleman and I share a passion for ending this scourge. It was important that the prosecution was brought and the number of referrals continues to increase—we did not have any referrals before 2010. That shows that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are taking the matter very seriously. The message must be sent out to everybody that those who indulge in this form of abuse will be subject to the law and to prosecution.

May I welcome the Solicitor-General’s recognition of the importance of dealing with the psychological intimidation of witnesses, which, as those of us who have prosecuted a case of this kind will know, can be every bit as difficult as physical intimidation? I congratulate him personally on the initiatives he has taken in this matter and the work he has been doing.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. It was important that we fill the loopholes in the law. We now have the stalking and harassment legislation introduced by this Government and legislation on coercive control. We are doing everything we can to deal with the scourge of emotional and psychological abuse.

May I commend the Solicitor-General on his co-operative and informed attitude to the issue of coercive control and on the way in which he took the matter through Committee? I also thank him for sponsoring my ten-minute rule Bill on the subject last year; it would be remiss of me not to say that. On a more serious note, will he assure the House that prior to the commencement of the new law, welcome as we all say it will be, there will be sufficient time to train the police and prosecuting authorities and the necessary guidelines will be produced?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and I entirely agree that we must ensure that full training of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and all the authorities that will be responsible for dealing with the new legislation is put in place before we bring it into force.

Historical Sex Abuse

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on funding for the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure effective prosecution of historical sex abuse cases. (907529)

The CPS is working closely with the Treasury to manage the impact of the increasing numbers of large and complex cases, including non-recent sex abuse cases, and to ensure that the CPS has the resources to prosecute serious crime effectively and efficiently. Future funding will be determined as part of the spending review process in the usual way.

The victims of historical sexual abuse have a right to justice, like anyone else, but, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, these cases are complex and require adequate funding. How confident is he that the CPS will be able to cope with the demands on it and can he categorically say that such cases will not be consigned to the dustbin of history for want of extra resources?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern and it is important to put on record that every case, regardless of the alleged crime, must be considered carefully by the CPS. The CPS must conduct the appropriate tests on evidence and on public interest, and these cases should be no different in that regard. We must certainly talk about resources, but we also need to talk about what also matters to victims, which includes being listened to in the first place, ensuring that the court process is as conducive as it can be to the giving of their evidence and ensuring that those who prosecute such cases are expert in what they do. All those things are important and we must ensure that the CPS is doing them. At the moment, the CPS is engaged in doing those things.

In his answer, the Attorney-General made it clear that funding is an issue and that discussions are going on with the Chancellor. Given that, is it sensible for the Crown Prosecution Service to commit millions of pounds to a retrial of journalists from The Sun when there is clearly no realistic prospect of conviction? The money could be much better spent pursuing some of the historical sex abuse cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). Are the cost of a trial and the likelihood of conviction together part of a public interest test that the Crown Prosecution Service should go through, because it seems to many people that a retrial is not justified on that basis?

My hon. Friend will understand that, as Attorney-General, I do not decide which cases should be prosecuted or commenced. He will also understand that whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction is already part of the test that the Crown Prosecution Service applies. Of course, it should also consider the public interest, which is what it has done in each and every case involving journalists—some have been convicted at the end of the process and some have been acquitted. However, I think that it is important to recognise two things. First, there should be no cases in which who a person is or what they do prevents the Crown Prosecution Service following the evidence where it leads—it should do so in every case. Secondly, some cases are complex and difficult and take time to prepare and to try, which increases their cost, but I do not think that we can say that we should not prosecute something because it is too expensive.

I welcome what the Attorney-General says, but the Director of Public Prosecutions has been to him on bended knee, begging for £50 million so that she can prosecute serious cases. Has he asked the Chancellor for that emergency funding—and if not, why not? If he has asked the Chancellor, what did he say about helping to plug the funding gap caused by the ill thought through cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service?

I do not think that the cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service have been ill thought through. They have certainly been significant, as I am afraid they had to be, given the huge economic mess we inherited when the hon. Gentleman’s party left office. We had to take those decisions, but I think that the Crown Prosecution Service has managed the reductions in its budget extremely well. It has not decided—I think that he would support this approach—not to prosecute cases where it thinks that it is appropriate to do so. However, we must recognise—the DPP recognises this in what she is saying—that there has no doubt been an increase in the number of complex and difficult historical sex abuse cases. We are talking with the Treasury about exactly that, and I am sure that it will understand the case we are making.

Serious Fraud Office

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the future of the Serious Fraud Office. (907530)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the future of the Serious Fraud Office. (907536)

I meet the Home Secretary regularly to discuss issues of common interest. The UK anti-corruption plan, published in December, announced that the Cabinet Office will take forward a review of the enforcement response to bribery and corruption more broadly and will report to the inter-ministerial group on anti-corruption in June.

Is the Attorney-General concerned that there is now a conflict, with the Solicitor-General allegedly involved in tax avoidance schemes? [Interruption.] Can he properly oversee the work of the Serious Fraud Office, given its role in prosecuting serious fraud and tax evasion? [Interruption.]

Order. I fear that, in so far as I could hear, the terms of the question did not engage with the question on the Order Paper. Therefore—forgive me—I do not think that it would be proper to ask for an answer.

In view of the fact that the police are being ineffective in prosecuting fraud, and given that reports to Action Fraud have gone up by 10%, what is the Attorney-General doing to ensure that the Serious Fraud Office has sufficient resources to deal with the most complex frauds? How much money has it got from fraudsters to enable it to fund future work?

The hon. Lady is right to refer to the fact that there are different kinds of fraud, which are dealt with in different ways in our system. The Serious Fraud Office, which falls within the ambit of the Law Officers’ superintendence, deals with the most exceptionally complex cases of fraud. To answer her question directly, in this financial year the Serious Fraud Office has recovered financial orders of £10.7 million. It is right to point out also that the way in which the Serious Fraud Office is funded is unusual. It relies on some core funding and also on what is called blockbuster funding for unanticipated, large and complex cases. I think that that is the right way to do it.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the invitation from some to subsume the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency is not one that he will accede to?

There is huge value always in looking at the way in which Government agencies do their business and in finding efficiencies and changes if it is beneficial to do so, but I think the Roskill model on which the Serious Fraud Office is based—that is, the combination of lawyers, investigators, prosecutors, accountants and the like, all in multidisciplinary teams—is a sensible model, and it is delivering effective results.

With the Serious Fraud Office doing some incredibly complex investigations into companies such as Barclays, Tesco and G4S, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a need for very close working between the Serious Fraud Office and other Government agencies, such as the NCA, the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Close working is always important and the Serious Fraud Office tries to do that. I am sure the intergovernment review will find better ways of co-ordinating if there are better ways to be found.

Human Trafficking

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of successful prosecutions for human trafficking offences. (907531)

The number of successful prosecutions in human trafficking cases has increased each year since April 2010, from 73 to 155, which is more than double. The Director of Public Prosecutions is seeking to increase the number of prosecutions further through the CPS contribution to the Government strategy on modern slavery.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the Modern Slavery Bill is a groundbreaking measure that will send a clear message to perpetrators?

I do, and I am grateful to Members in all parts of the House for their sterling support for legislation which is among the first in the world and the first in Europe.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that those of us who for many years have been involved in such cases, and involved in the problem of runaway children particularly, are still concerned about the number and level of prosecutions of those people, and now of gangs organising human trafficking? When will we see results—more people apprehended, charged, convicted and in prison?

Even if the hon. Gentleman’s palate is not yet fully satisfied, I hope he feels he has now had his hors d’oeuvre for the day.

The hon. Gentleman is right to be impatient—we all are—for progress in tackling this scourge. It exists not just here at home, but internationally. We have criminal justice advisers and liaison magistrates in 20 countries where we know that human trafficking is a source problem. Human trafficking will not be tackled just within these shores. The effort has to be international.

Crown Prosecution Service: Digital Working

8. What assessment he has made of the benefits of increased digital working by the Crown Prosecution Service; and what estimate he has made of potential savings from such changes. (907534)

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has made substantial progress in implementing digital working with other criminal justice agencies. Almost all police forces are now transferring over 90% of case files electronically. Savings are being made through business process change and other economies. By 2015-16, the CPS estimates that savings of approximately £30 million per annum will be achieved.

Clearly, there are benefits from not losing documents and removing huge piles of paper from cases. What further measures can my hon. and learned Friend take to speed up the process so that the interests of justice are served?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about more measures. That will come through initiatives such as the common platform between the Courts and Tribunals Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, so that everybody in the courts system is using digital technology. That will achieve real savings in the long term.

Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on dealing with vulnerable victims and witnesses. (907535)

Measures to support vulnerable victims and witnesses are regularly discussed by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General’s office. The CPS works closely with the police and the voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses are well supported through the criminal justice system. The results of the first national CPS survey of victims and witnesses due in the summer will inform future actions.

The Crown Prosecution Service draft document, “Speaking to Witnesses at Court”, was published in January, and it is broadly welcome. However, will the Solicitor-General give some reassurance to those who are concerned that it might involve coaching of witnesses?

It is vital that everybody involved in witness care understands the old and well-established rule that witnesses must not be coached. Educating them in the process is absolutely right, but talking about the evidence and trying to coach them in some way would be wholly wrong.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Victims of human trafficking are the most vulnerable witnesses that can be had before the courts. Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after very well under the Government’s scheme, but child victims are not. Will the Solicitor-General look at ways in which we can improve protection and help for the child victims of human trafficking?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose track record in fighting modern-day slavery is well known to us all. The Crown Prosecution Service has clear guidelines that ask prosecutors to consider very carefully the public interest in prosecuting young people who are identified as victims of human trafficking where there is clear evidence of exploitation. That approach will turn people who used to be regarded as defendants into true victims of modern-day slavery.