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Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015

The Attorney-General was asked—

Stalking: Prosecutions

1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken in the last two years to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute stalking and harassment cases more effectively. (908283)

The Crown Prosecution Service has taken a number of steps recently to ensure that that can happen. A joint police and CPS protocol on stalking was launched in September last year, and CPS legal guidance was revised to reflect that development. In addition, prosecutors have been given training on the new stalking offences.

Can my hon. and learned Friend confirm that stalking and harassment online is taken as seriously as other forms of such behaviour?

Yes, I can confirm that. Recent changes in the law that were introduced by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 will make it easier to prosecute those serious cases by extending the time limits on summary-only communications offences, and by allowing cases covered by section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 to be dealt with in the Crown court.

I am pleased that this question has been asked, but I am rather concerned about the lumping together of general harassment and stalking. The Solicitor-General knows full well that stalking is a distinct offence and should be treated accordingly.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. I pay tribute to him, because this is probably the last occasion on which he will be able to raise such matters here. I am sure that he will continue to campaign in whatever capacity his party allows him to, and I wish him well.

In the year to last December, 818 stalking offences had been brought to prosecution. We now need to calculate the proportion of successful prosecutions, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that more work will be done through extrapolation from those figures.

The Crown Prosecution Service, which, after all, is a demand-led organisation, has experienced a 28% cut in its funding since 2010, which equates to £200 million a year. Does the Solicitor-General think that that is helping or hindering the prosecution of stalking and harassment cases?

As I said a moment ago, had it not been for the Government’s changes in the law, we would not be bringing all those extra cases to court. The CPS is performing well against 11 of its 12 key performance measures, and is rising to the challenge. Conviction rates are broadly the same as they were five years ago, and I think that that should be met with encouragement rather than despair.

Child Sexual Abuse

2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the current Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse. (908284)

In October 2013, the CPS issued guidelines setting out a new approach to child sexual abuse cases. Steps to be taken include the use of specialist prosecutors, the provision of dedicated CPS units to manage such cases, and the application of a new approach to considering evidence in such cases. In 2013-14, the number of child abuse prosecutions rose by 440 to 7,998, and the conviction rate was 76.2%, which is the highest that it has ever been.

I welcome the Attorney-General’s reply. As he will know, prosecuting sexual offences is very difficult, and such prosecutions are particularly difficult for children. When the guidelines were introduced, it was feared that not all the measures involved would be properly introduced everywhere. What steps are being taken to review the process and keep track of what is happening, so that there can be a proper evaluation and good practice can be built on?

The hon. Lady is right to ask that question. We do keep such matters under review, and as she will appreciate, a large part of the process involves ensuring that prosecutors are properly trained and encouraged to do what the guidelines say they should do. We will ensure that they receive that ongoing training and updating, but I think that the signs are encouraging. I think that we are doing more of the things that we need to do to ensure that child witnesses, in particular, are accommodated properly in the court system, so that they can give the best evidence that they are able to give.

In this very difficult field, does the Attorney-General recognise that the Crown Prosecution Service must learn some lessons from its mistakes, but also that its independent ability to prosecute without fear or favour must not be called into question?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. It is right that, where mistakes are made, they should be learned from, but of course, as he will appreciate, it does not follow that cases that result in an acquittal should never have been brought as prosecutions in the first place. That is not the way the system works; it is important to make that point. It is also right, as he has heard me say before, that regardless of what someone does for a living or their position in society, if a prosecution is appropriate, according to the evidence and the tests that are applied, it should be brought.

Does the Minister believe that it would be better for the CPS to have clear guidelines? Should not statutory rape, which ends at 12 at the moment, be extended to a higher age, or should we even consider raising the age of consent to 17?

The hon. Gentleman asks some interesting questions to which, fortunately, it is not for me to determine the answers, but I am sure that he will appreciate that it is important that wherever the boundaries are set, the CPS prosecutes under the law as it stands as effectively as it can, and we must do all we can to ensure that it does.

It is clear from the evidence from Rotherham and the inquiries that have been conducted that what the victims of child sexual abuse said was not accepted; they were not believed by the authorities and they were not supported by the CPS. What measures can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that victims are given priority in the system, and are believed and supported all the way through?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the substantial problems here. It is important—this is part of the guidelines I described earlier—that prosecutors address their preconceptions and prejudices as to how young people who come forward with these allegations should or should not have been behaving, and how they should or should not react if they had been subject to those kinds of abuse. We also need to ensure that prosecutors challenge prejudices and preconceptions in court, so that in the presentation of prosecutions, evidence is called, where appropriate, to challenge those, and so that judges say what they need to say to juries to make sure that no one proceeds under a false preconception.

Human Rights: Domestic and International Obligations

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. (908285)

6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. (908288)

I have regular discussions with colleagues about a large number of important issues. As the House knows, by convention advice the Law Officers may have given is not disclosed outside Government. However, domestic and international human rights remain an important aspect of our law and key considerations in the Law Officers’ work.

Since human rights is an international issue and an international obligation, and rights are universal, will the Attorney-General take this opportunity to say he has no intention of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights and thus undermining the whole cause of human rights and justice across the continent and diminishing Britain’s ability to criticise anybody else for human rights abuses?

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I make a distinction between what is in the convention, which I wholly support, and the interpretation of the convention given by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, with which I have some disagreement, and I do not think we should confuse the two. Neither do I believe that it is axiomatic that the only way to have a good record on human rights is to be a member of the European convention on human rights and a signatory to it. Countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada, none of which, obviously, are signatories to this document, all have a very good record.

Similarly, it is not right to assume that countries that are members of the European convention on human rights have a spotless human rights record. That clearly is not the case either; one need only look at some of the countries that are signatories to see that. Membership of the convention is neither necessary nor sufficient for a country to have a good human rights record, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a future Conservative Government will be utterly committed to the maintenance of human rights, both domestically and abroad.

I know the Attorney-General’s primary job is to advise the Government, but on this occasion, just for old time’s sake, could he advise me? Given the Conservative party’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, what rights do my constituents currently have that they will not have under the next Government if the Conservatives are elected?

What I believe—and what I suspect many of our constituents believe—is that human rights are important, but that it should be our courts that adjudicate on such questions rather than the Court in Strasbourg. It is extremely important to recognise that the Court in Strasbourg has given rulings suggesting that responsibility for some matters that the right hon. Gentleman and I would agree should be determined by Parliament in this country should be accrued to that Court in Strasbourg. That is simply wrong. He knows that, and I know that. The other thing that he knows, as a member of the Opposition home affairs team and a former Minister in the Home Office, is that it has been extremely difficult to deport those who create a real threat to the British people, because of their abuse of human rights laws. We intend to do something about that, but it appears that his party does not.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it would be prudent to revert to the situation that we had before the Human Rights Act was passed, in which a court case could be referred to the European Court of Human Rights, and the ruling could then be applied to the law of the land?

I certainly think that the judgments of the Court in Strasbourg will be looked at by our courts in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes, and that they will no doubt take note of some of them. I do not think it right, however, that the courts in this country should be obliged to take account of the judgments of the Strasbourg Court, and that is what we would change. It is perfectly reasonable for the courts in this country to look at judgments not only from Europe but from other jurisdictions, but it should not be obligatory for them to do so, and that is what we would change.

We need clarification on this point, because the Government’s position on human rights is chaotic. We know that the Law Officers are at loggerheads on this issue, and that the very sensible former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), was sacked in the Prime Minister’s massacre of the moderates because of his “poor” human rights stance. The Minister knows, however, that the European Court declares more than 98% of claims against the UK to be without merit, so why will he not celebrate the excellent Human Rights Act and commend Strasbourg for its common-sense decisions in most of those cases?

The hon. Gentleman seems to be inviting me to accept that it is fine to have a power that one should not have, so long as one does not use it all the time. That is simply not the position that we should be in. He is, of course, right to suggest that this is an important subject, and it will be an important subject in 44 days’ time when the British people will make a judgment on it. It would be useful to know whether Labour is utterly content with the state of human rights law in this country and would make no changes to it whatever. If that is Labour’s view, as it seems to be, the public need to understand that, come election day.

Vulnerable Witnesses

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to provide greater assistance to vulnerable witnesses and to support them better in giving evidence in court. (908286)

The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to improving the experience at court for all witnesses, and CPS staff work closely with the police and the voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are supported through the criminal justice system. Special measures such as the use of intermediaries or screens in court can also be applied to provide greater support for witnesses who give evidence.

Does the Minister agree that there is a clear need for children and other vulnerable witnesses to have the ability to give their evidence away from court, to ensure that as many prosecutions as possible can progress?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am encouraged by the work that has been done in the pilot courts in Leeds, Kingston and Liverpool on the use of section 28 provisions to allow the cross-examination of children and young people away from court. I very much hope that that will become the norm as soon as possible.

In the light of the Eleanor de Freitas case, will the Solicitor-General review the guidance to ensure that the provision of support and counselling services to vulnerable people is not removed abruptly?

That was a particularly sensitive and difficult case that, as the hon. Lady knows, was the subject of careful consideration and reconsideration. We must avoid a sudden cut-off of support and help. I know that police family liaison officers do a huge amount of work before and after cases, and I would like to ensure that that sort of work continues, particularly in sensitive cases such as the one that she has raised.

Pro Bono Work

The Attorney-General and I are the pro bono champions for the Government, and we are helped in this work by two pro bono co-ordinating committees, which bring together the leading organisations dedicated to the delivery of pro bono legal representation, both here and abroad. We took part in a wide range of events during national pro bono week last November, and we will take part in further events this year.

What assistance can my hon. and learned Friend offer constituents of mine on limited incomes to get legal advice that they need?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The national pro bono website, www., gives information on a wide range of organisations that offer pro bono legal assistance. Of course, the local citizens advice bureau is a very good gateway through which her constituents can obtain more specialist legal services.

Domestic Abuse

7. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute cases of domestic abuse more effectively. (908290)

The Director of Public Prosecutions has announced new guidance on the handling of cases of domestic abuse, and it was published on 30 December. That guidance deals with the handling of all aspects of domestic abuse and offending, including the many ways in which abusers can control, coerce and psychologically abuse their victims. The CPS has contributed to the development of the new domestic abuse offence of coercive controlling behaviour, which was introduced in the Serious Crime Act 2015.

With organisations in my constituency such as Warwickshire Domestic Violence Support Services and RoSA—Rape or Sexual Abuse Support—in Rugby doing great work supporting victims, the number of referrals across the country of domestic violence allegations is at its highest ever recorded. What action is being taken to make sure that more of these cases that are coming to light are being prosecuted?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I pay tribute to those organisations in his constituency, which do so much to protect women and families from the scourge of domestic abuse. Last year, the CPS charged in 72,905 domestic violence cases referred to it by the police, which is the highest volume and proportion ever recorded—it is a 21% rise from the previous year. It is anticipated that the CPS will be dealing with up to 20,000 more domestic violence cases than two years ago.

Bribery Act

8. How many prosecutions have been initiated by the Serious Fraud Office under the Bribery Act 2010. (908291)

The Serious Fraud Office has initiated prosecutions against three individuals under the Bribery Act 2010, with two having been convicted.

I spent more than 10 years arguing for a radical change in the law on bribery, which was passed as the 2010 Act, with all-party support, just before the last election. The OECD, which has criticised us in the past for not doing enough to implement its convention, thinks it is important that from time to time cases are brought before the courts. Will the Solicitor-General assure me that the SFO has adequate resources to investigate and prosecute cases of this kind?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to him, as he is retiring from this place, for his assiduous work on this and other issues over the years. He rightly says that it is important for the reputation of this country that cases are brought, under either the new Act or the old Act. We must not forget that we have had a number of key successes in non-Bribery Act cases that predate the passage of this legislation, most notably the prosecution of Smith & Ouzman Ltd for bribes paid to Kenyan officials in relation to the electoral processes. We have had a number of successes, which we should celebrate.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that part of the SFO’s success in recent years in these matters stems from the rigour that David Green, QC, has brought as its director, because of his experience in private practice? Is that perhaps a lesson for future appointments to other senior prosecuting bodies?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and I join him in thanking the director for the hard work he is putting in to ensure that the SFO performs well and improves its progress. On the previous question on resources, may I just say that the availability of blockbuster funding means that the SFO has the flexibility to prosecute cases as and when they arise and meet the threshold test?