[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the work of the Crown Prosecution Service.
I am honoured to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I think that this is the first time I have opened a debate with you in the Chair. It is very nice to see you there.
The debate is on the important topic of the challenges facing the Crown Prosecution Service in the light of significant cuts in resources. Its purpose is to consider whether the institution is sufficiently supported to carry out its work effectively, or whether the cuts to staff and resources are leading to a permanent decline in its performance.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the CPS to all of us. It ensures that the laws that knit together our complex society are adhered to, and that those who transgress are brought to justice in a timely way and in the best traditions of a free and fair democracy.
When people are asked to name a Great British institution, the CPS may not be on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but it plays a crucial practical role by bringing to life two of the core rights of every British citizen: the right to a fair trial; and the right to get justice as a victim of crime. It is not a criticism of the CPS to say that it is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind, because in some ways it is a measure of its success that it does not garner much attention when it is doing its job well. It is when things go wrong that the organisation is scrutinised in the brightest of public spotlights, as has happened this year. Across the press, from The Daily Telegraph to The Plymouth Herald, there have been headlines such as “Cuts plunge CPS into crisis” and “‘Shocking and unforgivable’ court delays cause more crime”. Indeed, today the Justice Secretary has added his voice to the debate.
There is no doubt that there are many talented and dedicated staff who make sure that the CPS does all it can to fulfil its obligations to society and to safeguard the core rights of every British citizen. However, serious concerns have been raised about whether the CPS, which is a demand-led service, is being sufficiently resourced to deal with the spike in historical sexual offences, child abuse cases, and those cases arising from an increasing and complex terror threat. In these circumstances, does it seem right that the CPS has experienced a 28.3% cut to its budget, which is estimated to be around £200 million per annum, since 2010? Does it seem right that the most vulnerable participants in the criminal justice system—the victims and the witnesses—are being detrimentally affected because of these cuts?
There is a legal and a moral obligation on the CPS to serve the needs of every single victim. I am proud that my party has been at the forefront of improving the position of victims in the criminal justice system by establishing a victims’ taskforce. The taskforce comprises leading criminal justice specialists and campaigners, who lead work on establishing a “victims’ law” and who advise on further improvements to the way that victims and witnesses are treated by the criminal justice system.
It does not take a rocket scientist to know that delays in case progression put increased pressure and strain on victims and witnesses, so that many of them face prolonged periods of time in limbo, not knowing where cases stand and unable to move on with their lives.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts in the CPS not only lead to problems in progressing cases and in arming prosecutors with the correct information in court, but increase the number of diversions from court, which obviously also has a negative impact on victims and witnesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I totally agree. Court cases are a very stressful time for people and delays just make matters more stressful.
I will say a few words about the current experiences of witnesses at criminal proceedings, although I anticipate that others may also mention it. There is a widening gulf between the ideal world of a system that should support victims and witnesses, and the real-world experience of a system that so frequently fails them.
An editorial in The Independent last year said that
“procedures are designed with little consideration of the needs of the victims and witnesses in whose interests they are supposedly working.”
Anyone who has ever attended court—I have, as a witness in a criminal case—knows how difficult it is to understand court scheduling. Someone might mentally prepare all day for an appearance that does not happen or that is adjourned till another time, and decisions are rarely explained or laid out.
Sometimes the situation is even more difficult. In my case, I was witness to a very violent crime outside my house. It was arranged that I would be able to give evidence behind a screen, so that I could not be identified. However, when I got to court, I was put in the waiting room with the family of the accused, which meant the whole experience was absolutely terrifying for me.
If courts were private businesses, witnesses would be the “customers” of court proceedings and they would be well within their rights to complain about the service they receive. The Ministry of Justice agrees with that view. It has admitted:
“For victims and witnesses, the criminal justice system can be baffling and frustrating, and their experience all too often falls below the standards they might expect from a modern public service”.
Staff cuts have hit hard. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of witness care managers, whose job is to aid victims and witnesses, fell by 43%. The services that witness care managers provide are little known to the public, especially when compared with those provided by the police and the CPS, and given the current rate of cutting, there is genuine concern about whether they will even exist in future.
My constituency is partly within the London Borough of Bexley, and the magistrates court observers panel operates in Bexley. It has suggested that if the public were more aware of witness care managers, that would encourage more victims to come forward and report crimes, especially in cases of domestic violence, hate crime and sexual assault, because awareness of such managers might give them the confidence they need to pursue a complaint.
The magistrates court observers panel has expressed its concerns, particularly about domestic violence cases and the fact that a high number of complainants
“withdraw their statements or fail to attend the trial”.
Its most recent report states that in more than 65% of the trials that it had examined in which the CPS offered no evidence, it was because the complainant or witness had withdrawn or failed to attend court.
I understand that that lesson has been learned, and that a separate team has now been set up to deal with domestic violence cases, which is an intelligent move. I hope that it will allow skilled professionals to prepare cases in a thoughtful way and give the support that is required to move matters forward.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I certainly agree with her that we need to put the victims of crime at the centre of the criminal justice system and its work.
I have worked at Bexley magistrates court, to which the hon. Lady referred. Does she welcome the work of the witness support service there, which has assisted, over many years now, both prosecution and defence witnesses when they attend court? And does she also—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, I welcome the work of the witness support service at Bexley magistrates court; it does a fantastic job. Often, when people consider coming forward as a witness or to report a crime, they are not aware that such support exists and we must do more to publicise it, because the witness support service does a very important job.
Being a witness in a criminal proceeding is hard enough. The pressures of enduring cross-examination, bewigged barristers and the alien environment of a sterile courtroom are all enough to make a witness feel massively intimidated. However, sometimes getting even basic support from a witness care manager can make the difference between having a difficult time and enduring an absolutely impossible ordeal.
In the light of the reduction of nearly 43% in witness care manager numbers, what will the Minister do to safeguard the right of every witness to receive support? If witnesses continue to be unsupported, they are less likely to come forward in the first place. They are also less likely to turn up at court, less likely to give good evidence when they are cross-examined, and less likely to look back on the experience as being anything other than demoralising.
The costs of rescheduling hearings, postponing trials and abandoning prosecutions midway through will surely outweigh any savings made through cuts. This is an area where we could actually “spend to save”, because cutting the number of witness care managers is a false economy of the worst kind.
I will say just a few words about a special category of crime that the CPS prosecutes—historical sexual abuse cases. Perhaps there are few more compelling examples of victims who need support than the victims in such cases. If we fail them, we really must look again at the logic of cutting the CPS budget.
Historical sexual abuse is a crime that, regrettably, is coming to define our times. It represents a moral stain on society’s character. The late Lord Bingham, a former senior Law Lord, was right to hold up what he called “Equality before the law” as a “cornerstone of our society”. Too often, victims of crimes that took place sometimes decades ago have felt they have been treated unequally and ignored by our society and our criminal justice system. We legislators cannot undo the terrible things that victims have had to endure, but we can strive for justice for them. We can try hard to address their concerns and their years of not being listened to—and the way we do this is by properly funding the CPS in these cases.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has requested that the Chancellor provide £50 million-worth of funding to effectively prosecute cases of historical sexual abuse. Will the Minister commit to doing everything possible to provide the funding requested for these cases and make sure that the victims are fully taken care of while undergoing such an ordeal?
It is clear that the CPS is a demand-led service and cannot function appropriately if it is not adequately resourced. The opposing forces of increasing crime and decreasing funding mean that the system is struggling to cope, and the rise in the number of terrorist suspects being investigated is a further burden on the service. Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has been forced to consider doubling the number of prosecutors to cope with the magnitude of the challenge of complex, terrorist-related cases and suspects. The complex nature of these offences means that much more time and resources have to be put into preparing them.
It is imperative that we reflect on what the CPS does well and what it is failing to do as a result of these cuts. We must ask ourselves what we can possibly expect of the service, in rising to increasing challenges, during a time of austerity and budget cuts of 28%.
It would be wrong to blame the CPS solely. Poor casework preparation and delays are not always its fault, but with staff cuts and growing workloads, administrative errors are more likely and, increasingly, cases are being dropped because of unnecessary mistakes. The CPS is trying its best to modernise: it is pursuing digital working, moving from a paper-based system to a digital one. If that is successful, it stands to save taxpayers money in the future. However, there have been huge criticisms of that service and it must be reviewed to ensure that it really is providing value for money, because expensive mistakes must be avoided.
We, as a society, depend on the CPS to bring to justice those who cannot or will not observe the laws that we make for ourselves. Will the Minister undertake to look again at where the CPS cuts are falling, not least to make sure that savings are not outweighed by money lost because of delays and lack of witness support?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) for securing this debate, which certainly needed to be had.
My involvement with the Crown Prosecution Service in recent years has mainly focused on the failure to prosecute child sex abusers. We know that in the 1960s, 70s and 80s people like Cyril Smith and Victor Montagu were allowed to continue to abuse children because the CPS was unable or unwilling to bring cases against them, even when it had the evidence. It is a legacy that should shame the CPS and the entire justice system, but these failures are not just a thing of the past. The case of Lord Janner is an interesting case study of the workings of the modern day CPS and its attitude towards alleged child abusers. We know that the CPS failed to press for prosecution of Lord Janner in 1991, 2002 and 2006, and the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has admitted that he should have been prosecuted. Now we hear that he cannot face justice because he is too ill.
Before discussing the case in detail, I want to make the point that we cannot underestimate the effect that failed prosecutions have on the survivors of abuse. There are many people—
Order. I caution the hon. Gentleman against discussing the case of Lord Janner in detail, rather than discussing the process of the Crown Prosecution Service. I am sure that he will stay completely in order, but I am just careful to ensure that he discusses the Crown Prosecution Service and its relationship to the case, rather than the case against Lord Janner itself. That is on advice from the Clerks.
No, it is not sub judice. There is no case against Lord Janner, but it is a long-established practice of the House not to criticise Members of the other House except on a substantive motion. I will let the hon. Gentleman carry on and, if he does not mind, I will jump in if I think he is going off piste, so to speak.
Thank you, Mrs Main. I always appreciate your guidance in these matters.
The CPS’s failure to prosecute cases can have a real impact and can be extremely damaging. Research shows that child sexual abuse victims die on average 20 years early: they may commit suicide, become alcoholic or drug dependent, or just struggle to cope with life because of what has been done to them by their abusers. We know that abuse victims die in their 30s, 40s or 50s, while their abusers live into their 70s or 80s. Such a failing by the CPS also reduces the public’s faith in the justice system. It discourages people from reporting child sexual abuse because they think the CPS will say that the victims are unreliable; that it is not in the public interest; or, as in the case of Lord Janner, that the alleged perpetrator is too ill.
Most importantly, failure by the CPS emboldens the perpetrators of child abuse. When the CPS failed to prosecute Cyril Smith in the 1960s, he went on to abuse for decades; and when the CPS failed to prosecute the Rochdale grooming gang in the early 2000s, it carried on raping Girl A for years afterwards. Poor white working class boys were considered unreliable witnesses in the 1960s in relation to Cyril Smith. Fast forward and poor white working class girls were considered unreliable witnesses in the 2000s.
Returning to the case of Lord Janner, the shocking thing is that the CPS admits that the witnesses are not unreliable. It admits that Janner should face prosecution, but refuses to bring a case. I know the police are furious about this, and rightly so. Anyone who has heard the accusations would be similarly outraged. I have met Leicestershire police and discussed the allegations in some detail: children being violated, raped and tortured, some in the very building in which we now sit. The official charges are: 14 indecent assaults on a male under 16 between 1969 and 1988; two indecent assaults between ’84 and ’88; four counts of buggery of a male under 16 between ’72 and ’87; and two counts of buggery between 1977 and 1988. My office has spoken to a number of the alleged victims and heard their stories. I cannot overstate the effect that this abuse has had on their lives.
To sum up, I want to make the following points about the case. If Lord Janner really is too ill to face prosecution, why cannot the courts establish this with a fitness-to-plead process? This would clear up doubts that still linger. For example, why was he still visiting Parliament on official visits after he was declared unfit to face justice? Why is he able to contribute to the law-making process in the House of Lords, but unable to face the law himself? If it is found that he is genuinely too ill to stand trial, why not conduct a trial of the facts? This would allow the victims to tell their stories and gain some sense of justice. The DPP has said that a trial of the facts would not be in the public interest. Personally, I fail to see how the knowledge that a peer of the realm is a serial child abuser is not in the public interest.
Thank you, Mrs Main. I appreciate that.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has said that Lord Janner will not offend again. But the failure to prosecute Lord Janner offends every principle of justice. He may not abuse again, but the legacy of the abuse continues. His victims need the truth and they need to be heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing the debate.
Since Neath magistrates court closed last year, my constituents have had to travel to Swansea, which is more than 20 miles away, denying them access to local justice in their own community and putting an added strain on the Crown Prosecution Service. Constituents and local solicitors have told me that the closure of the local court has had a negative impact locally. Those on low incomes might have to choose between buying everyday necessities and travelling to court, causing them hardship at an already stressful time. The closure has caused great inconvenience to those in Neath who have to attend court as the victims of what might be spurious allegations or charges, or attend to find their case adjourned.
The cuts in legal aid and the two-tier criminal justice contract have left constituents without legal aid representation. When residents of Neath are arrested, they are taken to Bridewell custody suite in Bridgend, which is more than 20 miles away, and they have no way of getting home when they are released. Constituents and local solicitors have told me that policing has declined in Neath since the court’s closure. The reorganisation of courts has therefore not worked for Neath. Today’s further announcement by the Justice Secretary of more reorganisation is alarming, and I urge the Government to consider the proposals very carefully.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate.
It is more than 10 years since I first picked up files from the Crown Prosecution Service, when I was a young pupil barrister, to prosecute what was known as the magistrates list. Much has changed at the CPS since then—I used to handwrite the results of every single case on the outside of each white file. Technology has brought us an online system, and the criminal procedure rules have also streamlined the system.
However, streamlining and management changes cannot take human judgment out of the system. In reality, decisions in the Crown Prosecution Service have to be taken by individual lawyers. Of course, I welcome the role of CPS Direct at a very early stage and at the charging stage, although I gently suggest to the Solicitor General that there could be a little more clarity throughout the system about when police have to take advice from CPS Direct, particularly in cases where there is a clear lack of evidence, which would render such a step unnecessary.
The availability of lawyers, and no excessive delays at that early stage, are crucial to CPS Direct’s working well as part of the system. The charging decision itself is, of course, a matter of judgment. The Solicitor General, having practised criminal law for so many years in Cardiff, will be only too aware of the two-stage test. The evidential test of a realistic prospect of conviction, and the public interest test, are judgments that human beings have to exercise. Having fewer people exercising that judgment will mean that those left have to work longer hours, which will inevitably lead to errors becoming more commonplace. That will show in the Crown Prosecution Service performance statistics.
In addition, it is critical that Crown Prosecution Service lawyers have the time and space to prepare trials properly. For example, watching CCTV, watching a DVD or listening to audio evidence take time, and that time has to be built into the system. If it is not, there will simply be delays further down the line. The position of complainants and witnesses is critical, as is transparency in the Crown Prosecution Service’s work.
I welcome what the Director of Public Prosecutions has said about the recent consultation on greater support for witnesses in court, which I hope will lead to a strong CPS policy on pre-trial assistance. There is no conflict, in my view, between robust cross-examination by a solicitor or barrister at court and ensuring that witnesses and complainants are fully supported and familiar with the environment that they are entering. I praise the work of Victim Support and the victims’ right to review scheme, in particular in situations where there has been a decision not to charge, to discontinue or withdraw in the case of the magistrates, to offer no evidence or to leave charges on file.
We do not serve victims, complainants or witnesses well if the Crown Prosecution Service is inefficient, under-resourced and understaffed. That will have a knock-on effect throughout the criminal justice system. Delays at court, poorly prepared trials, sub-optimal charging decisions and problems in cases at a late stage all fail witnesses and victims, as well as undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole. I urge the Government not to wield the axe indiscriminately on the Crown Prosecution Service budget without carefully considering the knock-on effects and the overall corrosive effect on the system.
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution to this debate. Before being elected to the House, I was a solicitor in private practice for some 20 years, and I spent many happy hours in courtrooms defending clients. In Scotland, we have always had an independent prosecution system, unlike in England. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) made some powerful points about child abuse, but my understanding is that the CPS came into being only in 1984, so some of the earlier decisions were police, rather than CPS decisions. It may be a bit unfair to blame the CPS for all the problems. However, the collapse of some recent high-profile trials has undoubtedly done nothing for the CPS, leading to some of the criticisms against it.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) said about people appearing in court. As a solicitor, I often cross-examined witnesses, but I, too, was once a witness in a case and found it a terrifying experience. After that, I took a much more sympathetic attitude to witnesses. It is difficult for a witness to go to court, even in a relatively simply case. Even I, who was used to the court system, found it difficult. I spent years saying to people, “Well, are you sure that’s what happened six months ago?” but when I was asked it, I realised how difficult it is to remember such things. That is an argument for getting cases to court more quickly.
Today is an interesting day for the hon. Lady to have the debate. In the Tea Room at lunchtime, I happened to read The Independent and an article headlined “Crusading Gove slams justice for the wealthy”, which was about the Justice Secretary. He is speaking today about the court system, promising
“rapid and radical reform to criminal justice through the greater use of technology, to accelerate prosecutions and make it less traumatic for witnesses to appear in court.”
He also called the existing system “creaking” and outdated, which is interesting, because that chimes with what the hon. Lady was saying. How things happen in an era of cuts to the CPS will be an interesting balance. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
Whatever the system, one of the biggest problems in dealing with cases is that people do not turn up in court. I often had the experience of turning up in court, ready to do a case, only to find that the accused or a witness had not turned up, and the whole thing collapsed. That is also difficult for the witnesses who turn up, having screwed up their courage to come along and do this, only to find that they are sent away and told to come back at some indeterminate time in the future. In Scotland, we have tried various things such as intermediate diets, or pleading diets, to avoid that happening, but it still happens in some cases—there is always a problem with human nature in such things.
I am not sure how Victim Support works in England, but certainly in the Scottish courts Victim Support Scotland does excellent work in dealing with the victims of crime who come to court, and often also with the witnesses giving evidence. Its role should not go unnoticed.
There are differences between the English and Scottish systems. We have always had an independent system, through procurators fiscal and advocates depute. They have always been independent of the police and Government, and make decisions on whether to prosecute cases and on their conduct, although for obvious reasons in both systems the police are the primary investigatory body.
One crucial difference between the two systems is the role of barristers, or advocates as we say in Scotland. Under the Scottish system, all procurators fiscal and advocates depute are full-time prosecutors, whereas my understanding of how the CPS works is that it is almost like a client and it engages barristers for particular cases; those barristers might be prosecuting one week and defending the next. That seems slightly odd to us, because, as I say, our prosecutors are full-time prosecutors—that is what they do. I am sure that barristers can compartmentalise their day-to-day cases, and many will do so, very well, but it seems a curious way to go about things.
I am not questioning the impartiality, but it seems curious. In our system, people can go from being an advocate depute to being a defending solicitor, but they would leave the Crown Office to do that—they would not do it at the same time. In our system they build up expertise in prosecution. It is a matter of personal opinion. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a long-time practitioner and I am sure that he has a different view; I am simply putting forward my view.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead also mentioned cuts to the service. Cuts are a concern in many areas. In Scotland, again, the system is slightly different: the Lord Advocate, who heads the Crown Office, negotiates his own funding deal directly with the Deputy First Minister, who also happens to be the Finance Minister, separate from the wider Budget. Although it is true that the Scottish system’s budget over the past few years has been largely flat in cash terms, which is a reduction in real terms, this year there has been a real-terms increase for the Crown Office. That increase was made in recognition of some of the problems in the court system.
The hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) made good points about access to justice locally. We have struggled with that issue in many areas of Scotland. Rationalisation and new technology and services are relevant here. When I was practising there were two sheriff courts—the equivalent of English magistrates courts—in my constituency. One has now been closed down and its services transferred to the other. However, there has been a lot more investment in the second court, in particular, in video technology; witnesses can give video evidence and the court has a facility for children to give evidence over video link. I am sure that much of that also happens in English courts, but it needs investment. That was the interesting thing about what the Justice Secretary said today, because greater use of technology means investment, and I question how much he will be able to do when cuts are being made.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) gave a good exposition of his own experience in the prosecution service. I do not have that experience, but I understand what he was saying.
The CPS is a good service. The principle of an independent prosecution service is important. It is unfortunate that in some ways the CPS has got a bad reputation in recent years because of some high-profile cases that have not gone well at trial or have collapsed early. However, as was rightly said at the outset, any justice system must be about making sure that everyone has a fair trial and that witnesses are dealt with properly at trial. That needs investment, and we make cuts to such systems at our peril.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate. I immediately declare an interest, as I was the Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008 to 2013. The current DPP was head of CPS London as a member of my staff and is known to me.
The CPS is a demand-led organisation that has taken significant cuts in recent years. As a result, it has significantly fewer staff and less resilience, and faces probably a greater challenge now than it has for many years. I pay tribute to the staff who work in that environment and deliver the best they can in the circumstances.
One of the unknowns for a demand-led organisation such as the CPS is the caseload. In the years that I was DPP, the number of cases coming into the service from the police undoubtedly reduced, which significantly softened the impact of some of the cuts. The difficulty as I see it, and the risk that the CPS was running when I was DPP, is that the reason for the reduction was never properly understood—no one could explain why the numbers were going down and, equally, no one could properly predict when they would twist and go up. I note the recent reports of increased numbers of sexual abuse cases coming into the CPS; those cases are highly resource intensive.
The cuts to the CPS are not dissimilar to the cuts to other parts of the criminal and civil justice systems. As the Solicitor General will know, a series of very critical reports on the cuts to the civil side, from this House and elsewhere, have indicated that the strategy for the past five years has been to cut first and look at the evidence and the impact later, rather than the other way round. That is a very serious criticism of any strategy. One of my concerns has been whether over the past five years there has truly been a criminal justice strategy that goes beyond simply taking the money out and focuses on the services to be delivered.
Against that background, and recognising what Sir Brian Leveson said in his recent report on the efficiency of the courts, namely, that there is an irreducible core minimum of funding below which we cannot deliver services, will the Solicitor General tell us what arrangements are currently in place to ensure that the Government have a line of sight on the risks being run by reducing resources for the CPS? Have there been evidence-based assessments of the impact of the reduced resources? If so, will some or all of those impact assessments be published? If, as the Lord Chancellor indicated this morning, the rights of victims will be taken more seriously in future, are there currently plans to increase resources for the CPS so that it can deal more effectively with victims?
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend to the House—his expertise is widely welcomed here—and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) for securing this debate. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the CPS staff; does he agree that it is totally unacceptable that they have to work weekends, unpaid, with an increasing workload?
There is of course concern about the workload of CPS staff. One effect of the reduction in resources is that staff have to work much harder in different circumstances and at different times. That is part of the risk when the resource of any organisation is reduced. It does not mean that one must always return to the status quo and that there cannot be change. However, it does highlight my point that there needs to be a constant risk assessment when resources are reduced in the way they have been.
I should declare an interest as somebody who has been a practising barrister—in fact, I was probably instructed by the hon. and learned Gentleman. Does he agree that culture is sometimes as important as cost when helping victims and witnesses? There has been an extraordinary change—this was the case even during his tenure as DPP—in the way victims and witnesses are treated. That ranges from victim impact statements, to the screens provided for under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, to getting counsel to meet witnesses before they give evidence, which is critical to giving them a good court experience.
I accept that, and I have always said that, if we are to provide properly for victims, we need not only resource but a culture change.
I share the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) raised about Cyril Smith and other old cases. For the record, Cyril Smith was not, of course, considered by the CPS, because it was not in existence at the time. However, the case was considered by the DPP, and I have gone on record to express my concern about the decisions that were made.
This is about making a cultural change. When I was DPP, I was concerned that there was a cultural inhibition against prosecuting some of the sexual grooming cases, and that was most acute in the Rochdale cases, but a new approach was heralded to prosecuting those cases. I accept, therefore, that, when it comes to victims, the issue is not just resource but a culture change. The culture is changing, but it needs to be pressed harder, and it needs to be pressed in other parts of the criminal justice system, although there has been good work. However, if we are to take victims more seriously, that will require more resource, and it will require us to be clear about the risks that will be taken if further money is taken out of the criminal justice system.
Let me finish by observing that the decision before the DPP on the Janner case was not an easy one; it was a stark and difficult choice between two unattractive approaches. The DPP has followed the victim right to review policy and has put the decision out for review. We should respect the independence that she has brought to the decision making and the fact that she has had the courage to put the decision out for review. To that extent, we should inhibit our comments on the case.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I suspect that I will be rudely interrupted at any moment, because we are expecting a Division on the Floor of the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate.
The CPS is going through profound changes, and it is right that we carefully consider the consequences of budget cuts and stretched resources in this demand-led service. The CPS plays a vital role in the criminal justice system. It has been well led in recent years, not least by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) and, recently, by the current DPP, Alison Saunders. I have met her on a number of occasions to discuss the challenges that the service faces, and she is doing an excellent job in an extremely difficult situation.
Since 2010, we have seen cuts to the CPS budget of more than 28%, which has led to office closures and reductions in staff—the figures I have show that it has lost 571 prosecutors and 500 administrative staff. Those numbers are absolutely massive, given the previous size of the CPS. The cuts in resources are unprecedented, and they have left a gaping hole in the organisation.
Savage cuts are being made against a backdrop of historical sexual abuse cases, increases in reported child abuse and complex cases involving terrorist offences. The CPS must be afforded the flexibility to respond to complex cases when the need arises. In the last couple of years, we have seen an unprecedented and unexpected rise in the number of historical sexual abuse cases and the strain that the CPS has been put under as a consequence.
In recent weeks and months, the DPP has been on bended knee, pleading with the Chancellor, through the Attorney General, for £50 million of emergency funding so that the CPS can properly prosecute the large number of historical sexual abuse cases. I am afraid that the Chancellor is yet to award that money, and he will no doubt expect the CPS to shoulder more cuts in the forthcoming Budget. In my respectful view, that is a huge mistake. If the Chancellor and the Government decide to continue down this path, the problems in the CPS are bound to get worse.
We all agree that the criminal justice system, including the CPS, needs some reform to be fit for purpose in the 21st century. It needs to meet the complexities and challenges of modern demands. However, simply slashing the budget and hoping for the best is wrong and dangerous.
Just today, we saw the Justice Secretary come to the sudden realisation that the justice system is in disarray. He is right that victims and witnesses are adversely affected by inefficiencies and bureaucracy in the criminal justice system. The Opposition welcome his warm words, but we need to see the colour of the Chancellor’s money. Victims and witnesses are often an afterthought, and we need to see them front and centre of any reforms to the CPS and the criminal justice system.
The Lord Chancellor is right to point out that there are two nations in the justice system, although he should not be surprised—it was his Government, I am afraid, who introduced savage cuts without thinking them through. Let me say, before I am intervened on by Conservative Members, that it is true that any party coming into power in 2010 would have made cuts, but my colleagues and I would have thought very carefully about where the axe should fall. The two previous Lord Chancellors did not think their cuts through very well at all.
The move towards the CPS Direct model is taking CPS prosecutors away from local offices and police stations, which has probably led to a slowdown in charging decisions. The timeliness of such decisions has become a real issue, and there have been reports of police officers waiting to get through to CPS Direct for hours on end. Every area visited in the recent joint inspection of charging decisions had serious concerns about the mechanisms used. Worryingly, the report found serious failings in the timeliness of charging decisions, with two thirds of the calls made to CPS Direct not answered within its target of three minutes. Once officers actually make it through to a prosecutor, they are taken through a long process, which often takes more than an hour.
Cuts to the CPS have not been cost-effective, as Her Majesty’s former chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service, Michael Fuller, concluded in the report he published on 15 March. The vast reductions in the workforce have meant that the CPS is unable to deliver value-for-money advocacy and the service has made poor progress in most areas.
Is it right to say that by 2013 the Crown Prosecution Service, not least because of the intervention by the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), was in a better state than it was in 2008, when he took over, and certainly than it was in 2010? It is simply crude to suggest that it has all got worse since 2010. That is simply not the case.
I am bound to disagree. I am sure that vast improvements were made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras when he was at the helm of the CPS. I remember cross-examining him when I was serving on the Select Committee on Justice, and he made very well the points that the service—[Interruption.] The Solicitor General says from a sedentary position that he was there, too. I remember him being there. It is right to say that improvements were made, but the reality is this. When the Crown Prosecution Service is receiving a 28% cut without the entire criminal justice system having been reviewed, problems will materialise, and when it comes to victims of serious crime, such as historical sexual offences, we need to—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who unfortunately has not yet made it back, said that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras improved the CPS in his time as Director of Public Prosecutions. I entirely agree, but the vast reductions in its workforce mean that the CPS has been unable to deliver value-for-money advocacy. Those are not my words; users of the service—victims and witnesses—are telling us that there is a definite problem. That point was made by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service. There have been reports of CPS advocates turning up for trial without being properly prepared—in some cases not having read the case at all—and not having sufficient evidence, and even of witnesses not being warned to attend court. Those advocates are not necessarily CPS in-house solicitors and barristers; it is the independent Bar, too.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recently reported that there is a postcode lottery, which is troubling. In some areas of the country, prosecutors are proceeding with only a third of cases, whereas in other areas, such as my area of Humberside, the figure is closer to nine out of 10 cases—88%. Victims are being failed by a system that is obviously not coping. People should not be denied justice because they report an alleged offence in one area rather than another. Confidence in the criminal justice system is essential, but I am afraid that the system is not working. Victims must be able to come forward and report crimes with confidence that the justice system will work for them. In London, the review of Dame Elish Angiolini, QC into investigations and prosecutions of rape found the criminal justice system to have serious deficiencies in dealing with the number of rape allegations. Since 2005, there has been a 68% rise in recorded sexual offences but only a 17% increase in charges. Last week’s report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children shows a dramatic 39% rise in the number of reported cases of child abuse. Very worryingly, there is a distinct increase in terrorist-related prosecutions, with the DPP projecting that the number could top a frightening 600 this year alone. The Solicitor General will appreciate from his pre-eminent career at the criminal Bar, and from sitting as a recorder of the Crown court, that such cases are often unresolved before trial, which means that more time and resources are needed to prepare the cases, with the effect that other cases fall by the wayside.
Alongside cuts to advocates and administrators, and office closures, there has been a massive cull in the number of witness care officers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said. Almost half of those employed to ensure that victims and witnesses are dealt with appropriately have gone—their jobs have been axed. With increased pressure on resources, there are concerns about the timeliness of case progression. There has been an increase in the number of cases dropped by the CPS, leaving many victims and witnesses in despair and feeling let down.
The Government need to decide what their vision for the criminal justice system is and what they want a 21st-century CPS to do. Their slash-and-burn approach to the CPS is putting justice at risk. Although the CPS is a demand-led organisation that must respond according to the circumstances in which it finds itself, the Government have removed vital resources and expertise. What goal are they trying to achieve? If it is cuts for the sake of cuts, without a proper review of the entire system, including legal aid—criminal solicitors, of course, also provide a vital service within the criminal justice system—I fear that the CPS is heading for further and more major difficulties.
We have heard in this debate that the CPS is struggling to cope with increased demand, and that prosecutors, whether in-house or at the independent Bar, are expected to achieve the unachievable. The combination of massive budget cuts and large increases in complex cases has created the perfect storm in which cases are not being dealt with effectively. I invite the Attorney General, through the Solicitor General, to set out what steps his office will take to remedy this worrying problem. Can the Solicitor General say whether the Chancellor will provide the £50 million requested by the Director of Public Prosecutions? What assessment have the Law Officers done of the impact on the CPS? What inquiries, investigations or even discussions have the Solicitor General and the Attorney General had with the DPP about whether the service is coping? I think that it is not coping at all well; as I said earlier, that is the evidence of service users.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras said, there must be a strategy beyond just taking the money out. It seems to me that there is no strategy, just cuts, and regrettably, the axe is falling on victims and witnesses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate. I am never clear when there is a Division whether we are given injury time in the form of an extra 15 minutes. If so, be warned that I might have to use it all, because I want to ensure that I refer to the excellent contributions made by Members from all parties.
It is perhaps right of us—it is certainly right of me, as one of Her Majesty’s Law Officers—to remind the House why the Crown Prosecution Service was set up 30 years ago: to deliver justice for the public through the independent prosecution of crime across England and Wales. I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir) about the question of independence, which is at the heart of how the criminal justice service in England and Wales operates. There are parallels between the work of employed prosecutors in Scotland and those employed by the CPS in England: while prosecutors remain in the employ of the service, conflicts should not and cannot arise, but where we have an independent referral service, such as the Bar of England and Wales, the independence and objectivity that it can bring to often difficult and sensitive cases is without parallel in the western world.
We should celebrate that, as well as the work of Crown prosecutors the length and breadth of England and Wales, and all the support staff who work so hard in offices and courts throughout the country. I speak with 20 years’ experience as a prosecutor who has worked closely with the CPS, particularly in Wales, dealing with a wide range of serious crime. I not only cherish that experience, I find it incredibly useful in my work as a Law Officer.
I am delighted to welcome not just to this debate but to this House new Members with similar experience of the criminal justice system. We have two in the room today—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), to whose excellent speech I will return—but it would be wrong of me not to refer as well to the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who went down a more civil path in his career at the Bar but reminded us of his early days, an experience that I think several of us have shared.
The hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), of course, is also a qualified member of the Bar, which should be put on record. I am grateful to her for her contribution, albeit on an issue that is perhaps more within the purview of the Ministry of Justice. The delivery of justice is achieved by working with other agencies, and her contribution brought that into perspective. Although the CPS is a large cog in the system, it is but one part of that system; it must work with the police and court system to ensure that criminal cases are brought not only to court but to a conclusion.
The test that is applied is one that loads of us who are close to the service can probably recite in our sleep, but it is none the less important to remind ourselves of it. It is the two limb test. First, is there a realistic prospect of a conviction? Secondly, is it in the public interest to bring the prosecution? I hope that answers somewhat the criticism made by the hon. Member for Angus about the bringing of cases by the CPS that have not ended in a successful conviction and that have, in his words, brought into question the reputation of the service. With respect to him, if the CPS were to adopt a test involving risk of acquittal, no cases would ever be brought, because there will always be a risk of acquittal in taking a case to court. That should not deter Crown prosecutors from doing their job.
I agree entirely. I was merely making the point that there have been some high-profile cases in which convictions were not secured, and perhaps some in which the evidence was shaky at best. That has reflected on the CPS in the public mind. It is not a criticism of the CPS; I understand that not all cases are successful, and not all cases should be.
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but therein lies the problem. If we as politicians and commentators start making such value judgments, we undermine confidence in the independence of the prosecutorial system. We must trust an impartial and objective application of the threshold test. Any questioning of that causes me and many others great concern about the integrity of our prosecutorial system.
Does the Solicitor General agree that, when a case is charged and the judge decides that there is a case to answer, that case is properly brought, even if there is an acquittal? It is important to our criminal justice system that we adhere to that. The mere fact that a case, high-profile or otherwise, does not end in a conviction is not a test of whether the charging decision was right or wrong. A better test is whether the judge left it to the jury. If that is so, it normally means that the case should have been brought.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. He presages the point that I was going to make about sufficiency, and about the checks and balances throughout the court process. Arguments can be made about the sufficiency of the evidence at the beginning of a case, at the end of the prosecution case, and, indeed, in some rare circumstances whereby judges withdraw cases from juries—it does not often happen—at the end of defence cases, but the power remains.
In making such criticisms, we are also in danger of calling into question the jury process and indeed the whole system, which is so integral to the rule of law in this country. I was asked—rhetorically, perhaps, but I will give an answer—what strategy this Government have. It is a criminal justice system that upholds the rule of law, enhances public confidence in the system and ensures that there is a consistent approach to bringing cases and sentencing, so that the public feel confident and are protected by due process within the system. That is nothing new—it has been with us for generations—but this Government believe in it as passionately as previous Governments, of whatever colour.
I want to deal with each contribution in turn, but particularly with the opening speech by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead and her experience of giving evidence in a trial. It does not sound to me as though best practice was followed in her case. I am glad she has brought it to the attention of the House, because those with responsibility for the administration of justice, not only in the magistrates court in Bexley but elsewhere, will do well to remember that the housing of witnesses for the prosecution with either defendants or their families is wholly inappropriate and leads to all sorts of complications that I need not recite here.
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked specific questions about witness care officers. I accept that the numbers have been reduced in line with other staff reductions, but, importantly, those reductions have been accompanied by reforms to better target our limited resources to help witnesses who are intimidated or vulnerable, and those who are in greatest need. Even more is being done with regard to the change of culture to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham referred. For example, the Government are now improving access to information for victims through the new online and telephone-based victim information service that was launched in March. The increasing commissioning of victims’ services through local police and crime commissioners will create a more responsive service—a more localised service—that I do not believe will create a postcode lottery, but will emphasise best practice from which other areas can learn. Although I accept there have been reductions in expenditure, the change in culture that everybody in the system—counsel, solicitors, and lawyers in their role in explaining matters and reassuring and supporting witnesses and victims—has experienced continues to grow.
On precisely that point, if counsel apply the victims’ charter and explain the situation to witnesses and victims as they come to court, it can have an extraordinary impact on how they end up viewing the criminal justice system, and it does not cost a penny.
Very much so. A lot of us who pioneered such work in the ’90s now find that a lot of what we said and believed then is becoming standard practice, and that is absolutely right. We have heard reference to the victims’ right to review, and, as was made clear in an intervention on the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), there is an ongoing process in relation to a particular case that means that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. However, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will come back to his point about historical child sexual exploitation in a moment.
Importantly, the new victims’ right to review scheme that was established last year gives victims a further opportunity to ask the Crown Prosecution Service, with the help of independent advice, to consider again the merits of particular decisions. So far, between June 2013 and the end of September last year, 263 decisions have been overturned by the new system. It is a small proportion of the number of Crown Prosecution decisions that are made, but it is an extra safety valve that goes a long way, as I said in relation to our strategy, to enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system.
I have referred en passant to the hon. Member for Rochdale, who talked with his usual power about child sexual exploitation. It is a national emergency. I entirely agree with him, and so do the Government. The way in which complainants were dealt with historically in towns such as Rotherham and the town that he represents was wrong. There was far too much emphasis on the reliability of the individual witness, who was often very young and vulnerable, rather than an overall view of the merits of the case. That is rightly acknowledged to have been an incorrect approach. The thrust of the work being carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service now very much reflects the fact that lessons have been learnt, and there are a number of marked successes when it comes to convictions in such cases. A number of so-called celebrities have rightly been brought to justice, and young victims in larger conspiracy-based cases involving many young and vulnerable complainants have now had their voices heard, as the hon. Gentleman says, and can now see that some justice has been brought in order to help them get on with lives that have been torn asunder by the abuse that they suffered.
The hon. Member for Torfaen rightly talked about pressure and efficiency and how decisions are to be made where there is a reduction in the number of lawyers. The way to measure that is by looking at some of the efficiency measurements that the CPS has conducted. The percentage of guilty pleas at first hearing is a good measurement, because that clearly demonstrates that there has been an excellent level of pre-trial and pre-plea preparation in terms of case management, which means that the evidence has been presented clearly and that those advising defendants can confidently tender advice in a proper way. The percentage of guilty pleas at first hearing has increased from 63.4% in 2010-11 to 70.6% in the last financial year. That is a significant increase.
Another vital piece of information relates to the percentage of magistrates court proceedings that are dropped at a third or even fourth or fifth hearing. That percentage has fallen from 44.2% to 34.1%. In the Crown court, cracked and ineffective trials owing to prosecution failure have fallen from 18.2% to 13.5%. That shows that those who are responsible for decision making and case preparation in the CPS are rising to the challenge and yielding significant results. I pay tribute to chief Crown prosecutors in regions such as the west midlands and the south-west for understanding the importance of the management of the huge volume of cases that come across the desks of prosecutors week in, week out, and for making sure that further improvements are made so that, from the CPS’s point of view, they are doing everything they can to ensure that the Courts Service is efficient.
It would be churlish of me not to put on the record my grateful thanks for the service of the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras as Director of Public Prosecutions. He came in at a time when the service already knew that it would face important financial challenges under his stewardship, and he managed them admirably. It is in no small part due to the leadership that he showed that the sorts of figures I have been able to bring to the debate today, and the improved efficiencies in the CPS have been achieved. We are grateful to him.
The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about strategy, and I have given him the answer that I think needs to be set out. He also talked about lines of sight and the risks being run with regard to the impact of reduced resources at a time when it is clear that case loads are increasing. I agree with him: case loads are increasing. We have more terrorism cases and an increase in child sexual exploitation cases. He is right to ask questions. I can reassure him that, as in his day, there continue to be regular meetings between the Director of Public Prosecutions and chief Crown prosecutors to ensure that the current director is fully aware of the impact of changes in case load and resources on individual CPS areas. Further to that, both the Attorney General and I regularly meet the CPS’s director and its chief executive, Peter Lewis, to discuss a range of measures that crucially include resources and its case load mix.
In discussions the Solicitor General has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions, has she mentioned to him and the Attorney General that the CPS urgently needs £50 million now to prosecute historical sex cases properly? What representations has he made to the Chancellor about that?
I wanted to come on to finance and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the CPS continues actively to discuss its requirements and resourcing pressures with the Treasury. The idea that somehow there is a nonchalant, sit-back approach to that is wholly wrong.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that not only are the pressures understood, but discussions continue at the highest levels of Government with regard to making sure—[Interruption.] I reassure him that when it comes to the prosecution of serious crime, whether terrorism or child sexual exploitation, the question of resources does not come into it. What does come into it is the threshold test that I referred to at the beginning of my speech.
The CPS continues to look at the impact of resource changes and it is working with colleagues in the Treasury as part of the ongoing spending review. It would not be appropriate for me to prejudge the outcome of that review. The debate is timely and I accept that Members are impatient, but that is where we are on the ongoing pressures and risks that the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras talked about.
On resources, is it not right that where there is a specific need, the Government will step in? There is no clearer example of that than when the Serious Fraud Office had to consider whether it had sufficient resources to go after so-called LIBOR fraudsters and money was found for detailed and complex investigations. When there is a need, resources are delivered.
I think my hon. Friend was talking about blockbuster funding and the SFO. It would be invidious of me to make direct comparisons, but that point is very well made indeed.
On finance, I hope to demolish the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East’s attractive but somewhat false—I will say colourful—characterisation of the Government’s approach to the CPS budget, which I think he described as a “hope for the best” approach. I am sorry to disappoint him, but that is neither accurate nor fair. As I said, under the stewardship of the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, preparations were made before the 2010 spending review for the CPS to start to reduce its costs by, for example, releasing resources from the back-office at HQ to the frontline; renegotiating important IT contracts to achieve significant savings; introducing a new IT equipment and workstation ratio strategy; and looking at the closure of uneconomic smaller offices.
That all began before the spending review, and those policies have been taken further since then. We have seen the consolidation of operations into regional hubs, the end of occupying unnecessary buildings and the number of CPS geographical areas reduced from 42 to 13 together with a reduction in management numbers. In fact, back-office functions have taken the greatest cut, with a 50% reduction in HQ staff; 20% savings from the renegotiation of the IT and communications contracts, and the estate reduced from 95 offices in 2010 to 40 this year. With respect to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East, that is not “hope for the best” or “back of a cigarette packet” stuff, but a carefully calibrated and planned structural change largely authored and led by the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras. That process continues.
When it comes to the prosecution of offences, there is no question of negotiations with the Treasury somehow having an impact on individual decisions; the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service is a self-evident truth. To reinforce that, perhaps I should look at some overall results. The CPS’s conviction rate in the magistrates courts is now 83.5%, which has increased from 80.6% back in 2004-05. Similarly, in the Crown court, the conviction rate is now 79.4%, up from just over 75% 10 years ago.
Guilty plea rates continue to rise in both Crown and magistrates courts and I am struck in particular by the increase by both volume and proportion of convictions in cases involving violence against women and girls. The past year saw the highest ever volume and proportion of cases charged: 88,359 cases, which is a rise of nearly 12,000 compared with the previous financial year. We also saw more than 107,000 defendants prosecuted to completion in the past year in cases involving violence against women and girls—the highest ever number. The number of those convicted increased from 67,380 in the previous financial year to 78,773 in the past year.
Those figures are far more eloquent testimony to the success of the Crown Prosecution Service’s continuing work than anything else that I can summon up. I commend its work to the House and thank once again the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead for giving me the opportunity to address that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the work of the Crown Prosecution Service.