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Attorney General

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015

The Attorney General was asked—

Human Rights Act 1998

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998. (901576)

2. What steps he plans to take to ensure that proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 meet the UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations. (901577)

The Justice Secretary and I meet regularly to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I am not, as the House knows, able to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether the Law Officers have given advice or not is not disclosed outside government.

The public need to be aware that withdrawing from the Human Rights Act does not mean that we will withdraw from human rights, because people will still be able to have those rights. It is just that rather than get them in British courts they will have to traipse off to Strasbourg to get them. The British public need to be made aware of the situation. The issue, of course, is about the convention. Are the Government proposing to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, a move that would remove human rights in this country, rather than just from the Human Rights Act?

The hon. Gentleman is right to a certain extent, but of course he will have to wait for the proposals that the Justice Secretary will make on human rights reform. The other point for the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind is that it is not just the Court in Strasbourg that protects the human rights of British citizens. The British courts do, too, and I believe we can rely on the robustness and good sense of British judges to protect those rights.

Because so many people in my constituency had written to me expressing their concerns about the Government’s plans on this issue, I organised a meeting during the recess. The dozens of people who came along had one simple question, which I hope the Attorney General will be able to answer: which of the rights currently contained within the Human Rights Act would he and the Government wish to see excluded from a British Bill of Rights?

Again, as the hon. Gentleman has heard me say, he will have to wait for the precise proposals we are going to make. It is worth pointing out that the rights he is talking about are found not in the Human Rights Act, but in the European convention on human rights. The Government have made it clear, as I have on previous occasions, that we do not object to the content of the convention—we object to the way it is interpreted.

One important issue in terms of the credibility of the European Court of Human Rights is the quality of the judges. We are shortly to appoint a new British judge, so can the Attorney General assure us that we will ensure that we have a judge of the very highest quality appointed? Unfortunately, the quality some of the appointments from other jurisdictions, not ours, have in the past caused concerns to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the quality of the judiciary matters hugely, in Strasbourg and elsewhere. As he has heard me say, we share confidence in the quality of the British judiciary, and I hope very much that one of those excellent judges will be prepared to serve in Strasbourg so that our point of view can be clearly represented.

Does the Attorney General agree that the most convincing argument as to why this Government must press ahead with this move as quickly as possible is set out on page 60 of the Conservative party manifesto? It states:

“The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights.”

Some 11.3 million people voted for that and they will expect it to be carried out quickly.

My hon. Friend will know that I share his enthusiasm for this reform, and I stood on that manifesto, too, and believe in it. But it is important also to make sure that we get this reform right and that we have the details worked out before we announce what we wish to do. There will of course also be an opportunity for all Members of this House to comment on what is proposed, because I know that the Justice Secretary intends to consult on the matter.

The proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act and the potential withdrawal from the ECHR has serious constitutional implications for Scotland. Has the Attorney General seen the proposals and will he be delivering legal advice before they are published in the public domain?

As the hon. Gentleman has heard me say to the Select Committee, I would certainly expect to see the proposals before they are published. He is right, of course, that the devolution consequences of any changes that might be made are significant or potentially significant, depending on what is done. I am afraid that, until we see what is proposed, it is difficult to assess exactly what those consequences might be.

When my constituents say, “Philip, we voted Conservative because we wanted to get rid of the Human Rights Act, when is it going to happen?” what should I tell them?

My hon. Friend can tell his constituents, as we should all tell our constituents, that manifesto promises matter, and this Government intend to honour their manifesto. Of course, a manifesto does not all have to be delivered in the first six months of government. We will seek to do so as soon as possible. I know that the Justice Secretary and his colleagues are working very hard on bringing forward proposals.

Does the Attorney General accept that the continuing uncertainty about whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR is itself damaging? Given that the proposal for a British Bill of Rights has been around in the Conservative party for a considerable time, why cannot the Attorney General be certain and tell us whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR or not?

I do not accept that that uncertainty is damaging. What is happening is that we are seeking a better settlement on the arrangements at Strasbourg. We believe that, on issues such as prisoner voting, it is important that this House, not the Court in Strasbourg, should make the decision. That requires a discussion with the Council of Europe. That discussion will take place. It is important that we on the Conservative Benches at least say that the status quo is unacceptable and that we need to do something about it. If the Opposition believe that the status quo is acceptable, they should make that clear.

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is something of a veteran at chuntering from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the Government Front-Bench team’s position, but he will have his opportunity, on his feet, in due course.

Rape and Domestic Violence

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the last two years. (901579)

8. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the last two years. (901584)

This year, more cases of violence against women and girls have been referred from the police, charged, prosecuted and convicted than ever before. The work undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police on rape and domestic abuse culminated in the highest volumes ever of prosecutions and convictions in 2014-15.

In the West Mercia region, in which my constituency is located, we have seen the rape crisis go up this year to 700 from 400 cases. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that we are doing everything we can to make sure that these people are prosecuted?

CPS West Midlands has a specialist rape and serious sexual offences unit in recognition of the increasing volume of rape and serious sexual offences reported. CPS West Midlands has increased the size of the unit and the team continues to work very closely with the police, victims groups and the independent Bar to ensure that strong cases are built and witnesses looked after.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his original answer. Has he brought forward any specific steps to support an increase in convictions where men are the victims of rape or domestic abuse?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and let me assure him that when it comes to the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences, it applies equally to men as to women. Boys, of course, can also sadly be the victims of sexual abuse. Sentencing guidelines, of course, draw no distinction of gender, and neither should the investigation or prosecution of offences.

Despite claims of the highest number of convictions ever, the fact is that in the last year the number of convictions for rape, domestic abuse and other serious sexual offences has fallen. What is the Solicitor General going to do to turn those worrying figures around?

I think the hon. Gentleman means that the rate has fallen slightly. I think it important to continue to prosecute more and more of these cases. For too long, many victims have found that their cases have not even been brought to court. Looking at the analysis of rape convictions, I am encouraged to see that the number of convictions that have not been brought because of a prosecution failure is reducing, so drilling down and looking at the reasons for the non-convictions is very important. We have to continue progress in that direction.

Successfully prosecuting rape and domestic violence cases clearly requires a properly resourced CPS, yet the budget has been slashed by 25% since 2010 and the rate of ineffective and cracked trials owing to prosecution issues is at a five-year high. With senior respected personnel leaving and expressing grave concerns, do the Solicitor General and the Attorney General really believe that the CPS can sustain more cuts on the same scale and still deliver justice?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is in error when she suggests that the number of ineffective trials is at an all-time high. As I have said, the number of cases being prosecuted continues to increase, and there is no question of prosecutions not being brought because of a lack of resources. Rape and serious sexual offences units are well resourced, and they will continue to be resourced by the CPS.

Vulnerable Witnesses

5. What steps he plans to take to protect child witnesses in sex abuse and other cases from intimidation during cross- examination. (901580)

11. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve its engagement with and support for vulnerable witnesses. (901587)

The defence case has to be put to all prosecution witnesses, but in order to ensure effective cross-examination, a mandatory advocacy course for all defence advocates is being developed and will include the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses. Pre-recorded cross-examination has already been piloted successfully, and we are committed to a national roll-out.

In 2011, at Stafford Crown court, a victim of child abuse was cross-examined in a vicious and intimidatory way for 12 days by a team of seven barristers, during a session in which the judge was generally thought to have lost control of the courtroom. Such cross-examination is a massive disincentive for others to come forward. Four years later, may I ask what steps have been taken to prevent it from happening again?

I well remember that case. The good news is that in the retrial matters were handled very differently, and the outcome was successful. However, intimidatory cross-examination should not happen. Judges have a duty to ensure that young witnesses are not cross-examined inappropriately. As I have said, a new advocacy course is being developed to ensure that that sort of abuse does not happen again.

Will the Solicitor General tell us what the CPS is doing to help vulnerable witnesses, such as victims of human trafficking, to give evidence in courts?

Recently, the CPS drew up new guidelines for the care of witnesses in court. Those guidelines are currently being piloted and will be rolled out nationally in the new year. They will go a long way towards supporting witnesses, while avoiding the dangers of coaching witnesses in the giving of evidence, which, of course, would not be desirable.

In the last few years, it has become clear that a great many young people have been sexually abused over a number of years and are traumatised by that abuse. Can the Solicitor General assure the House that the necessary resources are available so that the young people in all those cases can be looked after?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. As I have said many times before, when it comes to the protection of vulnerable witnesses and complainants in criminal cases, the CPS is always working to improve its processes so that the experience can be as smooth as possible. What we do not want is a repeat, in effect, of the abuse that those people originally suffered when they come to court and give evidence.

14. Operation Bullfinch, in Oxford, introduced a number of radically different procedures for coping with vulnerable witnesses. What lessons have been learnt from that? (901590)

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in improving the processes as a result of that case, which helped to revolutionise the way in which the investigatory authorities all work together. There have been a number of other successful investigations in his own police area, which are helping to improve national practice, and there is a much greater understanding across the country of the way in which such cases can be effectively prosecuted.

Drones

The role of the Law Officers in relation to military action overseas is to advise as necessary on legal questions, not to authorise the action. The use of drones in military action overseas does not of itself necessarily give rise to legal questions. The deployment of one form of equipment or another rarely does, in and of itself. Whether legal questions arise will depend on the operational context in which any form of military deployment was undertaken, and the reason for it.

Technological development can undermine legislation under all Governments, but particularly under this Government, who seem to have no strategy for it. We need to know that, while the strikes may be made by drones, the decision makers are still accountable to the House. When will the Attorney General establish a clear legislative and ethical framework in relation to future drone strikes?

Again, that is not my role within government, but the hon. Lady knows that the Prime Minister was extremely eager to come to Parliament and explain the basis of the decision to take the drone strike of 21 August, and he did so on the first available opportunity.

In terms of setting frameworks, it is important of course to treat every case on its merits. In relation to the legal position, as in relation to a political decision making process, each instance will be different and each must be considered on its own facts.

The recent drone strike in Syria was described by the Prime Minister as a “new departure” and a first in modern times. The Prime Minister said he is

“happy to look at what other ways there may be of making sure these sorts of acts are scrutinised”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 31.]

Given that any action must be necessary and proportionate to meet the key legal tests, will the Attorney General update us on the discussions between the Government and the Intelligence and Security Committee on reviewing the action and any framework that will be put in place to ensure proper scrutiny in future?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities and wish her well in them. I have no doubt that the new Chairman of the ISC will be discussing with the Government what inquiries they wish to take forward. On my engagement in the process, as the hon. Lady understands, the Law Officers convention makes it clear that legal advice is not disclosed outside government, nor in the generality of cases is even the fact of legal advice disclosed, but she knows, too, that in relation to this incident I thought it was right and proper that the fact of legal advice having been given should be disclosed, and it was. I hope she will understand how difficult it is to go any further than that without undermining the good reasons that I believe lie behind the LOC.

Court Time

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that court time is not wasted. (901582)

The listing of court cases is a judicial function and a responsibility of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, but when cases are listed the CPS takes steps to make sure the prosecution case is properly prepared and ready for an effective court hearing so the time set aside is fully utilised.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but during a visit to Corby magistrates court I was shocked to hear about how much court time is wasted owing to the CPS not having its case together in time for when it is scheduled. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable for cases that are not complete to be brought to court? We really do need to get away from this; it is unacceptable and it wastes not only time but money.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know he works very hard with his local courts service. A lot of innovation with regard to transforming summary justice and the increasing use of digital processes is leading to quicker timescales, much more effective first hearings and a more efficient use of court time, so I think he has reasons to be optimistic.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

A constituent of mine who is a very competent manager recently did jury service. He said the court system was medieval and it was about time someone came in and organised it better, managed it better and gave a real return to the taxpayer, with better justice delivered quickly.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. After many years in the courts system myself, I understand his constituent’s concerns. The good news is that a lot of work is being done to digitise the paperwork so that time can be saved. Already there is a new proposed roll-out next year, which will co-ordinate the way in which the courts work with the CPS and other agencies so the sort of delays that irritated his constituent can be reduced and removed.

Human Trafficking Offences: Forced Labour

9. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of successful prosecutions for human trafficking offences involving forced labour. (901585)

In advance of the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 the CPS delivered joint training with the police and issued guidance to strengthen prosecutions. In forced labour cases the CPS also encourages prosecution for other offences such as trafficking for forced labour, money laundering, benefit and mortgage fraud, tax evasion and Gangmasters (Licensing) Act offences.

Given the sheer number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, taking action against human traffickers is of the utmost importance in protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people. What steps is my hon. and learned Friend taking to improve the confiscation of the proceeds of exploiting migrant workers into modern-day slavery?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this issue. The Crown Prosecution Service is helping to improve the situation by building capacity and capability in other countries, because this is an international problem. This is being done by better linking the work of the regional asset recovery teams with that of the human trafficking investigators, so that financial investigation can become sharper and more efficient.

13. My hon. and learned Friend has outlined what is being done on an international basis. Will he go further and confirm that the Immigration Bill, which had its Second Reading this week, will help to tackle this disgraceful problem at a domestic level? (901589)

The Minister for Immigration and I have the duty of taking that Bill through its stages in this House, and I can assure my hon. Friend that its provisions will dovetail well to improve the range of tools that the authorities have to protect victims of trafficking and prosecute perpetrators.