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Attorney General

Volume 602: debated on Thursday 26 November 2015

The Attorney General was asked—

Syria: Legality of Airstrikes

1. If he will publish his legal advice on the legality of the UK carrying out airstrikes in Syria in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution on that matter. (902342)

9. If he will publish his legal advice on the legality of the UK carrying out airstrikes in Syria in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution on that matter. (902350)

It is a long-standing convention that Law Officers’ advice is not published. However, as hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister is setting out today the case for taking further action in Syria, and he will also set out the legal basis for doing do.

I thank the Attorney General for that answer, and I hope that the Scottish media are listening on this issue of the publication of legal advice with respect to the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the fact that there will be some disclosure later on. I understand convention, but I still think full disclosure of legal advice should be given rather than made a part of the Prime Minister’s statement. We need to learn the lessons from Iraq, when the Government of the day went backwards and forwards on legal advice until they got the answer they wanted. I therefore ask again for full disclosure.

As I say, the hon. Gentleman will see that the legal basis for action is, in the Government’s view, set out in what the Prime Minister intends to say. Indeed, he has responded as he said he would to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, and that response has been published this morning for all Members to see. As for the legal advice that the Law Officers give, it can be argued that the convention is there for very good reason. There are essentially two reasons. The first is to enable legal advice to be given to Government in a frank and open way, which is best done when advice is not published; and secondly, of course, the legal advice the Law Officers give is part of the collective responsibility of Cabinet decision-making. Again, there are good reasons for not publishing it on those grounds.

Does the Attorney General not realise that in an open and transparent democracy, it is really not good enough to rely on convention? For the House to understand the legal basis on which bombing may begin, it is vital for Members to be trusted with this information, so I appeal to the Attorney General to reverse his decision.

As I say, Members on both sides will have the chance to understand what the legal basis for the Government’s proposals will be, but there is a distinction to be made between the Government’s legal basis for action and the precise advice that Law Officers give. For the reasons I have explained, I do not think it sensible in what is undoubtedly an open and transparent democracy to publish that advice.

In the absence of United Nations Security Council resolution 2249, there are still arguments that airstrikes are legal. Does the Attorney General agree that, in the light of that resolution, the legal case has been strengthened?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there were legal grounds for action in the absence of a Security Council resolution. Such a resolution is not necessary, in my view, to justify action of this kind. It is, of course, extremely useful that what the UN Security Council resolution clearly does is underline the logic for action in the way that we are setting out today. I agree with my hon. Friend.

The Attorney General may say it is not necessary, but does he think it would be better if a chapter 7 resolution explicitly endorsing military action against ISIS was passed at the United Nations? Have the Government made any attempts to achieve such a resolution, and which countries do the Government believe would block it?

My hon. Friend will realise, of course, that that particular resolution was secured with the unanimous support of the Security Council. What it indicates is that all necessary measures should be taken in order to counter ISIL. As I have said, it is important to recognise that the legal basis for action here, which the Prime Minister will set out today, is not dependent on the presence of a Security Council resolution, but I think that what has been agreed in the Security Council underlines the case that we are making, which is that action should be taken and that there is a lawful basis for doing so.

President Hollande has said that France is at war with Daesh, but my understanding is that no one has formally declared war on anyone. Will the Attorney General advise the House on the merits and demerits of a formal declaration of war?

I think we must be very careful not to dignify Daesh with a status it does not deserve. It seems to me very clear that what we are doing here is setting out a basis under which this country is entitled to defend itself from what constitutes an armed attack, or the threat of such, not just from other states, but from terrorist organisations. In my view, Daesh falls firmly into the latter camp.

Hate Crimes against Disabled People

2. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve the conviction rate for hate crimes against disabled people. (902343)

The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its disability hate crime legal guidance for prosecutors. As part of its ongoing commitment to achieving meaningful improvement in disability hate crime prosecutions, it has mandated that disability hate crime training for all prosecutors should be completed by the end of the year.

What contacts have been made between disability interest groups and governmental agencies to foster a better approach to the addressing of hate crime?

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that, along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People and the Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, I recently set up and took part in a ministerial round table with Government agencies and the third sector to deal with precisely that issue. We gave particular attention to issues such as victim support, the quality of reporting, and confidence among members of the disability community about the way in which the criminal justice system treats them.

In October, the Police Service of Northern Ireland launched an online campaign after 44 disability hate crimes were recorded over a six-month period. Two years ago, the PSNI contacted the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability—of which the Solicitor General will know—which has set up an advocacy scheme to help disabled people to gain access to the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor General feel that he should consider similar action?

I commend the work of Leonard Cheshire Disability. In 2012, 65,000 cases involving a disability hate element in England and Wales were recorded in the national crime survey, but there is a big gap between that figure and the number of prosecutions, and I want that to change.

I may be bending the supplementary matter a little, Mr Speaker, but what steps is the Crown Prosecution Service taking to ensure the reliability of evidence relating to crimes allegedly committed 30 to 40 years ago?

No, that is not a stretching of the question; it is a departure from it. Ingenious, but flawed on this occasion.

The sad reality is that hate crime is a growing problem. A young Muslim woman, Ruhi Rehman, was racially abused when travelling on the metro in my home town of Newcastle on Saturday. Thankfully, her attacker was chased off by outraged passengers, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have “Geordie angels”. More than 27% of prosecutions for hate crimes are currently failing because of victim issues, a significant rise since 2010. Do the Government share my concern that victims are being let down, and that serious crimes are going unpunished as a result?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that case. When I attended a hate crime training conference at the College of Policing a few weeks ago, not only disability hate crime but the type of hate crime to which she has referred was very much on the agenda. She will be glad to know that the CPS is enhancing training for all the leaders in their regions, which I think will result in a renewed emphasis on the need to make victims confident that the system will work for them rather than against them.

Communications Data (Use in Prosecutions)

4. What assessment he has made of the importance of communications data in securing prosecutions. (902345)

Communications data are an essential form of evidence used in prosecutions across the full spectrum of criminal offences, including terrorism, serious and organised crime, child sexual abuse, murder and rape. It is important for that capability to be maintained and modernised, which is why the Government have published the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

In the light of that, does the Attorney General agree that we need to continue to improve our communications data capability?

I do agree with my hon. and learned Friend. It is important to recognise that the cases in which evidence of this kind is very significant range well beyond terrorism cases. For example, some 95% of CPS investigations of serious and organised crime involve communications data.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that any agency of Government, or indeed Parliament, such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, should not seek to protect its most senior management from legal action and/or prosecution by claiming that communications data are no longer available after 30 days, but instead should strive to be completely transparent and, when receiving requests for such data, make them available?

Mr Speaker, I am sure you would not want me to wade into the details of that case, and I am obviously not in a position to do so anyway, but I would say that all organisations should take very seriously their responsibilities under the Data Protection Act and all other legislation.

In addition to the offences to which my right hon. and learned Friend has already alluded, could communications data not also help secure prosecutions in areas such as stalking and sexual grooming?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a large range of offences to which this might be relevant—essentially, types of offending where whether someone communicated with another person and where they were when they did so is relevant. One can think of conspiracies of all kinds, cases involving paedophile rings or drug-smuggling operations, harassment, which he mentioned, witness intimidation or even something as diverse as insider trading. There is a huge range of offending that we need to deal with in this way.

12. The outrage on the streets of Paris and the seven foiled plots that have kept people safe in the UK show there should be no safe place online for terrorists and those who wish to do us harm. What additional measures can be taken to make sure that everyone in the UK remains safe from this threat? (902354)

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not sustainable to have a situation where a terrorist atrocity plotted by telephone can be understood and intercepted but one plotted over WhatsApp cannot. The measures in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill are entirely necessary, therefore, to avoid the kinds of atrocities he describes.

Stalking and Harassment Cases

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to enable its prosecutors effectively to prosecute stalking and harassment cases. (902346)

The CPS launched a joint stalking protocol with the police in September 2014, and has revised its legal guidance to prosecutors and delivered training on the new stalking offences, which led to a 15.1% rise in the level of prosecutions last year. The CPS continues to work closely with the police and voluntary sector to increase and improve prosecutions.

The national stalking helpline responded to 2,800 calls last year and frequently speaks to victims of stalking and harassment where restraining orders are not given or where ineffective restraining orders are given following a trial. It already takes the average victim 100 incidents of harassment before they go to the police. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that stalking and harassment are serious offences that can lead to serious sexual assault and violent offences, including murder? What more can be done to address this serious and often hidden problem?

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the seriousness of stalking—it is no joke—and I join her in commending the work of the organisation she mentioned. The CPS legal guidance on this crime urges prosecutors to apply for restraining orders on conviction and, where appropriate, on acquittal too. It is vital that we deal with this serious crime in a way that protects victims and deters perpetrators.

There is concern that the new stalking provisions are not being used and that harassment provisions are being used instead. Will my hon. and learned Friend indicate that the seriousness of the offence should be reflected in the use of stalking charges rather than harassment charges?

My hon. Friend speaks with experience from her practice in criminal law. I was a member of the all-party group on stalking and harassment, together with Mr Elfyn Llwyd, the former Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and we said then it was vital that the law be used to its full extent. There is a non-exhaustive list of types of stalking behaviour. This means that prosecutors and the police should be looking at such cases in a wide way and applying the full extent of the law wherever appropriate.

Human Rights Act 1998

6. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on developing proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998. (902347)

I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I cannot talk about the legal content of those discussions, because, as the House knows, by convention, whether Law Officers have given advice is not disclosed outside Government.

Does the Attorney General agree with his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who said that the European convention on human rights is

“the single most important legal and political instrument for promoting human rights on our planet”?

As I have said a number of times, I have no quarrel whatever with the wording of the European convention on human rights; what I disagree with is the way in which that document has subsequently been interpreted by the Strasbourg Court. That is what the Government want to do something about.

14. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), a former Justice Minister and, in the week, a resident of Acton, has said:“I would definitely not want Britain to withdraw from the Convention because it would appear as though the UK was no longer as committed to Human Rights as it in fact is. This would damage our country’s reputation.” Just how will the Attorney General ensure that the Government’s plans to scrap the convention will not weaken the rights of the ordinary British citizen? (902356)

Again, it is important to be clear about what we are talking about. There is a distinction to be made between the Human Rights Act, which we fully intend to get rid of, and the convention, which we do not intend to leave unless we have to. We must do something to ensure that decisions on, for example, who has the franchise in British elections are taken by this House and not by the Court in Strasbourg. Those are the decisions we need to do something about. Of course this country will remain committed to human rights, with or without the Human Rights Act.

I must also point out to the hon. Lady that the Conservative party, in government, has been responsible not only for reducing the length of pre-charge detention to 28 days and for abolishing identity cards—both in response to illiberal measures passed by a Labour Government—but for introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and many other things that clearly demonstrate our commitment to human rights.

That is extremely helpful, but I have concluded over a period that prolixity and lawyers are inseparable.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if we repealed the Human Rights Act—and even if we withdrew from the European convention on human rights—there is no provision whatever in the statute of the Council of Europe that would automatically force the United Kingdom to leave the Council of Europe?

We will be discussing with our fellow members of the Council of Europe how we might reach a better settlement in relation to the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence. In those discussions, I fully expect that other members of the Council of Europe will wish us to remain within the organisation.

Can the Attorney General reassure the House that a British Bill of Rights would not only protect our existing rights, which are essential in a modern democratic society, but protect us against abuse of the system and the misuse of human rights laws?

I do think that that is the objective. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is a real danger to support for human rights, which we wish to see as widespread and full-throated in this country, if it appears to many of our constituents that the concept is being abused through the sorts of cases that none of us fully believes to be genuine human rights cases. We must do something about that.

As part of developing these proposals, the question of whether the new British Bill of Rights will have legal application in Scotland is absolutely crucial to Scotland’s constitutional settlement. Can the Attorney General give me an indication of whether it will apply in Scotland, and if it will, does he agree that a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament to give it that legal application?

The hon. Gentleman and I have already discussed the question of consultation with the Scottish authorities, and I am fully in favour—as are colleagues in the Ministry of Justice—of ensuring that the devolved Administrations are fully engaged in that consultation process. As to whether a legislative consent motion would be required, that would depend entirely on the nature of the proposals. We have not yet seen them, and it is important that we should consider them properly when we do.

Crown Prosecution Service: Funding

7. What steps he has taken to ensure that the measures relating to the Law Officers Department in the comprehensive spending review enable the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute cases effectively. (902348)

Throughout the spending review process, I have been keen to ensure that, while saving money wherever possible, the CPS received sufficient funding to prosecute its current case load effectively. I believe that the settlement we have achieved does indeed do that, and I particularly welcome the £4.4 million that has been ring-fenced for the CPS counter-terrorism division, which will nearly double in size, and the extra funding provided to recruit 100 additional prosecutors to deal with serous sexual offences.

Should I need to declare an interest, I should tell the House that I was the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for five years, from 2008 to 2013.

One of the reasons that the CPS has coped well with the cuts in the past five years is that the case load of referrals from the police has gone down. What level of assurance can the Attorney General give me that if the case load goes up significantly or becomes more complex, further funding will be made available to enable the CPS to carry out its service?

As the hon. and learned Gentleman would expect, if circumstances change in that regard, we will speak to the Treasury again about money to be made available to deal with them. The settlement takes account of, and helps us to deal with, the substantial changes and significant shifts in the case load that took place over the time when he was Director of Public Prosecutions and subsequently.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that priority is given to dealing with the woeful state of the CPS IT system, which has been a long-running problem for many years? Secondly, will he ensure that all changes to CPS systems to ensure efficiency are aligned with the proposals that Sir Brian Leveson made in his report for overall efficiencies within the criminal justice system?

Yes, certainly. On my hon. Friend’s latter point, he will know that the CPS has been closely involved with the Leveson review, and a large number of Sir Brian’s conclusions come from what he has been told by the CPS. As my hon. Friend will have noticed, some £700 million was made available for digitalisation of the courts in the spending settlement announced yesterday, through the Ministry of Justice settlement. The CPS will benefit from and contribute to that process immensely.

At the beginning of the year, the DPP asked the Attorney General for an extra £50 million to plug the funding gap so that the CPS could properly prosecute complex matters, such as historical sex cases. He confirmed to this House that he was talking to the Treasury about this extra funding and that he thought it would understand the case he was making, but there was no mention in yesterday’s autumn statement of this extra, special funding for historical sex cases. What went wrong?

The hon. Gentleman should pay close attention to what the CPS is saying now, as much as to what it said then. Let me tell him what it said yesterday in response to the settlement. It said:

“This settlement will allow the CPS to respond to a changing caseload and the significant increase in complex and sensitive cases, such as terrorism, rape and serious sexual assaults and child sex abuse.”

The CPS is making the same point that I am making today about this settlement: it is a settlement that recognises the need to deal with precisely the type of increase in case load that he is talking about.

Crown Prosecution Service: Costs of Errors

10. What estimate he has made of the annual cost to the public purse of avoidable errors by the Crown Prosecution Service. (902351)

The CPS does not maintain a central record of the number or value of wasted costs orders, but I can tell my hon. and learned Friend that the total value of costs awarded against the CPS in the last financial year, of which wasted costs orders are a mere subset, amounted to just over £1 million, which was about 0.18% of overall expenditure.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Terry Boston, a solicitor in my constituency, said the following in an email to me last week:

“I am becoming more and more concerned about justice in this country. The reason for this is the blatant failure of the CPS and their one line cover all excuse, ‘We are short of staff.’”

I appreciate, as does Mr Boston, that savings have had to be made, but can my hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the CPS does have sufficient staff in place, both nationally and in Lincolnshire, to perform its functions?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his question. I can assure him that the CPS does indeed have sufficient staff in place to properly do its work. The CPS conviction rate in his region last year was 84.2%, which is slightly higher than the national average.

Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes

11. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve the conviction rate for anti-Semitic hate crimes; and if he will make a statement. (902352)

New CPS legal guidance for prosecutors on anti-Semitic hate crimes was published in May, and in addition the CPS is implementing its religiously aggravated and anti-Semitic crime action plan, which seeks to raise awareness of these cases and to improve the reporting of such hate crimes. This has been welcomed by the all-party group against antisemitism.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the incidence of anti-Semitic hate crime is going up, particularly in Muslim areas, unfortunately. Can he expand a little further on his earlier answer about the role of the CPS in educating the police on these matters?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the consistent work that he has done over the years to highlight that obscene crime. I am sad to say that there are spikes in that type of offending when particular political events occur. The CPS is aware of it, as are the police, and that type of hate crime was very much on the agenda of the national training conference at Ryton.