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Attorney General

Volume 604: debated on Thursday 14 January 2016

The Attorney General was asked—

Domestic Abuse

1. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute cases of domestic abuse. (903023)

Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance on domestic abuse was updated ahead of the introduction of the new offence of coercive or controlling behaviour in intimate and familial relationships. To support the introduction of that guidance, training has been developed and made available to prosecutors.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Women’s groups in Worcester and national campaigns such as Women’s Aid have warmly welcomed the new law of coercive control as a real step forward in the protection of victims. Does he anticipate a further rise in the number of domestic abuse cases coming to court as a result of that change in legislation?

I pay tribute to all those groups that do so much to support male and female victims of domestic abuse. Yes, I think we can expect a rise in prosecutions. There has been a similar precedent in the case of stalking and harassment offences, which were introduced several years ago, and I was proud to be the Minister who took the coercive control provisions through this House.

Given that conviction rates for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual offences have fallen in the past year, what reassurances can the Solicitor General give to the House that further budget cuts will not damage attempts to secure justice for the victims of those crimes?

The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point. Conviction rates for domestic violence remain broadly flat, but the volume of convictions continues to increase, which is good news for every single victim. For example, rape convictions now exceed 2,500 a year, whereas there were only 2,000 some five years ago. I assure him that the CPS, in the light of the comprehensive spending review settlement, is placing continued priority on rape and serious sexual offence units, and no prosecution will be prevented as a result of any budget problem.

The strength of the victim’s evidence in a domestic violence trial can often depend on recalling recollections as close in time to the incident as possible. Does the Solicitor General agree that we should consider allowing victims to record evidence remotely, perhaps via an app on their phones, rather than having to flog off to a police station?

Like my hon. Friend, I am always enthusiastic about the sensible use of new technology. Police in London are already piloting body-worn cameras, which capture the immediacy of events of domestic abuse. That sort of technology needs to be very much part of the tools available to police officers when investigating such cases.

I thank the Solicitor General for his responses so far. Domestic violence accounts for about a fifth of all crime in Northern Ireland, with police officers attending 60 domestic incidents a day. That is massive, but we still have problems with people failing to come forward, particularly men. Is the CPS considering taking steps to work alongside police forces to encourage people to report all domestic incidents?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of male victims. About 15% of domestic abuse victims are, indeed, men, and proper emphasis is being placed on the need to encourage men to come forward. It is not a badge of shame for someone to admit that they are a male victim of domestic abuse, and that message needs to be heard loud and clear throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom.

EU Renegotiation

2. Whether he has had discussions with the Prime Minister on the legal form of the UK’s renegotiation deal with the EU. (903024)

7. Whether he has had discussions with the Prime Minister on the legal form of the UK’s renegotiation deal with the EU. (903031)

I regularly meet ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, to discuss issues of common interest, including EU law matters, but I am not able to talk about the legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether Law Officers have given advice is not disclosed outside Government.

The President of the EU Council has said that we should expect a concrete proposal in February. Given the timescale involved, can the Attorney General tell us what legal form the renegotiation of the deal will take?

Of course, I cannot discuss the legal ramifications of an agreement that has not yet been reached. When the agreement is reached, the House will, of course, be able to see it and form its own judgment, including on its legal aspects, on which we will be able to say more. The hon. Gentleman will recognise, however, that the final say on the matter will come from the British public, who will have a referendum to determine their verdict—a referendum that a Labour Government would not have given them.

Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty states that, on announcing its intention to withdraw from the European Union, the withdrawing state will automatically be excluded from all meetings of the European Council and, if agreement is not reached within two years, the withdrawing state will be automatically excluded from the negotiated terms. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that a withdrawing state is therefore liable to suffer what would amount to a punishment beating to dissuade others from withdrawing, and that therefore there is no such thing as a soft Brexit?

These matters will be discussed in the course of the referendum campaign. The hon. Gentleman is several stages ahead of where we are now. The first thing that needs to happen is a renegotiation. Conservative Members believe that the renegotiation is necessary, and we wish the Prime Minister all success in achieving it. When he has, there will be a referendum to determine whether or not the British public believe it is a good enough deal. Both the renegotiation and the referendum were opposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party. We believe that they are the right things to do.

The plan appears to be to have an agreement as a first stage, which would later be confirmed in a treaty change. As the voters in Denmark and Ireland have shown in the past, the outcome of national referendums cannot be taken for granted. How can the Government be certain that any proposed treaty change in the future would actually be approved by each of the other 27 EU states?

My hon. Friend, too, will recognise that these matters will be debated fully in the course of the referendum campaign. I know he will play a full part in that campaign. Of course, in relation to both Ireland and Denmark, international agreements were reached and subsequently enacted. The Government and the public will of course wish to consider that, if that is the outcome of the renegotiation.

Were this country to vote to leave the European Union, would the Attorney General’s advice to Her Majesty’s Government be that the article 50 direction ought to be tabled straightaway so that the negotiations for our exit, which the British people would have so willed, could begin straightaway?

My hon. Friend will recognise that we are some way away from that. I know he will also recognise that, as I said in my initial answer, I cannot discuss in the Chamber or elsewhere legal advice that I may or may not give to the Prime Minister. I hope my hon. Friend will therefore forgive me for not doing so now.

One of the risks of leaving the EU is that the UK will no longer be able to rely on crucial EU criminal justice measures to fight serious and organised crime and terrorism. Has the Attorney General given any advice on that risk, and if so, to which Departments?

I am afraid that I am going to sound like a broken record. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman, like most Members of the House, understands full well that I cannot discuss in the Chamber the advice that I may or may not have given to the Government, and I am not going to do so.

In my view, the legal position surrounding the so-called renegotiation is confused at best. It appears to me that this confusion may be delaying potential withdrawal from the European convention on human rights. Do the Government intend to hold the EU referendum before addressing the UK’s membership of the ECHR?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the position being confused. As I have already said, I cannot comment on the legal status of an agreement that has not yet been negotiated. In relation to the ECHR, he will know that my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are working very hard on the Government’s proposals, and he will hear them in due course.

Sexual Violence

3. What recent steps the Director of Public Prosecutions has taken to improve co-ordination between prosecutors and police in the handling of cases involving sexual violence. (903025)

To ensure a consistent approach to the investigation and prosecution of rape cases across all CPS areas, a joint CPS and police national steering group and a delivery board have been established, and they meet regularly.

What assessment has my hon. and learned Friend made of the CPS’s action plan to improve the investigation and prosecution of rape and sexual assault? Does he agree that the publication of the action plan demonstrates the willingness of this Government and of the CPS to increase the number of prosecutions in those areas?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The publication of the plan shows a very clear line of intent. That is reflected in the increased volumes of prosecutions, and in the careful consideration given to any withdrawal of prosecution cases before a jury has properly considered them.


As I have mentioned, the long-standing convention adopted my predecessors in Governments of all hues is that neither the fact nor the content of Law Officers’ advice is normally disclosed outside the Government. In this case, the Government’s legal position in relation to taking military action against Daesh in Syria is reflected in the Prime Minister’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee. The hon. Lady can take it that I am in agreement with that position.

I appreciate the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s advice to the Government is privileged, and rightly so, but will you do Parliament the courtesy of sharing your view on the legality of the current military action in Syria either now or in a statement?

Well, Mr Speaker, I do have a view on the matter. My view is that these were legal actions. As I have said, the Government’s legal position on these matters has been set out, I believe with clarity, so the House is aware of it. I do not intend to set out the specific advice that I have given, either on the individual drone strike in Syria or on military action against Daesh, but, as I have said, in both cases the Government’s legal position is set out and I fully agree with it.

Wildlife Crime

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Director of Public Prosecutions on the role of the national wildlife crime unit in increasing conviction rates for wildlife crime. (903028)

The Crown Prosecution Service’s senior wildlife champion and the head of the national wildlife crime unit work together closely and regularly discuss policy and casework issues. Both parties sit on the partnership for action against wildlife crime, which is chaired by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Does the Solicitor General agree that if conviction rates for wildlife crime continue to increase, it is crucial that the Government commit to funding the national wildlife crime unit not just for a year or two, but as part of a much longer-term wildlife crime strategy?

In the year from July 2014 to June last year, the overall conviction rate was 71%, which compares favourably with other types of crime. There were 605 defendants prosecuted, with 349 entering guilty pleas. The decision on the funding of the wildlife crime unit will be made very shortly.

In my constituency and in the wider south-west, the wildlife crime unit plays a crucial role, particularly in cracking down on poaching, but also in protecting hares, other precious creatures and birds’ eggs. If the unit were disbanded, there would be no one else to step into its shoes, so I urge the Solicitor General to think carefully before withdrawing what does not amount to very much funding for so much valuable work.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, as I am sure do DEFRA Ministers. With about £1.7 million of funding since 2010, the unit has indeed played an important role in the prosecution of these serious offences. As I said, a decision on funding will be made very soon.

Does the Solicitor General feel that there is enough protection in current legislation not only for wildlife, but for individuals who are involved in rural sports?

Britain has led the world in legislation that criminalises acts of cruelty against wildlife and that relates to the protection of wildlife. While the relevant laws are in place, they will be properly enforced and prosecutions will be applied using the tests that prosecutors have to use, following the evidence wherever it leads them.

Crown Prosecution Service

6. What discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the consequences of the Law Officers’ Department’s spending review settlement for the Crown Prosecution Service’s operations. (903030)

The Director of Public Prosecutions and I have regular discussions about Crown Prosecution Service operations. We both believe that the spending review settlement enables the CPS to respond effectively to a changing case load and an increase in complex and sensitive cases. We also continue to discuss how the CPS can be more efficient and effective in the work that it does.

Does the Attorney General agree with the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, that as the CPS is forced to shed thousands of jobs, a potentially dangerous situation could develop in which the CPS no longer has the necessary expertise to do its important job of delivering justice to the people of this country?

No, I do not agree, and, more to the point, neither does the current Director of Public Prosecutions. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to two things in the settlement and what they have led to. The CPS can almost double in size its counter-terrorism unit, which has a growing case load, as she will appreciate. It can also recruit 100 more prosecutors to conduct work on serious sexual cases. In both those areas, the number of cases that the CPS has to deal with is growing substantially, and it is now in a position to do so.

Will the Attorney General confirm that his response is entirely consistent with the evidence that the Director of Public Prosecutions has given recently to the Select Committee on Justice? The willingness of the Crown Prosecution Service to look innovatively at the ways in which it organises itself is being reinforced by its co-operation with the chief inspector’s proposal to carry out thematic reviews of its financing at a corporate level, which will drive further efficiencies.

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is important that the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate takes that role. As I have indicated, it is keen to ensure that its work is conducted as efficiently as possible, and it will need to do that in continuing difficult economic times. It is not right to suggest that the CPS does not have the resources that it needs to do its job well.

This time last year the Director of Public Prosecutions asked the Attorney General for an extra £50 million to prosecute complex cases properly, but the spending review revealed a real-terms cut of 2.1% to the Law Officers Department. Given that the vast majority of the budget is taken up by the CPS, will the Attorney General confirm that the DPP is saying that she no longer needs the extra £50 million for which she was pleading just 12 months ago?

May I start by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his well deserved promotion? I point out, however, that I think four people have done his job in the time that I have been doing mine, so I wish him at least a comparatively long career in opposition.

As he knows—we have discussed this issue across the Dispatch Box previously—it is important to listen to what the CPS is saying now, not what it said a year ago, and what it is saying now is what I read to him in my initial answer. At the time, the CPS comment, with which the DPP fully agrees, was:

“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.”

That is what the DPP believes. She says that this is a good settlement, and I agree with her.

Domestic Violence

10. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence. (903034)

The CPS has taken a number of steps to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence abuse cases, including refocusing resources to strengthen the rape and serious sexual offences unit’s extensive training on rape cases for prosecutors, an update of domestic abuse legal guidance, and closer working with the police.

That is all very well, and I am grateful for the Minister’s reply, but it will not hide the fact that the conviction rate for rape has fallen by 5.6% in the last four years, and is now just over 56%. The conviction rate for domestic abuse has also fallen. Clearly, something is happening, and I would welcome the Minister’s view of what that might be, and a clear indication of what action he will take to increase conviction rates, particularly for rape.

The right hon. Gentleman has taken a long interest in this matters, and he is right to raise those issues. I remind him that the volumes of outcomes continue to increase to their highest ever levels. I have mentioned rape, but domestic violence outcomes have also increased dramatically to their highest ever levels, which means justice for thousands more victims. It is incumbent on the CPS to examine the reasons why prosecutions do not succeed, and the key for the Attorney General and me is to ensure that the prosecution does not bring charges and then drop them without good reason. It should allow such cases to go to a jury, so that juries and magistrates can make decisions.

May I take a slightly contrary view? As we all know, about a year ago a colleague of ours was found innocent of rape, and more recently a young student was also found innocent of rape. It is important that the Crown Prosecution Service does not prosecute people lightly, and if it thinks that a person is innocent, it should ensure that they are not prosecuted.

I assure my hon. Friend that in every case the prosecution must apply the test of a reasonable prospect of conviction, and of whether that prosecution is in the public interest. That should apply to everybody, whether they are in this House or any other part of the country. There must be equality before the law, and the evidence must be followed wherever it leads.

Despite what the Solicitor General has said, conviction rates for rape, other sexual offences and domestic abuse have all fallen, and the Government need to do far more to reduce the incidence of those offences, as well as more to support victims. Last year the Labour party made a manifesto commitment to legislate with a violence against women and girls Bill, just as the groundbreaking Welsh Labour Government have done. The Bill would include provisions to appoint a commissioner to set minimum standards to tackle domestic and sexual violence. Will the Government do the same?

First, may I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her position? It is a pleasure to see her. Indeed, we worked together for many years in the south Wales legal fraternity.

The Government are absolutely committed to funding the combating of violence against women and girls. A cross-ministerial group, of which I am a member, meets regularly, and we have introduced new legislation to criminalise coercive control. We have enhanced the tools the police and the prosecution have at their disposal, which is why the number of prosecutions for domestic abuse and rape continues to rise.

Now a lawyer who is not a member of the Welsh legal fraternity, but we want to hear from him anyway. I call Huw Merriman.

Police: Firearms

13. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the law on the discharge of firearms by police officers. (903037)

For the purposes of clarity, Mr Speaker, I am not a member of the Welsh legal fraternity either.

In the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris last month, the Prime Minister asked for a review into the legal framework and investigatory processes relating to incidents involving police use of firearms. I will play my part in that review, which will conclude later this year.

My name may suggest otherwise, but Wales is not my home.

Last week I met the chief constable of Sussex police. We agreed that our firearms officers do a job that is difficult and often dangerous, and that they are more likely than ever to be called on to protect the public. They fully understand, quite rightly, that they will need to account for their actions if they use lethal force. Is the Attorney General comfortable that our investigating authorities support this difficult balance?

I agree with my hon. Friend. As he says, it is important that incidents are properly investigated, but it is also important we recognise the need to treat police officers fairly. If, as we do, we need to recruit more police officers to do the difficult work of using firearms, and we need to retain experienced officers who already do that work, then they need to feel as though the system will treat them fairly. That is, I hope, what the review will do.


14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the effect of the Supreme Court ruling of 13 May 2015 on local authorities’ ability to meet their legal duties towards people facing homelessness. (903038)

I have to observe the proprieties of the Law Officers’ convention, but the Government welcome the clarity the judgment provided. It explains that any assessment of vulnerability must be made in the round, looking at all aspects of a person’s situation.

A rough sleeper is likely die by the age of 47. Homeless people are inherently vulnerable. Can the Solicitor General assure me that, as the law currently stands, a safety net is provided for vulnerable and homeless people who are unintentionally homeless?

I commend my hon. Friend for the considerable work he has done on this issue, both in the capital and generally. The Government intervened in that case precisely because they were concerned that the test would disproportionately affect vulnerable homeless people. I am glad the Supreme Court has rebalanced the law in what I think is a fair way.