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Caerphilly County Borough Council

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the financial consequences for Caerphilly County Borough Council of legal action against its senior officers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz.

This case has been an issue of concern locally in Caerphilly borough for some time, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss it in some detail and reflect on the consequences. We have before us a saga that began in September 2012, when the chief executive and other senior officers of Caerphilly County Borough Council were given huge pay increases of up to 30%. In March 2013, the council’s chief executive was arrested. A few months later, the then acting deputy chief executive was arrested on suspicion of committing fraud and misconduct in public office. The head of legal services was arrested later. The three individuals were suspended on full pay by the local authority, as was its obligation.

The Welsh Audit Office investigated, and its public interest report concluded that the senior officers’ pay increases were “unlawful” because the meeting at which the decisions were taken had not been properly advertised and the agenda and reports for the meeting had not been made available for public inspection three days in advance. The report also pointed to other serious concerns, including the fact that the chief executive prepared a report, on which the decisions were subsequently taken, that was far from objective, and that he stayed in the meeting while his own salary was being discussed and decided.

The three officials concerned were the subject of a police investigation throughout 2013 and into summer 2014. Because of the understandably close working relationship between Caerphilly County Borough Council and Gwent police, the investigation was undertaken by Avon and Somerset constabulary. Early in 2014, the three defendants were charged with misconduct in public office. In May 2014, they appeared before Bristol magistrates court and were sent for trial at Bristol Crown court. On 13 May 2014, the trial date was set for 15 June 2015. It was decided that that would give ample time for the defence and prosecution to prepare their cases and for all the evidence to be assembled. From then on, however, there were legal wrangles between the defence and prosecution about the use of materials. There were also problems with the lack of availability of the allocated judge for the estimated trial length—I will say more on that later—so the process grew longer and longer and dragged on through the spring and summer and into the autumn of 2015.

Eventually, in October 2015, the judge dismissed the charges against the three defendants. Judge William Hart said:

“I find that there is no evidence upon which a reasonable jury properly directed could convict any of the defendants of misconduct in a public office on the admissible evidence available.”

In response to the judge’s decision, the Crown Prosecution Service issued a statement, which said:

“This was a complicated, wide-ranging and lengthy investigation into serious allegations against council employees. The investigation was conducted by Avon and Somerset Constabulary at the request of Gwent Constabulary…CPS South West’s Complex Casework unit took the decision to charge the three defendants following extensive consultation with the police. Since that time the prosecution team has pursued the case within the proper judicial process.”

There had been concerns about the length of the trial as the case was progressing. I wrote to the CPS to ask about the apparently excessive delays. In a letter to me, the CPS responded by saying:

“We are conscious of all the public monies that have been expended by the delay in this prosecution but the Court listing is a matter outside the control of the CPS.”

Frankly, that is not good enough. There is widespread concern about how the CPS handled the case and whether it accurately prioritised the pursuit of the most appropriate issues and material.

There is also concern about Avon and Somerset police. Clearly, officers amassed a huge amount of material relevant to the case. It is possible that the ongoing police investigation into other alleged irregularities at Caerphilly County Borough Council meant that they were unable to provide an accurate summary of what material was relevant to the case. The police seized more than 160,000 emails during the investigation, and it is noteworthy that the defence submitted an abuse of process argument, stating that the unused material that had been amassed had not been properly examined by the police.

There is further concern about how the court system itself operated. Following the abuse of process argument, all the parties involved made repeated representations for the case to be listed. Eventually, a new trial date was set for 8 June 2015, but because no judge was available to hear the trial in June, it was further delayed until July 2015—the second delay because of the unavailability of a judge. In the meantime, the defence applied for leave to submit an application for the case to be dismissed. The judge acceded to that request in October 2015.

This whole legal saga dragged on for more than 18 months. There were many reasons for the longevity of the case. It was certainly complex, but a measure of responsibility must be borne by those involved in its prosecution: the police, the CPS, the judiciary and the legal system as a whole. If it stops anywhere, the buck stops with the Government and the Ministry of Justice, who are responsible for the legal system. Caerphilly County Borough Council were legally obliged to suspend the three officers concerned from the moment they were arrested. To date, the bill to the council and its council tax payers is more than £1 million. There is no need to remind the Minister that, like all other local authorities in the country, Caerphilly County Borough Council can ill afford £1 million at a time when services are being cut and jobs are at risk.

As the long-drawn-out legal proceedings were not the fault of Caerphilly County Borough Council or its council tax payers, will the Minister give careful and serious consideration to my request that the council be reimbursed for the salaries it was obliged to pay to the suspended staff? If he accepts the morality of my case, he should surely find a way to ensure that the people of Caerphilly are not unfairly penalised.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate. He is diligent and conscientious in all that he does for his constituents, so it is no surprise that he brought this important matter to the House of Commons to get a proper answer for his constituents. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate. I understand the concerns of the people of Caerphilly about the cost of the case, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the justice system’s obligation to investigate cases, even when they involve high-profile individuals, and the duty on judges to make decisions according to the information before them must continue.

I have spoken previously about the Government’s commitment to a one-nation justice system, and a fundamental part of that is the rule of law. Those responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct must be able to do so robustly and without intrusion, and it is crucial that those who make decisions in the system are independent and protected from undue state influence. It is not for this place to challenge the Wales Audit Office’s investigation, the independent prosecutorial decision to bring the proceedings or the judicial decision to bring the proceedings to a close. If it is felt that the investigation or prosecution was lacking, the right place to seek redress is with the Auditor General for Wales or the Director of Public Prosecutions. Those who feel that the case should not have ended in the way it did could have requested that the judge’s decision be scrutinised by the higher courts by bringing an appropriate challenge within the timescales prescribed in law.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said—particularly about the long time it took to arrive at a conclusion. He is, of course, aware that several factors influenced that timescale—indeed, he alluded to some of them—including the defence’s challenge of the police review of unused material, and judicial and defence counsel availability. Notwithstanding those factors, the case was concluded well within the average time for such complex cases. Cases of that nature take, on average, 25 months from charge to conclusion. That case was dealt with more quickly than the average for complex financial cases. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned listing, which is a judicial decision. Bristol Crown court sees a high number of fast-tracked sex cases, so it takes longer than usual for it to see other types of case.

The Government are undertaking a substantial programme of reform to improve the criminal justice system for those directly involved in it and the general public. In January 2015, Sir Brian Leveson published a review on efficiency in criminal proceedings, which included 56 recommendations for improving efficiency in the criminal courts within the existing legislative framework. His recommendations are the result of considerable consultation across the criminal justice system, and they cover a range of areas, including improving case management and progress in magistrates and Crown courts.

In his review, Sir Brian emphasised the need for more robust case management, and noted the importance of getting it right the first time. He recommended that one person in the police, in the Crown Prosecution Service and for the defence must be responsible for the conduct of each case. That recommendation is being taken forward as part of a better case management initiative, and will be rolled out nationally from the beginning of January following its successful introduction in eight Crown court centres in October 2015.

The initiative emphasises the importance of effectively managing proceedings while preserving judicial discretion. It aims to deal more quickly with cases where there is a guilty plea, which will free up capacity to manage more actively cases that go to trial. It aims to ensure better communication between practitioners and the court before the first hearing; more effective hearings; more guilty pleas; the disposal of many cases without the need for adjournment; and robust judicial resistance to applications to adjourn.

According to the Leveson review, to improve case management it is crucial to encourage early engagement between the prosecution and the defence. Sir Brian recommended that the criminal procedure rules make it clear that the parties are under a duty to engage at the first available opportunity. In response to that recommendation, we made amendments to the criminal procedure rules, and we are due to make more in April. Earlier engagement between parties will ensure greater collaborative working. It will allow parties to focus on the key issues, possible pleas, missing evidence and other material that could help them reach an early resolution.

I appreciate the Minister’s point and I welcome the reforms that he says are in the pipeline, but I refer him back to the costs incurred by Caerphilly County Borough Council through no fault of its own. With the benefit of hindsight, would it not have been better for case to have been heard somewhere other than Bristol Crown court if the pressures of work on it were so great? If the case had been held elsewhere, it could have been expedited, and matters could have been dealt with much quicker.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. He will appreciate that it is for the judge to determine who pays the cost of the trial. The judicial process must be based on the legal advice that the council can take. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the cost of employing additional staff to manage the work while a long case is going on is a matter for the council.

On transferring the case to somewhere other than Bristol, I hope that our reforms will enable a broader perspective to be taken on board and allow people to say, “Although this is a local issue, in order to secure justice for the people involved and for justice to be seen to be done quickly, would it be better for it to be dealt with in another nearby court where there is more capacity?” I hope that our reforms will ensure that cases are dealt with quickly and promptly. If there is a delay in one court, we should certainly look at neighbouring courts that have capacity; I do not rule that out. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Ministry of Justice is putting in place ambitious plans. I am confident that they will be in effect in due course, but I am sorry that they could not benefit his constituents at the time of the case that he refers to.

Improving awareness of the criminal procedure rules will also allow more robust case management. The Judicial Office has been working with the judiciary and defence practitioners to raise awareness of and embed the criminal procedure rules. Discussions have been taking place with the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Judicial College and the criminal procedure rules committee. Compliance with the criminal procedure rules will ensure that court time is deployed to maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Sir Brian also recommended using technology to improve case management. Case management hearings have become inefficient and expensive. They are essentially administrative in nature and do not always require all participants to be gathered in the same room. He therefore encourages the use of video and audio technology to hold case management hearings outside court, reducing the time spent on unnecessary travel and making case management hearings more effective. Pilot hearings have been implemented in Reading Crown court and are soon to be expanded to Aylesbury and Oxford. Those hearings will be evaluated after a couple of months and should then inform national implementation.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman can feel assured that this Government, together with the judiciary, are taking active and practical steps to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system. In saying that, I do not intend to imply any criticism of the handling of this particular case, as it is not the role of a member of the Government to comment on the outcome of this or any other case. As we improve the system in the coming years, nothing will be done to fetter or interfere with due process, which must be independent of Government and managed by an independent judiciary. I thank the hon. Gentleman again for raising this important issue on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.